“Obama Is Correct – But I’m Not Endorsing Anyone”

The alert is out: the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel snagged a scoop in the form of an interview with Iraqi Premier Nuri al-Maliki, in which (according to a Reuters report) he explicitly endorsed the idea of a 16-month timetable for American troop withdrawal, a plan which has been the centerpiece of presidential candidate Barack Obama’s intentions towards US engagement there. Blogosphere reactions are already here and here (among many others, no doubt, including forthcoming).

Fortunately, your friendly neighborhood EuroSavant was carrying his pager, and was able to receive the emergency message and leap into the nearest – no, not phone booth, you don’t see too many of those anymore – Internet café to get on-line. Let’s take a look at the original German-language article itself, which is on the Spiegel’s website.

It’s not a transcript of the interview, rather a discussion of it with selected quotes, and the article’s title is pretty straight-forward: “Premier Maliki Supports Obama’s Withdrawal Plan.” Naturally, Reuters got the core of the message exactly right, namely the Maliki quote that Obama’s 16-month plan is “the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes.” (Although a better translation for that last clause is probably “barring small adjustments.” You’d have to think the original quote was in fact in English; I seriously doubt that al-Maliki can speak German.) Reuters also conveys the substance of al-Maliki’s proper reluctance to interfere in any way in the current US presidential campaign, but does not really capture the glaring irony of Maliki’s statement: “of course he does not want to offer any [candidate] endorsement,” but whoever “is counting on a short term is nearer to reality” when it comes to a US troop presence in Iraq. Gee – I wonder who that would be?

The PM is irked

Al-Maliki had some complaints to air concerning recent negotiations with US envoys over a long-term strategic agreement between the two countries. Initial American proposals were unacceptable; in particular, what really irks the Iraqi Premier is the inability of his government’s authorities to punish US soldiers for crimes committed there (although it should be mentioned that it is standard for Status-of-Forces Agreements involving US forces – in Germany, for example, and in South Korea – to leave the trial and punishment of US personnel to the local US military authorities). The Iraqis do indeed desire a long-term agreement with the Americans, al-Maliki insists – but having to do with economic and cultural relations. When it comes to security agreements and the stationing of troops, they are only after the short term. In his eyes, the American authorities have some hang-up in thinking that withdrawing their troops will mean that they suffered some sort of defeat – when quite the contrary is true, according to the Premier.

Remember, though, that this is an interview directed to a German audience. Accordingly, al-Maliki uses it to make a plea for closer political and economic ties with Germany, and for German involvement in his country’s rebuilding. The fact that Germany opposed intervention in Iraq all along? No problem. The fact that the Iraqi government apparently only recently filed legal claims against German companies like Daimler and Siemens for paying bribe money in the past to Saddam Hussein? Well, says al-Maliki, I don’t have any control over that – and anyway, we certainly would still be glad to work with these companies in the future.

Rendez-Vous in Berlin?

One interesting note: al-Maliki gave this interview to Der Spiegel preparatory to an imminent visit on his part to Germany. But Barack Obama is due to drop in on Baghdad at any time, depending on when the security folks tell him it’s safe! I should think both would want to meet the other on this trip – or were they planning to meet in Germany instead, where Obama is due to be next Thursday (24 July)?

By the way, this Maliki-interview article links to (among others) this other Spiegel article on Obama’s arrival in Kabul. I don’t want to discuss that piece per se, just what you see over on the right side: a picture of President Bush waving good-bye with a superimposed countdown clock giving the days, hours, minutes, and seconds left in his presidential term. “Never mind that,” I hear you object, “I just want you to tell me what the Germans really think of George W. Bush!”

Update: Now the on-line Spiegel offers the full transcript of the al-Maliki interview in English. That’s the risk I always run when I work with Spiegel material, namely that any hot articles will sooner or later find their way into the English section, and so circumvent my EuroSavant competitive advantage. Go to it!

Further update: I was wrong when I assume that al-Maliki can speak English, or at least that he would be willing to employ that idiom in an interview with the Western press. It’s now clear that he conducted his interview with Der Spiegel in Arabic.

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