The Duck of Minerva

Base bargaining in the shadow of the 2008 election

8 July 2008

Social-choice theory (or, in this context, public-choice theory) suggests that leaders sign international agreements as a way of “locking in” their preferred policies. Once a state signs such an agreement, the logic goes, future leaders will face greater costs if they want to change their predecessors’ policies.

It doesn’t take a fancy degree to recognize that’s what the Bush Administration has been up to in a number of arenas. Iraq is one of the most important, which is why they can’t be pleased that Maliki has, apparently, demanded a timetable for a US withdrawal from Iraq.

Iraq will not accept any security agreement with the United States unless it includes dates for the withdrawal of foreign forces, the government’s national security adviser said on Tuesday.

The comments by Mowaffaq al-Rubaie underscore the U.S.-backed government’s hardening stance toward a deal with Washington that will provide a legal basis for U.S. troops to operate when a U.N. mandate expires at the end of the year.

On Monday, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki appeared to catch Washington off-guard by suggesting for the first time that a timetable be set for the departure of U.S. forces under the deal being negotiated, which he called a memorandum of understanding.

Rubaie said Iraq was waiting “impatiently for the day when the last foreign soldier leaves Iraq”.

“We can’t have a memorandum of understanding with foreign forces unless it has dates and clear horizons determining the departure of foreign forces. We’re unambiguously talking about their departure,” Rubaie said in the holy Shi’ite city of Najaf.

Dr. iRack argues that:

This reflects Maliki’s newfound (over)confidence in the ISF as well as the growing Iraqi public sentiment against a long-term U.S.-Iraqi pact occurring outside the context of a time horizon for withdrawal.

Another possibility, of course, is that Maliki is (also) playing a signaling game of one kind or another.

1. Given how contentious the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) negotiations have been, this seems like a pretty good way to increase the pressure on the Bush Administration. Both sides know that the Administration may be running out of time to get the kind of deal they’d like to see between the US and Iraq, as the odds right now favor an Obama victory in November. Maliki’s statement also has political ramifications in the United States, and he may very well know it.

2. Any agreement will likely stoke nationalist sentiment in Iraq, as even a favorable SOFA will involve concessions of Iraqi sovereignty to the United States. Iraqi officials might be hoping that strong rhetoric on their part, and floating a parallel agreement for US “troop withdrawals” (whatever that means in practice), will provide them with some political insulation if and when the SOFA is finalized.

3. The Iraqi government almost certainly doesn’t want a total withdrawal of US forces. They are increasingly overconfident in their own forces; the US presence now most strongly serves Sunni interests. But the Iraqis also probably recognize that (a) they can’t defend the territorial integrity of Iraq on their own and (b) the US presence reduces the revenue and resources they need to divert towards defense and security. It is possible (albeit unlikely–or not so unlikely), therefore, that this is a very public signal towards the Obama camp, and the American electorate, at a point when Iraq policy has dominated the election news cycle for the last week or so.

Meanwhile, the US just secured a deal with the Czechs for BMD deployment:

The United States and the Czech Republic signed a treaty on Tuesday allowing Washington to build part of a missile defense shield in the central European state despite opposition from its former Cold War master Russia.

The deal to create a radar station southwest of Prague was marred by a failure to seal a corresponding pact with Poland, where Washington wants to put 10 interceptor rockets that would be guided by the Czech site (the Russians, predictably enough, aren’t happy either).

The deal is wildly unpopular in the Czech Republic:

he shield still faces hurdles, including heavy opposition in the Czech Republic, a country of 10.4 million that the Soviets occupied for two decades after invading in 1968.

It also faces obstacles to ratification in the Czech parliament, where the government has just 100 seats in the 200-seat chamber. Some deputies say they will oppose it along with the Social-Democrat opposition in a vote that could come after a new U.S. administration takes over in January.

An opinion poll last month showed 68 percent of Czechs were against the shield, while only 24 percent supported it.

Negotiations with the Poles, meanwhile, have stalled over the amount the US is willing to pay in rent (the US doesn’t officially pay “rent” as part of its basing and access agreements, but that line doesn’t fool anyone).

The Bush administration is trying to arrange deals with the young democratic governments in the host nations before President Bush leaves office in January.

The proposed U.S. missile defense system calls for a tracking radar in the Czech Republic and 10 interceptor missiles in Poland.

Talks with Poland had bogged down recently over Polish demands for billions of dollars worth of U.S. military aid, in part to deter a possible strike from a peeved Russia.

Moscow has threatened to aim its own missiles at any eventual base in Poland or the Czech Republic.

Flying to Prague, Rice said she had laid out the U.S. position at a hastily called meeting in Washington with Poland’s foreign minister. She would not go into details, but Poland is trying to sweeten or shore up U.S. pledges for millions in additional U.S. military aid. Rice said she explained what the United States can do and that the matter now rests with others for further discussion.

The immediate question is whether the deal with the Czechs will put pressure on the Poles to accept whatever is on the table.

On a final note, the politics of US basing remains one of the least-developed research agendas in contemporary security studies. Alex Cooley and I have a piece in peer-review limbo on the subject, but readers should check out his excellent bookon US bases and democratization in host countries.