The Cable

How the Obama administration bungled the Iraq withdrawal negotiations

The Obama administration is claiming it always intended to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of this year, in line with the president's announcement today, but in fact several parts of the administration appeared to try hard to negotiate a deal for thousands of troops to remain -- and failed.

"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," President Barack Obama said today, after speaking with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "The last American soldier will cross the border out of Iraq with their held -- heads held high, proud of their success, and knowing that the American people stand united in our support for our troops. That is how America's military efforts in Iraq will end."

Deputy National Security Advisors Denis McDonough and Tony Blinken said in a White House briefing that this was always the plan.

"What we were looking for was an Iraq that was secure, stable, and self reliant, and that's what we got here, so there's no question that was a success," said McDonough, who traveled to Iraq last week.

But what about the extensive negotiations the administration has been engaged in for months, regarding U.S. offers to leave thousands of uniformed soldiers in Iraq past the deadline? It has been well reported that those negotiations, led by U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and White House official Brett McGurk, had been stalled over the U.S. demand that the remaining troops receive immunity from Iraqi courts.

"What the president preferred was for the best relationship for the United States and Iraq going forward. That's exactly what we have now," McDonough said, barely acknowledging the administration's intensive negotiations.

"We talked about immunities, there's no question about that.... But the bottom line is that the decision you heard the president talk about today is reflective of his view and the prime minister's view of the kind of relationship we want to have going forward. That relationship is a normal relationship," he said.

Of course, the U.S.-Iraqi relationship is anything but normal. Following nine years of war, the death of over 4,000 Americans and perhaps hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and the disbursement of at least hundreds of billions of dollars of American taxpayer' money, the United States now stands to have significantly less influence in Iraq than if the administration had been able to come to terms with Iraq over a troop extension, according to experts and officials.

"Iraq is not a normal country, the security environment is not normal, the embassy is not a normal embassy," said Marisa Cochrane Sullivan, managing director at the Institute for the Study of War, who traveled to Iraq this summer and has been sounding the alarm about what she saw as the mishandling of the negotiations ever since.

For more evidence that the administration actually wanted to extend the troop presence in Iraq, despite today's words by Obama and McDonough, one only has to look at the statements of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

In July, Panetta urged Iraqi leaders to, "Dammit, make a decision" about the U.S. troop extension. In August, he told reporters that, "My view is that they finally did say, ‘Yes.'" On Oct. 17, he was still pushing for the extension and said, "At the present time I'm not discouraged because we're still in negotiations with the Iraqis."

Sullivan was one of 40 conservative foreign policy professionals who wrote to Obama in September to warn that even a residual force of 4,000 troops would "leave the country more vulnerable to internal and external threats, thus imperiling the hard-fought gains in security and governance made in recent years at significant cost to the United States."

She said that the administration's negotiating strategy was flawed for a number of reasons: it failed to take into account Iraqi politics, failed to reach out to a broad enough group of Iraqi political leaders, and sent contradictory messages on the troop extension throughout the process.

"From the beginning, the talks unfolded in a way where they largely driven by domestic political concerns, both in Washington and Baghdad. Both sides let politics drive the process, rather than security concerns," said Sullivan.

As recently as August, Maliki's office was discussing allowing 8,000 to 20,000 U.S. troops to remain until next year, Iraqi Ambassador Samir Sumaida'ie said in an interview with The Cable. He told us that there was widespread support in Iraq for such an extension, but the Obama administration was demanding that immunity for U.S. troops be endorsed by the Iraqi Council of Representatives, which was never really possible.

Administration sources and Hill staffers also tell The Cable that the demand that the troop immunity go through the Council of Representatives was a decision made by the State Department lawyers and there were other options available to the administration, such as putting the remaining troops on the embassy's diplomatic rolls, which would automatically give them immunity.

"An obvious fix for troop immunity is to put them all on the diplomatic list; that's done by notification to the Iraqi foreign ministry," said one former senior Hill staffer. "If State says that this requires a treaty or a specific agreement by the Iraqi parliament as opposed to a statement by the Iraqi foreign ministry, it has its head up its ass."

The main Iraqi opposition party Iraqiya, led by former U.S. ally and former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, decided to tie that vote to two non-related issues. It said they would not vote for the troop extension unless Maliki agreed give them control of a high-level policy council and let them choose the minister of defense from their ranks. Maliki wasn't about to do either.

"It was clear from the beginning that Maliki wasn't going to make a move without the support of the other parties behind him," Sullivan explained, adding that the Obama administration focused on Maliki and neglected other actors, such as Allawi. "There was a misunderstanding of how negotiations were unfolding in Iraq. The negotiations got started in earnest far too late."

"The actions don't match the words here," said Sullivan. "It's in the administration's interest to make this look not like they failed to reach an agreement and that they fulfilled a campaign promise. But it was very clear that Panetta and [former Defense Secretary Robert] Gates wanted an agreement."

So what's the consequence of the failed negotiations? One consequence could be a security vacuum in Iraq that will be filled by Iran.

"It's particularly troubling because having some sort of presence there would have really facilitated our policy vis-a-vis the Iranians and what's going on in Syria. The Iranian influence is going up in Iraq," said Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "It makes it harder for us to play our cards, and that's a real setback. We've spent a lot of blood and treasure in Iraq. And these days, stability in that region is not what it used to be."

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) echoed those sentiments in a statement today and expressed skepticism that Iraq is as "safe, stable, and self reliant" as the White House claims.

"Multiple experts have testified before my committee that the Iraqis still lack important capacities in their ability to maintain their internal stability and territorial integrity," McKeon said. "These shortcomings could reverse the decade of hard work and sacrifice both countries have endured to build a free Iraq."

Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA), in his own Friday statement, backed up the administration's argument that the lack of a troop extension was in the best interest of the United States and Iraq.

"The United States is fulfilling our agreement with an Iraqi government that wants to shape its own future," he said. "The President is also following through on his commitment to end both the conflict in Iraq and our military presence... These moves appropriately reflect the changes on the ground. American troops in Iraq will be coming home, having served with honor and enormous skill."

UPDATE: This article was amended after a White House official called in to say that it was not the "White House" that was pushing for an extension of U.S. troops. 

"The White House has always seen the president's pledge to get all troops out of Iraq as a core commitment, period," the White House official said.

AFP/Getty Images

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