U.S., Iraq Ponder Long-Term Treaty

The U.S. and Iraq are negotiating an arrangement that would permit U.S. forces to continue to operate in Iraq for many years — possibly decades. Critics says the Bush and Maliki governments are colluding on a deal that would require no legislative approval.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

We're moving closer to seeing the shape of a permanent American military presence in Iraq. Next month, the Bush administration begins formal negotiations with Iraq's leaders. The talks may cover anything from U.S. military bases to U.S. military commitments to defend the country, and more.

NPR's Guy Raz is here to report on what happens next. And, Guy, how important are these talks?

GUY RAZ: Well, Steve, if you listen to administration officials, it seems pretty run-of-the-mill, you know, sort of normal fare, in a way that they describe what these negotiations are all about, using terms like these:

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We're now building an enduring relationship with Iraq.

Ambassador RYAN CROCKER (U.S. Ambassador to Iraq): A long-term strategic partnership.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (U.S Department of State): And we look forward to a relationship with Iraq for the long term.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (U.S. Department of Defense): They mutually agreed an arrangement whereby we have a long and enduring presence.

INSKEEP: Sounds pretty benign.

RAZ: It's pretty vague language, I would say. But I don't think that the people we just heard from - the president, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, Condoleezza Rice, Secretary Robert Gates - are really letting on how significant these negotiations actually are.

INSKEEP: Okay. What's a different way to describe these talks?

RAZ: Well, there's a congressman from Massachusetts, Bill Delahunt, and here is the way he describes it:

Representative BILL DELAHUNT (Democrat, Massachusetts): The most consequential decision that this country will make in the course of this year.

RAZ: And he is talking about basically secret negotiations that the administration is holding with the top members of the Iraqi cabinet. And Delahunt has launched congressional hearings to look into this. And he's invited members of the administration as well.

Rep. DELAHUNT: We have issued invitations to a number of administration officials and we have yet to receive a reply.

RAZ: And, Steve, neither has NPR. The Pentagon, which is actually leading these negotiations, didn't respond a request for comments. And critics of this process think that both the White House and the Pentagon want to keep this issue out of the spotlight.

And so, a lot of skeptics suspect that the Pentagon right now is essentially laying the foundation for something more permanent, which is what Raed Jarrar, an Iraqi political activist, believes.

Mr. RAED JARRAR (Political Analyst; Consultant, Middle East Peace Building Program, American Friends Service Committee): Permanent bases and permanent intervention in Iraq's domestic issues for the next decades.

RAZ: Now, we should give a little background for a moment.

Last November, the president and Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued a joint letter; it was called the declaration of principles. And the letter is a blueprint for how the relationship between Washington and Baghdad ought to be in the future. And it includes a pledge to basically defend Iraq's system against internal and external threats. And it's that sentence that's really raising alarm bells in certain quarters on Capitol Hill, including among people like Congressman Delahunt.

Rep. DELAHUNT: This amounts to a treaty.

RAZ: But the administration denies this vehemently, and it's because a treaty would require Senate ratification. And the administration essentially believes that they won't be able to get that kind of approval from the Senate.

INSKEEP: So are they negotiating something that would look like a treaty and talk like a treaty and act like a treaty, but not be called a treaty?

RAZ: Well, that's what critics say, as well as, legal experts, including Kenneth Katzman, who is with the Congressional Research Service. And he suggests that the administration might be splitting legal hairs.

Mr. KENNETH KATZMAN (Specialist in Middle East Affairs, Congressional Research Service): The declaration of principles obviously was quite broad, and it would appear to commit the United States to basically keeping the elected Iraqi government in power against internal threats. I'll leave it to the lawyers to determine whether that's the definition of a treaty or not. But it certainly seems to be - is going to be a hefty U.S. commitment to Iraq for a long time.

RAZ: And, also, perhaps unprecedented in the history of American foreign policy because, in simple language, it could be the most wide-reaching security arrangement with a foreign country that the U.S. has ever actually had.

(Soundbite of American Forces Network commercial)

Unidentified Man: It affects almost everything, from the way you shop, conduct business on a daily basis, and even the way you live.

RAZ: Now, this is a TV commercial from the military's Armed Forces Network. And it describes what U.S. troops in Korea can and cannot do. They fall under what's called a status of forces agreement. And the U.S. has about a hundred of these agreements with countries around the world.

Now, in the case of Iraq, both the White House and the Pentagon say, you know, this bilateral relationship won't be any different from status of forces agreements. And by law, the president can actually broker status of forces agreements alone, without any approval from the Senate.

And I asked a retired Army General, Michael Nardotti, who was the Army's top lawyer, about this issue.

