Time for U.S. to get off SOFA in Iraq

By Marshall Knudson

Every January for some years now, the news media publish accounts of the key words and turns of phrase used in the State of the Union address. Performing an autopsy on this president’s verbal effluent has helped some struggling writers achieve economic security—a topic which, incidentally, was not covered in the 2008 address. But here I refer to a simple statistical record that gives us a picture of the speech by counting the frequency with which a word is used with the hope of indicating its value—a sort of discourse analysis. This year’s reckoning shows “Iraq” and its variants definitively edging out “terror” from the spotlight. I guess we’ve all but won that war.

Just yesterday, the Bush administration admitted that further troop withdrawals from Iraq might not be forthcoming. Administration officials meanwhile hope to formalize the U.S. presence in Iraq as its “international mandate” expires and the Democrats push forth their hope of a massive troop withdrawal. So perhaps Bush is flirting with the truth when he implies that Iraq should occupy our attention, at least as long as we occupy it.

The administration hopes to secure a concord, described as a status-of-forces agreement (SOFA), which would set out terms for continuing military relations, granting authority to the U.S. to conduct combat operations and detain prisoners, as well as providing a variety of legal protections for troops and contractors. As you might imagine, Democrats are arguing that the administration’s proposal smacks of a binding, long-term commitment. Meanwhile, Iraqis are pleading that we commit to end contractor immunity. Many are hopeful that a SOFA will at least regularize our presence in Iraq.

Of course, this isn’t the first time the United States has declared its intention to furnish a SOFA. Back in the simpler world of 2004, when Colin Powell was a Bush administrator and Janet Jackson’s breast gained national exposure, the U.S. vested “sovereignty” in an interim Iraqi Government of its creation, with which it proposed to sign a SOFA, thereby ossifying under Iraqi law “Order 17,” which guaranteed legal immunity to American personnel.

This never happened. Iraqi legislators argued that only an elected body had the authority to grant a SOFA, which is usually applicable only to a host country that is sovereign. Sovereignty and legitimacy were lacking back then, and it’s not clear that much has changed. With more than 100,000 armed Americans swarming their territory with impunity, who would grant that Iraqis have authority to confer special rights upon us in the first place?

When all is said and done, it seems patently obvious that a SOFA with Iraq would be nothing but chimerical. It would “regularize” the irregular and arbitrary ability of our forces to rummage around Iraq on security detail, detain civilians, try them, and enjoy complete immunity from the consequences. This would be like burying alive the rule of law in Iraq.

If you start to peer around, you’ll notice that American military bases—and the SOFAs with which they are typically wed—have given birth to vigorous anti-American feelings. They are a core piece of the puzzling edifice of American foreign policy, built on a fault line that runs between our well broadcasted democratic idealism and the hard facts of “security” expedience. Plenty of vitriol has been spilled over this issue, from Pakistan to Malaysia to Japan.

In Okinawa, where the United States military bases occupy 20 percent of the island’s choicest land, the longstanding SOFA ensures that U.S. service people are exempt from Japanese passport and visa regulations; that Japan accepts U.S.–issued driver’s licenses in lieu of Japanese tests and fees; that if U.S. personnel commit crimes while off duty, they remain in the custody of U.S. authorities until the Japanese secure an indictment. If the Japanese manage to obtain the consent of U.S. authorities in the first place, our troops are guaranteed special treatment. If on duty, of course, U.S. personnel usually remain subject only to American military law.

Around the world, U.S. immunity has been and is a fierce subject of contention. During the Johnson administration of the 1960s, an agreement was signed with the Shah of Iran to grant such status to U.S. troops, an act which galvanized public opinion against the U.S. and riddled the Shah’s administration with criticism, ultimately inspiring the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini and the Islamic Revolution.

The examples run as far and wide as the U.S. military deigns to spread its tentacles. The point is that we have an uncanny tendency to neglect the people we promise to protect, erecting a double standard where we’ve espoused a single standard of democratic practice. If the United States is to crawl out of this quagmire any time soon, we had better do it more gracefully.

Marshall Knudson is a second-year in the College majoring in political science and romance languages and literature. His column appears every other Tuesday.