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Obama's 2012 Debate Boast: I Didn't Want to Leave Any Troops in Iraq

10:31 PM, Aug 9, 2014 • By JOHN MCCORMACK
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[K]eeping nearly 20,000 troops in Iraq was judged by State and Defense department officials too politically volatile in both Iraq and the United States. So they whittled down Gen. Austin’s request to 10,000 personnel. That’s still a substantial force package—amounting to two Brigade Combat Teams plus enablers—and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Admiral Mullen, and other senior leaders signed off.

When U.S. representatives presented this proposal to Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister gave his tacit support provided that other Iraqi politicos did so. Remarkably enough, despite nationalist sentiment in Iraq against “foreign occupation”—a sentiment fed by Iranian propaganda—all of the major Iraqi political factions, save the Sadrists, gave their assent on August 2 to open negotiations with the United States on precisely these terms. And even the Sadrists merely abstained instead of voting against negotiations.

Moreover, the Maliki government took to heart U.S. complaints that we could not keep a substantial number of troops in Iraq if they were going to be subject to a relentless Iranian-backed terrorist campaign. June was the bloodiest month for U.S. troops in Iraq since 2009—15 soldiers died, most of them in Iranian-backed strikes. But then the Iraqis cracked down, with U.S. help, on Shiite militants, and lo and behold, not a single U.S. soldier perished in August—the first time that has occurred since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.

At the same time, the Iraqi government announced a belated decision to purchase 36 F-16 fighters from America. The pieces appeared to be in place for a long and fruitful strategic relationship between one of the world’s oldest democracies and one of the newest. And then, just as negotiations between the U.S. and Iraqi governments were heating up on a new status of forces agreement, the administration let on that it wanted to keep no more than 4,000 troops there. That request, which is completely at odds with the best advice of military commanders on the ground, undercuts the position of American negotiators and suggests that Iraq’s future is of little importance to the United States.

We are the last people in the world to argue that civilian policymakers should uncritically accept the views of the uniformed military. Many generals (though not all) were dead set against the surge that saved the situation in Iraq, and it was only by relieving Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and senior commanders on the ground that President Bush was able to implement a change in strategy. But we see no reason to distrust the best judgment of Gen. Austin, a seasoned and respected commander whose views echo those of other military experts, in uniform and out. Nor have we heard the administration offer any explanation of why 3,000 to 4,000 troops would suffice in such difficult and dangerous conditions.

In fact, with such small troop numbers, U.S. commanders would be forced to all but close shop. They could still provide some training and support to the Iraqi Security Forces, but not much more than that. It would be difficult if not impossible to continue conducting counterterrorist raids or patrolling the volatile border separating Iraq proper from the Kurdish Regional Government. And such a small number of U.S. troops could well become targets of the Iranian-backed militias.

So why would the administration decide, at least tentatively, on such a minuscule deployment? A clue can be found in an item posted August 3 on TheAtlantic.com by senior editor Joshua Green. He relayed Rep. Barney Frank’s account of what Vice President Joe Biden reportedly told the Democratic caucus two days before. Here is Frank’s version (which has not been contradicted by the vice president or his aides):

Biden was at the caucus, and I said I was upset about Afghanistan and Iraq. So [budget director] Jack Lew says, “Well, we’re winding them down.” I said, “What do you mean, you’re winding them down? I read Panetta saying that he’s begging the Iraqis to ask us to stay.” At which point Biden asserted himself and said—there’s clearly been a dispute between them within the administration—“Wait a minute, I’m in charge of that negotiation, not Panetta, and we have given the Iraqis a deadline to ask us, and it is tomorrow, and they can’t possibly meet it because of all these things they would have to do. So we are definitely pulling out of Iraq at the end of the year.” That was very good news for me. That’s a big deal. I said, “Yeah, but what if they ask you for an extension?” He said, “We are getting out. Tomorrow, it’s over.”

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