Defense Secretary Leon Panetta gave a full-throated defense Tuesday of the Obama administration's decision to withdraw all troops from Iraq by year's end, claiming Iraq is ready to defend itself.
"I believe Iraq is ready to handle security without a significant U.S. military footprint," Panetta testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, according to prepared remarks obtained by The Cable.
Panetta emphasized that the Obama administration was committed to fulfilling the terms of the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement negotiated by President George W. Bush's administration, and he said that low levels of violence in Iraq showed Iraq's readiness to maintain its own security without a significant U.S. presence.
"As the Iraqis have assumed security control, the level of violence has decreased significantly and stayed at historic lows," Panetta testified. "To be sure, Iraq faces a host of remaining challenges, but I believe Iraq is equipped to deal with them.
Panetta did acknowledge that Iraq will still have to contend with periodic attacks by al Qaeda, internal political divisions, challenges in securing its own borders, and the threat of Iranian meddling. But he downplayed Iran's ability to influence Iraq's future.
"And while we have only strengthened our regional security relationships in recent years, Iran's destabilizing activities have only further isolated the regime," Panetta said. "So as we mark a new phase in our enduring partnership with Iraq, Iran is more likely than ever to be marginalized in the region and in its ability to influence the Iraqi political process."
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey testified that the United States and Iraq will have a "normal" military-to-military relationship following the exit of U.S. troops, which will be managed by the U.S. embassy in Baghdad's Office of Security Cooperation.
"This departure does not mark the end of our military-to-military relationship with Iraq, but rather the transition toward a normal one," Dempsey said, according to prepared remarks. "It will make our diplomats the face of the United States in Iraq. It will clearly signal the full assumption of security responsibilities by the forces, the leaders, and the people of Iraq. It creates an opportunity that is theirs to seize."
Several senators on the panel have been critical of the Obama administration's decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by year's end, including Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT). They are sure to press Panetta and Dempsey to provide details about the negotiations conducted over the summer to extend the U.S. troops presence in Iraq and why they didn't succeed.
The White House has maintained that withdrawing all troops from Iraq was a "core principle" of its policy, and that the administration never advocated for a troop extension but rather was open to an Iraqi request for one, which never materialized.
But Panetta seemed to support a troop extension several times in public statements. 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."
The second panel to appear before the committee will include Brett McGurk, the man who negotiated the Status of Forces Agreement in 2008 and who was brought back by the Obama administration to negotiate the possible extension this year.
The senators will press McGurk to give details about whether the administration actually proposed an Iraq troop extension. They will also seek to have McGurk admit that in 2008, there was an expectation that U.S. troops would be extended to stay in Iraq past 2011, as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told The Cable earlier this month.
McCain and Graham are also likely to press Panetta and Dempsey on the negative effects that would befall the military if the super committee fails to strike a deal by Nov. 23, triggering a "sequestration" mechanism that would automatically cut $600 billion from the defense budget over the next ten years.
Panetta wrote to McCain and Graham on Monday to warn them that, if the defense trigger is pulled, the military would have to furlough workers, delay major weapons programs, and cut training. "The severe disruption in the base budget would have adverse effect on our ability to support the Afghan war," Panetta said, adding that such a move would "undermine our ability to meet our national security objectives and require a significant revision to our defense strategy. "