Is the exit from Iraq as bipartisan as the entry was?

Is the exit from Iraq as bipartisan as the entry was?

In a recent post, I flagged an inconvenient fact that is rarely touted in White House press releases: the extent to which President Obama’s greatest foreign policy successes have come when he followed in his predecessor’s footsteps while his most frustrating foreign policy set-backs have come when he charted a whole new path.

There is nothing particularly novel about a White House giving itself credit for inventing wheels (the Bush administration had the same reflex), though the Obama team has been especially loathe to note any parallels with its predecessor … except in one particular area. In public and private settings, Obama supporters have taken pains to remind people that it was President Bush who negotiated and signed the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement (SoFA) Strategic Framework Agreement that obligates U.S. forces to leave Iraq by the end of 2011. Indeed, some have claimed that this is an inconvenient fact of its own, at least for Republican critics who want to charge that Obama is being reckless in his Iraq policy.

The implicit message is obvious: "we can’t be criticized for ending the war in this way because, after all, we are just following the treaty obligations that Bush agreed to. If they were good enough for Bush, they are good enough for us."

That’s not quite fair to the Bush policy, however. The Bush team viewed the 2008 SFA, and in particular the 2011 sunset, as a least-worst deal that they could strike with Maliki in advance of Iraqi elections. It was widely understood – and this understanding was directly encouraged by Iraqi interlocutors – that the SFA would be renegotiated after the Iraqi elections, when the new Iraqi government would have a bit more freedom to take necessary but unpopular decisions like allowing a follow-on stabilization force. Bush officials disagreed amongst themselves as to how forthcoming the Iraqis would be in a follow-on deal, but most agreed that it was imperative that a serious attempt be made to renegotiate the SFA at the earliest possible moment.

You don’t have to take my word for it. If the plan all along had been simply to implement the 2008 SFA, why did President Obama send a team to Iraq to negotiate a new agreement? Why did the military plan on leaving a residual force? Indeed, as Tom Ricks quotes a colleague as asking, if that was really the plan then why the heck didn’t the military plan on leaving at the end of 2011?

In other words, it sure looks like Obama supporters are trying to hide behind the Bush policy, trying to share credit (blame?) for a policy that might be problematic and in need of a little bolstering.

I find it curious that this would be one of the few places where the current team hugs the previous one, and it reminded me of a similar moment in the Bush era. Back in the day, a standard talking point was that it was silly to claim that Bush "lied" about Iraqi WMD because his description of the Iraqi threat was consonant with Clinton’s. Moreover, President Bush secured a strong bipartisan Congressional vote in support of confronting Iraq. After reading the same intelligence Bush read, a large number of Democratic leaders voted to endorse the very description of the Iraqi threat that they later pretended was a Bush fabrication. This bit of spin had the virtue of being true, but that didn’t mean that every time it was deployed that Democrat leaders merrily conceded the point.

One of those leaders was Senator Clinton who struggled throughout the 2008 primary campaign to explain her 2002 vote. It is not an exaggeration to say that her inability to satisfy Democratic primary voters on this matter explains why President Obama is her boss. Yet her own effort at spin was not without merit. She said that she viewed the 2002 vote as an authorization to confront Iraq with coercive diplomacy — threatening Iraq with dire consequences unless it revived the dormant inspections regime — not an authorization to go to war and impose regime change. In other words, she saw this bill as one step in the process, not a blank check — the next word, not the last word, on the subject.

Do you see the interesting parallel between her frustration with how her vote got used by defenders of the Bush policy and the current frustration of Bush-era policymakers with the way the Iraq SFA is used by defenders of the Obama policy? Obama supporters are now doing the exact same maneuver, mimicking the style as much as the substance of an administration they have hitherto denounced as a matter of course.

As I hope to outline in future posts, I think this pattern holds more widely than the current team would want to admit. In structuring their policy to leave Iraq, there is an uncanny echo to many of the most trenchant critiques that were leveled against how we entered Iraq.

President Obama’s best campaign line about Iraq was that he promised to leave Iraq more responsibly than we entered. Far from fulfilling that promise, to a remarkable degree, I think we may be on track to leave Iraq rather in the fashion that critics claim we entered it.

Update: The agreement Bush negotiated in 2008 was a Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA), not a Status of Forces Agreement (SoFA) as I erroneously called it above.  What remained to be negotiated after 2008 was a follow-on Strategic Framework Agreement that would include a Status of Forces Agreement that would permit U.S. military units to remain in Iraq after 2011.  Despite lengthy deliberations, the U.S. and Iraqi negotiators were unable to agree on the terms and that is what precipitated President Obama’s recent announcement.