Maliki: Obama's 16-month timetable sounds good; Update: Spiegel changes quote

Here’s the exchange from Spiegel’s English translation, duly hyped by Reuters as tacit evidence of Liberal Jesus’s foreign-policy sagacity.

SPIEGEL: Would you hazard a prediction as to when most of the US troops will finally leave Iraq?

Maliki: As soon as possible, as far as we’re concerned. US presidential candidate Barack Obama is right when he talks about 16 months. Assuming that positive developments continue, this is about the same time period that corresponds to our wishes.

The unasked follow-up question: How about the 14-month timetable that Obama wanted to set in January 2007 to start pulling troops out before those positive developments could occur? How keen does that look in hindsight? To repeat a point made yesterday, the only reason a timetable or “time horizon” is arguably a responsible strategy now is because it was properly rejected as being irresponsible then. Maliki hints at that in another part of the interview:

So far the Americans have had trouble agreeing to a concrete timetable for withdrawal, because they feel it would appear tantamount to an admission of defeat. But that isn’t the case at all. If we come to an agreement, it is not evidence of a defeat, but of a victory, of a severe blow we have inflicted on al-Qaida and the militias.

Exactly, which at least partly explains why Bush is more willing to compromise now on some sort of informal schedule. Compare Maliki’s justification for the timetable to Obama’s justification in his big Iraq speech. The pacification of the country is almost incidental, something to congratulate Petraeus on and then quickly move past. To the extent conditions in Iraq seem to affect his rationale at all, he offers this: “In the 18 months since the surge began, as I warned at the outset – Iraq’s leaders have not made the political progress that was the purpose of the surge. They have not invested tens of billions of dollars in oil revenues to rebuild their country. They have not resolved their differences or shaped a new political compact.” I.e. it didn’t work, so let’s get out. Back to Maliki for a rebuttal:

SPIEGEL: In your opinion, which factor has contributed most to bringing calm to the situation in the country?

Maliki: There are many factors, but I see them in the following order. First, there is the political rapprochement we have managed to achieve in central Iraq. This has enabled us, above all, to pull the plug on al-Qaida. Second, there is the progress being made by our security forces. Third, there is the deep sense of abhorrence with which the population has reacted to the atrocities of al-Qaida and the militias. Finally, of course, there is the economic recovery.

He’s exaggerating the extent of the reconciliation, but not entirely.

One more quote from the interview which I dare say won’t be making it into the inevitable Team Barry press release. The fact that Maliki thinks the war was good for Iraqis doesn’t mean it was good for America, needless to say, but Obama fans eager to exploit the timetable bit may want to mull this before baptizing his judgments with Absolute Moral Authority:

SPIEGEL: Mr. Prime Minister, the war and its consequences have cost more than 100,000 lives and caused great suffering in your country. Saddam Hussein and his regime are now part of the past. Was all of this worth the price?

Maliki: The casualties have been and continue to be enormous. But anyone who was familiar with the dictator’s nature and his intentions knows what could have been in store for us instead of this war. Saddam waged wars against Iran and Kuwait, and against Iraqis in the north and south of his own country, wars in which hundreds of thousands died. And he was capable of instigating even more wars. Yes, the casualties are great, but I see our struggle as an enormous effort to avoid other such wars in the future.

For context, here’s Petraeus on MSNBC yesterday afternoon (before the Spiegel interview was published) responding to reports that Maliki wants a timetable. He fudges a bit with the “time horizon” terminology, but note well the point about domestic politics and assertions of sovereignty. Another “positive development.” Exit question: What do we do now with that NYT piece from the other day about Iraqis who love Obama for bringing Hope but pray that the U.S. security presence doesn’t Change?

Update: Spend some time with this AP story about U.S. troops — who would have been reduced to a small Baker/Hamilton token force by now if Obama had had his way last year — helping Iraqi villagers rebuild after purging Al Qaeda. Quote: “It reveals how drastically American troops have shifted their focus from combat to helping Iraqis build on a newfound, if fragile, peace. And it reflects a continuing concern among U.S. commanders that the security gains could slip.” Not just among U.S. commanders, per the NYT piece.

Update: A commenter notes that Spiegel has rewritten the translation of the exchange about withdrawal to read as follows. There’s nothing in the article calling attention to the change; they’re trying to put one over on their readers, it seems.

SPIEGEL: Would you hazard a prediction as to when most of the US troops will finally leave Iraq?

Maliki: As soon as possible, as far as we’re concerned. U.S. 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.

They’ve dropped the contingency about positive developments continuing, although it’s still implied by the part about potentially changing the plan. Did Maliki contact Spiegel and ask them to drop that part so that the quote would sound more assertive back home? Hard to believe the original translation would have been so off as to include a bit about “positive developments” that he never said.