The Corner

No, U.S. Troops Didn’t Have to Leave Iraq

One of the key points of debate in the U.S. over the recent events in Iraq is over what the U.S. could have done to avert them. If the U.S. still had troops there, would Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have become the sectarian strongman he has, would ISIS have established the stronghold it has, etc.? This is a complicated question, and one should never be too confident in counterfactuals. But there’s a compelling case articulated by a range of people that a U.S. presence there could have made today’s situation less likely, and certainly allowed us to have more options to respond today.

But here’s an easy way for Democrats to avoid the debate entirely: Claim that President Obama had no choice about whether to keep troops in Iraq or not, and blame Bush.

The inconvenient aspect of this argument is that it’s not true. Chris Hayes laid out four points in the opening monologue of his show on Friday night, three of which consituted the above argument:

The three problematic claims:

[1] Any residual U.S. force we might have left in Iraq would have been minimal and in a non-combat role, somewhere on the order of 2–3,000 [troops]. . . . [2] We could not have stayed unless the Iraqi government let us stay — Iraq is a sovereign nation and the al-Maliki government wanted American troops to leave. . . . [3] The status-of-forces agreement, the basic framework upon which American withdrawal was based, came from the administration of George W. Bush.

These claims don’t jibe with what we know about how the negotiations with Iraq went. It’s the White House itself that decided just 2–3,000 troops made sense, when the Defense Department and others were proposing more. Maliki was willing to accept a deal with U.S. forces if it was worth it to him — the problem was that the Obama administration wanted a small force so that it could say it had ended the war. Having a very small American force wasn’t worth the domestic political price Maliki would have to pay for supporting their presence. In other words, it’s not correct that “the al-Maliki government wanted American troops to leave.” That contradicts the reporting that’s been done on the issue by well-known neocon propaganda factories The New Yorker and the New York Times. Prime Minister Maliki did say in public, at times, that he personally couldn’t offer the guarantees necessary to keep U.S. troops in the country, but it’s well-established that behind closed doors, he was interested in a substantial U.S. presence. The Obama administration, in fact, doesn’t even really deny it: For Dexter Filkins’s New Yorker story, deputy national-security adviser Ben Rhodes didn’t dispute this issue, he just argued that a U.S. troop presence wouldn’t have been a panacea.

And Hayes’s third point, that the Bush administration signed the status-of-forces agreement that included U.S. troops’ leaving at the end of 2011, is utterly meaningless: The agreement was supposed to be renegotiated eventually, to provide a long-term presence with U.S. troops in a different role. That’s why the Obama administration, however half-heartedly and with little regard for the fate of Iraq, did try to renegotiate it. And it’s why the Maliki government was open to these negotiations — the situation on the ground was very different in 2011 than it had been when Bush signed the agreement in 2008.

Hayes is right on a couple points: that it’s unlikely U.S. troops would have remained in a non-combat role, but the consensus is that having them around in a training and advisory capacity can be extremely useful in a range of ways, so this distinction isn’t nearly as important as Hayes says. A diverse group of people who talked to Dexter Filkins agreed that there are plenty of ways a U.S. presence might have restrained Maliki.

And we don’t know, as Hayes points out, what an ongoing U.S. troop presence would have meant for Iraqi security, the nature of the Iraqi army, and the behavior of the Maliki government — maybe it wouldn’t have helped at all. But that’s different from what MSNBC is assuring its viewers.

The Obama administration had a choice about what to do in Iraq, and Hayes thinks it made the right one — he should defend that, not pretend there was no choice in the first place.

As an aside, I won’t quibble much with the very first claim he makes in the above video, that ISIS is more or less a creation of the invasion of Iraq. In an important sense, this is true, and therefore one can argue the single most consequential decision that brought us to today’s deplorable situation is the decision to invade Iraq. But it also doesn’t tell us much about what we ought to do now, with the country as it is. In fact, if you believe that invading Iraq upset a relatively stable minority-rule system and created today’s instability, U.S. involvement now could be sensible, in order to restrain Maliki’s destructive majority-rule behavior. The roots of ISIS also remind us that we should be humble about the unintended consequences of U.S. intervention, of course, but that isn’t dispositive about what we should do.

Patrick Brennan — Patrick Brennan is a writer and policy analyst based in Washington, D.C. He was Director of Digital Content for Marco Rubio's presidential campaign, writing op-eds, policy content, and leading the ...

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