In a post over the weekend, Joel Gehrke covered President Obama’s astonishing claim that it was not his decision to pull American troops out of Iraq, notwithstanding that he was commander-in-chief when they were withdrawn. John McCormack (with an assist from Max Boot) had an excellent post rehearsing the relevant history, which boils down to a familiar pattern: President Bush’s fingerprints are on the decision, and on any matter in which there is some contributory Bush role, Obama blames Bush, no matter how minimal Bush’s contribution was, as if Obama were a mere spectator incapable of anything other than self-absorbed indignation.
I’ve weighed in previously about the similar Republican effort to hold Obama entirely to blame for the lack of a status-of-forces agreement that would have kept American troops in Iraq – as well as the futility of the evolved (I should say devolved) Bush doctrine that prioritized Iraqi “reconciliation” (as if there had ever been Iraqi conciliation) over American national security. As argued here more times than I can count over the years, our strategic vision of the conflict should always have been driven by the need to defeat the global jihad orchestrated by Iran, al-Qaeda, and the Muslim Brotherhood (today’s ISIS or ISIL or plain old IS is just a new, emboldened iteration of the same old challenge). That could never have been achieved in Iraq or any other single country, and an Iraqi political settlement had, as has, precious little to do with achieving it. Only the United States and its real allies have ever had the capability to do this (though not the will).
But on the matter of Obama disclaiming responsibility for his own pull-out of American forces, it is worth recalling some more history. As a candidate in mid 2008, Obama pushed aggressively for a swift U.S. pullout and publicly undermined Bush – who was trying to keep troops there with no strict timetable for withdrawal – by colluding with the loathsome Maliki toward that end. With Candidate Obama about to visit Iraq and already heavily favored to win the presidency, Maliki openly endorsed Obama’s call for a complete American pullout within 16 months of Obama’s taking office. As the New York Times reported on July 21, 2008:
The interview with the prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, was published Saturday in the online version of Der Spiegel, a German magazine. It was widely picked up by American newspapers because it appeared to give an unexpected boost to Mr. Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, who has called for an expedited withdrawal….
In Iraq, controversy continued to reverberate between the United States and Iraqi governments over a weekend news report that Mr. Maliki had expressed support for Mr. Obama’s proposal to withdraw American combat troops within 16 months of January. The reported comments came after Mr. Bush agreed on Friday to a “general time horizon” for pulling out troops from Iraq without a specific timeline.
After relating that Iraqi and American officials were desperately trying to spin Maliki’s statement as a mistranslation by Der Spiegel the Times continued:
But the interpreter for the interview works for Mr. Maliki’s office, not the magazine. And in an audio recording of Mr. Maliki’s interview that Der Spiegel provided to The New York Times, Mr. Maliki seemed to state a clear affinity for Mr. Obama’s position, bringing it up on his own in an answer to a general question on troop presence.
The following is a direct translation from the Arabic of Mr. Maliki’s comments by The Times: “Obama’s remarks that – if he takes office – in 16 months he would withdraw the forces, we think that this period could increase or decrease a little, but that it could be suitable to end the presence of the forces in Iraq.”
He continued: “Who wants to exit in a quicker way has a better assessment of the situation in Iraq.”
Mr. Maliki’s top political adviser, Sadiq al-Rikabi, declined to comment on the remarks, but spoke in general about the Iraqi position on Sunday. Part of that position, he said, comes from domestic political pressure to withdraw.
“Foreign soldiers in the middle of the most populated areas are not without their side effects,” he said. “Shouldn’t we look to an end for this unhealthy situation?”
Maliki, of the Shiite Dawa Party which opposed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq in the first place, has long-standing ties to Iran and Syria – and has expressed support for Hezbollah. The only thing that surprises me about this story is that anyone is surprised.
Another telling aspect of the Spiegel interview has gotten no attention. Maliki was asked what has calmed the violence in Iraq and responded as follows:
There are many factors, but I see them in the following order. First, there is the political rapprochement we have managed to achieve in central Iraq. This has enabled us, above all, to pull the plug on al-Qaida. Second, there is the progress being made by our security forces. Third, there is the deep sense of abhorrence with which the population has reacted to the atrocities of al-Qaida and the militias. Finally, of course, there is the economic recovery.
Notice: No credit to or thanks for the efforts and sacrifices of the United States and our armed forces, much less the surge. In fact, Maliki’s major observation about American troops, other than that he wants them out of Iraq “as soon as possible,” is that he wants the power to prosecute them for “offences or crimes committed by US soldiers against our population” – a major sticking point in negotiations over a status of forces agreement.
A version of this piece previously appeared on National Review Online.