Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine resurrected a years-old Democratic talking point Tuesday night, when he blamed former President George W. Bush for setting an Iraq withdrawal date of 2011.
“President Bush said we would leave Iraq at the end of 2011. And, Elaine, Iraq didn’t want our troops to stay, and they wouldn’t give us the protection for our troops,” Kaine responded to Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence.
The Democratic establishment’s narrative is that Bush’s 2008 status of forces agreement (SOFA) tied President Barack Obama’s hands. U.S. withdrawal of forces in 2011 helped create the conditions necessary for the Islamic State, thus placing the blame for ISIS on Bush.
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton echoed this narrative in 2014 on PBS “NewsHour” saying, “Certainly when President Obama had to make the decision about what to do, he was deciding based on what the Bush administration had already determined, because they were the ones who said troops have to be out by the end of 2011.”
The only trouble is the SOFA narrative is flat out false.
Bush’s 2008 status of forces agreement with the Iraqi government stated that “all the United States Forces shall withdraw from all Iraqi territory no later than December 31, 2011.” Even with the stated goal, the caveat was always that its execution would depend on the current status of ground operations.
When Obama took office in 2009, he was determined to pull troops out of Iraq as soon as possible. Obama believed the historic lows of violence in Iraq justified his campaign pledge to bring the war to an end, without keeping a significant U.S. presence in Iraq to ensure stability.
The U.S. military strongly opposed complete withdrawal from Iraq at the time. Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, the ground commander of the Iraq War at the time, developed plans to keep 24,000 troops in Iraq after 2011.
Experts who served in Iraq at the time, along with several members of Obama’s own National Security Council, disputed the idea that a SOFA could not be renegotiated based on the situation on the ground at the time.
“Obama didn’t try,” Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, previously explained to The Daily Caller News Foundation. He continued “there certainly were restrictions with the agreement that was in place, [but] they just didn’t want to do it.”
Obama’s political appointees were reportedly highly suspicious of the military, thinking they were being forced to a Korea-style permanent occupation, which Obama derided in his 2008 presidential campaign.
Leon Panetta, who served as Obama’s CIA director and later as secretary of defense, publicly dissented with Obama’s decision to withdraw after leaving office. Panetta wrote in his post-administration memoirs, “it was clear to me — and many others — that withdrawing all our forces would endanger the fragile stability.”
He continued, “To this day, I believe that a small U.S. troop presence in Iraq could have effectively advised the Iraqi military on how to deal with al-Qaeda’s resurgence and the sectarian violence that has engulfed the country.”
Obama’s defenders counter that they let the Department of State lead negotiations with the Iraqi government for a revised SOFA, but were rebuffed by a reluctant Iraqi government. Panetta responds to these claims, saying The White House “never led” the negotiations, and that “without the President’s active advocacy, al-Maliki was allowed to slip away.”
Ali Khedery, the longest serving U.S. diplomat in Iraq, wrote in 2014 that after the U.S. withdrew “Maliki broke nearly every promise he made to share power with his political rivals,” just as he had warned the Obama administration in 2010. Khedery continued, “under these circumstances, renewed ethno-sectarian civil war in Iraq was not a possibility. It was a certainty.”
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