Obama’s Iraq ambassador: I wanted troops to remain in Iraq

Obama’s former ambassador to Iraq, who served during the withdrawal of U.S. forces, was in favor of keeping some troops in the Iraq past the 2011 withdrawal date, he told The Cable in an interview today.

“My feeling was we needed, for political reasons, U.S. troops in country carrying out the training mission [past 2011] … I thought it was important to have an American presence and a new Status of Forces Agreement,” said former ambassador Jim Jeffrey, who retired from government this year after serving as the Obama administration’s envoy to Baghdad from 2010 until June. Jeffrey is now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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.

“The troop numbers were not something I opined on. That was a military decision. My argument was we needed a troop presence to do training and that troop presence had to have the capabilities to protect itself and do counterterrorism and some other things,” said Jeffrey. “The more troops you keep in Iraq, as far as I was concerned, the better, as long as the Iraqis went along with it.”

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.

“I know of no senior official who challenged that,” he said.

Jeffrey pushed back against the growing perception in Washington that Maliki is consolidating power in Baghdad, refusing to share governance with the opposition parties, and turning Iraqi foreign policy away from American interests and toward Iranian interests, for example by supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Jeffrey doesn’t see Maliki as either totally supporting Assad or totally cooperating with the United States.

“He’s trying to play both sides,” said Jeffrey. “For Iraqi Shia, not just Maliki, Syria is a frightening experience. They are afraid that when the jihadists finish in Syria, they will ally with the Sunnis in Iraq and come after the Shia.”

“This may be unrealistic and it’s not in our interest that they think this way,” he said. “We Americans hate it when anyone takes an independent position, but that’s the new world order. And people are going to follow their own interests.”

In The Endgame, Michael Gordon’s new book about the end of the Iraq war, he quotes Jeffrey as saying that Maliki has “dictatorial tendencies” and that the U.S. needed to work to counter those tendencies. Jeffrey confirmed he had said that in the past, but added that he places a lot of the blame for the delay in political reconciliation in Iraq on former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, the head of the Iraqqiya party.

“I think every leader I’ve encountered in Iraq has dictatorial tendencies. Maliki just happens to be the one who is the prime minister,” he said. “Until August of 2011, a lot of people in the political process who could be objective, if they had to put their finger on who was screwing up the agreements, they would put a lot of the weight on Iyad Allawi. Allawi never gave up his desire to be prime minister and he felt that he could bring the system down and we would eventually intervene. We didn’t.”

Jeffrey said he regrets that the Iraq war was initiated in 2003 without a clear plan to get out and said that the idea that the United States would be able craft Iraq into a model of Western-style democracy in the middle of the Middle East was always naïve and misguided.

“In most cases, it takes decades for countries to shape up… So us thinking that in the short run we could fix this in Iraq was totally wrong,” he said.

Jeffrey said he saw the situation in Iraq as “a glass half full.”

“There is a lot of commitment among Iraqis for diversity, pluralism, and independent organs of government,” he said. “The final story has not been written. We’ll see.”