So Maliki made the "mistake" of essentially agreeing with Obama on the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq. Almost immediately we were told, "The translator got it wrong." Except it turns out that it was Maliki's own translator, and his translator didn't get it wrong. Then an effort was made to interject nuance into the endorsement. That didn't work out so well, either. So now what? Let's ask McCain backer and uberhawk Max Boot.
There is some irony in the fact that Democrats, after years of deriding Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as a hopeless bungler and conniving Shiite sectarian, are now treating as sacrosanct his suggestion that Iraq will be ready to assume responsibility for its own security by 2010.Ah. So it must follow that Republicans view Nouri al-Maliki as a competent leader, supported by Shiites and Sunnis alike, right? Well... Maybe not.
His public support for the U.S. is mixed: "[Maliki] has hardly been an unwavering friend of the United States - at least in public." (But thank goodness, he's two-faced: "To his credit, although he has postured as a fierce nationalist in public, Maliki has often accommodated American concerns in private.")
He's skeptical of U.S. motives: "[He] has had to overcome deeply ingrained suspicions of the United States."
He's incompetent on military issues and insulated from reality: "Maliki has no military experience and that he has been trapped in the Green Zone, relatively isolated from day-to-day life."
He has poor judgment: "[H]e has been a consistent font of misguided predictions about how quickly U.S. forces could leave."
He's ungrateful: "Maliki won't give U.S. troops their due"
In the famous interview with Der Spiegel last weekend, he was asked why Iraq has become more peaceful. He mentioned "many factors," including "the political rapprochement we have managed to achieve," "the progress being made by our security forces," "the deep sense of abhorrence with which the population has reacted to the atrocities of al-Qaida and the militias," and "the economic recovery." No mention of the surge.
He's unreliable: "Maliki's public utterances do not provide a reliable guide as to when it will be safe to pull out U.S. troops."
Oh yes, and Boot tells us that this statement is "ambiguous":
When asked in and interview with SPIEGEL when he thinks US troops should leave Iraq, Maliki responded "as soon as possible, as far as we are concerned." He then continued: "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."Wow. You can barely tell that Maliki is expressly endorsing withdrawal of combat forces "as soon as possible", on a schedule largely consistent with Obama's timeframe. Darn that ambiguity.
Incidentally, as others have noted, there's no inconsistency between observing that Maliki's dependence upon U.S. backing makes his endorsement of continued occupation questionable, while also observing that his willingness to stand up to the Bush Administration may be qualitatively different - he has a lot to lose by what the Bush Administration and McCain's backers plainly see as biting the hand that feeds him.
Update: Charles Krauthammer offers a much more generous interpretation of Maliki's choices:
What is Maliki thinking? Clearly, he believes that the Iraq war is won. Al-Qaeda is defeated, the Sunni insurgency is in abeyance, the Shiite extremists are scattered and marginalized. There will, of course, be some continued level of violence, recurring challenges to the authority of the central government and perhaps even mini-Tet Offensives by both Shiite and Sunni terrorists trying to demoralize U.S. and Iraqi public opinion in the run-up to their respective elections. But in Maliki's view, the strategic threats to the unity of the state and to the viability of the new democratic government are over.Another way to look at that is that Maliki believes he will be more free to cement his party and his religious sect's control over Iraq in the absence of U.S. combat forces than in their presence - something entirely consistent with the Sunni factions' concerns about U.S. troop withdrawal. Needless to say, Krauthammer carries on to present a rather churlish attack on the Democratic Party as being too "pliant" in willing to be something other than an autonomous occupying power prepared to stay in Iraq until we establish a "strategic relationship that would not only make the new Iraq a strong ally in the war on terror but would also provide the U.S. with the infrastructure and freedom of action to project American power regionally, as do U.S. forces in Germany, Japan and South Korea." In other words, Krauthammer believes we should occupy Iraq until they learn to like it.
Maliki believes that his armed forces are strong enough to sustain the new Iraq with minimal U.S. help. He may be overconfident, as he has been repeatedly in estimating his army's capacities, most recently in launching a somewhat premature attack on militias in Basra that ultimately required U.S. and British support to succeed. And he is certainly more confident of his own capacities than is Gen. David Petraeus.