False Comparisons of Troop Withdrawals

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Policy makers and analysts from across the political spectrum have criticized President Trump’s ill-informed and precipitous decision to remove all American troops from Syria by comparing it to President Obama’s decision to order a pullout from Iraq in 2011.   Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) recently argued that the Syrian withdrawal would be a huge Obama-like mistake, while the editorial board of The Washington Post, which was a cheerleader for the Iraqi invasion, equated Trump’s withdrawal to Obama’s premature withdrawal from Iraq.  And Victoria Nuland, a former Assistant Secretary of State under Obama, argued that Trump is falling into the same trap as Obama when he withdrew all U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011 as conservative writer David French likened Trump’s decision to Obama’s 2011 withdrawal from Iraq.

These comparisons are without merit because Obama was not free to make his own decision; he was bound to the terms of the agreement the Bush Administration made with Iraq. It was not Obama’s idea to withdraw all our troops from Iraq in 2011 – he was actually implementing the agreement that President George W. Bush—who launched the mindless, needless, and senseless invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, and declared mission accomplished shortly after—made with the democratically-elected Iraqi government in 2008. While President Bush may not have wanted to agree to a specific withdrawal date, he had no choice if he wanted to renew the Status of Forces Agreement, which legitimized our presence in Iraq and which was expiring in 2008.

This became clear to me during my interactions with Iraqi officials.  Beginning in 2007, along with Peter Singer, I was coordinating the foreign policy team of the Obama campaign.  As a result, in the summer of 2008, I was invited to a meeting with the Iraqi foreign minister in Washington.  At the meeting, I asked him several times if his government would agree to a new Status of Forces Agreement without a fixed date for the complete withdrawal of American troops.  Each time he replied, “Absolutely not.”  When I conveyed this to Denis McDonough, who went on to become Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor and Chief of Staff and was at that time traveling with candidate Obama, he seemed surprised and asked me if I was certain.

In the fall of 2009, I was part of a team that General Raymond Odierno, then the American Commander in Iraq, put together to help plan the withdrawal.  During our stay in Iraq, we help several meetings with elected and appointed officials from the Iraqi government.  At each of them, I raised the question of a fixed-withdrawal date.  Each time the answer was the same. There was virtually no support among the elected officials or the Iraqi people for the Americans to continue to occupy the country after the end of 2011.  I conveyed this to Susan Rice, then our Ambassador to the United Nations, who was also in Iraq at this time.

In December 2011, when Nouri Al Malaki, the Bush-installed Prime Minister of Iraq, came to Washington to finalize the withdrawal deal, I was invited to a meeting with him by Senator Chuck Hagel, who went on to become one of Obama’s Secretaries of Defense.  At the meeting, I asked Malaki whether there was anything Obama could have done to keep troops in his country post-2011.  He replied that the U.S. had made an agreement and must stick to it.

General Jones, who was Obama’s first national security advisor and who was also at the meeting told me that Obama was willing to leave up to 10,000 troops in Iraq but had been turned down by Malaki.

Over the 2012-14 period the policies of Malaki’s highly partisan pro-Shiite government—not the U.S. withdrawal—laid the foundation for the creation of the Sunni-dominated ISIS.  Moreover, in 2014, when the large, well-equipped Iraqi armed forces failed to confront the much smaller ISIS forces in cities like Mosul, the Iraqis invited us back.  As a result, President Obama sent thousands of Americans to Iraq and Syria to fight ISIS which destroyed the ISIS caliphate.  And Maliki’s two successors have continued to ask us to remain in Iraq; a policy President Trump supported during his holiday visit to the troops in that country.

It is too soon to access the impact of Trump’s decision to remove the 2,000 troops in Syria.  But it is not too soon to say that it is not similar to President Obama’s implementation of President Bush’s decision to remove our troops from Iraq almost nine years after our illegal and immoral invasion.


Dr. Lawrence J. Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and served as assistant secretary of defense from 1981 through 1985.



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