Report: Obama, Biden did nothing while talks with Iraqi officials over troop levels faltered

The Times claimed on Friday that both sides wanted a U.S. military presence in Iraq to continue next year but that the White House bungled the negotiations by pushing the issue of troop immunity too hard too soon. Now here’s McClatchy thickening the plot: How much of that was due to “bungling” and how much was due to Obama’s and Biden’s studious disinterest?

Throughout the summer and autumn, as talks on a continued U.S. military presence in Iraq foundered, President Barack Obama and his point man on Iraq, Vice President Joe Biden, remained aloof from the process, not even phoning top Iraqi officials to help reach a deal, according to logs released by the U.S. Embassy here.

The omission is an unusual one, given the high priority that U.S. officials had given to achieving an agreement for some sort of residual U.S. presence in Iraq after the Dec. 31 pullout deadline set in a 2008 pact between the two countries. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other senior Pentagon officials spoke often about the need for an agreement in a pivotal country in a volatile region and insisted talks were continuing up until Friday, when Obama announced that all U.S. troops would be coming home before the end of December…

A major complication was the insistence by the Obama administration that the accord go before the Iraqi parliament, something that in the end Iraqi politicians decided was impossible. But whether that restriction was necessary is an open question. Many status-of-forces agreements are signed at the executive level only, particularly in countries without elected legislatures.

But the White House turned the issue over to the State Department’s legal affairs office, reporters in Baghdad were told on Saturday. The lawyers gave a variety of options, but Obama chose the most stringent, approval by Iraq’s legislature of a new agreement, citing as precedent that the Iraqi parliament had approved the 2008 agreement, reporters were told.

In other words, they could have tried to negotiate with Maliki and Talabani directly rather than go through the Iraqi parliament, where the Sadrists had extra leverage. Whether they would have gotten anywhere on immunity with them given the political risk in Iraq of extending the U.S. occupation is unclear, but apparently the White House wasn’t eager to find out. An Obama spokesman insists that the story’s “totally wrong” and that The One and Biden were “engaged” with Iraqi leaders all along, but an Iraqi government spokesman didn’t deny the lack of contact when asked by McClatchy. Any theories on why the White House would have chosen a path of, shall we say, benign neglect on extending our troop presence? Maybe this data point from the new Times poll can help:

His approval on Iraq is suddenly up eight points since the withdrawal was announced, as I’m sure he expected it would be. If he thought extending the troop presence was a bad idea all along, notwithstanding what that would mean for Iran’s influence in Iraq, that’s fine. If he thought it was a good idea but then balked when Iraq insisted on an end to troop immunity, that’s also fine. And if he thought both those questions were subordinate to the political calculus of re-election — as Lindsey Graham put it, “Iraq and Afghanistan is being run out of Chicago, not Washington” — well, that’s not so fine but there’s nothing we can do about it. But whatever the answer is, at least be proactive about it. Don’t leave Panetta to languish for months trying to make something happen with Iraqi leaders while conspicuously refusing to bring to bear the full influence of the presidency on his behalf. The McClatchy piece leaves one to wonder if they were secretly hoping all along that negotiations would collapse, in which case Panetta’s efforts were either a going-through-the-motions show aimed at placating American hawks or else a bona fide attempt to reach a deal that the White House had no intention of capitalizing on. Embarrassing either way.