President Barack Obama is now taking credit for ending the U.S. war in Iraq when the reality is that President George W. Bush did so in 2008 by approving the Status of Forces Agreement arduously negotiated between the U.S. and Iraqi governments.
The agreement called for all U.S. combat troops to be out of Iraq by 2012. Obama’s present claims serve only to obscure what could well prove to be the most serious foreign policy failure on his watch: failure to reach agreement with Iraq on the size and composition of U.S. forces left behind to complete training of Iraqi military and police units and deter Iranian aggression. The Bush administration left that issue to further negotiations, pending withdrawal of the last U.S. combat forces.
Obama didn’t end the war, he abandoned the negotiations, the importance of which was highlighted last week by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s obvious desperation to reach a deal with Iraq.
“At the present time, I’m not discouraged because we’re still in negotiations with the Iraqis,” Panetta told reporters. “We’re continuing to negotiate.” Behind Panetta’s determination to complete the deal was the unanimous view of U.S. military leaders that checking Iran required keeping significant American forces in Iraq, a view that was shared by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The last sticking point was the legal status of whatever U.S. forces remained in Iraq, an issue that surely could have been resolved satisfactorily.
But Obama abruptly terminated Panetta’s work four days later, then announced that “as a candidate for president, I pledged to bring the war in Iraq to a responsible end. So today I can report that, as promised, the rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year.” Only a few months ago, Obama assured al-Maliki that he would leave up to 10,000 troops in Iraq.
Obama’s hollow victory declaration should not obscure the fact that it will now be much harder, if not impossible, to complete the training of Iraqi troops and police, harder to prevent al-Qaida from re-emerging in Iraq, and, most importantly, harder to fight pro-Iranian forces and subversion throughout the Middle East. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton quickly sought to mitigate the damage, telling CNN Sunday, “Iran would be badly miscalculating if they did not look at the entire region and all of our presence in many countries in the region, both in bases, in training, with NATO allies like Turkey.” Iran isn’t likely to be deterred by such words.
The withdrawal has seriously damaged American standing in the Middle East. Besides encouraging Iranian expansion, Obama’s sudden unwillingness to preserve an adequate U.S. presence in Iraq will only provide comfort to Syria’s Bashar Assad regime, further isolate Israel and embolden Turkey’s increasingly anti-Western faction.
Earlier this year, a White House adviser described the president’s approach to overthrowing Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi as “leading from behind.” With the Iraqi withdrawal debacle, however, a more apt description would be “watching from the sidelines” as Iranian imperialism convulses the Middle East.