It appears there is a narrative being pushed by many in wake of Jeb Bush’s criticism of President Obama and the rise of Isis and Jeb’s defense of #43. And it is this: President #43 is responsible for ISIS for 1. The original decision to invade Iraq. And 2. For signing the Status of Forces Agreement.
In a speech on Tuesday at the Reagan Library in California, Bush criticized President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for what he characterized as a premature decision to bring 90,000 troops home.
“So why was the success of the surge followed by a withdrawal from Iraq, leaving not even the residual force that commanders and the joint chiefs knew was necessary?” Bush asked. “And where was Secretary of State Clinton in all of this? Like the president himself, she had opposed the surge, then joined in claiming credit for its success, then stood by as that hard-won victory by American and allied forces was thrown away.”
Bush has been quick to blame the current situation in Iraq on the Obama administration as a way to deflect questions about the foreign policy record of his brother, former President George W. Bush. But according to both Odierno and a recent McClatchy article, the withdrawal timetable was in fact set long before Obama took office. In November 2008, both the U.S. and Iraq agreed that “All the United States Forces shall withdraw from all Iraqi territory no later than December 31, 2011.”
Of course President Bush signed SoFA. This is not news to those of us pointing it out back in 2011 when President Obama and his defenders kept trumpeting how he was responsible for “ending the war in Iraq” and “bringing the troops home”. But ever since the rise of the JV squad in 2014, a different tune has been sung:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J_nxouSJq9c
In his speech on Tuesday, Bush also faulted Obama for not pressing the Iraqi government hard enough to extend the presence of U.S. troops in the country. But as McClatchy noted, “the Obama administration was forced to fulfill the departure timetable when the Iraqi government refused to exempt American troops from Iraqi law.”
That’s just rich: HuffPo citing McClatchy for fact-checking.
It’s been reported by a number of sources that President Obama and his team began renegotiations late into the game; and that they didn’t push hard enough to achieve a successful renegotiation- one that would see fit to achieving troop immunity.
Revisit my previous blogpost, The Truth About the Status of Forces Agreement which has a number of good links (including some added in the comments section).
“Well look, this is the, this aggressive effort to rewrite history,” Bush said. “It was clear on both sides in 2008, at the end of my brother’s term, that there was a need to renegotiate this agreement in 2011. I mean, to rewrite history now, I just think is completely improper, and it didn’t happen, and it could’ve happened for sure, it could’ve happened.”
“I reject this out of hand, this whole idea that somehow after the surge, that they’re just doing it because the agreement required them to do it,” he continued. “I mean, leadership requires you to create a strategy and then act on it. The United States of America can negotiate an agreement of this kind with Iraq. This is ridiculous to suggest it was too difficult to do.”
If the current situation in Iraq can be perceived as avoidable due to the blundering adventurism of Bush 43, then more specifically, the more recent decision on the part of President Obama not to flex our previous influence over Maliki and push harder for a new SoFA is a more direct contribution to the rise of ISIS in Iraq. How can anyone absolve Obama 44 while still blaming Bush 43? Syria’s civil war began during President Obama’s tenure. Al Qaeda in Iraq was defeated by 2009 when President Bush left office. Its remnants gathered new life in the Syrian Civil War. Too little too late, some rebel groups had no choice but to ally themselves with jihadis and Islamists- “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. ISIS began its excursions and takeover of Iraqi cities in 2014. At the time, President Obama dismissed them as a JV squad. He did not perceive them to be an existential threat to Iraq or the U.S.
Had we successfully kept combat troops in Iraq after 2011, ISIS would never have been able to successfully gain so much traction. Even conceding that there was no way to renegotiate SoFA, there was still a failure of leadership in the President not doing more to help Iraq with early intervention. After all, Bush broke it and he owns it. Apparently it isn’t “we broke it we own it.” Unfortunately, Bush is no longer the decider. President Obama essentially told Iraq, you’re on your own:
“House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce made the stunning revelation in a congressional hearing last week that Iraq had been urgently requesting drone support against the Islamic State since August 2013 and that those requests were repeatedly turned down.
Obama officials have publicly claimed that Iraq requested air support only in May of this year, after Islamic State had already taken Fallujah and was marching on Mosul. That is untrue. And it is Royce’s version of events that is borne out by the public record. On Aug. 17, 2013, in a little-noticed story entitled “Iraq Open to U.S. Drone Strikes on Terrorists,” Bloomberg News reported that Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari was in Washington “seeking U.S. advisers, air surveillance or even drone strikes” and that “the top Iraqi diplomat’s comments are the first time he has publicly raised the possibility of working with the U.S. on anti-terrorist drone strikes.”
