The White House was “so eager to rid itself of Iraq” that it made no real effort to secure a deal that might have prevented the country’s collapse and the rise of ISIS. That’s according to a new book by Leon Panetta, former Secretary of Defense and Director of the CIA.
In an excerpt published in Time Magazine, Panetta goes further than throwing the President under the bus; its more like that mid-March day when Brutus, Cassius, and their gang of wild and crazy Roman Senators decided to test out the sharpness of their new steak knives on Julius Caesar.
Panetta fuels the argument that the Obama’s early exit from Iraq paved the way for ISIS to seize large sections of the country.
Obama’s excuse has always been he couldn’t get Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki to sign a status of forces agreement with the U.S.. According to Panetta Obama didn’t really try.
Through the fall of 2011, the main question facing the American military in Iraq was what our role would be now that combat operations were over. 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.
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.
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.
An old boss of mine had a saying that aptly described Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq and the bombing campaign now: “It’s strange that there’s never enough time to do it right the first time, but there’s always enough time to do it right a second time.”
Cross-posted at The Lid