You've been following the fortunes of the political parties in Iraq for some time. What is the status of the security agreement which would allow U.S. forces to stay in Iraq beyond the end of this year, and until at least the end of 2011?
There appears to be an tentative agreement, although we haven't seen the text of it. But the Bush administration and the Maliki government have both said they have come to a tentative agreement. I don't think it has to go through the U.S. Congress, but it definitely has to go through the parliament in Iraq, and that's a problem because there just doesn't seem to be much leadership on this. If you look at the major political figures, the members of the Iraqi National Security Council, which is the president, the vice presidents of Iraq, they passed it onto the cabinet without an endorsement. The Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most important Shiite religious figure, basically said, "Well, the parliament is going to have to vote on this" without endorsing it himself. So Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is sort of hanging out there. It's now his agreement, but we'll see if he can produce a parliamentary majority.
What is the problem?
Well, the problem is the issue of how much "sovereignty." That's going to be the key word here. I'm not sure that that's the right word in terms of real international law, but that's going to be the argument in Iraq: Has Maliki given up too much Iraqi sovereignty to the United States? One of the issues will be the extent to which American soldiers and contractors in Iraq can be prosecuted in Iraqi courts for violating Iraqi law. The agreement as it now stands basically says that if American soldiers, or contractors, are on officially designated missions, they cannot be prosecuted by Iraqi courts for any law-breaking that might ensue. This is going to be an issue. The other issue is the 2011 deadline. Some people in Iraq have talked about making that iron-clad. Right now it says that the Iraqis could request an extension if necessary, and other people, like the Sadrists [followers of Muqtada al-Sadr] want to push that deadline up.
It would seem obvious that Iraqis should be able to request an extension if they needed it, right?
You know, whatever is in that agreement, if you have an Iraqi government in 2011 who wants American troops to stay and an American government who's willing to have them stay, I don't think it makes any difference.
It's a little unclear on the politics. The next elections are supposed to be provincial elections in January 2009, right? Provincial elections wouldn't really get into this issue would they?
The provincial elections are going to be an important test of strength. And while the provincial governments obviously have no authority over this kind of deal, they're an important test of political strength for two reasons. First, the Sadrists basically boycotted the first provincial elections in January 2005, and it looks like they're going to be much more heavily involved this time. So, it'll be a test of strength among the competing Shiite groups, the Sadrists and Maliki's Dawa Party and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council [the party led by the Hakim family] at the provincial level. And of course, on the sunny side, almost all of the Sunni voters boycotted the first provincial elections. And now the Awakening Councils say they want to get in, they want to run against the existing Sunni parties that are represented in parliament, who control provincial governance, so it's a test of political strenmgth.
Let's talk about Maliki briefly. About a year ago, he was considered a weakling, couldn't get anything done. He was criticized heavily in the U.S. Congress. Then, last spring, he launched an invasion of the Basra area. It first looked like a disaster, then it succeeded with U.S. help. Then he began to seem more like a strongman. How much control does he actually have?
The most interesting development of the last year has been Maliki's efforts to consolidate his control individually. And I think that the two things that he has going for him are that the army seems to be getting better, and seems to be willing to follow his orders. That's one. Two, he's got all this money in the bank now from the big run-up in oil prices. How long that's going to last, with oil prices going down, that's an open question. But he's got a lot of money in the bank. So I think he sees the opportunity to consolidate some amount of control, but this is going to be very difficult. He's basically confronted everybody. He's confronted the Kurds in the North by sending the army into some areas around the borders of the Kurdish Regional Government, where Kurdish forces have been deployed. He's confronting the Sadrists obviously in these offensives. He's taken a pretty hard line against the Sunni Awakening Councils, and now he's the one paying them, so he has the whip hand over them. And he also has confronted even his own allies within the Shiite coalition, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.
Where does the SIIC stand?
They reserve judgment on the security agreement. I haven't seen an official statement.
They're supposed to be the most pro-American of the Shiites?
Well, they are the ones who cooperated the closest with us. They're also the ones who are closest to Iran. They're an organization that began as an exile organization in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war. They were founded by Iran. The Hakims and their militias basically lived in Iran until 2003. They're very close to Iran.
And the Iranians obviously are publically opposed to this agreement.
It's interesting, General [Raymond T.] Odierno, the new U.S. commander in Iraq, has said that the Iranians are trying to bribe members of the Iraqi parliament to vote against this accord. I haven't seen an official statement from the Iranian government. I could be wrong about that, but I don't think the Iranians have come out and publically said, "Oh, this is a horrible thing," and I doubt they would because they've got a relationship with Maliki, too.
So what's your guess? What's going to happen?
My guess is that in the end, through a combination of American pressure and Maliki's own maneuverings that this thing will squeak through. But my confidence level on this prediction is not very high.
I'm going to switch gears now and go to Saudi Arabia. There was a report that the Saudis were trying to be an intermediary between the Taliban and the Karzai government in Afghanistan. Is there any substance to that?
Originally the Saudis denied it, which I think is their knee-jerk reaction to everything. But it appears that there seems to be something to it. President [Hamid] Karzai has talked about it, and the Saudis have directly admitted it now. Now, who in the Taliban they're talking to, that's a good question. I don't really know. But it seems to be something that Karzai has asked them to do. And in that sense, it'll be interesting to see the results. This is kind of an interesting example of their style. When the Qataris, who are kind of their rivals for mediators these days [Qatar mediated an end to the political standoff in Lebanon], do things, they do it with all the klieg lights on, and all the media watching. Saudis tend to do it, when they do it, behind very, very thick closed doors.
I didn't know the Saudis would have any influence with the Taliban. Did they support them?
Oh yes, they did. They were one of the few governments that actually recognized the Taliban government in Afghanistan [from 1996 to 2001].
But of course the Saudis can't stand al-Qaeda.
It could be that the Saudis are trying to get the Taliban to turn on al-Qaeda, which would be interesting. This might be somewhat analogous to the Saudi efforts to bring Hamas and Fatah together among the Palestinians in an effort to kind of wean Hamas away from Iran.
If you were in Washington after November 4th, what's going to be the main issues you think vis-à-vis U.S.-Arab relations when the new administration takes office.
I actually think that if it's an Obama administration, the first thing is going to be Iraq, because people in the Arab world are going to say "Okay, you say you're getting out. What's that mean?" Iraqis are going to say that, the Saudis are going to say that. People who are worried about the spread of Iranian power are going to say that. In a McCain administration, I think the issue is going to be Iran. Of course that's not the Arab world, but there's a lot of interest in the Arab world about what a McCain administration would do about Iran. The McCain campaign has been tough in its rhetoric on Iran. And Senator McCain seems to be someone who's willing to use military force against Iran. I think that the Iranian file might be the most contentious and interesting one to watch in a McCain administration.
You think if Obama wins the Iranians might make a big gesture or would they feel that Obama's been a little softer than McCain so they can be harder?
I think the Iranians think they're playing a pretty good hand now. And I think that if they see Obama saying "We're going to set a timetable and leave Iraq," the Iranians don't have to pay anything for that. I don't think they would make any big gestures. They might be open to American gestures, but I see them thinking that they're in the catbird seat, and they're just going to sit tight. [In a McCain administration] I doubt very strongly that they'd make many overtures because they think that they're in a good position, and if McCain wants a confrontation, they think they are relatively well-positioned to deal with that.
Are you a formal advisor for any campaign?
I worked for the Clinton campaign. I did write a paper for the Obama people, but I think it has gone into that vast black hole of policy papers. I haven't heard from them since. But I guess I'm kind of affiliated with the Obama campaign.