Iraq is to ask the United States for weapons, training and manpower to help fight the resurgence of al-Qaeda, two years after US troops left the country as security talks broke down.
The request will be discussed during a White House meeting on Friday between the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and the US president, Barack Obama.
“We know we have major challenges of our own capabilities being up to the standard. They currently are not,” Lukman Faily, the Iraqi ambassador to the US, told the Associated Press news agency.
“We need to gear up, to deal with that threat more seriously. We need support and we need help.”
January of 2014, President Obama called ISIS a “JV team”. January is when Fallujah fell to ISIS. Then in June, Mosul. In May of this year, Ramadi. Cities American and allied soldiers bled and sacrificed much over.
WASHINGTON — As the threat from Sunni militants in western Iraq escalated last month, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki secretly asked the Obama administration to consider carrying out airstrikes against extremist staging areas, according to Iraqi and American officials.
But Iraq’s appeals for a military response have so far been rebuffed by the White House, which has been reluctant to open a new chapter in a conflict that President Obama has insisted was over when the United States withdrew the last of its forces from Iraq in 2011.
The swift capture of Mosul by militants aligned with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has underscored how the conflicts in Syria and Iraq have converged into one widening regional insurgency with fighters coursing back and forth through the porous border between the two countries. But it has also called attention to the limits the White House has imposed on the use of American power in an increasingly violent and volatile region.
~~~Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq’s foreign minister, last year floated the idea that armed American-operated Predator or Reaper drones might be used to respond to the expanding militant network in Iraq. American officials dismissed that suggestion at the time, saying that the request had not come from Mr. Maliki.
By March, however, American experts who visited Baghdad were being told that Iraq’s top leaders were hoping that American air power could be used to strike the militants’ staging and training areas inside Iraq, and help Iraq’s beleaguered forces stop them from crossing into Iraq from Syria.
“Iraqi officials at the highest level said they had requested manned and unmanned U.S. airstrikes this year against ISIS camps in the Jazira desert,” said Kenneth M. Pollack, a former C.I.A. analyst and National Security Council official, who is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and who visited Baghdad in early March. ISIS is the acronym for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, as the militant group is known.
As the Sunni insurgents have grown in strength those requests have persisted. In a May 11 meeting with American diplomats and Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the head of the Central Command, which oversees American military operations in the Middle East, Mr. Maliki said he would like the United States to provide Iraq with the ability to operate drones. But if the United States was not willing to do that, Mr. Maliki indicated he was prepared to allow the United States to carry out strikes using warplanes or drones.
In a May 16 phone call with Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Mr. Maliki again suggested that the United States consider using American air power. A written request repeating that point was submitted soon afterward, officials said.
A week later, ISIS captured the Al Muthanna Chemical Weapons Facility:
In an interview with the BBC’s Arabic language service, Mr Maliki said the Iraqi army would have been able to block the insurgents’ advance into northern and western Iraq if the US had moved more quickly to deliver fighter planes that Baghdad had purchased.
Apparently referring to F-16 jets that US officials have said would arrive no earlier than September, Mr Maliki said Iraqi officials had bought 36 of the planes and thought they would have received them by now.
“I’ll be frank and say that we were deluded when we signed the contract,” he told the British broadcaster in his first interview with an international news organisation since the insurgents seized Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, earlier this month.
“We should have sought to buy other jet fighters like British, French and Russian, to secure the air cover for our forces,” he said. “If we had air cover, we would have averted what had happened.”
All of this apparently is still Bush’s fault. For OIF in 2003.
U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno earlier this week also addressed Jeb’s criticism:
Ahead of his official retirement on Friday, Odierno, the former highest-ranking officer in Iraq and one of the architects of the 2007 troop surge there, sought to set the record straight.
“I remind everybody that us leaving at the end of 2011 was negotiated in 2008 by the Bush administration. That was always the plan, we had promised them that we would respect their sovereignty,” Odierno said during his final press conference at the Pentagon.
And once again I say, those like me have long credited Bush with “ending the war in Iraq” and “bringing the troops home” by signing SoFA in 2009. What is at dispute is whether or not President Obama was locked into the agreement, helpless to renegotiate the terms on account of the troop immunity issue and Iraqis wanting us out.
