The old in-and-out: Obama, Bush and the removal of American troops from Iraq

August 9, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 9, 2014

There’s a tendency on the right to blame President Barack Hussein Obama for, well, just about every ill under the sun.

The conservative narrative goes something like this: Obama was inaugurated, and then everything went to hell. I’m oversimplifying the right-wing zeitgeist here — but, I would contend, only slightly.

A cursory examination of the Obama administration provides plenty of fodder for the argument that the president — through indifference, incompetence, iniquity or some mixture thereof — is ruining America. Gas prices rose sharply after the first president from Kenya Hawaii (oops!) took office. So did unemployment as the economy cratered. The deficit — and, as a consequence, the national debt — ballooned dramatically. Americans learned that under Obama, the National Security Agency was collecting unprecedented amounts of information about the calls we make and the e-mails we send. There have allegations that the Internal Revenue Service has been abusing its power to harass conservative nonprofit groups. And an ambassador was killed in the line of duty for the first time in 33 years.

Some of these complaints don’t stand up to scrutiny. Gas prices have risen under Obama, but they’ve never quite reached their peak of about $4.10 a gallon under Obama’s predecessor, President George W. Bush. The economy has ramped back upward. (The reasons for the slow recovery may lie beyond Obama’s control, much as the recession can’t be entirely attributed to Bush.) Many of the NSA practices seem to have begun under Bush. Protestations of outraged right-wingers to the contrary, IRS scrutiny wasn’t strictly limited to conservative groups. And recently, Republicans on a Congressional committee concluded that the administration was not responsible for any wrongdoing or gross negligence related to the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans at a consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

One can certainly debate the various merits of Obama’s policies — although I doubt folks on the right will be able to bring themselves to say anything complimentary about health-care reform anytime soon, despite evidence that it’s workingObama’s military intervention in Libya was conducted in defiance of the 1973 War Powers Resolution, thereby leaving a permanent blot on the president’s record. (I object not to the intervention but to Obama’s refusal to obtain congressional permission for extended military efforts.) Obama’s embrace of the extrajudicial killing of American citizens is blatantly outrageous, and will forever stain his presidency. Moreover, the president’s failure to prosecute torture conducted under the auspices of his predecessor severely undermined his claim to any moral high ground.

Yet I write not to bury Obama nor to praise him. Instead, I want to consider one oft-repeated conservative complaint that has always baffled me: The allegation that Obama is responsible for the increasing chaos in Iraq.

Let’s make no bones about it: The situation in Iraq is terrible. The sight of the radical Muslim terrorist group known as ISIS (also known as ISIL and simply the Islamic State) taking control of a large part of the nation is thoroughly depressing and demoralizing.

The situation came to seem even worse this week as reports came to light that a minority group known as the Yazidis was being threatened with extinction. Perhaps 40,000 members of the ethnic group, one of Iraq’s oldest, were said to be hiding on and around Mount Sinjar with flagging food and water supplies. ISIS militants who patrol the terrain have offered the refugees the choice of converting to Islam or dying.

In response to these continuing setbacks and developing tragedies, Obama has offered limited military support to the beleaguered Iraq government, re-deploying about 750 soldiers there. Fighters and drones have struck ISIS positions in northern Iraq, which Defense One called “the first time U.S. forces conducted major combat operations in Iraq since the war ended in 2011.” Other planes dropped bundles of supplies, including food and water.

But let’s get back to that conservative exercise in blame-laying. The key accusation against Obama is that he withdrew troops from Iraq before the nation was stable, thereby opening the door to rampages by militants and the persecution of Yazidis, Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities.

There are a few issues here. One is whether America ever should have invaded Iraq in the first place; another is whether the war and its aftermath were handled competently by the Bush administration.

It’s blatantly clear to many that both questions can be answered with resounding nos. When supporters of Obama try to make that case, however, conservatives retort that attributing these problems to Bush feet is a tiresome tactic meant to prevent the Democratic president from taking any blame.

Another issue is whether keeping American troops in Iraq would have kept the nation from descending into chaos, which some believe to be the case. Skeptics, of whom I am one, believe that in all likelihood, maintaining a troop presence would merely have postponed problems — not averted them entirely.

To my mind, though, the matter comes down to two factors: Whether Iraq’s government ever would have assented to continuing to host a massive American military presence, and whether Obama had an opportunity to alter the pertinent agreements signed by Bush and his delegates.

Here’s the timeline. Just weeks after Obama was elected, on Nov. 17, 2008, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Iraq’s foreign minister signed a 24-page agreement. The contract contained a very simple stipulation: “All the United States Forces shall withdraw from all Iraqi territory no later than December 31, 2011.”

The agreement, incidentally, was to take effect on Jan. 1, 2009, weeks before Obama’s inauguration; it had a term of three years and could be modified only with the agreement of both nations. The treaty could be ended prematurely, but only following a one-year notification period.

Incidentally, the document was titled “Agreement Between the United States of America and the Republic of Iraq on the Withdrawal of United States Forces from Iraq and the Organization of their Activities During their Temporary Presence in Iraq.” (Emphasis mine, naturally.) The shorthand for this type of document is status of forces agreement — or SOFA for acronym enthusiasts.

The conservative logic here seems to be that Obama dropped the ball by failing to negotiate an extension to the U.S. presence in Iraq — even though Bush explicitly agreed to a withdrawal. But my read on the situation was that Obama was simply following through on the agreement to which he was bound thanks to his predecessor — not to mention international law.

Yes, Obama theoretically could have persuaded Iraq to scrap the withdrawal agreement. But the president clearly had little interest in extending the military’s stay there. He felt the war was a lost cause that couldn’t be redeemed by additional American deaths; he also evidently believed that Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, could not be trusted to act in good faith.

Maliki has provided plenty of fodder for that belief, unfortunately. For instance, the Shiite Arab politician did little or nothing to stop death squads that targeted Sunni Arabs. Maliki also staged a hasty execution of Saddam Hussein, the deposed Iraqi dictator, that was widely acknowledged to be a disaster on multiple levels.

Maliki appears to have been open to allowing a continued U.S. military presence in Iraq, but under one condition. The prime minister demanded that American soldiers forfeit their immunity from the Iraqi justice system and be subject to local laws.

Obama wouldn’t agree to that requirement, which to my knowledge has never applied to any other American military force. (Instead, misconduct by servicemen is governed by the military code of justice.) And for all the conservative arguments that U.S. troops should have stayed in Iraq, I’ve never seen anyone state that Obama should have let U.S. troops be prosecuted in Iraqi courts.

The bottom line here seems plain. Obama didn’t invade Iraq; Bush did. He didn’t install Maliki; Bush did. He didn’t negotiate and agree to a document requiring the full withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Iraq; Bush did.

What did Obama do? Just this — he complied with the agreement to which he was bound, and which happened to coincide with his prior inclination.

So again: Explain to me how the Iraq mess is Obama’s fault. Because I just don’t get it.

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