Foreign Policy features an interview with Jim Jeffrey, the former US Ambassador to Iraq during Status of Forces negotiations. The interview suffers a mildly buried lede, at least for those previously aware (despite political rhetoric to the contrary) that the Obama administration made an attempt to keep some stabilizing forces in Iraq. Excerpts from the interview are below [emphasis mine]:
Jeffrey didn’t necessarily support the larger troop footprint envisioned by military leaders at the time, which reportedly ranged from 8,000 to 16,000 to 24,000 troops, depending on the military official. But he said he firmly believed that troops in Iraq past 2011 were needed and wanted by the Iraqi government.
Jeffrey was a key player on both the Washington and Baghdad sides of the 2011 negotiations that were meant to agree on a follow on force to extend the Bush administration’s Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) after it was set to expire last December. Those negotiations ultimately failed. The White House has said the Iraqis refused to grant immunity for U.S. troops in Iraq after 2011 and submit a new SOFA through their own parliament, two things the United States needed to extend the troops’ mission.
Jeffrey said that he and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki personally discussed the idea of extending the U.S. troop presence in Iraq via an executive agreement, which would not have to go through the Iraqi parliament.
“Maliki said at one point, ‘Why don’t we just do this as an executive agreement?'” Jeffrey said. “I didn’t think he was serious, and I didn’t think he had thought it through.”
But ultimately, the Iraqis did insist that a new SOFA had to go through their parliament and they would not budge on the immunities issue, which made an extension of U.S. forces there impossible, Jeffrey said. He said the insistence on immunity was uniform inside the Obama administration.
The ambassador seems to contradict himself, or at least portrays an evolved, contradictory position of the Iraqis on whether they wanted a contentious political debate over any agreement. The spin that “ultimately, the Iraqis did insist that a new SOFA had to go through their parliament” is diluted by his preceding statements and by reporting from Michael Gordon of The New York Times verifying that it was the Obama administration pushing legislative approval. Thus, to the extent the Iraqis took up that position, it seems to have been after US officials made it a necessity.
Jeffrey’s revelation that the Iraqis wanted a continued US presence, and that Maliki privately broached the idea of using an executive order to avoid a messy parliamentary fight echoes a point that I made in the Fall edition of InFocus Quarterly:
But recent reporting by The New York Times’ Michael Gordon paints a more complicated picture of U.S. incompetence and disengagement. Most notably, the Obama administration’s insistence that any Status of Forces Agreement be ratified by Iraq’s parliament set the stage for the inevitable failure of any agreement.
Simply put, while a number of Iraqi political leaders may have privately wished for continued American involvement to serve as a buffer and broker between both domestic rivals and neighboring regimes, far fewer were willing to support this position in a public, contentious debate. No one wants to be regarded as an American stooge in the prideful arena of Iraqi politics. Backing parliamentarians into a corner by demanding public ratification doomed a new SOFA to failure.
The Obama administration’s reluctance to apply influence, in addition to its apparent abandonment of allies from the Sunni Awakening, are inexplicable, given the value of a politically stable Iraq in a region beset by rising Iranian influence and resurgent Salafist-Jihadist terrorism.