“Let it be clear that the Administration’s narrative that Iraq’s political leadership objected to U.S. forces remaining in Iraq after 2011 is patently false. We know firsthand that Iraq’s main political blocs were supportive and that the Administration rejected sound military advice and squandered the opportunity to conclude a security agreement with Iraq that could have met U.S. military requirements and helped to consolidate our gains after a decade of war.”

Joint statement by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), Jan. 4

Fact-checking statements about national security is inherently more difficult than checking, say, the federal budget. Numbers are easy to add or subtract, whereas foreign policy involves shades of gray that are difficult to discern — especially when crucial information may remain classified for decades. The Fact Checker spent nine years covering diplomacy for The Washington Post, but there have been relatively few fact checks on foreign policy for this reason.

Still, this statement by McCain and Graham is worth examining, precisely because it presents such a black-and-white picture of a gray area. It’s an important subject because, with the al-Qaeda capture of Fallujah, reasonable questions can be raised about the Obama administration’s handling of Iraq.

Politico magazine asked a dozen experts whether Iraq’s mess was the United States’ fault, and there was virtually no consensus. Some placed the blame on the invasion, some pointed to errors by the George W. Bush administration, others pinpointed missteps by the Obama administration, and some experts said it was the fault of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. (One analyst said, “All of the above.”)

The key issue is whether approval of a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which would have allowed a small force of U.S. troops to remain in Iraq, could have been achieved with the Iraqi government. McCain and Graham say that “Iraq’s main political blocs were supportive,” but is that the whole story?

The facts

As we noted in a fact check of a Three-Pinocchio statement on SOFAs by Secretary of State John F. Kerry, there is no standard document but almost all such agreements address whether a country has criminal jurisdiction over U.S. personnel. Some SOFAs may be as short as one page while others have exceeded 200 pages.  The United States has signed more than 100 such agreements, almost all bilateral, although an important multilateral agreement is with NATO, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The Bush administration signed a SOFA with Iraq in 2008 that established a deadline for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq by Dec. 31, 2011. But there was some expectation that the SOFA could be renewed after that, with at least a small U.S. force remaining.

A key sticking point was whether the SOFA could exist as simply a memorandum of understanding (MOU) or needed formal approval by the Iraqi parliament. Maliki was willing to sign an MOU, but administration lawyers concluded that parliamentary approval was needed, in part because parliament had approved the 2008 version. Moreover, there were serious questions about whether an MOU signed by the prime minister would really be binding, especially given Iraq’s independent judiciary.

But politically it was much more difficult to win parliamentary approval of a SOFA that would have have allowed U.S. troops to be prosecuted for crimes outside Iraq, under U.S. jurisdiction — especially because of fierce opposition from a key Shiite parliamentary bloc that backed Maliki. Indeed, his political survival depended on the support of the Sadrist bloc that was dead-set against any presence of U.S. troops.

(Few remember that domestic anger over the SOFA between the United States and the shah’s Iran in the early 1960s led directly to the political rise of a Shiite ayatollah named Ruhollah Khomeini, who became the leader of the 1979 revolution that overthrew the shah.)

So it becomes a chicken-or-egg question: Major political groups were supportive, but not enough that they were willing to vote it through parliament.

Some experts believe that the administration stumbled when a more moderate bloc, headed by former prime minister Ayad Allawi, won the most seats in the 2010 parliamentary election but could not form a government. A subsidiary question is whether the number of troops Obama offered to remain in Iraq was enough to make worthwhile such a politically difficult choice for Iraqi leaders. Questions certainly could be raised about whether the administration took too long to settle on a troop number — but it’s also uncertain whether Maliki would have sought more troops.

“It is not clear that Maliki wanted that many troops,” said Colin H. Kahl, who was deputy assistant secretary of defense at the time and closely involved in the talks. “Indeed, he was conscious of the extreme unpopularity of a continued U.S. presence with his [Shiite] constituency and he had no interest in a sizable U.S. presence along the Arab-Kurd divide (which is what all our big troop options assumed). Moreover, the immunities issue would not have likely been resolved even if the administration started negotiations earlier and offered more. It was simply too toxic, politically, for Iraqi politicians to accept.”

Kahl added: “Ironically, part of the difficulty in securing an agreement stemmed from our success. The Iraqi security forces were now much more numerous and capable, so Iraqi politicians were not as desperate for us to stick around. They recognized the value of a continued U.S. presence, but it was not so valuable that it was worth the domestic political risk or to prioritize the national interest over their desire to outflank their political rivals.”

James F. Jeffrey, a career diplomat who was ambassador to Iraq during the negotiations, provided The Fact Checker with this statement about the McCain-Graham claim:

“Senator McCain is correct that Iraq’s main political blocs were supportive of U.S. forces remaining in Iraq after 2011, but the situation was quite complex. The Bush administration, to obtain a status of forces agreement with Iraq in 2008, agreed that all troops would be withdrawn by the end of 2011. The U.S. military, with my support, urged the president to reconsider that decision in late 2010, early 2011. The president agreed to urge PM Maliki to accept some U.S. troops after 2011, and that decision was made public in June 2011. It is correct that there was considerable debate within the administration on the size of the force, but there was agreement that it would be a training presence. In the end, everyone on the U.S. side accepted a force of 5,000 personnel including short-term deployments. While the major political parties with the exception of the Sadrist movement supported a U.S. military presence, only the Kurdish parties, about 20 percent of the parliament at best, supported parliament-granted legal immunities for U.S. military personnel. It was the considered position of the administration, including the U.S. military and myself, that our forces could not remain without a parliament-endorsed agreement granting such immunities, and so our forces were withdrawn in accordance with the 2008 agreement.”

Spokesmen for McCain and Graham declined to comment.

The Pinocchio Test

Was the Obama White House displeased when the SOFA negotiations failed and U.S. troops pulled out of Iraq at the end of 2011? That’s probably a fair question. Certainly, during his reelection campaign the following year, the president often touted the fact that there were no U.S. troops in Iraq.

Nevertheless, the McCain-Graham statement is an example of a claim that is lacking important context. Although key elements of the Iraqi political system were supportive of a SOFA, the statement ignores that there was not enough support for approval in the Iraqi parliament.

Experts may disagree about whether the administration wasted valuable time or sent mixed signals about the level of troops it was willing to commit. But there is little debate that a parliamentary vote would have failed, unless the SOFA was watered down in ways that Republicans and the military found unacceptable — and broad consensus that an MOU would have been too risky for U.S. troops.

The McCain-Graham statement is similar to claiming that there was majority support in the Senate for new gun control legislation — without noting that there was not enough support to overcome the 60-vote threshold to end debate on the issue. In both cases, listeners are misled unless they have deep knowledge about the legislative dynamics.

Ordinarily, we’d lean toward Two Pinocchios on this kind of claim, but given the murkiness of foreign policy decisions and choices, we will settle at One.

Update, Oct. 2, 2014: An excerpt from former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s memoir made us conclude that we should withdraw the Pinocchio. “Privately, the various leadership factions in Iraq all confided that they wanted some U.S. forces to remain as a bulwark against sectarian violence. But none was willing to take that position publicly,” writes Panetta, who pins the blame on the White House for failing to use its leverage to get a deal. “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, Maliki was allowed to slip away.”

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