When President Obama ran for re-election, he bragged about his decision to leave Iraq as the fulfillment of a campaign promise. Now he claims that the decision was never really his to begin with.
During his Thursday press conference on the Iraq crisis, the president was asked whether he regretted his decision not to leave a residual force there. He replied: “Well, keep in mind that wasn’t a decision made by me. That was a decision made by the Iraqi government.”
The Iraqi government decision to which Obama refers is the refusal of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to give U.S. troops immunity to Iraqi law. The American public would not have tolerated Iraqi courts trying American military personnel. Obama negotiated to extend the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which would have allowed troops to stay longer with legal immunity, but those talks broke down. American troops withdrew in December 2011 as the previous SOFA expired.
Though Obama now argues that the circumstances were beyond his control, events fortuitously fulfilled a major campaign promise. In a March 2008 speech in Fayetteville, North Carolina, then-Senator Obama contrasted himself with Republican hopeful John McCain, who supported the Iraq war and sought to maintain a significant U.S. military presence there.
“So when I am Commander-in-Chief, I will set a new goal on Day One: I will end this war,” Obama declared.
Ending the war (not necessarily winning it) seemed to be equated with reducing the number of U.S. troops there. Obama proposed to remove one to two combat brigades a month, which would result in complete withdrawal within 16 months.
On October 21, 2011, it became clear that the Status of Forces Agreement in Iraq would not be extended. Within hours, the White House issued a gleeful press release: “So today, I can report that, as promised, the rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year. After nearly nine years, America’s war in Iraq will be over.”
The statement added that Obama and Prime Minister al-Maliki “are in full agreement about how to move forward,” suggesting that the Obama administration had no intention of opposing the decision of the al-Maliki government. Yet at Thursday’s press conference, Obama claimed his hand had been forced by an uncooperative negotiating partner.
In the 2008 speech, Obama went on to say that under his leadership the United States would maintain enough troops to guard the embassy and man a counter-terrorism force. Just two weeks before the 2008 presidential election, the Democratic Party platform similarly proclaimed:
After this redeployment [of U.S. troops], we will keep a residual force in Iraq to perform specific missions: targeting terrorists; protecting our embassy and civil personnel; and advising and supporting Iraq’s Security Forces, provided the Iraqis make political progress.
When Obama voters went to the polls in 2008, they had every reason to believe that such a force would be maintained. But as the 2012 election neared four years later, Obama made no attempt to install the small counter-terrorism force in Iraq. He preferred to focus on the fact that he had withdrawn troops, thus “ending” the war.
Pro-Obama ads asserted that the president had ended the war in Iraq and criticized Romney for his plan to return troops there. Obama repeated the assertion that he had ended the Iraq war in each of the three debates with Romney, including the first one, which was supposed to be about domestic policy (here, here and here).
Now that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is carving out a swath of terror in northern Iraq, Obama is coming under criticism and re-posturing. The “fulfilled promise” that helped get Obama re-elected is now being recast as someone else’s doing.
Given other things Obama has said on the matter, this comes as a surprise.
— Spencer Case is a philosophy graduate student at the University of Colorado. He is a U.S. Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and an Egypt Fulbright alumnus.