Game, set, match?

No quite. But when the Iraqi PM says in print that Obama’s timetable is more realistic than McCain’s, that’s news.

Not quite, but Nouri al-Maliki’s Spiegel interview has to be a body blow to what’s left of the McCain campaign. Or, as “a prominent Republican strategist who sometimes gives advice to the McCain campaign” said to Marc Ambinder, “We’re f*cked.”

Money quotes:

US presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes.


Those who operate on the premise of short time periods in Iraq today are being more realistic. Artificially prolonging the tenure of US troops in Iraq would cause problems.

Some random thoughts:

1. The key point isn’t that al-Maliki agrees with Obama about the timeframe for withdrawal; what’s important is that al-Maliki, like Obama but unlike McCain or Bush, isn’t willing to turn Iraq into an American protectorate. It’s not the 16 months; it’s the 100 years. And that’s what Obama should start saying; 16 months is negotiable, but 100 years isn’t.

2. Obviously al-Maliki more or less blindsided Bush on this one. He’d been talking about a timetable, and the Bush folks pushed back, trying to go for a “timeframe” rather than a “timeline,” something “aspirational.” [In the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about aspiration.] And now al-Maliki goes public with his original position, stated even more bluntly. The fact that the WH press office wasn’t ready with a response is telling.

3. Equally obviously, someone in Washington or in the Embassy in Baghdad twisted an arm inside the Iraqi government to get al-Maliki’s spokesman to issue a semi-hemi-demi non-retraction retraction, complaining vaguely about having been “misunderstood and mistranslated” without saying what the correct understanding or translation would have been, followed by two paragraphs of diplomatic flannelmouth adding up to precisely nothing.

Mr. al-Maliki confirmed the existence of an Iraqi vision stems from the reality with regard to Iraq security needs, as the positive developments of the security situation and the improvement witnessed in Iraqi cities makes the subject of U.S. forces’ withdrawal within prospects, horizons and timetables agreed upon and in the light of the continuing positive developments on the ground, and security that came within the Strategic Plan for Cooperation which was laid and developed by Mr. Maliki and President George Bush. The Iraqi government appreciates and values the efforts of all the friends who continue to support and supporting Iraqi security forces.

The statements made by the head of the ministerial council (Prime Minister al-Maliki) or any of the members of the Iraqi government should not be understood as support to any U.S. presidential candidates.

4. Why did al-Maliki do it? Your choice of interpretations, not mutually exclusive:

a) “Yanks Out!” is a winning slogan in Iraqi politics, and al-Maliki has an election to fight in October.

b) He figures Obama is going to win, and this way Obama owes him one.

c) He thinks he’s now strong enough to take out the Sadrists and either make make a deal with some group of Sunnis or just rule them as a subject population after our troops leave.

d) “100 Years” genuinely creeps him out.

I’m not offering any bets about what al-Maliki really wants in the way of a timetable. But I’d bet something that he really doesn’t want a long term protectorate, and/or doesn’t think he can make that fly politically in Iraq.

Obama is either very good or very lucky. Somehow “troops out of Iraq to add to Afghanistan” and “go after al-Qaeda in Pakistan without asking Musharraf’s permission” and “negotiate with Iran” have all become not just mainstream views but Administration policy. And now this.

It’s possible that the McCain folks will manage to convince the voters that the guy whose advice Bush seems to be taking, and whose proposal for what to do about Iraq has the support of the Iraqi government, is too “inexperienced” to be President, but they’re going to have to do better than this.

The difference between John McCain and Barack Obama is that Barack Obama advocates an unconditional withdrawal that ignores the facts on the ground and the advice of our top military commanders. John McCain believes withdrawal must be based on conditions on the ground. Prime Minister Maliki has repeatedly affirmed the same view, and did so again today. Timing is not as important as whether we leave with victory and honor, which is of no apparent concern to Barack Obama. The fundamental truth remains that Senator McCain was right about the surge and Senator Obama was wrong. We would not be in the position to discuss a responsible withdrawal today if Senator Obama’s views had prevailed.

And we wouldn’t have to be discussing this at all if Senator Obama’s views had prevailed in 2003. My grandmother doesn’t have wheels.

Nor is this likely to work:

“His domestic politics require him to be for us getting out,” said a senior McCain campaign official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “The military says ‘conditions based’ and Maliki said ‘conditions based’ yesterday in the joint statement with Bush. Regardless, voters care about [the] military, not about Iraqi leaders.”

Is McCain really going to campaign on staying in Iraq in defiance of the Iraqi government? That should be good for 40% of the vote, easily. After all, in 2004 McCain was asked precisely the question of what we should do if an elected Iraqi government asked us to leave. He replied: “It’s obvious that we would have to leave.”

Update The “mistranslation” bamboozlement seems to have worked; today’s papers mostly fold the Spiegel story into accounts of Obama’s Afghan travels. Kevin Drum makes a good catch: the “retraction” press release was issued by the CentCom press office . It’s good to know that our military is hard at work as an adjunct to the McCain campaign. But has any reporter asked the PM’s office for its own reaction? Or asked whether the same press release was issued in Arabic? Otherwise one might think it was issued entirely for U.S. political consumption, and that al-Maliki is happy to have his Arabic-speaking constituents remain in ignorance of it.

Second update More here.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: