In clear and unequivocal terms, former Defense Secretary and CIA director Leon Panetta confirms precisely what conservative critics, lawmakers, former officials, tactical experts and military officials have said about Iraq: President Obama was advised to keep a stay-behind force and warned about the consequences if he did not. He preferred to keep his campaign pledge to get all the troops out. The White House therefore allowed negotiations to falter for a status of forces agreement and bragged it had gotten all the troops out. Iraq has now collapsed.
In excerpts of his new book printed in TIME, he writes: “When President Obama announced the end of our combat mission in August 2010, he acknowledged that we would maintain troops for a while. Now that the deadline was upon us, however, it was clear to me — and many others — that withdrawing all our forces would endanger the fragile stability then barely holding Iraq together.” Among others, Panetta and Under Secretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy tried to convince the White House this was essential, but the White House refused to take obvious measures to maintain troops:
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.
We debated with al-Maliki even as we debated among ourselves, with time running out. The clock wound down in December, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter continued to argue our case, extending the deadline for the Iraqis to act, hoping that we might pull out a last-minute agreement and recognizing that once our forces left, it would be essentially impossible for them to turn around and return. To my frustration, the White House coordinated the negotiations but never really led them. Officials there seemed content to endorse an agreement if State and Defense could reach one, but without the President’s active advocacy, al-Maliki was allowed to slip away. The deal never materialized. 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.
(And of course now that Obama may need to re-insert troops he has accepted the very sort of personal representation from Maliki that was available to him in 2011).
In short, Obama is blatantly misleading Americans and the world when he denies choosing to pull out all the troops. If he actually told the truth, he would need to accept blame for ignoring his advisers, putting a campaign promise above national security and sending Iraq and the region on a path that inevitably led to the current disaster.
Hillary Clinton also is telling a blatant falsehood when she claims the outcome was predetermined by the Bush administration or by the Iraqis. Someone should ask her if she ever recommended to Obama Panetta’s suggestion for getting a deal on a stay-behind force. (“We could, for instance, have threatened to withdraw reconstruction aid to Iraq if al-Maliki would not support some sort of continued U.S. military presence.”)
In essence, Panetta has blown the whistle on the president and Hillary Clinton. They should be obligated to address Panetta’s claims. Nothing can be done about Obama’s incessant buck-passing, but Clinton soon will offer herself up as his successor. As we have suggested, Panetta should hold Clinton to account and then should run instead. He can boast he got it right — and has told the truth. Neither Obama nor Clinton can say the same.