Here’s what Odierno’s political advisor, Middle East expert Emma Sky, had to say on the topic:
In my mind, the biggest mistake made by the Obama administration was actually in 2010, not upholding the election results. It’s a very, very close election. Very close election. To everybody’s surprise, it was actually won by the party called Iraqia [ph] headed by Ayad Allawi, and this party was campaigning on a nonsectarian — no to sectarian platform. People want to get rid of religious parties, people want to put sectarians behind to build an Iraq for all Iraqis. This party won two more votes than Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki couldn’t believe the results. All his advisors have told him that, “You’re going to win. You’re going to win big.” When the results came in, he was just in shock. He blamed the international community for tampering with the results, he demanded a recount, he started to use debuffication to try and disqualify the Iraqian [ph] leaders, and this went on and on and on for months, and there was a big dispute within the US system which I described in the book, between those who wanted to uphold the election results and give the winning block, Iraqia, the right to have first go at trying to form the government, and those who said look, “Maliki, he’s our guy. I belong to that former group that thought give the winning block the right to have first go in trying to form the government. I didn’t think Ayad Allawi was going to be able to do it himself as Prime Minister, but I thought that negotiation was really important.
Gideon Rose: We give it to Maliki, walked away, and he then destroyed Iraq?
Emma Sky: Well, this is kind of what happens. This is when the Iranian steps in. The Iranians — they’re influence had really gone down during the surge. America was seen as the big player. The Iranians saw this opportunity and they tried to get all the Shia together to support Maliki, but the Shia were coming together, but they would not going to have Maliki as prime minister. In the end, the Iranians went to Lebanese Hezbollah and got Lebanese Hezbollah to pressure the Sadrist to support Maliki. Maliki had really gone off to the Sadrists during the surge, and the Sadrists were like, “Over our dead body,” but with Iranian pressure …
Gideon Rose: Quite literally often.
Emma Sky: Quite literally — with Iranian pressure, with Lebanese Hezbollah helping out, they pressure the Sadrists and they said, “Look, support Maliki as prime minister, we will ensure no US troops will remain in Iraq after 2011.” That is what happened. The Iranians brokered the deal, and the price was always going to be no US troops. Maliki, second term, determined to go after all his rivals. First of all, he goes off to the Iraqia leaders, accuses them of terrorism. Then he started to round up masses of Sunni’s, put them in jail. All of these people being held not knowing why they were being held. Sunni starts to feel more alienated, more grievances, which ends up in this mass protests across Iraq, demanding an end to this discrimination. Unfortunately again, Maliki doesn’t respond to those through negotiations. He sends in the security forces and a few of the demonstrators are killed. 50 killed in Hawijah, and it just boils and boils and boils.
Gideon Rose: We’re not there to keep things in order, we’re not pushing Maliki to be nicer, and at that point, then ISIS emerges and takes over the — eventually, the Sunni areas who go with them because they’re disgusted with the Maliki government.
Emma Sky: Exactly.
Peter Feaver at the loyal opposition’s blog, Shadow Government, does a great job in pointing out who’s been quarterbacking since number 43 got pulled from the game:
Obama and Clinton inherited an Iraq that had serious problems, to be sure, but was on a positive trajectory towards success. Then, choices made while Clinton served as Secretary of State contributed to the reversal of that trajectory, and the ultimate rise of IS. (Disclosure: I support Jeb Bush’s candidacy and have contributed money to his campaign.)
To absolve Clinton, you must first assert that the surge accomplished nothing — that when President Obama and Secretary Clinton took office, the Iraq project was doomed, and the rise of IS a foregone conclusion.
Serious independent analysts have confirmed that the surge transformed Iraq, though they continue to debate over how much credit to give to which component of the surge.
Academic debates aside, the Obama team itself, including Clinton, have repeatedly confirmed that they understand that the surge was successful. Clinton even conceded to former Defense Secretary Robert Gates: “The surge worked.” Vice President Joe Biden was so confident in the surge’s accomplishments that he boasted that Iraq is “going to be one of the great achievements of this administration.” Biden also dismissed concerns about the return of al Qaeda in Iraq because he saw how decisively the surge had beaten them back. And just this year, President Obama acknowledged that the tribal awakening component of the surge “helped defeat AQI — the precursor of ISIL — during the Iraq War in 2006.” (AQI remained a formidable force in 2006, but by 2009 coalition forces had won decisively.)
Finally, it is hard to square the assertion that the surge was a failure with two other inconvenient facts. Obama and Clinton ordered an Iraq-surge-like option in Afghanistan and, when they needed a new commander, pressed the same General David Petraeus, who led the Iraq surge, to lead the new campaign. If the surge was so inconsequential, why did they try to replicate it in Afghanistan?
