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During an uncharacteristic American Presidential campaign year, some actors, driven by fear of the temporary rise of ISIS, have coined the talking point that “President Obama or the Obama Administration is responsible for the existence and rise of ISIS”[1] From this talking point, the actors can safely play Monday Quarterback from the comfort of their filtered view.

Although the caliphate of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS[2] was not proclaimed until June 2014[3], its roots can be traced to 1999.[4] What morphed into ISIS caliphate in Syria in 2014, began long before American forces were withdrawn from Iraq. Indeed, the May 27, 2007 surge was in actuality the beginning of the fight against Isis in Iraq.[5]

Proponents of this talking point have boldly claimed that the withdrawal of the United States Armed Forces from Iraq by President Obama on December 18, 2011 is responsible for the existence and rise of ISIS.[6] They argued that the withdrawal created the vacuum that was seized by the terrorist organization. Whatever the merits of this talking point, the decision by President Obama to withdraw US troops from Iraq at the time was a choice of the lesser of two evils. The President was confronted with two equally very bad options; withdraw all US forces or leave some 10,000 of them in Iraq against the wishes of the people and government of that country. He made the correct decision when decided to withdraw US troops from Iraq. America went into Iraq as liberators and not occupiers. It would have made no difference in outcome if the Obama Administration had kept all 150,000 US troops in Iraq against the wishes of the Iraqi government and people.

The Status of Forces Agreement[7] [SOFA] signed by President George W. Bush on November 17, 2008 provided the framework for the planned withdrawal of all American troops from Iraq by December 31, 2011. Although President Obama was not signatory to SOFA which established the timing of the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, he was obligated to implement the agreement made by his predecessor, but in consonant with the wishes of the Iraqi government and people.

President Obama started the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq on December 31, 2007 and the withdrawal took until December 18, 2011to be completed. Essentially, it took almost four years to withdraw all of US forces from Iraq. Yet, these same critics have claimed that the President “didn’t even talk to Nuri Kamal al-Maliki until it was basically all over”[8] without acknowledging that during those four years the US continued to seek ratification of SOFA by Iraq. In addition, and in the face of strong Iraqi opposition, the Bush administration conceded on June 9, 2008 that “the United States may not secure a security agreement with Iraq before President Bush leaves office.”[9]

Translation, the Iraqi government had rejected SOFA. The Iraqi parliamentarians were never going to approve the grant US forces the full immunity provided in that agreement. After all, these Iraqi parliamentarians were in control of the Iraqi government and not Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. Moreover, Iraqi popular opinion was staunchly against U.S. troops staying in Iraq. The gulf between the majority Shiite controlled government and the minority Sunnis created a state of suspicion and inevitable civil strife. Furthermore, the gravitation of the Shiite controlled government towards Iran and the gradual marginalization of Sunnis through disregard for the Democratic apparatus of governance installed by the US further exacerbated the rift between Sunnis and Shiites[10] Continued US presence in Iraq after December 31, 2008, would have been viewed by the Iraqi people as helping to prop an unpopular government.

Not surprisingly, Iraq invoked its authority as a sovereign nation under international law to reject SOFA by refusing to grant US forces full immunity. Iraq and the United States have no bilateral defense treaty. As such, acceptance of SOFA by Iraq as drafted was a critical official invitation and legal basis for the US to station 10,000 American military forces to remain in Iraq effective January 1, 2009. Without a ratified SOFA, the grant of immunity by the Iraqi government to those forces as provided in the agreement was absent [11]. To any American Commander- in- chief, the immunity clause in SOFA was a condition precedent which was and could not be negotiable. When Prime Minister Malaki and Iraq government rejected that condition precedent and would not grant immunity to American forces, President Obama was left with two very bad options; withdraw all American forces from Iraq which he did, or forced the government of Iraq to grant the required immunity as his critics have claimed.

The critics forget that at the time President Obama withdrew US forces from Iraq, American forces had trained and equipped over 300,000 Iraqi forces designed to defend and protect their own country and territorial sovereignty. Prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki and the Iraqi people were confident of their ability to Defend their country. Unfortunately, as we all know, when ISIS attacked Mosul on June 14, 2014, the Iraqi army disintegrated in the face of the advance of ISIS. The Iraqi government, Armed Forces and people failed their own nation and bear the ultimate responsibility for the instability, chaos and rise of ISIS that followed the withdrawal of American forces.

