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Bush's Next Preemptive Strike

By Harold Meyerson
Thursday, November 29, 2007

George W. Bush is focusing now on his legacy. Duck. Run. Hide.

Some of his legacy-building, I'll allow, is commendable, if overdue -- most particularly, his efforts to resurrect the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which he ignored for seven long years. But the linchpin of Bush's legacy, it appears, is to make his Iraq policy a permanent fixture of American statecraft.

On Monday, Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki signed a declaration pledging that their governments would put in place a long-term political and security pact sometime next year. "The shape and size of any long-term, or longer than 2008, U.S. presence in Iraq will be a key matter for negotiation between the two parties, Iraq and the United States," Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, the White House official in charge of Iraq war matters, said at the briefing unveiling the agreement.

What Bush will almost surely be pushing for is permanent U.S. bases in Iraq, enshrined in a pact he can sign a few months before he leaves office. And here, as they used to say, is the beauty part: As far as Bush is concerned, he doesn't have to seek congressional ratification for such an enduring commitment of American force, treasure and lives.

"We don't anticipate now that these negotiations will lead to the status of a formal treaty which would then bring us to formal negotiations or formal inputs from the Congress," Lute said. The administration is looking to sign a status-of-forces agreement, which requires Senate ratification if it's classified as a treaty but not if it's classified as an executive agreement. One need not be able to solve the riddle of the Sphinx to guess which of those classifications the Bush White House will go for.

But if Bush tries to lock the next president into permanent U.S. bases in Iraq, he may also be locking in a Democrat as the next president. Ironically, just when events on the ground in Iraq aren't looking as disastrous as they did six months ago, Bush's efforts to make the U.S. presence permanent would drape the necks of the Republican presidential and congressional candidates with one large, squawking albatross.

Having to defend permanent U.S. bases in Iraq would be difficult enough for Republicans on the 2008 ballot. There are a few major differences, after all, between Iraq and states such as Germany, Japan and South Korea, where we've stationed forces for more than half a century. For starters, those countries are internally peaceable, and their governments are recognized as legitimate by their citizens. Nobody is setting roadside bombs or shooting at our troops or contesting the authority of their government to govern.

But imagine the political dilemma for Republican candidates if Bush argues that he can put such an agreement into effect without getting Congress's approval. A lame-duck president with a 30 percent approval rating would be claiming that he alone has the authority to keep our Iraqi occupation going for years to come, preempting the power of both Congress and the next president to chart a different course. What would nominee Romney or Giuliani or McCain have to say about that? What would the Republicans in Congress do? Thus far, they've all proven themselves utterly incapable of breaking with Bush on the war.

By negotiating such an accord, Bush would in fact ensure that the 2008 election becomes the last thing the Republicans can afford: a referendum on Bush and his war. If the dividing line between the two parties is that one backs Bush on Iraq and the other does not, the Republicans might as well give up the ghost and nominate Dick Cheney as their presidential standard-bearer. Bush's policy legacy, in short, poses a serious threat to what one presumes he wishes his political legacy to be -- a thriving Republican Party.

I am presupposing here that the Democrats have both the gumption and the sense to oppose a pact with the Maliki government that commits our forces to an open-ended presence in a nation of unreconciled sects. The party's leading presidential candidates have managed to be both reticent and confusing when it comes to their ultimate vision of the U.S. role in Iraq. The Bush-Maliki negotiations should concentrate the Democratic mind on the inadvisability of keeping U.S. forces indefinitely in a land where instability and civil strife will go on indefinitely as well.

The president who waged a preemptive war now wants to lock in place a preemptive occupation. Only this time, instead of preempting a foreign nation, he is seeking to preempt Congress and his successor. It's the logical conclusion for his misshapen and miserable presidency, and I doubt the American people -- if they have any say in the matter -- will stand for it.

meyersonh@washpost.com

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