Before leaving for vacation on Saturday, President Obama spoke briefly about the genocidal Islamist terrorists who are taking over large swaths of Iraq. When one reporter asked the president if he regretted not leaving any U.S. troops in Iraq, Obama replied that that wasn't even an option:
Q Mr. President, do you have any second thoughts about pulling all ground troops out of Iraq? And does it give you pause as the U.S. -- is it doing the same thing in Afghanistan?
THE PRESIDENT: What I just find interesting is the degree to which this issue keeps on coming up, as if this was my decision. Under the previous administration, we had turned over the country to a sovereign, democratically elected Iraqi government. In order for us to maintain troops in Iraq, we needed the invitation of the Iraqi government and we needed assurances that our personnel would be immune from prosecution if, for example, they were protecting themselves and ended up getting in a firefight with Iraqis, that they wouldn’t be hauled before an Iraqi judicial system.
And the Iraqi government, based on its political considerations, in part because Iraqis were tired of a U.S. occupation, declined to provide us those assurances. And on that basis, we left. We had offered to leave additional troops. So when you hear people say, do you regret, Mr. President, not leaving more troops, that presupposes that I would have overridden this sovereign government that we had turned the keys back over to and said, you know what, you’re democratic, you’re sovereign, except if I decide that it’s good for you to keep 10,000 or 15,000 or 25,000 Marines in your country, you don’t have a choice -- which would have kind of run contrary to the entire argument we were making about turning over the country back to Iraqis, an argument not just made by me, but made by the previous administration.
So let’s just be clear: The reason that we did not have a follow-on force in Iraq was because the Iraqis were -- a majority of Iraqis did not want U.S. troops there, and politically they could not pass the kind of laws that would be required to protect our troops in Iraq.
But during the 2012 foreign policy presidential debate, Obama told the American people that he didn't support leaving any troops in Iraq. "Every time you've offered an opinion, you've been wrong," Obama told GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. "You said that we should still have troops in Iraq to this day."
Obama then denied that he ever supported a status of forces agreement that would have left troops in Iraq:
MR. ROMNEY: [W]ith regards to Iraq, you and I agreed, I believe, that there should have been a status of forces agreement. Did you —
PRESIDENT OBAMA: That's not true.
MR. ROMNEY: Oh, you didn't — you didn't want a status of forces agreement?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: No, but what I — what I would not have done is left 10,000 troops in Iraq that would tie us down. That certainly would not help us in the Middle East.
"Here's one thing I've learned as commander in chief," Obama said at the end of the exchange. "You've got to be clear, both to our allies and our enemies, about where you stand and what you mean. Now, you just gave a speech a few weeks ago in which you said we should still have troops 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."
The truth is a bit complicated. The administration's public position was that a few thousand troops should be left in Iraq. But many foreign policy experts have argued that the status of forces agreement fell apart because the Obama administration wasn't seriously pushing for one.
Here's Max Boot, writing in the September 19, 2011 issue of THE WEEKLY STANDARD (emphasis added):
[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.”
That item might have looked preposterous in early August, when U.S.-Iraq negotiations were just beginning. But it looks prescient now, because the White House essentially has chosen to pull the plug on a large-scale U.S. deployment to Iraq, regardless of what the Iraqis think. (It is possible that the Iraqis would not approve more than 4,000 troops, but how would we know without pushing for a higher figure?) Joe Biden—who supported the decision to invade Iraq but opposed the surge and instead proposed breaking Iraq into three different parts—appears ascendant on both Iraq and Afghanistan policy. He seems to have been looking for an excuse to leave Iraq, and Iraqi foot-dragging, which is to be expected in such a rickety parliamentary system, provided it to him.
When President Obama announced in October of 2011 that no U.S. troops would be left in Iraq, he said he was fulfilling a campaign promise. That's certainly at odds with how he now portrays the decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq.