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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