An old cult classic from the 1980s called The Red Couch turns out to resemble the Pentagon's SOFAs....

REMEMBER THAT RED SOFA?
By Jack Kus

** An old cult classic turns out to resemble the Pentagon's SOFAs **

February 24, 2004

Yesterday's news that the Provisional Governing Council was having second thoughts about a sofa they'd let themselves be talked into buying reminded me of that old cult classic about a big red velvet sofa, The Red Couch.

Back in the mid-1980s a few bohemians named Kevin Clarke and Horst Wackerbarth produced a surprising hit art book by dragging a red sofa around the nation.

They stuck it in incongruous places like a street in Georgetown, or the Bonneville Salt Flats, or a Harlem drug den, and snapped pictures of Americans lounging on it. A few celebrities even got into the act.

The stroke of genius was subtitling it "A Portrait of America." Presto: conceptual art. Many a Cultural Studies paper has been written deconstructing the Red Sofa.

Now, the Pentagon may not be inhabited by bohemians, but the folks there work in a similar way.

Wherever US troops go, they establish a base and then drag in a SOFA. U.S. troops then proceed to lounge on it in front of the locals.

Except in this case, the SOFA isn't a couch -- it's a legal agreement. SOFA stands for Status of Forces Agreement.

The Pentagon's SOFAs are red, too -- in the sense that blood is what they're all about. The SOFAs say when U.S. troops can shed blood with impunity -- and not only in combat.

As Rachel Cornwell and Andrew Wells, authorities on SOFAs, write: "Most SOFAs are written so that national courts cannot exercise legal jurisdiction over U.S. military personnel who commit crimes against local people, except in special cases where the U.S. military authorities agree to transfer jurisdiction."

Many a red-blooded American has found shelter on a SOFA in some foreign land.

Chalmers Johnson puts it this way in his new book, The Sorrows of Empire: "Since service members are also exempt from normal passport and immigration controls, the military often has the option of simply flying an accused rapist or murderer out of the country before local authorities can bring him to trial, a contrivance to which commanding officers of Pacific bases have often resorted."

Yes, a SOFA is a useful thing to have when you have troops in foreign lands -- and the U.S. has a quarter of a million military personnel serving abroad.

So the news on the front page of yesterday's New York Times that the Provisional Governing Council no longer felt like keeping its promise to negotiate a SOFA with the U.S. military before the scheduled July 1 transfer of Iraqi sovereignty made a bit of a splash yesterday at the "Coalition Provisional Authority Media Availability with Traveling Press."

Dan Senor, the senior advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority, must have been annoyed when he had scarcely made it through his standard opening -- "Good morning. Welcome to free Iraq" -- than the press started in on the story.

"Can you tell us anything about, apparently there is a story in the New York Times this morning that the Iraqis, and I'm sorry I don't know exactly who, are now saying they will not sign anything in terms of an agreement to keep U.S. forces here after I guess the June 30th transition," badgered a reporter.

Not that you could blame the members of the Provisional Governing Council.

As all the world knows, the Council is a body with little if any legitimacy in the eyes of Iraqis, having been hand-picked by the Americans. And the Ayatollah Sistani's demand that any body that claims to represent the Iraqi people be elected, not appointed, hasn't helped it any.

Hence the cold feet.

Monday's New York Times quoted Ghazi M. Ajil al-Yawar, a member of the Council, as saying: "We are not 100 percent accepted by the Iraqi people. We have not been elected. We do not want to draft an agreement that a new government would come in and change anyway."

In the event, the failure to have a formal public SOFA will probably not amount to much. In the Middle East, U.S. forces have often gone without one -- in Saudi Arabia, for example.

Chalmers Johnson writes: "At the time of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001, the United States had publicly acknowledged SOFAs with ninety-three countries, though some SOFAs are so embarrassing to the host nation that they are kept secret, particularly in the Islamic world. Thus their true number is not publicly known."

Given that history, it's not surprising that Dan Senor, the senior advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority, was unperturbed by the Provisional Governing Council's hesitations where SOFAs are concerned.

"Unless there is a dramatic shift in the mission set," Senor said yesterday, "we would expect to have a SOFA that allows us to continue operations much the same as we're running now. . . . But we aren't going to speculate on what the SOFA will have in it. It's just important that the SOFA and the mission set for us to do correlate very, very well so there's no mismatch between what we're asked to do and what we're permitted to do."

SOFA or no SOFA, the U.S. troops will be there, doing what they're asked to do.

Come to think of it, the Red Sofa never made much difference either. Georgetown remained Georgetown, the Utah Salt Flats remained the Utah Salt Flats, and Harlem remained Harlem.

And if you got around to reading carefully the text that accompanied those wonderful pictures of the red couch, you eventually learned that there wasn't just ONE red sofa that those bohemians were lugging around -- there were TWO. It wasn't the same sofa in every picture.

Pretty disappointing. All the mystique, all the unique thereness of the red sofa evaporated and disappeared. Poof.

These Pentagon SOFAs aren't so impressive, either, when you read the fine print. They don't turn out to be what they're supposed to be, either.

What they're supposed to be is a message about the rule of law.

But it turns out that they convey a different message altogether.

Might makes right.

Still, I suppose you could keep the subtitle -- "A Portrait of America."