Via Truth Revolt, it’s not really Kelly vs. Psaki. It’s former Obama SecDef Leon Panetta vs. Psaki, as Kelly keeps pointing out. He’s the one who accused Obama of withdrawing too soon; Psaki, true to her “admit no error” PR ethos, is forced to simultaneously (a) praise a former administration appointee as a fine, honorable, credible public servant and (b) insist that he and Kelly have their facts wrong, wrong, wrong.
But they don’t. Psaki notes that Maliki and the Iraqi parliament opposed a new Status of Forces agreement with the U.S. that would have left 10,000 or so American troops in Iraq unless the White House agreed to waive legal immunity for those troops. That’s true. What she’s not telling you here, per Panetta and many other critics, is that the White House didn’t bother to twist Maliki’s arm on that, just like they didn’t bother to object when an Iraqi judge let Maliki form a new government after his party lost the parliamentary elections a few years ago. Obama’s approach to the country, especially with his reelection looming, was straightforward: In Peter Beinart’s words, “Let Maliki do whatever he wants so long as he keeps Iraq off the front page.” That included caving to him on the Status of Forces agreement, which gave O a nifty way to say he’d met his core campaign promise of getting out of Iraq before voters went to the polls in 2012. (It also included lying to Americans about how violent Iraq had become again in America’s absence.) That in turn meant leaving a power vacuum that’s now been filled by ISIS and Iran, and a return to the battlefield for U.S. air power. Psaki could, I guess, have been candid about that — “Americans wanted out so we got out, whatever the consequences” — but that would amount to a tacit admission of horrible myopia by the White House. So instead she’s forced to pretend that Panetta and the dozens of other observers who don’t have an agenda here somehow don’t know what they’re talking about.
She’s also almost certainly wrong when she claims that if 115,000 U.S. troops couldn’t stamp out a Sunni insurgency in the early years of the war, a few thousand U.S. troops now wouldn’t stamp out ISIS. For one thing, tell that to Iraq skeptic Ret. Gen. Anthony Zinni; he’s convinced that two brigades of well-equipped Marines would steamroll the jihadis and push them back into Syria. But even if Psaki’s right that a small combat force couldn’t have stopped ISIS’s incursions, she’s missing the point of why Panetta and others wanted troops left there. They didn’t want a residual force as a bulwark against jihadis; they wanted it as a bulwark against Maliki, to force him to make nice with Iraq’s Sunnis instead of trying to assert Shiite hegemony. Credible people believe that U.S. leverage in Iraq was the only thing holding together a country (and a military) that wasn’t ready to stand united yet. Had that residual force been in place, it may be that Anbar’s Sunnis would be less alienated from Baghdad today and accordingly less hospitable to ISIS. If Psaki wants to say, “Too bad, they had eight years to get it together,” that’s fine — plenty of Americans would sympathize — but she’s not saying that. She’s claiming that those U.S. troops really weren’t needed. Nonsense. Just ask Panetta.