Ever since the rise of ISIS in Iraq, with the subsequent re-engagement in that country by American warplanes in the air and advisers on the ground, there has been a debate about whether the U.S. erred in leaving Iraq completely by the end of 2011. At the heart of the issue are the negotiations that took place prior to the withdrawal, aimed at changing the Status of Forces Agreement left by the Bush administration. Depending on who you ask — or when you ask President Obama, as I’ll demonstrate below — either the U.S. didn’t want to stay, or the Iraqi government insisted we leave. I have suggested history would have to sort out this question.
Well, the writing of that episode of history is under way, and the latest voice is that of Leon Panetta, who served as Obama’s CIA director before taking over as defense secretary in July 2011. His account of that tenure, “Worthy Fights,” hits bookshelves next week — and an adapted excerpt of the Iraq SOFA question was published by Time. He argues that it was the White House that insisted on a complete withdrawal. Read the complete excerpt, but here is the most relevant part:
“Privately, the various leadership factions in Iraq all confided that they wanted some U.S. forces to remain as a bulwark against sectarian violence. But none was willing to take that position publicly, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki concluded that any Status of Forces Agreement, which would give legal protection to those forces, would have to be submitted to the Iraqi parliament for approval. That made reaching agreement very difficult given the internal politics of Iraq, but representatives of the Defense and State departments, with scrutiny from the White House, tried to reach a deal.
“We had leverage. We could, for instance, have threatened to withdraw reconstruction aid to Iraq if al-Maliki would not support some sort of continued U.S. military presence. My fear, as I voiced to the President and others, was that if the country split apart or slid back into the violence that we’d seen in the years immediately following the U.S. invasion, it could become a new haven for terrorists to plot attacks against the U.S. Iraq’s stability was not only in Iraq’s interest but also in ours. I privately and publicly advocated for a residual force that could provide training and security for Iraq’s military.
“Under Secretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy did her best to press that position, which reflected not just my views but also those of the military commanders in the region and the Joint Chiefs. But the President’s team at the White House pushed back, and the differences occasionally became heated. Flournoy argued our case, and those on our side viewed the White House as so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.”
In the end, Panetta writes, “the White House coordinated the negotiations but never really led them. Officials there seemed content to endorse an agreement if State and Defense could reach one, but without the President’s active advocacy, al-Maliki was allowed to slip away.” The former secretary argues that “a small U.S. troop presence in Iraq could have effectively advised the Iraqi military on how to deal with al-Qaeda’s resurgence and the sectarian violence that has engulfed the country.”
Compounding the problem, in an interview with “60 Minutes” Panetta said the military was advising the president to arm Syrian rebels back in the fall of 2012. That would have been shortly after Obama drew his ill-advised “red line” about chemical weapons use, and roughly a year before Damascus called Obama’s bluff and he publicly vacillated about what to do. Of course, it was also during an election in which Obama was running on the premise that Islamic terrorists were “on the run.” Two years later, we are finally getting around to taking the advice to arm the rebels — though with greater risk, because of ISIS’s growth.
Now, there’s reason to view Panetta’s account with some skepticism. For one, as the defense secretary at that time, he has motivation to portray his team’s role in the negotiations as favorably as possible. For another, Panetta served in Bill Clinton’s administration and could be viewed as a Clinton loyalist trying to soften any criticism of the role Hillary played in these negotiations at the State Department.
But there are handy rebuttals to those lines of thinking as well. First, Obama himself appeared to take credit for insisting on withdrawal during one of his October 2012 debates with Mitt Romney:
Of course, he was singing a different tune once ISIS had been promoted from JV terror group to the varsity team:
So, Panetta’s account seems to be more than merely self-serving.
As for the Hillary angle, I see some risk for Team Clinton in trying to make Obama out to be the bad guy on this or any other foreign-policy mistake. For starters, Obama was doing precisely what the Democratic Party’s base wanted at that time. I don’t get the sense that many Democratic loyalists now blame the rise of ISIS on our withdrawal from Iraq; they remain stuck on “blame Bush.” I’m not sure there’s enough daylight for Hillary to drive a wedge between the base and Obama on this issue. And as far as those who aren’t hard-core Democrats go, I don’t know that portraying Hillary as unable to convince Obama of her position necessarily helps her appear more presidential.
So, I’m inclined to think Panetta is probably telling this story because it’s the way he saw things while he was at the Pentagon. And the way he saw things isn’t a particularly flattering one for the president.