State Dept. Spokeswoman: Biden ‘Had the Iraq Portfolio and Ran Point on Iraq’

By Lauretta Brown | October 7, 2014 | 11:56 AM EDT


State Dept. spokeswoman Jen Psaki (U.S. Dept. of State)

( – State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki appeared to shift blame for the deteriorating situation in Iraq from President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Vice President Joe Biden at a Friday press briefing.

“The fact is the vice president of the United States, who is higher ranking than the secretary of state, had the Iraq portfolio and ran point on Iraq,” Psaki said in response to a series of questions from Associated Press reporter Matt Lee about recent allegations by several former White House officials that the administration never made a real effort to leave a residual force in Iraq.

In August, Obama said that pulling out the troops was not his decision, and that “the reason that we did not have a follow-on force in Iraq was because… a majority of Iraqis did not want U.S. troops there…”

But Fox News reported on Friday that former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta claimed in newly published excerpts from his memoir, “Worthy Fights,” that “the White House didn't try hard enough to strike a deal with Iraq in 2011 to leave a residual force of U.S. troops behind which, in turn, opened the door for the region to become a haven for the Islamic State."

Panetta also wrote that he warned Obama not to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq because of his fears that “it could become a new haven for terrorists to plot attacks against the U.S.”

Pointing out that [former Defense Sec. Bob] “Gates, Panetta, [former U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan] Crocker, and now [former U.S. ambassador to Iraq] Chris Hill, who is the latest to join this... seemingly ever-growing parade of former officials who are taking the administration to task for really screwing up in Iraq,” Lee asked Psaki: “How is it possible that all of them are wrong?”

“The political situation on the ground was that the Iraqis did not want to have a big troop presence on the ground. There was political challenges to getting it through, but it was clear they did not want that. So that was what we were dealing with at the time,” Psaki replied.

“I understand that’s what you were dealing with at the time,” Lee countered. “The criticism is that again, now from Chris Hill, is that Iraq became kind of a backburner issue for the administration in the president’s first term and that the reason that you didn’t get the protection that you needed, that everyone agrees was needed for keeping troops there, is because you weren’t engaged, you weren’t involved.”

The fact is the vice president of the United States, who is higher ranking than the secretary of state, had the Iraq portfolio and ran point on Iraq, and went to Iraq...” Psaki responded.

Vice President Joe Biden  ( Starr)

So it’s his fault?” Lee interjected.

Let me finish ....went to Iraq – I don’t know the number the times, I’d certainly defer to my colleagues at the White House – and was closely engaged with this issue.

"There were a range of officials who were working on this within the government – including Secretary Panetta, including Vice President Biden, including Secretary Clinton – who agreed that we could have a residual force there if we could have protections from troops. But we know we couldn’t force the Iraqi government, a sovereign country, to agree to that,” Psaki said.

Lee again pointed out that “the criticism is that you didn’t use the leverage that you could have had, or that you did have, to get there. And from what you’re just saying, I mean, so this is – this was the vice president’s portfolio, so that everything that’s gone wrong in Iraq since is his fault?”

No. I was saying, actually making the point – and it’s well known – that the vice president had this portfolio, that we elevated it to the vice president,” Psaki said.“That was who was running point on Iraq.

"It just – those criticisms just don’t bear out the facts from the ground. We could not force the Iraqi government to agree to have a troop presence and – when they did not want to have a troop presence there. And obviously, they didn’t want to give us the protections we needed to have a troop presence there,” she said.

“Fair enough But the criticism is that you didn’t do enough to get the Iraqis to agree to the protection,” Lee persisted. “And it sounds as if that the reason why is everyone’s fault – it’s Gates’ fault, Biden’s fault, Panetta’s fault, maybe not Crocker’s fault, Chris Hill’s fault, too.”

Psaki insisted that she “actually didn’t say that at all,” repeating that the Iraqis “were not going to allow us to have a troop presence.”