WASHINGTON -- U.S. and Iraqi negotiators are days away from agreeing on an "aspirational" date for withdrawing American combat troops from Iraq. Barack Obama and John McCain will find language in the accord to allow each to take credit on the campaign trail for shaping that outcome.
But the big political winner from this slimmed-down, vague agreement on U.S. forces will be Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki -- whom the Bush administration seriously considered pushing out of office last year but has learned to accommodate.
Something surprising is happening to the once rigid, self-centered George W. Bush presidency. The administration is adjusting policy to reflect the changing political landscape of the U.S. -- and of Iraq, where Maliki has emerged as the center of gravity in Shiite politics as other leaders fail physically and politically.
Bush's desire for an enhanced legacy and a smooth transition in Washington seems to have overcome his instinctive insistence on deciding everything on his own principles and needs. Life imitates art; Bush's diplomacy in its twilight months reflects world politics as it never did before.
In finally sending a senior State Department official to Geneva last month for nuclear talks with Iran, Bush simultaneously deprived the Iranians of an excuse not to pursue negotiations and reduced the saliency of Obama's campaign pledge to talk to Tehran.
About the same time, Bush reluctantly decided to allow U.S. negotiators to set specific timetables for withdrawing combat units from Iraq -- as Obama has demanded -- as long as they also obtained references to the withdrawals being based on battlefield conditions, as McCain and U.S. commanders want.
The deliberate ambiguity allows Maliki to maintain some of the future flexibility that his own security forces want while claiming immediate political credit for getting Washington to agree to get combat troops out of Iraqi cities and towns on a fixed schedule.
The Iraqis' first draft mentioned 12 months, I am told, and then shifted to 16 months. That intentionally or otherwise coincided with Obama's plan, as Maliki indicated in public, and was therefore anathema to the administration. A text of the final draft being circulated earlier this month showed the withdrawal period as "TBD" (to be determined) after Bush and Maliki failed to agree to a timetable in a telephone conversation on July 30.
The negotiating teams then went back to work on a set of documents, which include a memorandum of understanding, a strategic framework statement and various side agreements. Together these documents will constitute what some U.S. officials characterize as a "lite" version of the typical status-of-forces agreement.
This collective accord will recognize Iraq's sovereignty over its territory, which is currently constrained by U.N. Security Council resolutions that govern the presence of foreign forces in Iraq. But the new agreements will also recognize implicitly that Iraq is unlikely to be able to defend its own borders, operate its own air traffic control, provide logistics for its own military forces or run its own prison systems anytime soon. Iraq will delegate many of its nominal powers back to U.S. forces "temporarily" under these provisions.
Similar waivers and delegations will ensure that U.S. military personnel are not subject to Iraqi jurisdiction, and will provide some limited protection for civilian contractors, depending on what duties they perform and for whom.
This path is fraught with the perils of misunderstanding and the potential of double cross. And the Bush team has made it even more difficult by not including Congress in the shaping of the security agreements, as many Democrats have demanded.
Iraqi politics are especially volatile at the moment. Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq that dominates the Shiite regions of southern Iraq, is terminally ill and close to death, according to Iraqi sources. Moqtada al-Sadr has lost control over his Shiite movement, and a collective leadership is being formed to replace him. (Moreover, President Jalal Talabani is in the U.S. for treatment at the Mayo Clinic for an undisclosed, not life-threatening, illness.)
Bush waited far too long to get serious about giving Iraqis control over their country. He must now rush and take huge risks in closing the deal with Maliki, seen today as a reborn pragmatist who spent most of his life in a political party steeped in Stalinism and anti-Western attitudes.
Letting Congress get an early look and shoulder more responsibility for this accord is likely to be the smart thing, as well as the right thing, for Bush to do.