WASHINGTON - The leading Democratic presidential candidates and their allies on Capitol Hill have launched fierce attacks in recent days on a White House plan to forge a new, long-term security agreement with the Iraqi government, complaining that the administration is trying to lock in a lasting U.S. military presence in Iraq before the next president takes office.
Among the top critics is Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). She has used the past two Democratic presidential debates to blast President Bush for his effort, as she put it Monday in South Carolina, "to try to bind the United States government and his successor to his failed policy."
Her concerns have been echoed by Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) and other Democratic lawmakers who are focusing their fire on the administration's plans for a long-term commitment to Iraq, after gaining little traction for their efforts to force a faster withdrawal of U.S. combat troops there.
"How do you make an commitment to a country where there is no way of measuring whether that country is likely to have a functioning government?" Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, asked in an interview yesterday.
Biden recently wrote a letter to Bush expressing concern that the agreement could "mire us in an Iraqi civil war indefinitely." Biden and other lawmakers held out the possibility that they will try to block the administration's plans to reach a bilateral accord with Iraq, or at least seek to compel the White House to submit any such agreement for congressional approval.
Administration officials said the next president will have full authority to withdraw troops if that is desired. They said Democrats are reading too much into the plan, which they describe as an effort to give the next commander in chief the tools to deal with the situation in Iraq.
Efforts to secure an agreement began with little fanfare late last year. The White House announced then that it was opening negotiations with the Iraqis on a new bilateral agreement that would cover how the two countries will relate politically, economically, culturally and militarily in the years ahead.
The agreement would include "security assurances and commitments" to Iraq to deter foreign aggression, according to a declaration of principles that Bush and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki signed in November. Officials said they hope to conclude the pact by mid-year, in time to replace the expiring United Nations mandate that authorizes the operations of coalition troops in Iraq.
As described by administration officials, the accord would amount to a standard "status of forces agreement" with a friendly country. It would cover such issues as the power U.S. forces would have to arrest and detain Iraqis, or the rules covering engagement with the enemy.
Historically, such agreements have not been submitted to Congress for approval, though administration officials concede that if they were to agree to certain security "guarantees" for the Iraqis, they would have to bring the matter before the Senate. Lawmakers are insisting that the proposed agreement is already broad enough to require congressional review.
"While the exact structure of the forthcoming agreement is yet to be negotiated, the U.S. has concluded similar agreements with more than 120 countries around the world, including many countries in the region," said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe. He also addressed a key concern raised by Clinton and other Democrats: "The Iraqi government has indicated that they do not want permanent U.S. bases in Iraq, and we are not seeking them."
The accord has stirred liberal activists, with the advocacy group MoveOn.org recently garnering more than 250,000 signatures on a petition demanding congressional involvement in any agreement.
Democrats' suspicions have been further fanned in recent weeks by comments from Bush and from senior Iraqi officials suggesting that a significant U.S. troop presence in Iraq could endure for years. During his recent trip to the Middle East, Bush spoke of how "long-term success will require active U.S. engagement that outlasts my presidency."
The number of U.S. troops in Iraq is set to decrease from 160,000 to 130,000 by summer.
Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.) convened a hearing yesterday to explore the proposed agreement. He dismissed the contention that the proposal is routine, saying that administration officials declined to explain themselves before his Foreign Affairs subcommittee.
"We don't trust this administration," he said, suggesting that at first glance, the scope of the proposed agreement goes well beyond that of a standard status-of-forces agreement.
Despite such sentiments, Bush and his advisers express the private conviction that any presidential successor will find it hard to disengage from Iraq, no matter what is said on the campaign trail. One senior official, not authorized to speak publicly, said Clinton or any another would-be president will eventually welcome the agreement that the Bush administration intends to negotiate with the Iraqis.
"Is the next president going to say, 'I don't want to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq'? Maybe," this official said. "But I think they are going to want to, and we will give them the proper authorities."
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