(CNSNews.com) – Hillary Clinton on Thursday defended the Obama administration’s handling of the Dec. 2011 withdrawal of troops from Iraq, pointing out that the timetable was first negotiated by its predecessor.
“Let me say on Iraq, because it’s in the news and it’s a dreadful deteriorating situation, the deadline on Iraq was set – was set by the prior administration, that if there were not a status-of-forces agreement … there would not be American troops,” she said.
During an event at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, the former secretary of state was asked whether she was comfortable with President Obama’s Afghanistan troop withdrawal timeline in the light of “the unraveling of Iraq, where there is no residual American force.”
The serious deterioration of the security situation in Iraq, where jihadists have seized control of key cities and are vowing to march on Baghdad, has reopened the debate over the decision to leave no U.S. forces there.
Under a security agreement signed in late 2008, the end of 2011 had been set as the deadline for the final pullout from Iraq, but the two governments negotiated during 2011 on retaining a 3,000-5,000-strong training and counterterrorism force in the country beyond that date.
However, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki struggled to win support from major political blocs and disputes over legal protections for U.S. troops eventually scuppered the talks.
Clinton on Thursday recalled those negotiations.
“Let me say on Iraq, because it’s in the news and it’s a dreadful deteriorating situation, the deadline on Iraq was set – was set by the prior administration, that if there were not a status-of-forces agreement, which is the agreement under which American military forces can be positioned in a country to provide services that are agreed to or asked for by the host country … there would not be American troops,” she said.
“And when President Obama came in, he was obviously not an enthusiast about the Iraq war from the very beginning, very strong critic of it, both its initiation and its handling. There was a lot of effort to work through with the Maliki government what such a status-of-forces agreement would look like,” Clinton continued.
“At the end of the day, the Maliki government would not agree. So the decision was made, in effect. There could not be American troops left, without such an agreement.”
Clinton did not say whether she had been comfortable with that arrangement or not, but back in late 2011 – just days after Obama confirmed that all troops would leave – she stressed that the U.S. commitment to Iraq’s ongoing security would not be affected by the decision.
“In addition to a very significant diplomatic presence in Iraq, which will carry much of the responsibility for dealing with an independent sovereign democratic Iraq, we have bases in neighboring countries,” Clinton told CNN on Oct. 23, 2011.
“We have our NATO ally in Turkey. We have a lot of presence in that region. So no-one, most particularly Iran, should miscalculate about our continuing commitment to and with the Iraqis going forward.”
(At the time the key concern was that Iran would benefit from the U.S. departure; the seven month-old Syrian conflict was yet to become a full-blown civil war and threaten to spill over into neighboring countries.)
Some senior Republicans were dismayed by Obama’s announcement, with GOP presidential contender Texas Gov. Rick Perry accusing the president of “putting political expediency ahead of sound military and security judgment.”
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, also running for his party’s presidential nomination, said “the unavoidable question is whether this decision is the result of a naked political calculation or simply sheer ineptitude in negotiations with the Iraqi government.”
“I am confident that no U.S. commander of any stature who has served in Iraq recommended the course of action that has now been taken,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), then-ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
In his State of the Union speech the following January, Obama highlighted the withdrawal of the last troops from Iraq, and gave an optimistic assessment of prospects for the entire region.
“Ending the Iraq war has allowed us to strike decisive blows against our enemies. From Pakistan to Yemen, the al-Qaeda operatives who remain are scrambling, knowing that they can’t escape the reach of the United States of America,” he said.
“As the tide of war recedes, a wave of change has washed across the Middle East and North Africa, from Tunis to Cairo; from Sana’a to Tripoli,” Obama said, pointing to the departure of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and predicting that in Syria “I have no doubt that the Assad regime will soon discover that the forces of change cannot be reversed.”