The Bush administration is rapidly putting itself between a rock and a hard spot in it's handling of the war in Iraq and its failure to look ahead to some of the consequences of the policies it has adopted.
It hasn't got a lot of media attention, but Bush is trying to negotiate an agreement with the Iraqi government that will allow American troops to remain in the country -- legally -- after the end of this year.
The problem is two-fold.
First, Bush relied heavily on the UN to give his invasion of Iraq international legitimacy. Yet the UN mandate that allowed the invasion runs out at the end of the year. Beyond that point, without being "invited" to stay by the Iraqi government, US troops will technically be illegal invading/occupying forces.
Second, Bush has insisted that his goal of creating a democratic government in Iraq has worked, and that government is the legitimate representative of the Iraqi people.
Unfortunately for Bush, he may actually have done too good a job at creating a democratic government, because there are significant elements of the existing government that want U.S. troops out of the country, and the opposition parties are almost unanimous in that regard.
If no agreement is reached over the next six months, U.S. troops will have no legal standing in the country and it will give the U.S. Congress a beautiful way out of the quandary it's been in -- how to get the troops home without looking like the U.S. had simply surrendered and given up.
But Bush clearly wants his legacy to be success in the war on terror, and any pullout before the terrorist rebels in Iraq are crushed would be seen as nothing more than a total failure of his war -- and perhaps just as importantly, be seen by our enemies as a victory for those rebels. It will embolden muslim extremism, and for many around the world it will appear to be little more than a repeat of the Soviet Union's disastrous foray into Afghanistan.
So it is vital to Bush that he reach an agreement with the current Iraqi government to keep U.S. forces in the country.
But the U.S. negotiating position has raised anger among even our supporters in the Iraqi government, and among muslim nations throughout the region. Bush has insisted, and not given any indication of a willingness to compromise, on the following points:
* A guarantee for immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law not only for U.S. soldiers but for mercenaries working for security firms in Iraq, while granting U.S. forces the authority to arrest anyone in Iraq without having to turn the detainees over to Iraqi courts.
* Open-ended Iraqi approval for up to 58 permanent American military bases on Iraqi soil.
* Control of Iraqi airspace below 29,000 feet.
* Carte blanche for American forces to launch military operations from Iraq against any target without consulting the Iraqi authorities.
Salah Hemeid, writing for the influential Egyptian news magazine Al-Ahram, noted that the Bush position "was seen by many Iraqis as a blank cheque (sic) for the U.S. forces to operate in Iraq as long as they wanted while doing anything they liked, regardless of any concept of Iraqi sovereignty, independence and national interests. The agreement would not only have cemented American military, political and economic domination of Iraq, it would have turned it into a colony in all but name."
Furthermore, the U.S. position also refused to give any guarantees to the Iraqi government that it would defend Iraq from invasion by some other power (Turkey, Iran and Syria would all be possibilities).
The U.S. was functionally asking for what is known as the right of extraterritoriality -- the right to operate in another country without regard to that country's own laws.
Somewhat understandably, Bush also wanted to guarantee that U.S. forces could operate without having to ask permission of the Iraqi government first. For the safety of our troops there, that's a valid point. They need to be able to respond and react to circumstances, without having to get permission from a government that is clearly corrupt and in many cases infiltrated by our enemies.
But most of the other positions would be unacceptable to any independent nation in the world, and if Bush is serious about his claim that he has created a true democracy in Iraq, pushing those points would be hypocritical to say the least.
At the same time, while the Iraqi government is pointing to recent successes of its own armed forces, it has to know that in reality it can't stand without U.S. troops to back it up.
Yet, if they truly "stand up" for themselves, and resist the U.S. demands, whoever is the next president of the United States will have the golden opportunity, if he chooses to accept it, to begin an immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces.
The current Iraqi government can't survive without U.S. troops, and won't survive politically in its own country if it accepts demands that most Iraqis consider humiliating. If that government falls, it is likely that any replacement government would demand a U.S. pullout.
Bush needs an agreement to keep U.S. troops legally in Iraq, but clearly can't turn over control of military operations to the Iraqis. The American public simply won't accept U.S. troops being used and controlled by the Iraqis.
It will be interesting to see how Bush deals with this problem of his own making. Is creating a democracy in Iraq more important that fighting global terrorism? Can he offer a solution that doesn't look like it compromises Iraq's sovereignty? Or will he simply thumb his nose again at international opinion and law and simply keep U.S. forces there anyway, leaving the next president to clean up his mess?
It will be interesting to see which of the two "allies" -- Iraq and the U.S., blink first in the next six months -- or if it's even possible to reach an accommodation acceptable to both parties.