As U.S. warplanes began airstrikes in Iraq over the weekend, President Obama and his numerous critics in Congress renewed the strident debate over the U.S. troop withdrawal in 2011.
Obama and his critics appeared to agree that the lack of a residual U.S. training and advisory force in Iraq was a factor in the surge of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), but they parted ways on whether the withdrawal could have been avoided.
On the White House lawn Saturday, before he departed for a Martha's Vineyard vacation, Obama was asked "do you have any second thoughts about pulling all ground troops out of Iraq?" The reporter followed up and asked the president if it made him think twice about "doing the same thing in Afghanistan?"
In a lengthy, and sometimes edgy, response, Obama said that the U.S. had no choice on withdrawal when the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki balked at giving U.S. troops immunity from Iraqi law.
"What I just find interesting is the degree to which this issue keeps on coming up, as if this was my decision," Obama said.
"Under the previous administration, we had turned over the country to a sovereign, democratically elected Iraqi government," Obama said. "In order for us to maintain troops in Iraq, we needed the invitation of the Iraqi government and we needed assurances that our personnel would be immune from prosecution."
In a series of on-air interviews and statements, Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, repeated his argument that the Obama administration did not press hard enough with the Maliki government for a Bilateral Security Agreement on a residual force.
The rise of ISIL was one of the "consequences of our failure to leave a residual force," McCain said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union" program. "We are paying the price for it. We could have avoided it."
McCain and Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, and Kelly Ayotte, R-New Hampshire, have frequently charged that Obama had been more focused on fulfilling a campaign promise to withdraw from Iraq, and their views have been echoed by Republicans on the House side.
However, Obama said that "the Iraqi government, based on its political considerations, in part because Iraqis were tired of a U.S. occupation, declined to provide us those assurances" that U.S. troops would be subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
"And on that basis, we left. We had offered to leave additional troops. So when you hear people say, 'Do you regret, Mr. President, not leaving more troops,' that presupposes that I would have overridden this sovereign government that we had turned the keys back over to," Obama said.
"So let's just be clear," Obama said. "The reason that we did not have a follow-on force in Iraq was because the Iraqis were -- a majority of Iraqis did not want U.S. troops there, and politically they could not pass the kind of laws that would be required to protect our troops in Iraq."
McCain countered that the threat ISIL now poses could be traced to the "failure to leave a residual force in Iraq." If the U.S. follows the same policy, "we'll see that same movie again in Afghanistan," McCain said.
"As we had predicted for a long time," McCain said, the threat from ISIL had morphed into a regional conflict that was unlikely to be contained by what he called "pinprick" U.S. airstrikes. "Clearly, they're very, very ineffective to say the least."
On the Democrats' side, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, dismissed the Republican complaints as irresponsible. "Don't forget they invited us to leave," Durbin said of the Iraqis on NCB's "Meet the Press."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@monster.com.