Few Americans had ever heard of a SOFA until earlier this year, when the Internet lit up with a revelation many observers of US foreign policy had long predicted. Despite repeated claims to the contrary, US officials were pressing the Iraqi government to accept an indefinite US military presence, including—and here was the shocker—up to 58 American bases on Iraqi turf.
The term SOFA, shorthand for Status of Forces Agreement, was suddenly all over the news. The countries have been bargaining feverishly over this and a related pact called a Strategic Framework Agreement. The separate pacts have been conflated and confused by foreign policy experts and critics alike. The SOFA provides the legal basis for the presence and operations of US military forces. The framework is a more sweeping—albeit nonbinding—deal that addresses all aspects of the bilateral relationship between Iraq and the United States, including the control of bases, communication between Iraqi and US security forces, and the biggest question: How long? In drafts of the framework, negotiators have referred to "time horizons" for troop withdrawal. Tricky semantics, right? You don't have to be a naturalist to realize that a horizon never gets any closer to the observer.
These agreements are needed to replace the 2003 UN Security Council mandate, set to expire at year's end, that authorized the multinational military presence in Iraq. Enacted without meaningful Iraqi participation, it in essence says that Iraq is sovereign, that the military occupation is a temporary partnership with Iraqi forces, that elections will be held and a democratic transition commence, and that the "multinational" military force will "take all necessary measures to contribute to the maintenance of security and stability in Iraq." A 2007 extension of this mandate was vigorously opposed by the fledgling Iraqi parliament, which appealed directly (and futilely) to the Security Council after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki requested the extension without parliament's approval.
The ongoing negotiations are the Bush administration's last chance to revive its battered Middle East legacy. While the UN mandate could technically be reextended, Iraq indicated previously that the 2007 extension would be the last. To request another would make the Iraqi government appear weak, demonstrate that it isn't in charge, and by extension—literally—concede to the world that the Bush Iraq policy has failed.
But what the administration requested was no ordinary Status of Forces Agreement. It "may be unique from other SOFAs concluded by the United States in that it may contain authorization by the host government…for US forces to engage in military operations," notes the Congressional Research Service.
That's a crucial distinction, according to critics of the US policy in Iraq. In effect, US negotiators were using the SOFA process, which needs no congressional approval, in a quiet attempt to enact a mutual defense treaty without Senate ratification, as the US Constitution requires. As Douglas Macgregor, a retired Army colonel and now military expert, told a congressional subcommittee in February, the administration should not "pretend that a major US defense commitment, internal and external to Iraq, is a matter for resolution inside a SOFA."