The fierce debate on CNN between Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former White House press secretary Jay Carney after President Obama’s speech is an excellent example of how Republicans and Democrats in Washington frequently live in parallel universes.
Earlier this year, The Fact Checker took a deep dive into the issues surrounding the politics of leaving a residual force in Iraq—and the facts are certainly complicated. In fact, the issue is so complex that both sides can essentially pick and choose the facts that make their case.
The Bush administration signed a Status of Forces Agreement (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. The key issue in this dispute is whether approval of SOFA, which would have allowed some U.S. troops to remain in Iraq, could have been reached with the Iraqi government—and how hard the Obama administration fought for it.
Here’s a rundown of the various claims, and what actually happened. The issue is not as cut and dried, as McCain asserts in the interview, but the administration has also spun the outcome in various ways, depending on the political advantage.
MCCAIN: No, no, facts are stubborn things, Mr. Carney. … And the fact that they didn’t leave a residual force in Iraq, overruling all of his military advisers, is the reason why we’re facing ISIS today.
McCain is certainly correct that top military officials wanted to leave troops in Iraq. But they did not want to leave the troops in the country without an immunity agreement that had been approved the Iraqi parliament.
In the end, only the Kurdish parties, about 20 percent of the parliament at best, supported parliament-granted legal immunities for U.S. military personnel. But McCain argues that the administration’s final offer to Iraq—of between 3,500 and 5,000 troops—was too small to make it worth it for Iraqi politicians to take the political risk of a parliamentary vote. So it becomes a chicken-or-egg question.
CARNEY: Well, again, senator, we’re going to have to agree to disagree. And I think that on the question of the residual force, there was another player in that, which was the Iraqi government, A. B, it was the fulfillment of the previous administration’s withdrawal plan C, and it was also the fulfillment of the president’s promise to withdraw from Iraq and not maintain a true presence in perpetuity, which I think was pretty consistent with what the American people wanted and believed was the right approach.
Carney is correct that the Iraqi government was an important player in the outcome. But the Obama administration also took a long time to decide whether to seek permission for a residual force, potentially losing valuable negotiating time. The administration also wanted the Iraqi government to ask for troops, instead of making a proactive request. That put the Iraqi government then led by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in a bind, as his key Shiite constituency was quite opposed to a continued U.S. troop presence.
[Update, Oct. 2, 2014: An excerpt from former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s memoir bolsters McCain’s position. “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, al-Maliki was allowed to slip away."]
Carney is also right that the date of the withdrawal — Dec. 31, 2011—was set in the SOFA signed in 2008 by President George W. Bush. The only way Bush was able to get that SOFA was by inserting an end date. It was the hope of the Bush administration negotiators that some troops would remain after that point, but essentially Bush left it to his successor to figure out.
And Carney is right that Obama promised to withdraw troops from Iraq. In fact, he likely shed few tears over the failure to extend the SOFA, and even grandly announced it. “Today, I can report that, as promised, the rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year,” the president said on Oct, 21, 2011 in after the talks on the immunity agreement fell apart.
Obama then made the withdrawal a central part of his reelection campaign. “You know I say what I mean and I mean what I say,” Obama said in Hollywood, Fla. on Nov. 4, 2012. “I said I’d end the war in Iraq. I ended it.”
During a presidential debate with GOP nominee Mitt Romney, there also was this exchange:
ROMNEY: You and I agreed, I believe, that there should have been a Status of Forces Agreement.
OBAMA: That’s not true.
ROMNEY: Oh, you didn’t? You didn’t want a Status of Forces Agreement?
OBAMA: No. 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.
The president has also tried to have it both ways. When asked recently whether he regretted not having troops still in Iraq, Obama pointed the finger at the Iraqi government, arguing it had not been his decision to end the U.S. troop presence. “The reason that we did not have a follow-on force in Iraq was because a majority of Iraqis did not want U.S. troops there, and politically they could not pass the kind of laws that would be required to protect our troops in Iraq,” Obama said in August.
MCCAIN: You know, Mr. Carney, you are again saying facts that are patently false. The fact is, because Lindsey Graham and I, and Joe Lieberman, were in Baghdad. They wanted a residual force. The president has never made a statement during that or after that he wanted a residual force left behind. The Iraqis were ready to go. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the number cascaded down to 3,500. That was not sufficient to do anything but to defend themselves.
We’re not going to argue with what McCain claims he heard in Baghdad, but the politics there were very complicated. As noted, the administration decided that it was important for Iraq to take the first step and formally request an extension. (That’s one reason why Obama did not make a public statement requesting an extension.) The Iraqis took so long to make up their mind that administration officials began to publicly berate Iraqi officials for taking too long to make a decision.
As for the remarks by Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, here is the November 2011 exchange that McCain is referring to:
MCCAIN: Now, can you tell the committee, General Dempsey, if there was any military commander who recommended that we completely withdraw from Iraq?
DEMPSEY: No, senator, none of us recommended that we completely withdraw from Iraq.
MCCAIN: And when did we come up with the numbers of troops that we wanted to remain in Iraq? Do you know when that final decision was made as to the exact numbers that we wanted?
DEMPSEY: To my understanding, the process started in about August of ’10. And as you know, there was a series of cascading possibilities or options that started at about 16,000 and ended up with about 10[,000], and then migrated to 3[,000], and we ended up with the program of record.
MCCAIN: Do you know when that final decision on numbers was reached?
DEMPSEY: Well, the final decision on focusing on the Office of Security Cooperation was based on a conversation between our president and President Maliki. Prior to that, I don’t know.
MCCAIN: The reason why I think you don’t know is because there never was an exact number and missions articulated by our government, which would have been a concrete proposal for the Iraqi government. So to say that the Iraqi government didn’t want us when they didn’t know the numbers and missions that we wanted to have there, of course, is — makes it more understandable why we didn’t reach an agreement with them — as you mentioned, cascaded down from 20,000 down to the ridiculously small number of 3.
But here’s another part of that hearing that McCain does not mention.
SEN. CARL LEVIN: Are you willing to have those forces remain without an agreement relative to immunity for those troops?
DEMPSEY: No, sir, I’m not. It was the recommendation, advice and strong belief of the Joint Chiefs that we would not leave servicemen and women there without protections.
LEVIN: And why is that?
DEMPSEY: Because, of the many institutions in Iraq that are still evolving and immature, the Iraqi judicial system is certainly among those. And we did not believe it was appropriate, prudent, to leave servicemen and women without judicial protections in a country that still had the challenges we know it has and a very immature judicial system.
LEVIN: Is it your understanding that that was the sticking point, that Iraq was not willing to provide that assurance?
DEMPSEY: That’s hard for me to understand exactly what Prime Minister Maliki’s fundamental bottom line was, though I have spoken to him within the past six months. What I will say is it was part of it. I think the other part of it was that he believed it to be in his political interest to cause us to live up to the agreement we made to withdraw from Iraq in the 2008 agreement.
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