The media may be obsessing about Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain, but a congressional hearing Tuesday served as a reminder that for the next 320 days, President Bush is still firmly in charge of this country. Tuesday, congressional Democrats sought unqualified answers from the State Department's Iraq coordinator, David Satterfield, about Bush's future intentions regarding Iraq. However, Satterfield didn't exactly provide the clarity Democrats were hoping for.
The hearing was the fifth Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., has called since Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki agreed to a "Declaration of Principles" in November 2007 that laid the groundwork for a continued U.S. military presence in Iraq. The declaration contained a provision stating that the U.S. would provide "security assurances and commitments to the Republic of Iraq to deter foreign aggression against Iraq that violates its sovereignty and integrity of its territories, waters, or airspace." As Spencer Ackerman of Talking Points Memo said of the declaration at the time, "Make no mistake: this is Nouri al-Maliki offering the U.S. a permanent presence in return for guaranteeing the security of his government."
The declaration raised numerous constitutional concerns among legal scholars. Bush would have been endorsing military engagement while bypassing congressional approval. An article by Charlie Savage of the Boston Globe reported that many legal scholars and Democratic representatives viewed such a move as unprecedented in U.S. history and unconstitutional.
Then, in February, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the proposed agreement between Iraq and the U.S. would contain no such guarantee of protection. Gates told a Senate panel, "The status-of-forces agreement that is being discussed will not contain a commitment to defend Iraq and neither will any strategic framework agreement." As Juan Cole noted at the time, the reason for America's sudden about-face on the issue seemed to have resulted from the fact that any promise of U.S. protection of Iraq would have required Senate approval -- approval Bush did not want to have to seek.
Which finally brings us to Tuesday. Satterfield made a number of remarkable assertions during the hearing. According to the Air Force Times, he said the Bush administration will soon commence negotiations with Iraq on two key agreements: One is a "strategic framework" agreement that would pertain to "normalized" relations between the nations, while the other, a "status-of-forces agreement," would, in Satterfield's words, "provide all necessary legal authorities and protections for our troops to continue to operate in Iraq" following the expiration of the United Nations mandate authorizing combat operations at the end of 2008.
Satterfield went on to elaborate that the Bush administration believes the two agreements do not require the approval of Congress. Why would this be? Well, remember Secretary Gates' announcement in February? As Paul Kiel points out, the administration's position is that it doesn't have to check with Congress about stationing troops in Iraq as long as there's no actual pledge of the use of force by those troops. Under the administration's current proposal, troops would be stationed in Iraq, but if Iraq came under attack, the troops would not actually be allowed to lift a finger to defend the country until Congress was consulted first. Funny how that works out.
Which is why Democrats were demanding answers. When Rep. Gary L. Ackerman, D-N.Y., pushed Satterfield on the issue of whether the Bush administration actually will allow Iraq to be destroyed rather than intervene on the nation's behalf, Satterfield deftly sidestepped the question. Here's the exchange that followed, courtesy of the Washington Post:
Ackerman: What will happen if Iraq is attacked?
Satterfield: Mr. Chairman, as would be the case of an attack on any friend and partner of the United States, the administration would have to consider, in consultation with the Congress, what would be the best measures to take in defense of United States' interests in such an eventuality.
Ackerman: If Iraq is attacked, are you stating uncategorically that the administration will take no action ... until an appropriate course of action is decided, in consultation with the Congress?
Satterfield: Mr. Chairman, the administration will act as any administration would act in defense of U.S. interests.
Ackerman: I'm afraid of that.