To hear President Barack Obama describe the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, you'd think it was a long-anticipated political victory, the fruition of a promise he made when campaigning for the White House. But his announcement last week that American troops in Iraq will return by the end of the year is a result of a serious Obama Administration failure that will undermine U.S. security interests in the Middle East.
Speaking on Friday from the West Wing, President Obama wasted no time in reminding the American people that, "As a candidate for President, I pledged to bring the war in Iraq to a responsible end," and that as commander in chief, he was making good on that promise in time for the holidays. What the President didn't mention, though, was the story behind the headline--that the Administration tried and failed to negotiate with the Iraqi government to extend the U.S. troop presence there in order to ensure the country's security and stability. The sticking point for the negotiations was immunity for U.S. troops in Iraq. Heritage's James Phillips explains:
Up until Friday, the Obama Administration had insisted that negotiations were on track for extending the presence of a small residual force that U.S. and Iraqi military leaders agreed were necessary to support Iraqi operations in key areas such as counterterrorism, air support, intelligence gathering, logistics, and training. But Friday, in a hard-hitting article posted on The Cable blog, Josh Rogin reported that the Administration had bungled the negotiations.
Those negotiations stalled, Phillips writes, because Iraqi political leaders didn't want to risk the political consequences of extending immunity for U.S. troops. And given the Obama Administration's eagerness to withdraw from Iraq and unwillingness to confront Iran they didn't want to put their political necks on the line. Now, as a result, U.S. security interests will suffer--bilateral U.S.–Iraqi cooperation in fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq and radical pro-Iranian Shia militias will be limited, and the ability to contain Iran will be weakened. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) criticized the Administration on Sunday, calling the withdrawal decisions "a serious mistake," and faulted the White House for its failure to negotiate with the Iraqi government:
There was never really serious negotiations between the administration and the Iraqis. I believe we could have negotiated an agreement. And I'm very, very concerned about increased Iranian influence in Iraq.
In the wake of its decision, the Obama Administration is already anticipating the consequences of the power vacuum it has created. In a series of interviews on Sunday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Iran that even though troops will be withdrawn, the U.S. will still maintain a presence in the region. "Iran would be badly miscalculating if they did not look at the entire region and all of our presence in many countries in the region, both in bases, in training, with NATO allies, like Turkey."
The reality, though, is that the United States has weakened its presence at a time when the region can least afford it. And withdrawing U.S. troops is a stronger statement than any words that can be broadcast on Sunday morning talk shows. Heritage's James Carafano explains that the White House's decision is the mark of an Administration in retreat--and why this retreat is incredibly dangerous:
With Syria in turmoil, Iran on the march, a more isolated Israel, and Turkey’s ever-more ambivalent policies, now is the worst time to see a diminished U.S. influence in ensuring continued progress in Iraq. A total troop pullout will leave Iraqi security forces much more vulnerable to terrorism, sectarian conflict, and Iranian meddling, and it will leave them much less capable of battling al-Qaeda in Iraq and pro-Iranian Shia militias.
No American wants to see U.S. troops stationed in the Middle East and placed in harm's way longer than they have to be. But unfortunately, their premature withdrawal from Iraq could jeopardize the progress that so many American men and women fought and died for. While the President now has a new talking point for the campaign trail, it comes at the expense of national security interests. And it is the Obama Administration's policies and bungled negotiations that are to blame.