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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Bush, Clinton Play Blame Game in Iraq

Who’s responsible for withdrawing all U.S. combat troops from Iraq at the end of 2011?

Jeb Bush says President Obama is to blame for the “premature withdrawal” of all U.S. troops. Hillary Clinton’s campaign reminded Bush that his brother, President George W. Bush, signed an agreement that set Dec. 31, 2011, as the withdrawal date. Both have a point, but there’s more to the story than either is letting on.

The Florida governor gave a foreign policy speech Aug. 11 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library, where he praised his brother for the 2007 surge and blamed the Obama administration for conditions in Iraq that led to the rise of the terrorist group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS (about the 13-minute mark of the video).

Bush, Aug. 11: So why was the success of the surge followed by a withdrawal from Iraq, leaving not even the residual force that commanders and the joint chiefs knew was necessary? That premature withdrawal was the fatal error, creating the void that ISIS moved in to fill – and that Iran has exploited to the full as well.

The Clinton campaign responded with a statement from Senior Campaign Policy Adviser Jake Sullivan, a former State Department official under Clinton, who said it was President Bush — not Obama — who agreed to the Dec. 31, 2011, date.

Sullivan, Aug. 11: It was President Bush who set the withdrawal date for Americans from Iraq, not President Obama. President Bush signed an agreement that required us to be out by the end of 2011. The Obama administration urged [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki] to approve our leaving a residual force behind. But Prime Minister Maliki … made it clear that he could not get the Iraqi parliament to do that. Not even for five- or ten-thousand troops.

We won’t settle the political argument over who is responsible for the rise of ISIS, but we will explore the facts over the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq.

It is true that Bush signed an agreement, known as the Status of Forces Agreement, on Dec. 14, 2008, that said: “All the United States Forces shall withdraw from all Iraqi territory no later than December 31, 2011.”

Condoleezza Rice, who served as Bush’s secretary of state, wrote in her 2011 book, “No Higher Honor,” that Bush did not want to set a deadline “in order to allow conditions on the ground to dictate our decisions.” She wrote that she met with Maliki in August 2008 and secured what she thought was an agreement for a residual force of 40,000 U.S. troops. But she said Maliki soon “reneged” and insisted on “the withdrawal of all U.S. forces by the end of 2011.” She said Bush “swallowed hard” and agreed to what she called “suitable language” to do just that.

Rice, “No Higher Honor,” 2011: We’d given quite a lot of ground on issues such as a withdrawal timetable, consenting to the removal of all U.S. forces by the end of 2011, and we even conceded a limited level of Iraqi legal jurisdiction over our troops. … Ultimately, the compromises we made proved beneficial because the resulting [Status of Forces Agreement] put the end of the war in sight and left the new U.S. president a firm foundation for a successful conclusion of our presence there.

So, President Bush reluctantly agreed to a withdrawal deadline without leaving behind a residual force because of Maliki’s strong objections. Jeb Bush ignores those facts.

Still, Obama had three years to negotiate a new agreement prior to the Dec. 31, 2011, withdrawal date to keep some U.S. troops in Iraq. In fact, a day before Bush signed the agreement, Gen. Ray Odierno — the former commander of the U.S. troops in Iraq and current Army chief of staff — said the agreement might be renegotiated depending on conditions on the ground. “Three years is a very long time,” Odierno told the New York Times.

Leon Panetta, who was Obama’s defense secretary from July 2011 to February 2013, wrote in his 2014 book, “Worthy Fights,” that as the deadline neared “it was clear to me — and many others — that withdrawing all our forces would endanger the fragile stability” in Iraq. As a result, the Obama administration sought to keep 5,000 to 10,000 U.S. combat troops in Iraq, as Sullivan said in his statement.

But negotiations with Iraq broke down in October 2011 over the issue of whether U.S. troops would be shielded from criminal prosecution by Iraqi authorities. Panetta wrote that Maliki insisted that a new agreement providing immunity to U.S. forces “would have to be submitted to the Iraqi parliament for its approval,” which Panetta said “made reaching agreement very difficult.”

Very difficult, but Panetta wrote it was not impossible.

Panetta said the Obama White House did not press hard enough to reach a deal — a point that Bush makes in his speech. Panetta wrote that the U.S. “had leverage” and could have “threatened to withdraw reconstruction aid” if Iraq didn’t agree to “some sort of continued U.S. military presence.”

Panetta, “Worthy Fights,” 2014: 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.

Clinton was involved in the negotiations as Obama’s secretary of state and, at least publicly, supported the president’s decision.

Days after Obama announced he would withdraw all troops by Dec. 31, 2011, Clinton was asked on “Meet the Press” if critics had a point that such a withdrawal would “endanger recent success in Iraq by not having any residual force?” She replied, “They should have raised those issues when President Bush agreed to the agreement to withdraw troops by the end of this year.”

More recently, she defended Obama’s actions at a 2014 town hall meeting televised by CNN. This time, she blamed the Iraqi government.

Clinton, June 17, 2014: Some now say, well, you should have made him or you should have — but that’s not the way it works. You have to — if you’re going to having American troops in harm’s way — and we knew Iraq would be quite dangerous for a long time, unpredictable, at the very least — you have to have the host government, in this case Iraq, say, OK, here’s what we want. We’re signing this agreement which will protect American soldiers. We didn’t get that done. And I think, in retrospect, that was a mistake by the Iraqi government.

We take no position on whether the U.S. should have left some combat troops in Iraq. But the record shows that Jeb Bush ignored the fact that his brother agreed to the withdrawal deadline and agreed not to leave behind a residual force. Likewise, the Clinton campaign’s response that Iraq wouldn’t allow the Obama administration to renegotiate the terms of the withdrawal ignored criticism that Obama didn’t try hard enough. That criticism isn’t just partisan. His own defense secretary said Obama wasn’t actively engaged in the negotiations and allowed the opportunity to “slip away.”

— Eugene Kiely