A new book, parts of which were adapted into an article published in The New York Times last week,charts how the US fudged its departure from Iraq almost as badly as it did its entrance. The embarrassing disclosures contained in The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, by Michael R. Gordon and Lt Gen Bernard E. Trainor appear to have been buried in a news cycle focused on the latest spate of unpleasantness in the “new” Middle East.
The Obama administration has serially referred to the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which the George W. Bush signed with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in 2008, as the legal fetter precluding the United States from maintaining a garrison of troops in Iraq beyond 2011. (Every last US soldier left the country in December.) But that’s a nonsense as evidenced by Joe Biden’s hilarious boast, which Gordon relays, that “Maliki wants us to stick around because he does not see a future in Iraq. I’ll bet you my vice presidency Maliki will extend SOFA”. Maliki proved more resistant to Biden's overtures.
At issue was that the US military establishment rightly worried about a categorical withdrawal from a country still at war with al-Qaeda and tenuously governed by mutually suspicious interests. As Gordon and Trainer disclose, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen and now-former Defense Secretary Robert Gates both advocated leaving 16,000 troops to train Iraqi forces and maintain a direct line of communication from Washington to Baghdad. National security advisor Tom Donilon, wary of the president’s re-election campaign, countered with 10,000. Mullen feared that politics was trumping sound military advice and drafted a classified letter to Donilon that again recommended 16,000, an assessment now backed by other senior military figures including General James Mattis, the head of Central Command. “Admiral Mullen’s letter arrived with a thud at the White House," Gordon writes. Eventually Obama entertained a continuous presence of a mere 3,500 troops and a rotating force of 1,500, but that was pending an agreement with Maliki that never materialized. Strange since, as the reader will have noticed, Joe Biden is still vice president.
So what happened? In August 2011, Maliki secured all but two prominent political factions (Muqtada al-Sadr’s and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, both Shi'ite) to agree to modify SOFA and allow a minimal garrison. What he felt he couldn’t sell, however, was prosecutorial immunity for American troops, which was a very understandable US red-line. Lucky for Maliki, Obama made it easy for him to avoid a fight with his own parliament over a negligible troop figure. Since the president plainly didn't care much about America's "footprint" in Iraq after 2011, the Iraqi premier was able to walk all over him. It’s almost as if Maliki weren’t still reliant on $2 bn in US arms sales.
The White House has since taken to spinning its own failure to retain direct US influence in Iraq as part of its grand strategy all along. One senior official has said that “stability in Iraq did not depend on the presence of U.S. forces”. Maybe, but post-withdrawal relations have been conspicuously poor, too. Biden failed to travel to Baghdad to help broker a compromise during the “no confidence” crisis Maliki faced within his own government this past spring and summer. That was an excellent way of hanging an erstwhile partner out to dry. Nevertheless, Biden’s own own press flak asserts that bilateral “engagement” has never been better.
Tell that to the Syrians. Iraq’s notorious sectarianism has been its chief export to Syria as Sunni and Shi’ite militants who once fought coalition forces have been pouring across the border fight for months to fight on opposing sides in yet another gruesome civil war. Despite repeated US interventions, Iraq continues to allow its air space to be used by Iranian commercial planes transporting weapons and Revolutionary Guards Corps agents to facilitate the Syrian regime’s atrocities. The Iraq Foreign Minister has now pledged to “inspect” all incoming Iranian airplanes, although given his government’s denial of complicity in arms- and soldier-trafficking, and its obvious support for the Assad regime, these inspections may be of dubious credibility.
Moreover, al-Qaeda is still alive and well, having carried out 131 terrorist attacks against Iraqi targets during the Ramadan season alone this past August. The recent death sentence handed downin absentia to Iraqi Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi (he’s in Turkey) has a strong whiff of politicisation to it: Hashemi’s one of the few Sunnis in the upper echelons of government. One tribal leader who helped the US route al-Qaeda as part of the Anbar Awakening offered this plaintive apostrophe to Obama: “Why did you leave Iraq to Iran? Why did you give up the many sacrifices that Americans made?”
We act surprised at Maliki’s betrayal of US interests and his alliance with America’s regional rivals and enemies. But this can have been avoided. It’s become a catechism of Obama administration to say that “there are no good options.” In fact, when it came to Iraq, there was one. The administration just went the other way.