Remember, decisions in 2006-9 by President Bush made possible for VP Biden to claim Iraq will be one of the Obama Administration’s greatest achievements.
That bit of revisionism might have gained belief if number 44 hadn’t fumbled (yes, linked twice):
To absolve Clinton, you must next assert that even if the surge did accomplish something, its undoing is Bush’s fault, since he signed a withdrawal timetable with the Iraqi government.
Some Clinton defenders now concede the obvious — the surge worked, and allowing it to unravel by withdrawing all U.S. combat forces was a mistake — but then argue that its undoing can be pinned on Bush, who signed the timetable agreement with the Iraqi government.
Let’s set aside the awkwardness that this line of argument only attained prominence once the situation in Iraq had deteriorated. During his 2012 reelection campaign, President Obama and his campaign surrogates repeatedly claimed that the withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq was his great achievement. They were far less inclined to credit or blame Bush for the withdrawal back then.
The real problem with this line of argument: it ignores the fact that U.S. and Iraqi officials also agreed to continue negotiating a follow-on deal that would allow a sizable U.S. force to remain, but under new terms. Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki wanted the formal acknowledgment of an end to the war phase in advance of his own re-election campaign, and then indicated he would negotiate a follow-on agreement after he had secured another term, which he did in 2010.
Obama and Clinton inherited both of those elements — the formal agreement and the intention to negotiate a follow-on deal — and they adopted both as their own policies.
Again, the Obama team’s own words prove the point. Biden was so confident they would get the follow-on deal that he famously boasted: “Maliki wants us to stick around because he does not see a future in Iraq otherwise…I’ll bet you my vice presidency Maliki will extend the [status of forces agreement].” The negotiations by the Obama-Clinton team failed, despite the desire of U.S. military officers, diplomats, and many Iraqi officials to keep a residual American presence in Iraq.
Now, of course, it is possible that the Biden quote exaggerates Obama’s and Clinton’s own confidence. Indeed, it is possible the Obama administration pursued those negotiations only half-heartedly – there’s some evidence of that. But either the administration tried and failed to get a follow-on agreement, or it never really tried all that hard. Either way, the Obama team surely bears some responsibility for the outcome. And for a foreign policy matter of this great importance, should not some of that responsibility rest with the secretary of state?
If Obama and Clinton were disappointed by their failure to negotiate the deal, I have not been able to find where they said so publicly. On the contrary, President Obama emphasized in the 2012 presidential campaign foreign policy debate with Gov. Romney that he thought it would have been a mistake to leave troops tied down in Iraq. “That is not a recipe for making sure that we are taking advantage of the opportunities and meeting the challenges of the Middle East,” he said.
This is a great point because President Obama can’t have it both ways: He either wanted to keep troops in Iraq or he didn’t. For President Bystander to feign it was all because we were locked into an agreement signed by his predecessor is dishonest.
To absolve Clinton (and Obama), you have to next assert that the failure to negotiate an agreement for stay-behind forces has nothing to do with the approach the administration took in the negotiations.
There are many reasons why negotiations failed, and every expert would agree that Maliki and the Iraqis bear a great deal of the blame. But it is simply not true that the Obama team played their hand perfectly. Here is just a partial list of missteps that I have compiled, each of which undercut negotiations:
- President Obama invested minimal personal capital, abandoning the leader-to-leader-cultivated relationship that the Bush administration prioritized.
- The administration lead was Vice President Biden, a person of considerable stature, but who had to overcome an especially high hurdle before he could win the trust of the Iraqis because of his earlier proposal to divide up Iraq.
- Obama’s initial country team in Iraq never achieved the unity of effort of the Petraeus-Crocker team.
- Once a competent negotiating team came together, the administration appeared to undercut it with deliberate leaks about the likely failure of negotiations.
- The theory that convincing Iraqis we would leave would elicit cooperative behavior proved flawed. Prime Minister Maliki was even less cooperative with the Obama administration than he had been with Bush.
- The State Department never adequately resourced nor planned for the daunting post-war mission its own strategy required.
- The administration talked only of ending the Iraq war, and made little effort to mobilize political support at home or abroad for any follow-on policy to secure the gains that we and the Iraqis had together won at great cost.
- The administration was slow and reluctant to tell the Iraqis how many forces they were willing to keep in Iraq. When it finally did, it was very late in the game, and the number — less than 5,000 troops — was so low that it undercut the Iraqi incentive to wage a political battle to obtain the administration’s desired legal framework for them.
