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Negotiating America's Future in Iraq


This week, diplomats are negotiating the details of America's future in Iraq. The two nations are considering how US forces can operate from now on. And the talks in Baghdad have drawn intense attention from some lawmakers in Washington. They fear the Bush administration could commit the US to defend Iraq no matter what.

Representative WILLIAM DELAHUNT (Democrat, Massachusetts): To embrace an agreement that could be invoked in the event of an Iraqi civil war I think is an extremely dangerous course to take.


MONTAGNE: That's Democratic Representative William Delahunt on this program a weeks ago.


This morning, we'll hear an American who is trying to negotiate that agreement. Ambassador David Satterfield says diplomats handed proposals to Iraqis this week. He insists the United States is not promising to protect Iraq. Instead, he says the US wants permission to act when it chooses.

Ambassador DAVID SATTERFIELD (State Department Coordinator for Iraq): Now forces - if the president elects to have them present here - will need to have certain authorities granted them by the Iraqis in order to operate in a combat fashion. But I want to say, Steve, those are decisions for the US president, this president, future presidents.

INSKEEP: Future presidents. That phrase explains why critics are so interested. They want to know if future presidents could be bound by this deal made by the Bush administration. So we spent some time asking Ambassador Satterfield about it. The US negotiations are based on principles the two countries have already drafted, and those principles do say the United States intends to provide security assurances and commitments to defend Iraq.


What sort of security assurances and commitments do you have in mind?

Ambassador SATTERFIELD: Steve, the declaration of principles accurately reflects the views of this administration, that it is in the interest of the United States to help Iraq achieve and sustain its security - its security from enemies at home and enemies abroad. The manner in which that cooperation is undertaken will be determined by the president in conjunction with the government of Iraq, but it does not constitute a security commitment that rises to the level of a legally binding assurance which would, of course, have to be submitted to the Senate.

INSKEEP: How can the United States make a security commitment, and that is the language here, without making a binding commitment?

Ambassador SATTERFIELD: Steve, the United States makes statements of intent to countries around the world, and has done so throughout its modern history. This is not unusual.

INSKEEP: Let me make sure I understand that, because one of the concerns of critics of this process, as you know, is that the next president will, in some way, be bound by agreements of this administration. Are you saying that this is a commitment that, essentially, applies to President George W. Bush, and would not necessarily apply to the next president, depending on the next president's policy?

Ambassador SATTERFIELD: Well, again, Secretary Gates, Secretary Rice have been very clear about this. We understand that concerns have been expressed, and we've tried to address those concerns as bluntly as we can, both publicly and privately in our briefings of members of Congress. We are not binding the hands of the next president. Indeed, we're not binding the hands of this president. The agreements we seek to negotiate provide options. They provide the necessary basis in law and basis in Iraqi grants of authority that would be necessary if this president continues to engage US Forces in Iraq, if a future president would seek to continue that engagement.

INSKEEP: Is this a little awkward? Because you are saying to the Iraqis, there is in this agreement that was signed with the Iraqis which you say is the basis of these discussions, a reference to commitments. But then you're saying at home that it's not a binding commitment. It's just what the intent is of the moment.

Ambassador SATTERFIELD: The Iraqi government understands very well that political commitment for Iraqi stability and security that exists on the part of the this administration. They understand very well that a future administration may make its own decisions with respect to US interests and how they should be advanced in Iraq. I don't think they're in any doubt about what does or does not constitute a commitment at a political level, a commitment at some other level.

INSKEEP: I want to ask you, as an experienced diplomat, about the practical effect of all this. I think, historically, of the end of the Vietnam War. And the United States was able to extricate itself from Vietnam, but it was very embarrassing. It was difficult to go back on what seemed like a commitment, and the United States was accused of betraying an ally. Speaking in practical terms, do you think that is a possible consequence should things go wrong or go badly in the future.

Ambassador SATTERFIELD: Steve, I can only speak for the view of this administration. I certainly can't comment and I would comment when possible outcomes of a future decision that may or may not be taken by a future administration.

INSKEEP: And just to be clear on where you stand, I think of the agreement that the United States has as part of NATO, where there's a very simple, easily understood principle - an attack on one nation is considered an attack against them all. You are saying there is no such agreement with Iraq now, and you don't intend to have one at any time in the future.

Ambassador SATTERFIELD: Steve, the Senate's forces agreement we have with NATO is an agreement that contains explicit, legally binding, multiple - or reciprocal, rather - commitments. And because of the character of those formal commitments, it was a document submitted to the Senate for advise and consent. The Iraqi-US status-of-forces agreement, as we contemplated, would not contain such reciprocal or unilateral commitments that would require submittal to the Senate.

INSKEEP: US Ambassador David Satterfield is the State Department coordinator for Iraq. Ambassador, thanks very much.

Ambassador SATTERFIELD: Thank you very much, Steve.

INSKEEP: He spoke with us from Baghdad, where he says he wants to have these agreements negotiated by this summer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.