Let us assume for a moment that President Obama had forced the government of Iraq to ratify SOFA, which only granted a paper immunity to American forces and supporting contractors stationed in that country, as the critics have argued. As a practical matter, a forced agreement never creates a good relationship. When an agreement is forced or imposed, by definition, it is not an agreement. Indeed, such a forced agreement would have converted US soldiers, from the Iraqi perspective, into occupation forces. Since American troops entered Iraq as liberators and not invaders, such a forced agreement would have been contrary to US objectives and policy.

In fact, the forced presence of US forces in Iraq would have become the unifying force between the majority Shiites and marginalized Sunnis. As a result, American forces would have become the enemy of the very same people they sacrifice so much to save from tyranny. Therefore, had the Obama administration followed the advice of the critics, he would have guaranteed that the US would have been receiving body bags of killed American soldiers from Iraq today. We are certain that these same critics would be the first to cast blame against the Obama administration for not pulling out US forces when Iraq reject SOFA. To those who subscribe to the politics of blame first, we remind them that both Presidents Bush and Obama, at two distinct moments in history and to the best of their abilities, performed their primary perceived constitutional responsibilities to protect Americans.

To those who would dismiss the fact that a forced presence of US forces in Iraq would have created a far worse outcome as conjecture, remember that at the height of the May 27, 2007 surge, there were over 170,000 American troops in Iraq in November 2007. Thus, had President Obama listen to the critics and converted US forces left behind in Iraq into occupation forces, by not obtaining the full immunity from the government of Iraq, there would have been an inevitable massive revolt against the presence of American forces, necessitating yet another major surge and further casualties.

Irrespective of anyone’s penchant in the political spectrum, the probable costs of the risk of leaving US forces in Iraq under a forced agreement far outweighed any benefits. Moreover, US troops in Iraq could not have prevented the emergence of ISIS in Syria without also occupying that country. Under the logic of the critics’ position, the US could have found itself having to occupy and defend every nation with an ISIS presence. Of course, that justification ignores the obvious, the US would be in the business of nation building, which Americans completely rejected and more importantly, it would be reckless for the US station American forces in another country without the necessary security agreements. The lack of a vision by some of our would-be leaders who continue to shadow box with symptoms rather than discerning the causes of problems is astounding. Isis, Al Qaeda, or any terrorist organization is a symptom of ideological, economic and political conditions. In order to defeat terrorism, not just ISIS, well devised concrete national, regional and international approaches must be formulated to address the causes of these symptoms conditions.

Therefore, the Iraqi government, Armed Forces and people failed their own country and bear the ultimate responsibility for the instability, chaos and rise of ISIS that followed the withdrawal of American forces. The decision by President Obama to withdraw US forces from Iraq did not create ISIS and certainly was not ultimately responsible for the rise of Isis. Conversely, the resultant chaos in Iraq that followed the withdrawal of US forces by President Obama reaffirmed the importance of US leadership to the world and to the Iraqi government and people, specifically. Finally, Iraq learned firsthand the significance of a healthy relationship with America to its very own survival.

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[1] “President Obama or the Obama Administration is responsible for the existence and rise of ISIS,” http://www.cnn.com/2016/01/04/opinions/bergen-trump-obama-clinton-creation-of-isis/

[2] Supra Note 2.

[3] Jump up ^ Roggio, Bill (29 June 2014). “ISIS announces formation of Caliphate, rebrands as ‘Islamic State'”. Long War Journal

[4] Established under the name of Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 1999

[5] Declaration of an Islamic state in Iraq: October13, 2006

[6] “What is Islamic State?”. BBC News. 26 September 2014. Retrieved 9 March 2015.

[7] “Agreement Between the United States of America and the Republic of Iraq On the Withdrawal of United States Forces from Iraq and the Organization of Their Activities during Their Temporary Presence in Iraq.” http://graphics8.nytimes.com/packages/pdf/world/20081119_SOFA_FINAL_AGREED_TEXT.pdf

[8] “Fact Check: Did-Obama-withdraw-from-Iraq-too-soon-allowing-isis-to-grow? http://www.npr.org/2015/12/19/459850716/

[9] “Bush Admin. May Not Get Iraq Security Deal Before End of Term,” http://www.foxnews.com/story/2008/06/09/bush-admin-may-not-get-iraq-security-deal-before-end-term.html

[10] The war between Iran and Iraq from September 22, 1980 to August 20, 1988 cease fire was led by Saddam Hussein, a Sunni. Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/war/iran-iraq.htm

[11] Id. Article 12