AUSTIN, Tx. — When considering Bush’s announcement that he’ll accept a "time horizon" for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, it’s necessary to back up a year. Only by taking something of a panoramic view can we appreciate how massive a blunder the permanent-occupation deal has proven for him.

Last fall was really the high-water mark for the surge in terms of public opinion. Yglesias has shown that polling data — too lazy to Google that now — never actually reflected a shift in favor of the war again, but the surge did a good-enough convincing elite opinion to consider the surge a success outside the context of the larger war. Nevertheless, the electoral picture still clearly favored a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress, both of whom would be elected on a platform of ending the war if they were to be elected at all. Bush’s answer was to declare that he and Maliki had agreed on an enduring U.S. troop presence, something we’d engage in at the invitation of a sovereign Iraqi government. The surge had worked so well, in other words, that its just reward was the ownership of Iraq, all in the spirit of what the White House called "Friendship and Cooperation."

That was only the first phase of White House overreach. Immediately, the administration announced that it would not submit its long-term occupation deal to Senate approval nor Congressional oversight, a contention that was, at the least, constitutionally dubious. In order to serve the legal fiction that the permanent-occupation deal wasn’t a treaty — which the Senate must approve — the administration said that "friendship and cooperation" meant that the U.S. wouldn’t even come to the defense of the Iraqi government if attacked (too treaty-esque), which didn’t exactly sit well with the members of that government. Even before negotiations began in earnest, the Bush administration succeeded in offending Congress and the Iraqi government.

When those negotiations began, the U.S. reportedly presented the Iraqis with terms so breathtaking that they’d embarrass Lord Curzon. Bush wanted unilateral control of Iraqi airspace; legal immunity for all U.S. troops and contractors; the unilateral right to arrest and detain any Iraqis his commanders desired, and for unspecified periods; and several military bases. When Maliki indicated discomfort over acting like Gaius Baltar on Occupied New Caprica, Bush gave another indication of his "friendship and cooperation" — blackmail.

All this came in a political context that Bush was either unattentive to or dismissive of. Despite spotty media coverage in the U.S., the deal prompted a massive backlash in Iraq, where basically every organized political force not part of Maliki’s government rejected it. Maliki’s allies were likely to lose the looming provincial elections already; now he had given them the albatross of clear collaborationism. And something similar was at work in the U.S.: the candidate with a clear and consistent history of opposition to the Iraq war won the Democratic primary, while the Republican candidate backed an endless occupation that he said might last a hundred or even a thousand years.

Maliki has read the tea leaves and evidently realized what the rest of us considered obvious: that the only one demanding that he turn Iraq to permanent foreign domination is a president thoroughly discredited in his own country who’ll be out of office in a few months. That president’s replacement might very well decide on a unilateral withdrawal from Iraq, abrogating any deal Maliki was strongarmed into signing, at which point the U.S. would essentially be cutting Maliki off. Oh motherfucking shit, Maliki surely thought, if I sign this deal, my people will run my body through the streets and hoist me from a fucking lamppost. Not that the electricity works, but still.

And so Maliki flip-flopped. His newfound resiliency is born of survival — not merely political survival, either. He has forced George Bush to accept what Bush and McCain has said for years would lead to doom, ruin, humiliation, catastrophe — a euphemistic "time horizon" for withdrawal. On the one hand, the fact that it won’t actually be a timetable is significant, since Bush, of course, won’t actually end a war he wants to entrench as the natural order of the world. But on the other, the euphemism is itself important, since once again Bush’s attempt at denying reality only creates a trap for McCain. If McCain embraces the time-horizons, he shatters his own previous argument that such a thing will bring national ruin and indicates a certain moral and strategic turpitude on the part of its advocates. His only solution is to magically pretend that Bush’s move isn’t politically motivated and hope no one laughs at him. But now Maliki evidently wants to stick it to McCain, an indicator that the Iraqi PM knows who’s going to be president next January. Reuters reports that Maliki has embraced Obama’s 16-month withdrawal plan.

The Iraq war is and has always been an obscenity, a filthy lie born of avarice and lust for power masquerading as virtue. This is what imperialism looks like. But the age of empire is over. The same hubris that led Bush into the Iraq disaster led him to miscalculate, again and again, over how to entrench it. But now he is impotent, unable to impose his will, and the nakedness of his attempted imposition has led the American and the Iraqi peoples to wake up and end his nightmare. May his war-crimes prosecutor be Iraqi; may his judge be American; and may he die in the Hague.

Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman