Earlier this week, the campaign of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., seized upon a column in the New York Post that described Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., as having urged Iraqi leaders in a private meeting to delay coming to an agreement with the Bush administration on the status of U.S. troops.
"Obama has tried in private to persuade Iraqi leaders to delay an agreement on a drawdown of the American military presence," Post columnist Amir Taheri wrote, quoting Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, who told the Post that Obama, during his meeting with Iraqi leaders in July, "asked why we were not prepared to delay an agreement until after the U.S. elections and the formation of a new administration in Washington."
The charge -- that Obama asked the Iraqis to delay signing off on a "Status of Forces Agreement," thus delaying U.S. troop withdrawal and interfering in U.S. foreign policy -- has been picked up on the Internet, talk radio and by Republicans, including the McCain campaign, which seized on the story as possible evidence of duplicity.
The Obama campaign said that the Post report consisted of "outright distortions."
Lending significant credence to Obama's response is the fact that -- though it's absent from the Post story and other retellings -- in addition to Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, this July meeting was also attended by Bush administration officials, such as U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and the Baghdad embassy's legislative affairs advisor Rich Haughton, as well as a Republican senator, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.
Attendees of the meeting back Obama's account, including not just Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., but Hagel, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffers from both parties. Officials of the Bush administration who were briefed on the meeting by the U.S. embassy in Baghdad also support Obama's account and dispute the Post story and McCain attack.
The Post story is "absolutely not true," Hagel spokesman Mike Buttry told ABC News.
"Barack Obama has never urged a delay in negotiations," said Obama campaign national security spokesperson Wendy Morigi, "nor has he urged a delay in immediately beginning a responsible drawdown of our combat brigades."
Buttry said that Hagel agrees with Obama's account of the meeting: Obama began the meeting with al-Maliki by asserting that the United States speaks with one foreign policy voice, and that voice belongs to the Bush administration.
A Bush administration official with knowledge of the meeting says that, during the meeting, Obama stressed to al-Maliki that he would not interfere with President Bush's negotiations concerning the U.S. troop presence in Iraq, and that he supports the Bush administration's position on the need to negotiate, as soon as possible, the Status of Forces Agreement, which deals with, among other matters, U.S. troops having immunity from local prosecution.
Obama did assert at the meeting with the Iraqis that he agrees with those -– including Hagel and Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- who advocate congressional review of the Strategic Framework Agreement being worked out between the Bush administration and the Iraqi government, including the Iraqi parliament.
The Strategic Framework Agreement is a document that generally describes what the relationship between the two countries should look like over time.
According to one person present at the meeting, Obama told al-Maliki that the American people wouldn't understand why the Iraqi parliament would get to have a say on the Strategic Framework Agreement, but the U.S. Congress would not, especially since Bush is only months from leaving the White House, regardless of whether Obama or McCain succeeds him.
Morigi said in a statement that "Barack Obama has consistently called for any Strategic Framework Agreement to be submitted to the U.S. Congress so that the American people have the same opportunity for review as the Iraqi parliament."
It’s possible, Obama advisers believe, that either Zebari or Taheri confused the Strategic Framework Agreement -- which Obama feels should be reviewed by Congress -- with the Status of Forces Agreement, which Obama says the Bush administration should negotiate with the Iraqis as soon as possible.
Two officials of the Bush administration say that if Obama had done what the Post story asserted –- which they believe to be untrue -– Crocker and embassy officials attending the meeting would have ensured that the Bush administration heard about it immediately. If such an incident occurred in front of officials of the Bush administration, it would have constituted a foreign policy breach and would have been front-page huge news; it would not have leaked out two months later in an op-ed column.
Nonetheless, based on nothing more than the Post report, McCain senior foreign policy adviser Randy Scheunemann issued a statement earlier this week, expressing outrage.
“It should be concerning to all that (Obama) reportedly urged that the democratically-elected Iraqi government listen to him rather than the U.S. administration in power,” Scheunemann said, apparently not having talked to anyone with knowledge about the meeting in the Bush administration, the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, Hagel, or any Republican staffers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“If news reports are accurate, this is an egregious act of political interference by a presidential candidate seeking political advantage overseas,” Scheunemann continued. “Sen. Obama needs to reveal what he said to Iraq's foreign minister during their closed door meeting. The charge that he sought to delay the withdrawal of Americans from Iraq raises serious questions about Sen. Obama's judgment, and it demands an explanation.”
What actually demands an explanation is why the McCain campaign was so willing to give credence to such a questionable story with such tremendous international implications without first talking to Republicans present at Obama’s meeting with al-Maliki, who back Obama’s version of the meeting and completely dismiss the Post column as untrue.
-- Jake Tapper and Kirit Radia