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Joe Biden’s claim that he got ‘150,000 combat troops out of Iraq’

Former vice president Joe Biden delivers a foreign policy address during a campaign stop. (Tiffany Hagler-Geard/Bloomberg News)

“I made sure the president turned to me and said, ‘Joe, get our combat troops out of Iraq.’ I was responsible for getting 150,000 combat troops out of Iraq, and my son was one of them.”

— Former vice president Joe Biden, at a Democratic presidential candidate debate, Miami, June 28

“When I was vice president, the president gave me all the easy jobs, like ‘take care of getting all our troops out of Iraq,’ which we did.”

— Biden, at a campaign event in Manning, Iowa, July 16

Biden voted for the Iraq War when he was a senator, and many Democrats won’t let him forget it.

When his vote came up during a Democratic presidential primary debate on June 28, Biden said Americans could trust his judgment on questions of war because, as vice president, he was in charge of pulling all U.S. combat troops from Iraq. Weeks later, Biden made a similar claim at a campaign stop in Iowa.

In his first term, President Barack Obama gave Biden oversight of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq. But the history is much more checkered than what Biden recalls. For starters, Obama sent U.S. troops back into Iraq in his second term. Biden was still the vice president.

The Facts

In 2002, Biden voted in favor of authorizing military force against Iraq. He was the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the time, so his vote was no small thing for the administration of Republican President George W. Bush.

In 2008, just before leaving office, Bush entered into a “status of forces agreement” with the Iraqi government that included a deadline to withdraw U.S. troops by the end of 2011. For complex political reasons, Bush agreed to the deadline with the expectation that the next president would seek an extension that after 2011 would leave in place 40,000 service members for training and logistics.

In 2009, during the first months of his administration, Obama asked Biden to manage the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Obama wanted “sustained, high-level focus” from the White House on that issue, “and then he turned to the vice president and said, ‘Joe, you know more about Iraq than anyone and I want you to take care of that,’” said Antony Blinken, who was Biden’s national security adviser in the White House and then deputy secretary of state from 2013 to 2015.

Biden chaired a committee that made sensitive decisions about the pace and scope of the troop withdrawal, while also keeping an eye on economic and political issues in Iraq, said Blinken and another adviser who worked for Biden at the time. The Biden committee included representatives from the Defense Department, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Treasury Department and other agencies.

“He was chairing meetings at the Cabinet level in the Situation Room, as the president would on a regular basis, and traveling frequently to Iraq from the summer of 2009 through 2011 — seven trips between the summer of ’09 and 2011,” the second Biden adviser said. “He was on the phone with Iraqi political leadership pretty regularly during this period. In a very broad sense, he was running Iraqi policy from the White House on behalf of the president.”

“When I was ambassador to Iraq in 2010-2012, it often felt as if the vice president was the Iraqi desk officer (a relationship with both pluses and minuses),” former U.S. ambassador James Jeffrey wrote in 2016.

Up to this point, Biden’s claim mostly checks out. Although Bush set the 2011 withdrawal time frame, the Obama administration had to figure out the logistics and details, and much of that work fell to Biden and his committee. The drawdown proceeded in phases, with U.S. forces dropping from 150,000 to 50,000 to almost zero during Obama’s first term.

However, the United States kept several thousand military contractors in Iraq throughout this time and after 2011. And although Obama promised to end the Iraq War as a candidate, there were bumps along the road that complicate Biden’s neatly wrapped-up story.

Before withdrawing forces in 2011, Obama’s administration tried to persuade Iraqi political leaders to allow a residual force of about 3,500 U.S. troops to remain. Some high-level officials in the Obama administration argued that a total withdrawal would open up a power vacuum in Iraq and erase the gains secured by U.S. forces and international allies.

“It was clear to me — and many others — that withdrawing all our forces would endanger the fragile stability then barely holding Iraq together,” Leon Panetta, who was Obama’s CIA director from 2009 to 2011 and defense secretary from 2011 to 2013, wrote in his memoir, “Worthy Fights.”

In 2011, the United States was seeking legal immunity for U.S. troops as part of an agreement for a continued military presence in Iraq. But there was no support in the Iraqi parliament for that, Biden’s advisers said.

“There was simply no majority for that in the Iraqi parliament,” Blinken said. “The Iraqis at that point in time wanted the Americans out. . . . At that point in Iraq’s history, we had become in their eyes, rightly or wrongly, an occupying force.”

In Panetta’s telling, the Obama White House did not push hard enough.

