Panetta memoir blames Obama for collapse in Iraq

Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s memoir has a release date of next Tuesday, but it may make headlines for the next several days. According to Taegan Goddard at Political WireWorthy Fights blames the Obama administration for allowing Iraq to collapse, thanks to a political desire to pull out trumping the security needs that should have had us maintain our presence and exert our influence to keep Sunnis and Shi’ites working together:

Panetta writes that “our side viewed the White House as so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.”

The Washington Free Beacon has a longer excerpt:

Through the fall of 2011, the main question facing the American military in Iraq was what our role would be now that combat operations were over. When President Obama announced the end of our combat mission in August 2010, he acknowledged that we would maintain troops for a while. Now that the deadline was upon us, however, it was clear to me–and many others–that withdrawing all our forces would endanger the fragile stability then barely holding Iraq together.

Privately, the various leadership factions in Iraq all confided that they wanted some U.S. forces to remain as a bulwark against sectarian violence. But none was willing to take that position publicly, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki concluded that any Status of Forces Agreement, which would give legal protection to those forces, would have to be submitted to the Iraqi parliament for approval.

That made reaching agreement very difficult given the internal politics of Iraq, but representatives of the Defense and State departments, with scrutiny from the White House, tried to reach a deal. We had leverage. We could, for instance, have threatened to withdraw reconstruction aid to Iraq if al-Maliki would not support some sort of continued U.S. military presence. My fear, as I voiced to the President and others, was that if the country split apart or slid back into the violence that we’d seen in the years immediately following the U.S. invasion, it could become a new haven for terrorists to plot attacks against the U.S. Iraq’s stability was not only in Iraq’s interest but also in ours. I privately and publicly advocated for a residual force that could provide training and security for Iraq’s military.

To my frustration, the White House coordinated the negotiations but never really led them. Officials there seemed content to endorse an agreement if State and Defense could reach one, but without the President’s active advocacy, al-Maliki was allowed to slip away. The deal never materialized. To this day, I believe that a small U.S. troop presence in Iraq could have effectively advised the Iraqi military on how to deal with al-Qaeda’s resurgence and the sectarian violence that has engulfed the country.

In other words, this mirrors the reporting at the time — that Obama allowed the opportunity to slip away through apathy and a lack of leadership. No doubt the failure of that effort to reach a new status-of-forces agreement (SOFA) fit within his political goals. Obama wanted to be able to claim that he’d achieved his promise of withdrawing all troops from Iraq, a major theme of his 2012 re-election campaign; in fact, he sounded offended during one of the debates when Mitt Romney suggested that Obama had actually wanted a new SOFA.

“What I would not have done,” Obama declared in October 2012, “is left 10,000 troops in Iraq that would tie us down — that certainly would not help us.” And that was the party line until the ISIS onslaught of the summer, when Obama tried rewriting history in mid-June:

Panetta’s memoir sets this record straight once and for all. Obama might have tolerated a SOFA if it was handed to him on a silver platter (making what he said in October 2012 a flat-out lie), but wasn’t going to lift a finger to get it (making his June 2014 statement untrue as well).

This isn’t a new revelation from Panetta, however. A week before Obama went on 60 Minutes to claim that the ISIS surprise was caused by the intelligence community underestimating the threat, Panetta preceded him on 60 Minutes to discuss the withdrawal from Iraq. Panetta told Scott Pelley that it was a mistake, and he knew it at the time, but that Obama was determined to abandon Iraq:

Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says his old boss, President Barack Obama, erred when he failed to leave a residual military force in Iraq – and when he didn’t opt to arm the Free Syrian Army earlier.

“I really thought that it was important for us to maintain a presence in Iraq,” Panetta said in an interview aired Sunday on CBS’s “60 Minutes.”

Panetta said he and Obama’s other advisers thought that at least 8,000 U.S. troops should have stayed in Iraq. “And frankly, having those troops there I think would’ve given us greater leverage on [Prime Minister Nouri al-]Maliki to try to force him to do the right thing as well.”

Panetta also says that Obama ignored the advice of his national-security team in regard to Syria as well:

Panetta says in his new book “Worthy Fights” that he, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, CIA Director David Petraeus and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey all urged Obama in the fall of 2012 to arm the Syrian rebels, who are fighting a three-way civil war with ISIS and the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad.

Panetta says he believes Obama feared that providing weapons to the Free Syrian Army might have been a mistake if they had wound in the hands of our enemies.

But Panetta told “60 Minutes” he believes arming them at the time would have helped.

“And I think in part, we pay the price for not doing that in what we see happening with ISIS,” he said.

In the same show, Panetta also warned that it would take a very long time to defeat ISIS, and that the American public isn’t being warned sufficiently of the time and resources it will take:

Scott Pelley: When we see these ISIS soldiers on these videos say, “We’re coming for you, America.” Is that idle boasting? Or are they a threat here at home?

Leon Panetta: I think they are a threat. I think they’re as dangerous, as fanatical as terrorist as Al Qaeda was. And they have a large number of foreign fighters with foreign passports that make them particularly dangerous to the safety of this country.

Scott Pelley: How long does it take to destroy ISIS?

Leon Panetta: I think it’s going to take a long time. And I think the American people need to know it’s going to take a long time.