SOFA so bad: Two Pinocchios for Clinton/Kaine spin on Iraq retreat

After this week’s VP debate, both Mike Pence and Tim Kaine have gotten hammered on fact checks, but this point has significantly more substance, as it directly relates to foreign policy — and Hillary Clinton’s failures. When challenged on the rise of ISIS, both Kaine and Clinton have pointed the finger nearly everywhere but back at Barack Obama and Hillary’s own efforts as Secretary of State. When Pence attacked Hillary for the 2011 evacuation of all US forces from Iraq as the origin of the vacuum that allowed ISIS to metastasize, Kaine echoed Hillary in blaming not Obama but George W. Bush:

KAINE: President Bush said we would leave Iraq at the end of 2011. And Iraq didn’t want our troops to stay, and they wouldn’t give us the protection for our troops. And guess what? If a nation where our troops are serving does not want us to stay, we’re not going to stay without their protection.

That’s a nonsense answer — as amply demonstrated by the fact that we’ve sent back over 5,000 troops to Iraq without getting a formal agreement for protection from local prosecution. Obama found it necessary to return to the battlefield that he’d abandoned, and suddenly that lack of formal agreement was no longer an obstacle, opting instead for a diplomatic memo that Obama had found insufficient in 2011. That redeployment completely negates the Kaine-Clinton argument.

On top of that, as Glenn Kessler notes in his fact-check on this answer for the Washington Post, Clinton herself thought an extension of the status-of-forces agreement (SOFA) was essential, and both sides had assumed it was inevitable — until Obama decided he was more interested in vindicating his 2008 campaign promise (and leveraging it in 2012) than in our hard-won security and stability in Iraq. He would only commit to keeping a much smaller force than necessary to maintain those gains, making the political headache for then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki hardly worth the results.

Kessler quotes Leon Panetta, who served as CIA director and then Secretary of Defense, in demonstrating the frustration within the Obama administration over this decision:

Then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in his 2014 memoir “Worthy Fights,”said that he warned Obama that without U.S. troops in place, Iraq “could become a new haven for terrorists.” But he said that White House was “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.” Panetta added: “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, Maliki was allowed to slip away.”

Kessler’s comprehensive review should be read in full, but his conclusion is spot-on:

Clinton and Kaine are doing some fancy tap-dancing here. They emphasize the role of Bush and the Iraqi government in determining the pace of the troop departure, without mentioning the Obama administration had tried to reach an agreement for keeping additional troops in Iraq, with many top officials (including Clinton) believing a troop extension was essential.

When that deal fell through, in part because the White House did not press hard enough, Obama eagerly touted it as campaign promise that was kept — until the rise of the Islamic State forced the administration to send troops back to Iraq. Then suddenly it was the Iraqi government’s fault that the troops were no longer in Iraq. Moreover, the reason for rejecting a deal with Iraq in 2011 — the lack of an immunity agreement endorsed by parliament — was quietly forgotten.

We realize that an exhaustive history is difficult in a debate setting. But Clinton and Kaine earn Two Pinocchios for airbrushing out too many inconvenient details.

Given the fact that we’ve put more troops back into Iraq without a formal SOFA than Obama was willing to leave even with a new SOFA, two Pinocchios might not suffice.

Update: My, how time does not fly. The VP debate was this week, not last week. I’ve fixed it above.

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