Levin: I would have supported an extended troop presence in Iraq
The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Carl Levin (D-MI) said Tuesday that he would have supported an extension of U.S. troops in Iraq if the administration had succeeded in negotiating one. "I would have not objected to a limited number of trainers to stay in Iraq, provided they would not be subjected to ...
The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Carl Levin (D-MI) said Tuesday that he would have supported an extension of U.S. troops in Iraq if the administration had succeeded in negotiating one.
"I would have not objected to a limited number of trainers to stay in Iraq, provided they would not be subjected to the Iraqi courts," Levin told The Cable Tuesday, referring to the administration’s negotiations with Iraq over a troop extension, which fell apart over a lack of immunity for the U.S. soldiers. "They ought to stand on their own two feet, with our support, and the situation is volatile."
Levin also weighed in on the controversy surrounding the seemingly different statements from parts of the administration regarding whether or not the White House wanted strongly to extend the troop presence in Iraq or whether it was simply was open to the idea — if the Iraqis requested it. Since President Barack Obama‘s Oct. 21 speech announcing that all troops would could home from Iraq by the end of the year — required by the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement — it appears that the White House has been spinning the message that this was the plan all along.
"The president has indicated his not only commitment to fulfilling that security agreement, but also his willingness to hear out the Iraqis on what kind of relationship they want to have going forward," Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough on Oct. 21, the day of the announcement. "So we talked about immunity; there’s no question about that … But the bottom line is, the decision that you heard the president talk about today is reflective of his view and the prime minister’s view of the kind of relationship that we want to have going forward."
And another White House official told The Cable that "The White House has always seen the president’s pledge to get all troops out of Iraq as a core commitment, period."
But senior GOP senators noted that these statements seemed different in tone and emphasis from what Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had been saying all summer, which seemed to be strongly in favor of a troop extension. In July, Panetta urged Iraqi leaders to, "Dammit, make a decision" about the U.S. troop extension. In August, he told reporters that, "My view is that they finally did say, ‘Yes.’" On Oct. 17, four days before the announcement, he was still pushing for the extension, saying, "At the present time I’m not discouraged because we’re still in negotiations with the Iraqis."
Levin said his impression was that the administration did want a troop extension past the Dec. 31, 2011, deadline.
"I think what the administration said is that they wanted some troops to remain in Iraq provided they could stay with the proper understanding of the Iraqi government. That’s been their position," he said. "Under the right circumstances, I think they wanted some troops to remain."
Levin made the remarks after coming out of a top secret national security briefing on Tuesday, Nov. 1, for all senators led by Panetta, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in the basement of the Capitol Visitors Center.
The State Department was represented by Undersecretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman. Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns was in London on Tuesday, standing in for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who withdrew from her planned trip to London and Istanbul because her mother passed away early on Tuesday morning.
Levin’s counterpart, committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ), told The Cable on Tuesday that he perceived a break between the White House and the Defense and State Departments, which wanted some troops to stay longer, and McCain said the White House undermined the negotiations by refusing to participate in earnest when leadership was needed to move forward the negotiations.
"It’s been well reported … that we could have gotten an agreement on immunity without having to go through the Iraqi parliament, that [the White House] never gave a number [of U.S. troops that would remain] to the Iraqis," McCain said.
McCain said that during a May visit to Iraq with Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), he heard from Iraqi leaders of all stripes that they were ready to agree to a U.S. troop extension but that the White House refused to make the deal.
"We had it all lined up with [Kurdish President Masssoud] Barzani, [Prime Minister Nouri al-] Maliki, and [opposition leader Iyad] Allawi. They were ready to deal," McCain said. "But the White House could not come forward with what they wanted. So, of course, it fell apart."
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) told The Cable that the administration was scrambling to put "lipstick on the pig" that was their Iraq decision by leaking a story to the New York Times that the United States now plans to increase its combat troop presence in Kuwait "to respond to a collapse of security in Iraq or a military confrontation with Iran."
Kirk said he called up the Pentagon and asked them to explain its plans for expanding combat troops in Kuwait, but has not received any information yet and only knows what was reported in the media.
"Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot," Kirk said. "Why are we reading about this on the front page of the New York Times? It seems like a last minute decision because of a snap decision on Iraq, which was totally separate from what the bureaucracy in the State Department and Pentagon were planning for in terms of an Iraq presence."
"Clearly the administration changed its mind at the last moment," Kirk said about the White House’s claim it never wanted to extend U.S. troops presence in Iraq. He said today’s Panetta briefing contained "almost no substance whatsoever."
Multiple senators declined to comment on the specifics of the briefing as it was top secret, but several said the administration didn’t come to Congress with any specific message and that their questions on a range of international issues produced very little in the way of new information.
Josh Rogin is a former staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshrogin
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