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, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki concluded that any Status of Forces Agreement, which would give legal protection to those forces, would have to be submitted to the Iraqi parliament for approval. That made reaching agreement very difficult given the internal politics of Iraq, but representatives of the Defense and State departments, with scrutiny from the White House, tried to reach a deal.
We had leverage. 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. My fear, as I voiced to the President and others, was that if the country split apart or slid back into the violence that we’d seen in the years immediately following the U.S. invasion, it could become a new haven for terrorists to plot attacks against the U.S. Iraq’s stability was not only in Iraq’s interest but also in ours. I privately and publicly advocated for a residual force that could provide training and security for Iraq’s military.
Under Secretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy did her best to press that position, which reflected not just my views but also those of the military commanders in the region and the Joint Chiefs. But the President’s team at the White House pushed back, and the differences occasionally became heated. 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.

Biden apparently was one of the officials arguing to keep troops in Iraq, but then went along with the decision to pull out entirely.

“Biden also supported a continued U.S. military presence, although he appeared to prefer low numbers,” Jeffrey, the former ambassador, wrote in Foreign Policy magazine. “But when White House officials got cold feet about the effort to extend troops and levied unattainable demands on the Iraqi leadership, Biden weighed in for not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. But, once a decision was made, he would loyally stand by it and support people in the field — unlike some in the Obama White House.”

It’s hard to square that recollection from Jeffrey with Biden’s at the June 28 debate: “I made sure the president turned to me and said, ‘Joe, get our combat troops out of Iraq.’ ” Biden’s advisers said there was going to be a drawdown of U.S. forces no matter what in 2011, and the questions then were about the size of the residual force.

Obama considered leaving behind several thousand troops in 2011. Two and a half years later, with no U.S. forces in the picture, the Islamic State terrorist group began to take control of parts of Iraq. Obama by 2016 had sent 5,000 U.S. troops back into the country to beat back the ISIS tide. Biden was still the vice president, but he left this inconvenient history out of his remarks in Iowa and his response in the Democratic presidential candidate debate.

Blinken said the two conflicts were “almost apples and oranges,” the difference between a “forever war” involving 150,000 U.S. troops posted in Iraq indefinitely, “to having a small residual force of a few thousand who are there to train and to support counterterrorism operations.”

Biden spokesman Andrew Bates said that “under the vice president’s leadership, the administration decided on and met key milestones along the way to the full drawdown — for instance, reducing our troop presence to 50,000 and then removing all of them from Iraqi cities.” Bates added: “Challenging negotiations concerning leaving a small residual force for training and counterterrorism purposes occurred in 2011; but the Iraqi government refused to provide our forces with basic legal protections. The subsequent deployment to help the Iraqi government defeat ISIS was a separate mission involving a smaller number of military personnel, with Iraqi forces taking the lead in combating ISIS on the ground.”

But, as we reported in 2016, Obama administration officials have swung back and forth on their reasons for leaving Iraq, and “when the growing power of the Islamic State forced Obama to send troops back to Iraq, the spin changed.”

“The Obama administration had tried to reach an agreement for keeping additional troops in Iraq, with many top officials (including Clinton) believing a troop extension was essential,” we found in a fact check of former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). “When that deal fell through, in part because the White House did not press hard enough, Obama eagerly touted it as a campaign promise that was kept — until the rise of the Islamic State forced the administration to send troops back to Iraq. Then suddenly it was the Iraqi government’s fault that the troops were no longer in Iraq. Moreover, the reason for rejecting a deal with Iraq in 2011 — the lack of an immunity agreement endorsed by parliament — was quietly forgotten.”

The Pinocchio Test

Biden had a big hand in withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq during Obama’s first term. It was a sensitive role and one Biden relished, by many accounts. But he was still the vice president during Obama’s second term, when thousands of U.S. troops returned to the country. It’s puzzling to see him leave that out of his remarks on the campaign trail and in the debate.

The Biden camp argues that these are two very different conflicts and that the troop levels were much higher pre-2011 and much lower post-2014. However, as top Obama administration officials have said in public, the two conflicts are inextricably linked. The Islamic State gained a foothold in Iraq in large part because U.S. forces had withdrawn.

Biden told half the story, so he gets Two Pinocchios.

Two Pinocchios

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Two Pinocchios
“I made sure the president turned to me and said, ‘Joe, get our combat troops out of Iraq.’ I was responsible for getting 150,000 combat troops out of Iraq."
in a Democratic presidential candidate debate
Friday, June 28, 2019