Critics of Obama's troop order to Iraq: 'We told you so'

President Obama's decision to order 300 military advisers to Iraq in the face of an Islamist insurgency revives the debate over whether he pulled out US combat forces too soon.

Stringer/REUTERS
Members of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces take their positions during clashes with the Al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) in the city of Ramadi, June 19, 2014.

President Obama’s announcement this week that he would be sending 300 US troops back to Iraq to “advise and assist” Iraqi soldiers has become something of an “I told you so” moment for those who had opposed the pullout of US forces in the first place.

The surge of US troops in 2007 won the war in Iraq, and Mr. Obama created a “colossal failure” by failing to push hard enough to keep them in the country, goes the standard narrative dusted off by Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona this week. 

“Rarely has a US president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many,” former Vice President Dick Cheney wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, joining the blame game. 

“Which president was he talking about?” was White House spokesman Jay Carney’s riposte – a reference to the Bush administration’s push to invade Iraq in 2003 based upon what turned out to be wrong reasoning.

Mr. Carney had some cause for aplomb, given that polls show Americans have little appetite for returning to Iraq. 

Roughly 54 percent of Americans say they agree more with the president on Iraq, versus 28 percent who side with Senator McCain’s calls for more robust US action in the country, according to a Public Policy Polling survey released Tuesday.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel pushed back against criticisms of the administration on Capitol Hill Thursday, noting that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki wouldn’t grant US troops the legal immunity that the United States required in order to sign a status of forces agreement (SOFA) that would have left more US troops in Iraq.

“I go back to, we can only do so much,” Secretary Hagel said. “We didn’t have a presence in Iraq because the Iraqis would not give us the immunity.” 

Obama stressed that the 300 troops would not be combat forces, but rather advisers to their Iraqi counterparts. Some wondered, however, whether this was a preview of some sort of “boots on the ground” scenario yet to come. 

“I think we always have to guard against mission creep,” Obama acknowledged, before ruling out combat troops fighting in Iraq again.

“We do not have the ability to simply solve this problem by sending in tens of thousands of troops and committing the kinds of blood and treasure that has already been expended in Iraq,” he said. “What’s clear from the last decade is the need for the United States to ask hard questions before we take action abroad – particularly military action.”

America’s top military officer acknowledged that he had been a supporter of leaving more troops in Iraq.

“I stand by that recommendation, and I was part of it years ago,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers Thursday. “But remember that our partnership was on the basis of increasing their tactical capability, their logistics capability, their ability to budget, to be a responsible institution of the government.” 

“The problem today is that the government has not acted responsibly in Iraq,” Dempsey said. “And I don’t know that the presence of US military personnel uniquely would have changed the outcome.”

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