Leon Panetta destroys what little was left of Obama’s excuse for not leaving troops in Iraq

Following in the footsteps of Robert Gates, his Obama administration predecessor at the Pentagon, former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has criticized the president’s handling of a key battleground in the war against Islamic terrorism. Gates’ criticism centered around Afghanistan. Panetta’s focuses on Iraq.

In Panetta’s forthcoming memoir “Worthy Fights,” which Time Magazine has excerpted, Panetta argues that Iraqi leaders privately wanted U.S. forces to stay behind after the formal 2011 withdrawal; that the U.S. had “leverage” to strike a deal; and that the Defense and State departments attempted to do so. However, says Panetta, “the President’s team at the White House pushed back” and thus no deal was reached.

Why? Because “the White House [was] so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.”

Panetta’s account is consistent with that of Ryan Crocker, our highly respected ambassador to Iraq during the period in question. According to Crocker, the U.S. “could have gotten [the] agreement” to keep troops in Iraq if officials had been more persistent.

Virtually every deal the Bush administration reached with the Iraqis was achieved at the “13th hour” — that’s how things work in the Middle East. But Obama threw in the towel well before “midnight” because, as Panetta says, he was so eager to rid himself of Iraq.

I would say “case closed” except that the case already was closed thanks to the excellent reporting to the same effect by Dexter Filkins (formerly of the New York Times) in the New Yorker. Obama’s claim that he wanted U.S. forces to remain in Iraq but was thwarted by the Iraqi government is simply not true.

As our nation has become more divided, even the most distinguished officials charged with protecting America have tended to choose political sides on matters as to which politics once stopped at water’s edge. Gates is one of the few who never really did.

Panetta, a former congressman and later Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, has long been on the Democrats’ side. But when a president screws up as badly as Obama did in Iraq, and with such dire potential consequences for our security, honest Democrats who witnessed the screw-up from close range find it difficult to toe the party line. Indeed, even Hillary Clinton isn’t toeing it, albeit for reasons less noble than Panetta’s.

With Panetta on the record, “history” may have little choice but to judge Obama’s Iraq policy very harshly. I hope that Obama’s decision to combat ISIS will give “history” something to credit him with. Unfortunately, the half-hearted combat he has undertaken looks like too little too late.

NOTE: In the original version of this post, I stated, incorrectly, that Panetta has always been on the Democrats’ side. Early in his political career, a reader reminds me, Panetta was a Republican.

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