Panetta: Yeah, we're going to stay in Iraq

Do you know what’s even more valuable to a White House than a Friday afternoon news dump that avoids that evening’s media cycle?  A Friday afternoon news dump that takes place while most of the White House press corps is either covering a presidential vacation or on one of its own.  Fortunately for Barack Obama, he had just that opportunity yesterday to have Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announce that Obama would break one of his core campaign promises and keep troops in Iraq for at least another year:

The word from Panetta, during an interview with Stars & Stripes, was the first official indication that any of the 46,000 American troops will remain in Iraq beyond the country’s Dec. 31 deadline for U.S. forces to leave. The U.S. and Iraq reached a security agreement in 2008 that the entire American military would be out of the country by the end of 2011.

“My view is that they finally did say, ‘Yes,’” Panetta told the military’s official newspaper. He told the paper he urged the Iraqis six weeks ago to “damn it, make a decision” about allowing U.S. troops to remain in the country into 2012.

But was the prospect of a perfect news hole so attractive that Panetta jumped the gun?

But shortly after Panetta’s interview hit the Internet, a spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told Agence-France Presse that no deal is in place.

“We have not yet agreed on the issue of keeping training forces,” spokesman Ali Mussawi said. “The negotiations are ongoing, and these negotiations have not been finalized.”

Why would Panetta tell Stars & Stripes about a deal with Iraq that hadn’t been finalized?  It’s impossible to overstate the delicate nature of negotiations about the presence of American troops in Iraqi politics.  The Iranian-backed Moqtada al-Sadr could start a civil war over it unless the issue is handled properly, and it’s not as though this country is thrilled about the idea of extending our presence in Iraq, either.  Even those of us who support the idea do so out of a realistic view of the threat Iran poses to Iraq and the rest of the region, not because we think it would be a fun environment for our sons and daughters and a great place to burn money we don’t really have.

The Obama administration’s push to keep troops in Iraq hasn’t exactly been a secret.  Panetta’s predecessor, Robert Gates, spoke openly about Obama’s intent to stay in place four months ago, and the Iraqis finally took the bait in May and began negotiations.  By June, Panetta told Congress that Iraq would make a formal request for the US to extend its presence and rewrite the SOFA, but when no invitation had been received by this month, the US started ramping up the pressure.  For an administration that not only promised to get out of Iraq but has also bragged about keeping its promise to do so, they certainly seem pretty anxious to reverse themselves — but perhaps anxious that few people notice it as well.