Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's startling call yesterday for a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops from his country has been slow to draw the kind of attention here that it deserves. Perhaps that's because his announcement was made in the context of complex negotiations over a temporary authorization for the continued U.S. presence in Iraq, and perhaps it's because the precise meaning of "timetable" isn't yet clear.
Still, as Juan Cole explains today, Maliki's announcement reflects the widespread feeling in Iraq that demands by the Bush administration in the course of Status of Forces negotiations represent an offensive infringement of Iraqi sovereignty, requiring a reminder that U.S. troops aren't necessarily indispensible. Maliki may also be signalling his understanding that he may be dealing with a new president next year named Barack Obama.
In terms of the implications for U.S. politics, Maliki's timetable gambit exposes the vulnerability of George W. Bush, John McCain, and other "surge" enthusiasts to the argument that conditions in Iraq have improved enough that U.S. combat troops can soon be pulled out. After all, if the political leadership of that surge-blessed country seems to think it's time to contemplate a withdrawal timetable for U.S. troops, why should Americans resist?
This illustrates the double-bind that Bush, McCain, and the conservative commentariat have created for themselves with their relentless surge-o-mania. If they're wrong and the surge has failed to significantly change the fundamental realities of Iraq, then it's time to get out. If they're right and the surge is succeeding brilliantly, it's also time to get out. Moreover, if Iraqis agree with either assessment, it's definitely time to get out.
Theoretically McCain, if not Bush, could get out of the box by agreeing with Maliki that things are going so well that a withdrawal timetable is in order. But having staked a lot on the argument that Barack Obama is flip-flopping on the terms of withdrawal, McCain's not in a great position to change his tune now.