By August 2011, the leaders of Iraq’s main political blocs joined together and stated that they were prepared to enter negotiations to keep some U.S. troops in Iraq. An entire month passed and still the White House made no decision. All the while during this internal deliberation, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey later testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the size of a potential U.S. force presence kept “cascading” down from upwards of 16,000 to an eventual low of less than 3,000. By that point, the force would be able to do little more than protect itself, and Prime Minister Maliki and other Iraqi leaders realized that the political cost of accepting this proposal was not worth the benefit.
To blame this failure entirely on the Iraqis is convenient, but it misses the real point. The reason to keep around 10,000-15,000 U.S. forces in Iraq was not for the sake of Iraq alone; it was first and foremost in our national security interest to continue training and advising Iraqi forces and to maintain greater U.S. influence in Iraq. That core principle should have driven a very different U.S. approach to the SOFA diplomacy. The Obama administration should have recognized that, after years of brutal conflict, Iraqi leaders still lacked trust in one another, and a strong U.S. role was required to help Iraqis broker their most politically sensitive decisions. For this reason, the administration should have determined what tasks and troop numbers were in the national interest to maintain in Iraq and done so with ample time to engage with Iraqis at the highest levels of the U.S. government to shape political conditions in Baghdad to achieve our goal.
We focus on this failure not because U.S. troops would have made a decisive difference in Iraq by engaging in unilateral combat operations against al-Qaeda and other threats to Iraq’s stability. By 2011, U.S. forces were no longer in Iraqi cities or engaged in security operations. However, a residual U.S. troop presence could have assisted Iraqi forces in their continued fight against al Qaeda. It could have provided a platform for greater diplomatic engagement and intelligence cooperation with our Iraqi partners. It could have made Iranian leaders think twice about using Iraqi airspace to transit military assistance to Assad and his forces in Syria. And most importantly, it could have maintained the significant diplomatic influence that the United States still possessed in Iraq — influence that had been, and still was, essential in guaranteeing Iraq’s nascent political system, reassuring Iraqi leaders that they could resolve their differences peacefully and politically despite their mistrust of one another, and checking the authoritarian and sectarian tendencies of Prime Minister Maliki and his allies.