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Why the Obama Administration is Unable to Defend Itself on the Issue of a Residual Force in Iraq

Could the rise of ISIS in Iraq have been prevented if the U.S. had left troops in the country
in 2011? That question has been a subject of debate in Washington for years. So why do members of the Obama administration seem so utterly unprepared to discuss it?

Last night State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki agreed to discuss it with Megyn Kelly and her apparent lack of preparation cost her. The interview was a bloodbath. Not the kind of fake victory that John Oliver and Jon Stewart regularly claim in monologues containing carefully edited opponents, but a real live embarrassment.

The entire clip is worth watching but I think the highlight has to be this exchange where Psaki tries to suggest that a force of 10-25,000 U.S. soldiers would not have made a difference in Iraq. Kelly’s response is perfect.

Kelly: We had basically won the war after those 175,000 troops were there. We had won. The Vice President said that Iraq could go down as the administration’s greatest success. Things changed after we did the surge in Iraq. We were doing much better. And then, the President’s critics say, we snatched defeat from the jaws of victory because we pulled out the troops and there was no one there to protect the gains.

Psaki: But Megyn are you arguing that 10,000 troops or 5,000 troops or 25,000 troops would have prevented, would have been able to fight back against ISIL when 150 or 175,000 couldn’t have held back, entirely, al Qaeda?

Kelly: It’s not Megyn Kelly arguing it. It’s Leon Panetta.

Panetta has a new book out titled Worthy Fights and this week Time magazine published an excerpt in which Panetta argues that the Pentagon pushed to keep a force in Iraq but was overruled by the White House:

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.

The sticking point was that guarantee that soldiers left in Iraq would be immune from prosecution in Iraq. According to Panetta, “the various leadership factions in Iraq all confided that they wanted some U.S. forces to remain as a bulwark against sectarian violence.” What was needed was some leadership to offer a deal that was worth it to the Iraqi leaders to say in public what they believed privately.

Was such a deal really possible? Earlier this week former Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker stated that a deal was possible at the time. He told Defense One in an interview, “We could have gotten that agreement if we had been a little more persistent, flexible, and creative.”

Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham jumped on the bandwagon yesterday with a statement that read, “As we have said all along, and as Secretary Panetta and Ambassador
Crocker have now confirmed, the Obama Administration never made a full
effort to leave a residual force in Iraq, despite being warned that
failing to do so would risk exactly the scenario we’ve seen unfold
today, with the emergence of terrorist safe-havens as Iraq slides back
into chaos, threatening America’s national security.”

Senator McCain recently had a similarly one-sided exchange with recently departed White House spokesman Jay Carney. Appearing on CNN, McCain argued forcefully that Iraqis wanted a US force to remain but that the President dropped the ball. And again, the President’s best spokesperson seemed to struggle to offer any counterargument beyond the claim that the American people elected Obama to end the war.

Is John McCain right on the facts? Well, Politifact fact-checked McCain’s claim (made in the interview above) that President Obama never publicly stated his interest in leaving a force in Iraq. After looking through the President’s public statements they rated that “Mostly True.” In fact the President never publicly said he wanted a force to remain but he did say several times that we wanted all of the troops to come home.

As to the facts of the larger internal battle at the White House, two years ago the NY Times described how it transpired. The Times notes that Admiral Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, strongly recommended a force of at least 16,000 soldiers. This brought a rebuke from White House adviser Tom Donilon who made a phone call to Under Secretary Michèle Flournoy at the Pentagon. The Times doesn’t spell out what was said but does recount that Flournoy told Donilon it wasn’t her job to limit recommendations to those the White House found “politically acceptable.” You can read between the lines to figure out what the White House was concerned about.

In the end, it was President Obama who overruled Adm. Mullen. And when Panetta and Sec. Clinton kept pushing for a smaller force of 10,000, Obama overruled them as well. Instead the President agreed to a rotating force of 3,500. This, critics suggest, was not nearly enough to make the political risk worth it to the Iraqis. And soon enough the U.S. gave up completely.

The Times notes that the White House spun the failed talks as a win. An unnamed senior administration official concluded, “As we reviewed the 10,000 option, we came to the conclusion that achieving the goal of a security partnership was not dependent on the
size of our footprint in-country, and that stability in Iraq did not depend on the presence of U.S. forces.” That assessment isn’t looking so good now that a new Caliphate extends across northern Iraq.

There is a simple reason the administration’s top spokespeople are having a very difficult time defending the President on this issue: The facts are not on their side. The decision to abandon Iraq led within months to ISIS promising to follow behind us and reclaim lost territory in Iraq (not to mention declaring war on the U.S. homeland). The President’s decision to overrule his military advisers then undeniably connects to the threat Iraq and the U.S. are facing now.

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