In September 2011, President Obama said that he would like to keep between 3,000 and 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, but, according to the Washington Post, he had not begun negotiations three months before the withdrawal deadline. That November, the Washington Post reported that the vice president was in Iraq seeking to negotiate a continued American presence in Iraq. Many critics pointed out that retaining such a tiny, ineffective U.S. force in Iraq might prove more dangerous than a complete withdrawal.
Author and military expert Max Boot savaged Obama in the Wall Street Journal for not taking the negotiations seriously. Boot noted that President Bush was able to get a deal for a status of forces agreement in 2008 when even more U.S. troops were in Iraq. Boot noted that the immunity issue was covered by a Memorandum of Understanding rather than a treaty in other Middle Eastern countries where American soldiers are deployed.
Boot also pointed out that Obama frequently undercut his own negotiators. By frequently bragging about his plans to “end the war in Iraq,” Obama signaled to Iraqis that he was not serious about maintaining a presence. Further, the Iraqis knew that the number of troops that Obama was willing to commit were far less than the 20,000 deemed necessary by military leaders. Iraqi leaders “were not willing to stick their necks out for such a puny force,” according to Boot, “that may not even have been able to adequately defend itself, much less carry out other missions.”
Even before U.S. troops left, Iraq began to fall into Iran’s orbit. In June 2011, the Wall Street Journal reported that Iran was wooing the leaders of three key U.S. Middle East allies: Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 2012, Iran began overflying Iraqi airspace on an almost daily basis in order to deliver arms and supplies to the Assad regime in Syria. CNN described in March 2013 how Secretary of State Kerry had discussed the matter with al-Maliki, who noted that the Iraqi Air Force had a very limited capability to stop the overflights. Three months later, the Iraqis warned Israel against transiting Iraqi airspace during any attempt to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities according to the Times of Israel.
The Iraqi government is now widely acknowledged to be sympathetic to Iran. The Huffington Post reported in June 2012 that Iran is likely propping up the al-Maliki government behind the scenes. Debka File calls Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki “pro-Iranian” and says that the Iraqi defeats in Anbar were humiliating for Iran which had “heavily backed the Iraqi army offensive.” After the debacle in Fallujah and Ramadi, Iran’s Tasnim News Agency reported that the Iranian government had pledged support for Iraq’s fight against “terrorism and extremism.” Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad is also an Iranian proxy while al-Qaeda supports rebel factions attempting to oust him. The dynamic is partly one of Sunni versus Shia. Al Qaeda is a Sunni Muslim organization while Iran and the Iraqi government are primarily Shiite.
In the end it appears that the expiration of the status of forces agreement provided Barack Obama with a way to fulfill his campaign promise to withdraw American soldiers from Iraq. The immunity issue provided a convenient way to blame the Iraqi government for the failure to reach an agreement. The president’s delegation of negotiations to Vice President Biden, a man that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said was “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades,” is perhaps the best indication of how little importance Obama attached to Iraq’s security. Where Obama preferred to withdraw and abandon America’s influence in the Middle East, Iran was more than willing to assume the role of the Middle East’s dominant power.