Perhaps the sharpest critic of Clinton’s handling of the Iraq file during this period is her own hand-picked ambassador to Iraq, Chris Hill, who argued that she and other senior leaders in Washington ignored Iraq and left him abandoned. For all her globe-trotting, Clinton only visited Iraq once, hardly evidence of maximum effort.
To absolve Clinton, you must next assert that the final deal on the table in 2011 was unacceptable and that the administration had no choice but to walk away.
Another reason negotiations failed was because the administration insisted on an immunity agreement for U.S. troops that would be guaranteed by a parliamentary vote, rather than only by the Iraqi executive, as Maliki was offering. I have some sympathy for this position: if I had been in the administration, I would have pushed for the strongest immunity protections, too. But if that requirement really was the decisive deal-breaker, why did Obama order troops back into Iraq in 2014 with only the same executive-approved immunity he rejected in 2011?
More on the immunity issue in my previous post on SoFA.
To absolve Clinton, you must, finally, assert that the political and military abandonment of Iraq in 2011 did not matter because the stay-behind troops and the associated vigorous political engagement would not have changed the equation.
This is not a very plausible argument. A sizable stay-behind force would have given us more leverage over Maliki, better positioning us to shift him off his sectarian course. It would have allowed us to continue using our influence to dissuade him from firing competent military commanders and installing purely sectarian ones. It would have allowed us to work with the Iraqis to tackle the growing threat of IS while it percolated in Anbar, rather than waiting until it broke out and claimed territory in Mosul and elsewhere in 2014.
Let’s be clear. Obama and Clinton are not to blame for Maliki’s sectarian impulses or the errors of the Iraqis more broadly. Maliki is to blame for his mistakes. But let’s also acknowledge that Maliki’s behavior was far more conducive to U.S. interests when he believed we “had his back,” and when we were vigorously using our leverage to influence his behavior during the Iraq surge phase. Once we withdrew — both militarily and politically — a vacuum opened in Iraq which the Iranians exploited to further entrench their influence in the Iraqi political scene. Once we lost Maliki’s trust and gave up our leverage, Maliki’s behavior became more toxic.
And, finally, you don’t need to take my word for it. One of Obama’s own military advisors conceded that it was a mistake not to stay in Iraq. More tellingly, Obama himself tacitly conceded this fact when he reordered U.S. troops back to Iraq in 2014. How can you say U.S. troops would have been inconsequential from 2012 to 2014, then turn around and say their presence is required in 2014 and 2015?
Of course, IS became the threat it is today for reasons beyond Iraq. The failure of Obama’s Syria policy bears at least equal blame. His decision to abandon moderate Syrians to their fate had the predictable effect of destroying moderate rebel factions, paving the way for IS. At a minimum, a more robust effort earlier would have given us more options in 2014 when IS emerged. To her credit, Clinton claims she argued against Obama’s decision and so, while the mistakes happened on her watch, perhaps the fairer criticism is not that she was wrong-headed but that she was ineffective at shaping policy in Syria.
Meanwhile, back in Afghanistan:
Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, and other elite American troops spent almost nine years hunting down Taliban fighters throughout Afghanistan. Late last year, that mission changed: Except in a narrow set of circumstances, they were told that the Taliban were effectively off-limits. Afghan civilian casualties from high-profile Taliban attacks promptly skyrocketed.
With the United States gradually winnowing its presence in Afghanistan, the sharp increase in the number of high-profile mass casualty Taliban attacks, like the wave of bombings that rocked Kabul last week and killed at least 70 people, highlights one of the toughest policy choices facing a White House eager to close the door on America’s longest war.
Put simply, the question boils down to whether the Taliban, which sheltered al Qaeda in the run-up to the 9/11 attacks but have never struck Western targets outside Afghanistan, should be considered a terrorist organization on par with the other groups that troops from the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, work to track and kill. With the U.S.-backed Afghan government trying to restart stalled peace talks with the Taliban, the answer, for the moment, is no.
“The end of our combat mission means that we no longer target belligerents solely because they are members of the Taliban,” said a U.S. military official in Afghanistan. “To the extent that Taliban members directly threaten the United States and coalition forces in Afghanistan, provide direct support to al Qaeda, or pose a strategic threat to the [Afghan national security forces], we will take appropriate measures to keep Americans safe and assist the Afghans.”
The policy directive taking Taliban fighters who don’t fit into those three vague categories off JSOC’s target list went into effect Jan. 1, according to two military officials familiar with the matter. In many ways, it effectively turned back the clock to the early days of the Afghan war.