President Obama surprised a few people during a news conference Thursday by claiming that the 2011 decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq, a politically popular move on the eve of an election year, was made entirely by his Iraqi counterpart. The implication ran counter to a number of claims that Obama has made in the past, most notably during a tight campaign season two years ago, when he suggested that it was his decision to leave Iraq and end an unpopular war.
His remarks, coming as an Islamist insurgency seizes territory across northern Iraq and threatens the central government, recalled key moments in his reelection race when he called his opponent hopelessly out of step with Middle East realities for wanting to keep U.S. forces in the still-fragile country America had invaded nearly a decade earlier.
In the 2012 campaign’s stretch, Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney met inside the performing arts center of Lynn University for the last of three presidential debates. The race remained close, and in the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on the U.S. diplomatic mission and CIA-run annex in Benghazi, Libya, the Romney team saw foreign policy as an area of potential vulnerability for the incumbent. The debate focused on the issue.
For much of that election year, Obama had included a line of celebration in his standard stump speech, one that among an electorate exhausted by more than a decade of war always drew a rousing applause: “Four years ago, I promised to end the war in Iraq,” Obama proclaimed in Bowling Green, Ohio, in September 2012, and did nearly every day after until the election. “We did.”
For Obama, who four years earlier had distinguished himself from Democratic rival Hillary Rodham Clinton through his opposition to the war in Iraq, the fact he had withdrawn all U.S. forces from the country was a problem solved and a political chip to be cashed in come November.
It was also a way to once again draw contrasts with Romney, who criticized Obama for failing to secure a so-called status of forces agreement with the Iraqi government. The agreement would have granted immunity from Iraqi prosecution to all U.S. troops in country after 2011. Reaching such a deal -- a political risk for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki -- would have allowed a contingent of several thousand U.S. troops to remain, largely to help with training and specific counter-terrorism operations.
"With regards to Iraq, you and I agreed, I believe, that there should be a status of forces agreement," Romney told Obama as the two convened on the Lynn University campus in Boca Raton, Fla., that October evening. "That’s not true," Obama interjected. “Oh, you didn't want a status of forces agreement?” Romney asked as an argument ensued. “No,” Obama said. “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.”
On Thursday, Obama addressed reporters in the White House Briefing Room about Iraq’s latest crisis. “Do you wish you had left a residual force in Iraq? Any regrets about that decision in 2011?” a reporter asked. “Well, keep in mind that wasn’t a decision made by me,” Obama said. “That was a decision made by the Iraqi government.”
In that same foreign policy debate, Obama scolded Romney -- for failing to state his position in a way voters could understand. “Here’s one thing … I’ve learned as commander in chief,” Obama said. “You’ve got to be clear, both to our allies and our enemies, about where you stand and what you mean."