After a period of stalling that has infuriated U.S. officials - "Dammit, make a decision" were Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's words - earlier this month, the Iraqi government, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, announced that it would enter talks with the U.S. about keeping troops in the country past the end of the year.
If that process can result in an official request from the Iraqi government, America should consider a narrow presence that focuses on training, not combat support, and providing security for U.S. civilians in the country.
While this would violate domestic promises to withdraw all U.S. forces by the end of the year, a few thousand troops remaining at the request of the Iraqi government does not constitute an occupying force. The 140,000 troops the president has removed from Iraq won't be returning, and the small number of leftover troops would allow the U.S. to hire fewer contractors to protest diplomatic installations and continue to train Iraqi forces to secure their own country. America's presence would look more like it does in Egypt, not Afghanistan.
Getting the Iraqis to make such a request remains a long-shot, however. It would be tough to get through the Iraqi parliament, where a significant portion of the ruling bloc answers to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. He has called on his followers to attack American troops staying past the December end date. In addition, the Iraqi legislative process itself is dysfunctional; last year the country took eight months to form a government following elections.
Another detail worth noting is that Vice President Joe Biden has reportedly promised members of the U.S. Congress that all American troops would leave Iraq by the deadline.
With no agreement likely, what should the U.S. presence in Iraq look like? A recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee report laid out three options. One required the negotiation of a new forces agreement, which is rather unlikely. The second two can be characterized as "total drawdown of U.S. troops" and "Expanded Office of Security Cooperation."
A total drawdown of U.S. troops, the report writes, "would confirm the United States as true to its word (an essential message to deliver throughout the region) and it would force Iraq to take full responsibility for its own affairs." On the downside, that option would mean "security and political gains could be jeopardized."
The second option would include a large Office of Security Cooperation that includes "a limited number of non-combat military forces" working under the State Department. Such a setup - which could likely be implemented without a new forces agreement - would allow the residual U.S. presence to provide logistical support to Iraqi forces, as well as help provide security to the massive American diplomatic presence in the country.
With no agreement likely to come through in time - and with both Iraqi and American political opinion favorable toward withdrawal - one of these two scenarios should be chosen.
So how to decide?
Three key principles should guide this decision. First, any U.S. presence must be scaled to the level of security needed to protect American civilians in-country. The American diplomatic presence is the largest in the world, consisting of more than 17,000 personnel total, including 650 diplomats spread across the embassy, and 15 planned satellite sites across the country.