Iraq returns to spotlight in campaign

The war in Iraq is back on the radar in the presidential campaign.

After being a dominant issue for much of the 2008 race, Iraq has been a little more than an afterthought in 2012.

But as Mitt Romney has stepped up his offensive against President Obama’s handling of Libya, he has also broadened his attacks by using instability in Iraq to label Obama as weak on the Middle East.

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Romney specifically took aim at Obama’s “abrupt” withdrawal from Iraq during a major foreign policy address this week at the Virginia Military Institute.

“In Iraq, the costly gains made by our troops are being eroded by rising violence, a resurgent Al Qaeda, the weakening of democracy in Baghdad, and the rising influence of Iran,” Romney said.

“And yet, America’s ability to influence events for the better in Iraq has been undermined by the abrupt withdrawal of our entire troop presence. The president tried — and failed — to secure a responsible and gradual drawdown that would have better secured our gains.”

In targeting Iraq, Romney is taking on one of the biggest achievements of Obama’s first term.

The president frequently mentions his campaign promise to end the war in Iraq in stump speeches, and the campaign has pushed back aggressively against Romney by saying the Republican nominee would still have troops there.

Iraq is not about to reemerge the major issue it was in 2008, of course.

Even the war in Afghanistan, where 68,000 U.S. troops remain, has played a relatively small role in the 2012 campaign.

But a renewed focus on Iraq this week shows that it will be more than just an applause line for Obama for the campaign’s duration.

Both campaigns think they can score points by using Iraq as a key indictment of their opponent’s larger foreign policy.

Vice President Biden hit Romney on Iraq in his first statement of Thursday’s debate against Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), pivoting away from the question on Libya.

“On Iraq, the president said he would end the war,” Biden said. “Gov. Romney said that was a tragic mistake, [that] we should have left 30,000 troops there.”

The disagreements over Iraq will likely play out most at the third and final presidential debate, which is focused on foreign policy.

Four of the six topics for the debate, which were released Friday, will be about the Middle East, giving both Obama and Romney plenty of opportunities to bring up Iraq.

An Obama campaign official said that Romney’s attack on the troop withdrawal from Iraq was “surprising,” and that it provided a window into his foreign policy decision-making.

“In a speech designed to make him sound more moderate on some issues, the one Bush legacy that he doubled down on was keeping troops in Iraq,” the Obama official said.

Democrats have pointed to the number of Bush administration alumni on Romney’s foreign policy team to raise questions about whether he would go to war too quickly in Iran and elsewhere.

Ryan pushed back against Biden in Thursday’s vice presidential debate. He argued that the Obama administration would have supported leaving some troops in Iraq if it could have reached an agreement with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

“The vice president was put in charge of those negotiations by President Obama and they failed to get the agreement. We don't have a status of forces agreement because they failed to get one,” Ryan said. “That's what we are talking about.”

Defense hawks like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) have been highly critical of the Obama administration for pulling all troops out, saying the U.S. military’s departure has left a vacuum and the country is now unraveling.

Since the U.S. troops left Iraq at the end of 2011, Iraq has seen a rise of violence and sectarian tensions. Maliki’s Shiite-led government last month sentenced the country’s vice president and Sunni opposition leader, Tariq al-Hashemi, to death on terrorism charges.

Obama administration officials note Iraq is a sovereign country, and Maliki’s insistence that U.S. troops were not immune from Iraq courts made it impossible to reach a new status of forces agreement.

Romney had criticized Obama in 2011 when he announced all U.S. troops were departing at the end of the year, but he said little about Iraq earlier this year.

His campaign had said it was focused on the economy. That was largely because of polls showing Obama had a clear advantage on foreign policy, due to the death of Osama bin Laden and the end of the Iraq war.

But the Libya attack changed the narrative in the last month.

Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who co-wrote a book on Obama’s foreign policy, said attacks on Iraq alone will not sway a public that wanted the U.S. to leave the country. But he said ongoing violence there could have some impact as part of a broader critique of Obama.

“This fits into the broader narrative that the Romney team is trying to tell … this notion that Obama’s lost his additional energy on foreign policy,” O’Hanlon said.