Politics

06.18.14

Hillary Clinton Pushed Obama to Keep Troops in Iraq

When the Obama administration was looking to pull American troops from Iraq, the then-secretary of state was a force pushing for troops to stay. Did she make the right call?

Hillary Clinton today portrays her stance on Iraq as being the same as President Obama’s. But when she was Secretary of State, she pushed hard for keeping troops in Iraq—despite the fact that the White House was looking to bring all the troops home.

“Hillary Clinton was a lion for keeping troops there,” James Jeffrey, who was the U.S. ambassador to Iraq in 2011, told The Daily Beast in an interview. “She was a strong advocate for keeping troops there past 2011,” when American forces eventually withdrew.

At a CNN Town Hall on Tuesday, Clinton unveiled what is now her official accounting of what happened in 2011, when the Obama administration was negotiating to keep troops in Iraq with the government of Nouri al-Maliki. Clinton placed the blame for the failure of the negotiations on Maliki. She said the administration had offered him a Status of Forces Agreement with American troops attached, but he didn’t accept.

“I was involved in a lot of the efforts to come up with what our offer would be,” she said, pointing to the need to have immunity for any remaining U.S. troops. “We didn’t get that done. And I think, in retrospect, that was a mistake by the Iraqi government.”

But at the time of the negotiations, Clinton’s State Department and the Obama White House were not on the same page. The vast majority of the senior White House national security team, including Obama himself, saw ending the Iraq war as a key campaign promise, a way to right a Bush administration wrong, and as a bow to the will of the American people.

For Clinton, her State Department senior staff—as well as for top officials at the time, including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and CIA Director David Petraeus—there was a national security interest in keeping thousands of troops in Iraq. There were limited, but important, missions to be done: countering terrorists, advising the Iraqi armed forces, and protecting U.S. personnel. Clinton was particularly aggressive in pushing for a long-term troop presence, officials involved in the negotiations say.

Of course, Clinton has always been more hawkish on Iraq than Obama. She voted to authorize the war, only later to say she believed that vote was made based on bad intelligence. In his recent autobiography, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates revealed that Clinton admitted to opposing the 2007 surge in Iraq against her beliefs because she was preparing to run in a presidential primary against Obama.

The White House, on the other hand, celebrated the demise of the SOFA negotiations and called Iraq a mission accomplished.

“Hillary Clinton was a lion for keeping troops there. She was a strong advocate for keeping troops there past 2011.”

“What we were looking for was an Iraq that was secure, stable, and self-reliant, and that’s what we got here, so there’s no question that was a success,” said then-Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough, now White House chief of staff, in October 2011, on the day the complete withdrawal was announced.

“The White House has always seen the president’s pledge to get all troops out of Iraq as a core commitment, period,” a White House official told me at the time.

Throughout those excruciating months-long negotiations with the Maliki government, the biggest and ultimately fatal sticking point was the Americans’ demanding that immunity protections for U.S. forces be ratified by the Iraq Council of Representatives. The problem was the council was an unpredictable and unreliable body that was unlikely to endorse a continued American troop presence, which would be broadly unpopular among their constituents.

GOP senators including John McCain believe that the White House injected that condition as a poison pill because they did not want the negotiations to succeed. But Clinton, who did want the negotiations to succeed, also believed that the immunity guarantee needed to be signed by the COR, not just left to the Maliki government.

“Nobody [in the senior ranks of the administration] thought it was a good idea to try to get a SOFA based solely on a piece of paper from Mr. Maliki,” said Jeffrey, who led the negotiations with Iraq for the U.S. government along with Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq at the time, and Brett McGurk, a White House official who was once in consideration to replace Jeffrey as America’s envoy to Baghdad.

“The truth about Hillary is that she is staunchly anti-Maliki. She thinks he’s an old-school sectarian thug,” a former senior Obama administration official added.

In the end, most officials who were directly involved blame the bureaucratic processes and domestic politics in both Baghdad and Washington for wasting precious months, making a deal by the end of 2011 unattainable.

“There was major frustration among folks like Austin and Jeffrey because they were the ones on the ground and they wanted to get this done. They wanted a residual force because they thought it was important,” a former senior official said. “At the end of the day, those debates were basically moot because Maliki made it impossible.”

If she runs for president, Clinton will have several questions to answer about her stewardship of the Iraq portfolio. The State Department led a reconstruction program that squandered billions of American taxpayer dollars on misguided and poorly implemented projects. The U.S. Embassy and its support staff grew to gargantuan proportions, only to be “right-sized” later on. U.S. consulates were built and then abandoned. State Department training of the Iraqi police forces was a disaster.

But the main question Clinton does not answer in her book and has not directly addressed yet is, if she had been successful in her drive to keep American troops in Iraq, would that have made the difference? The White House didn’t believe it would.

For the White House, “The question at the time was, how will a residual troop presence reduce sectarianism or make Maliki create a more inclusive government, and there wasn’t good evidence to support that,” said former National Security Council spokesperson Tommy Vietor.

As ISIS advances on Baghdad, the evidence is now piling up that the U.S. military mission to train the Iraqi army and fight terrorism was not complete. Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey testified to Congress on Wednesday that he, too, believed the U.S. should have worked harder to keep troops in Iraq past 2011 and still believes that’s the right policy.

“It is our duty to help counter the threat of ISIS,” he said. “They do have aspirations to attack Western interests… It makes sense that they will be a threat to the homeland, in time.”

The office of Hillary Clinton declined to comment for this story.