Bush to sidestep Congress on Iraq military pact

As the Bush administration heads into months of negotiations with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on the future of US troops in Iraq, it aims to stretch the bounds of executive power to unprecedented lengths. The administration plans to bypass Congress to forge a status of forces agreement (SOFA) that would grant the US an unlimited “authority to fight” provision, according to statements by the State Department’s Coordinator for Iraq, David Satterfield, and Assistant Secretary of Defense Mary Beth Long, at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing last week. Drafts of the SOFA, a binding pact, also provide legal immunity for US private contractors operating in Iraq, according to a January New York Times article.

With the UN mandate that allows US troops to be in Iraq due to expire in December, legal options to continue the occuation include a renewal of the mandate or a treaty approved by the Senate. But Long says the SOFA will allowing US forces to carry on status quo operations in Iraq without the consent of Congress.

Satterfield held that the result of the Bush-Maliki negotiations will simply be a routine measure to normalize relations with Iraq as it transitions to independent sovereignty; “an agreement which is in its shape similar, in many respects, to SOFAs we have across the world.” Yet no other SOFA has ever included the authority to fight or immunity for contractors. Oona Hathaway, a Yale Law School professor who testified at last week’s hearing, told Truthout: “With the SOFA, the administration is claiming the power to continue using force in Iraq without the consent of Congress.”

Satterfield maintained the administration has the authority to keep troops in Iraq beyond the expiration of the UN mandate, citing Congress’ 2002 authorization of the use of force by the president to “defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq.”

It remains to be seen if the SOFA will include a provision for private contractors in Iraq. “Unlike anywhere else in the world, we have this law-free zone for private military contractors,” Hathaway said. “In the moment, it appears there may not be any legal jurisdiction over these folks.”

Rep. Barbara Lee has introduced a non-binding resolution affirming the Constitution only grants the president sole authority over “essentially nonpolitical foreign engagements,” and any agreement regarding US military involvement in a foreign country should require the consent of Congress. “We have to restore our checks and balances,” Lee said.

Iraq’s Parliament is facing similar dilemmas: like Bush, Maliki has skirted his legislature in making agreements for a future US military presence. The House Foreign Affairs Committee hopes to bring several Iraqi Parliamentarians to the US to speak in April, according to Raed Jarrar, Iraq consultant to the American Friends Service Committee. Rep. Lee told Truthout that, although she is not aware of any formal cooperation between Congress and the Iraqi government, “that’s not to say that conversations aren’t happening.” (Maya Schenwar for Truthout, March 12)

See our last posts on Iraq and the politics of escalation.

  1. Can you say “bait and switch”?
    From the New York Times, April 11:

    Bush Defies Calls for Faster Withdrawal of Iraq Troops
    WASHINGTON — Declaring that the United States had averted failure in Iraq, President Bush said on Thursday that the senior commander there could “have all the time he needs” before reducing troops further. Mr. Bush ordered shorter tours for troops, but defied calls by Democrats in Congress to withdraw more troops more quickly.

    Mr. Bush defended the costs of the war, in lives and money, and said that withdrawing from Iraq would be catastrophic to the national interests. He signaled that an American force nearly as large as at any point in the last five years would remain in Iraq through his presidency, leaving any significant changes in policy to the next president.

    “Iraq is the convergence point for two of the greatest threats to America in this new century: al Qaeda and Iran,” Mr. Bush said, speaking at the White House to an audience that included Vice President Dick Cheney, the secretaries of state and defense and representatives of veterans organizations…

    “If we fail there, Al Qaeda would claim a propaganda victory of colossal proportions, and they could gain safe havens in Iraq from which to attack the United States, our friends and our allies,” he said. “Iran would work to fill the vacuum in Iraq, and our failure would embolden its radical leaders and fuel their ambitions to dominate the region.” Mr. Bush’s focus on Iran, while not new, reflected deepening concerns in the administration and the Pentagon about that country’s support for some extremists, which was evident during the indecisive Iraqi operation late last month to wrest control of Basra from Shiite militias…

    He also announced that American troops headed to Iraq after Aug. 1 would deploy for only 12 months, instead of 15 months, a hugely unpopular extension he imposed as part of the buildup in Iraq last year. He also said that troops would remain at home at least a year for each year spent in the field, a requirement that many lawmakers wanted to codify in legislation.

    Both had been key recommendations of the armed services and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who worried about the strain the war in Iraq was having on military readiness. At the same time, though, Mr. Bush endorsed the recommendation of General Petraeus to suspend any more withdrawals for at least 45 days after the last of the additional units ordered in last year leave in July.

    At that point the United States will have just under 140,000 troops in Iraq, slightly more than were in early 2007, when sectarian violence verge on all-out civil war and Mr. Bush ordered in five more combat brigades as what became known as “the surge.”

    In his congressional testimony, General Petraeus said he needed 45 days to assess security in Iraq once those brigades leave, but he declined, despite persistent questioning, to commit to any additional withdrawals, saying that any reductions would be based on conditions that he did not clearly define.

    Nor did Mr. Bush in his statement. “General Petraeus says he’ll need time to consolidate his forces and assess how this reduced American presence will affect conditions on the ground before making measured recommendations on further reductions,” he said. “And I’ve told him he’ll have all the time he needs.”

    Isn’t it neat how the enemy in Iraq has quietly switched from Saddam Hussein to al-Qaeda and Iran? And how the end of the “surge” will leave more troops in Iraq than the 135,000 there when “major combat operations” were declared over five years ago?