Major General MICHAEL NARDOTTI JR. (Former Judge Advocate General): The president, as the commander-in-chief, can enter into an agreement. And in theory certainly as complex an agreement as he deems appropriate and necessary and of the circumstances.

RAZ: But, of course, in the case of Iraq, even the most optimistic assessments don't expect that country to look anything like Korea or Japan, for example, which is why someone like Raed Jarrar, the Iraqi political activist, is skeptical when he hears officials describe it as a status of forces agreement.

Mr. JARRAR: Bases of the U.S. around the world are not situated in an occupied country. For example, the U.S. forces in Japan can't just go out of the base and have a checkpoint in Tokyo. They can't go out on Tokyo, you know, arresting Japanese people.

RAZ: Right. And in Japan and Korea, the U.S. military isn't allowed to maintain internal stability either - or for that matter, in any other country in the world.

INSKEEP: It doesn't have to maintain internal stability in those countries.

RAZ: It's not allowed to. And in the few cases where the U.S. military is actually committed to defending allies from outside threats, from external threats, they are all treaties. And as required by the U.S. Constitution, they've all been approved by the U.S. Senate. NATO is probably the best-known example of this.

But the White House has already made it clear that in the Iraq agreement, it won't go to Congress to ask for permission. So critics of this agreement, like Congressman Delahunt, believe that White House and Pentagon lawyers will carefully construct the language of the agreement to make it appear as if it's not a treaty.

Rep. DELAHUNT: And that language is, to me, profoundly disturbing.

RAZ: And it's disturbing, he says, because it will commit the U.S. to Iraq for a long, long time to come.

Rep. DELAHUNT: To embrace an agreement that could be invoked in the event of an Iraqi civil war, I think is an extremely dangerous course to take.

RAZ: Now, for their part, Iraqi officials don't mince words, they actually call this a treaty. Listen to Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi foreign minister, just a few days ago.

Minister HOSHYAR ZEBARI (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Iraq): (Through translator) Our leaders have agreed to set a group of principles for the long-term treaty, and…

RAZ: Now, nearly half of Iraq's parliament have signed a letter demanding a full U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq within the next two years. But it's the Cabinet officials, the people who essentially depend on U.S. military protection, they're the people who are negotiating the deal on Iraq's behalf. And they've implied that they will require large numbers of U.S. troops in the country for at least another decade. And it poses a problem because Congress has passed three laws that prohibit any U.S. funding for permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq.

And I spoke to Kurt Campbell, who's a top Pentagon official during the 1990s, and he said there are actually ways around that as well.

Dr. KURT CAMPBELL (Chief Executive Officer, Center for a New American Security): While no one will say anything about permanent bases, there are lots of ways to create a potential for bases to be in Iraq for decades to come.

RAZ: So White House and Pentagon lawyers might simply opt to use adjectives like enduring or continuing instead of permanent when they write up this agreement.

Dr. CAMPBELL: This is an attempt in the last days of the Bush administration to hand a new administration a done deal.

RAZ: And, of course, a done deal that could solidify the administration's very complex legacy in Iraq.

INSKEEP: We're listening to NPR's Guy Raz.

And Guy, this does raise a question. If the administration negotiates this agreement - whether you call it a treaty or not this agreement - is it going to be binding on the next president?

RAZ: Well, it will be binding, essentially, whether it's an agreement or a treaty, because traditionally in the history of U.S. foreign policy, presidents try not to break agreements or treaties that have been negotiated by their predecessors. So until it's renegotiated, it will essentially and could essentially become policy for the next administration.

INSKEEP: Which doesn't mean you could never withdraw from Iraq. The United States withdrew from its commitments in Vietnam, for example, but it became an embarrassment.

RAZ: And it becomes difficult because once you establish a large military presence in a country, it's unusual for that presence to then diminish significantly as, of course, we see with Osan in South Korea, Okinawa in Japan and the several installations in Germany.

INSKEEP: NPR's Guy Raz. Thanks very much.

RAZ: Thank you, Steve.

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Long-Term Pact with Iraq Raises Questions

President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki i i

President Bush (right) meets with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in New York, Sept. 25, 2007. Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki

President Bush (right) meets with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in New York, Sept. 25, 2007.

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

A 'Declaration of Principles'

Read the text of a joint letter issued by President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Nov. 26, 2007.

President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued a joint letter in November. On the surface, the "Declaration of Principles" appears as a mutual "expression of friendship," as it has been characterized by administration officials.

But a closer look reveals a blueprint for how the two administrations plan to set the foundation for the future of America's involvement in Iraq.

When administration officials describe that vision, the language they use is vague. The president recently spoke of an "enduring relationship." Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice talks about "a relationship with Iraq for the long term." Defense Secretary Robert Gates outlined "a mutually agreed arrangement whereby we have a long and enduring presence."

Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-MA) says such language is vague, and he has launched a series of congressional hearings to find out what it means.

He's asked administration officials to testify but, so far, they've all either ignored him or declined. Delahunt says they have declined because he and other lawmakers want to get a sense of secret negotiations under way between Pentagon and State Department officials and their Iraqi counterparts on the future relationship between Washington and Baghdad.

The "Declaration of Principles" includes language that seems run-of-the-mill. The United States will help get Iraq into the World Trade Organization. The two countries will engage in scientific and cultural exchanges.

'Internal and External Threats'

But it also includes a provision that promises to maintain the stability of Iraq's government from "internal and external threats." This sentence is raising alarms for some U.S. lawmakers.

Any such agreement would be considered a treaty by many legal experts. And under the U.S. Constitution, treaties have to be ratified by Congress.

"The declaration of principles would appear to commit the United States to keeping the elected Iraqi government in power against internal threats," says Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East analyst at the Congressional Research Service. "I leave it to the lawyers to determine whether that's the definition of a treaty or not but it certainly seems to be — is going to be — a hefty U.S. commitment to Iraq for a long time."

Such a hefty commitment would be unprecedented in the history of American foreign policy.

Treaty or Agreement?

The administration strenuously denies this is a treaty and has already made it clear that it won't take the issue to Congress.

Instead, administration officials compare the impending U.S.-Iraq military relationship to a "status of forces" agreement. The United States has about 100 of these military relationships with countries around the world.

They outline everything from what types of operations American troops can conduct in a foreign country to which laws the troops fall under. Usually, there's a provision that grants U.S. servicemen and women immunity from criminal prosecution in the host country.

The best-known examples are in Japan, South Korea and Germany.

And under the law, the president is entitled to broker a status-of-forces agreement without congressional approval.

"The president, as the commander in chief, can enter into an agreement and in theory, certainly as complex an agreement as he deems appropriate and necessary under the circumstances," says retired Gen. Michael Nardotti, formerly the Army's top lawyer.

But in the case of Iraq, even the most optimistic assessments don't expect the situation there to become as stable as Japan or South Korea for decades.

"Bases of the U.S. around the world are not situated in an occupied country," explains Raed Jarrar, an Iraqi political activist who recently testified before Congress on this issue. "For example, U.S. forces in Japan can't just go out of their bases and [set up] a checkpoint in Tokyo. They can't go around Tokyo arresting Japanese people."

And in Japan or South Korea, the U.S. military isn't allowed to maintain internal stability. In other words, it can't protect those governments from internal threats. Indeed, in South Korea, two governments have been overthrown in coups in the past 50 years. The U.S. military could not and did not intervene.

In fact, the United States has no such agreement with any country that guarantees the integrity of the host country's government.

The U.S. has agreements with a few allies — including Japan, South Korea, Australia/New Zealand and NATO — to protect them from external threats. But in each of these cases, the U.S. signed a treaty that required ratification by two-thirds of the U.S. Senate.

"What's different about this agreement," says the Congressional Research Services' Katzman, "is the government in Iraq came about through a U.S.-led process and presumably the U.S. would be, in essence, defending the integrity of an Iraqi government. So there would be, presumably, internal security responsibilities that the United States would be performing."

A Long Commitment

And critics fear that kind of commitment could last decades.

"To embrace an agreement that could be invoked in the event of an Iraqi civil war, I think, is an extremely dangerous course to take," Delahunt says.

For their part, Iraqi leaders aren't mincing words. They call the upcoming agreement a treaty. At a recent press conference in Baghdad, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari called it a "long-term treaty."

Yet nearly half of Iraq's elected members of Parliament have signed a letter demanding a full U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq within the next two years.

But Iraq's top Cabinet ministers — people who depend on U.S. protection and the same officials negotiating on Iraq's behalf — have implied that large numbers of U.S. troops will be needed in Iraq for at least another decade.

That poses a problem because the U.S. Congress has passed three laws that prohibit any U.S. funding for permanent U.S. military installations in Iraq.

'Enduring' vs. 'Permanent' Agreement

But according to Kurt Campbell — a top Pentagon official during the 1990s and now the head of the Center for a New American Security — there are also ways around that.

"While no one will say anything about permanent bases, [there are] lots of ways to create the potential for bases to be in Iraq for decades to come," he says.

So White House and Pentagon lawyers may opt to use adjectives like "enduring" or "continuing" instead of the word "permanent" when they announce the final agreement.

And to Campbell, the agreement is an attempt, "in the last days of the Bush administration, to hand a new administration a done deal."

The Senate is expected to consider a bill that would block the president from signing such an agreement with the Iraqi government. If the White House ignores the measures, Delahunt and others say the issue could go all the way to the Supreme Court.

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