John McCain on Iraq: Losing the peace

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Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) talks with reporters after the weekly Senate Republican policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol Oct. 18, 2011, in Washington.

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  • Prospect of a decent outcome in Iraq has now been placed at unnecessary risk - @SenJohnMcCain

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  • Worst elements of the Iranian regime are now seeking to fill influence vacuum in Iraq - @SenJohnMcCain

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  • Afghans have told me how unsettled they are about the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq - @SenJohnMcCain

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Just days after U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq, a series of attacks in Baghdad have raised doubts about the security of the country, while political upheaval threatens to undermine its government. AEI’s vice president for foreign and defense policy studies, Danielle Pletka, shared some questions with U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Last week, after President Obama heralded the departure of all U.S. troops from Iraq, you said: “I believe that history will judge this president’s leadership with the scorn and disdain it deserves.”  What should President Obama have done in Iraq, and how might different actions have affected the course of events on the ground?

I do not believe the President ever brought the full weight of his office to bear in pushing for a residual presence of U.S. forces in Iraq. For the past five years, the President has been completely consistent about his position on Iraq. As a U.S. Senator, he was adamantly opposed to the war, he said repeatedly that the surge was a mistake and a failure, and he constantly pledged to withdraw all U.S. troops at the earliest possible date. So perhaps it should not have come as a surprise that he has now done exactly what he said he would do all along. Perhaps it should also not come as a surprise that the White House is now putting out glossy literature proclaiming that the President has fulfilled his campaign promise to withdraw from Iraq. That is the larger political context in which the events of the past year have unfolded, and it is impossible to divorce the final outcome from it.

Had the President wanted to keep troops in Iraq, as both U.S. and Iraqi military commanders recommended, he would have pushed earlier and more directly for what was in our national security interest, rather than adopting the hands-off approach that left our diplomatic and military leaders in Iraq unable to begin an effective negotiation, let alone conclude one. I spoke with all of the leaders of Iraq’s major political blocs during repeated visits to the country, and all of them said privately that some presence of U.S. troops should remain in the country. But when Iraqi leaders asked the United States how many troops it wanted to keep in Iraq, and what tasks those troops might perform, the White House dragged its feet in giving them an answer. The key Iraqi political blocs gathered together in August and publicly asked to open negotiations, and again the White House response was characterized by delay. The final number they provided to the Iraqis was too low for any Iraqi politician to want to take the political risk to support it.

The reason given for why the negotiations failed was the unwillingness of the Iraqis to grant our troops the necessary legal privileges and immunities. But that was a symptom of the larger problem: the President’s unwillingness or failure to exercise the immense influence that the United States possessed in Iraq. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said that she and the other authors of the 2008 Security Agreement always understood that it would need to be renegotiated to keep an effective presence of U.S. troops in Iraq. That could have been done. With stronger and more determined presidential leadership, we could have shaped the private understandings of Iraq’s leaders about the necessity of a residual presence of U.S. forces into a public consensus to do what was necessary to achieve it. That would not have been a violation of Iraq’s sovereignty. That would have been effective leadership.


There’s been a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking going on in the wake of last week’s casing of the colors in Baghdad and the subsequent political upheaval in Iraq.  Some have suggested that accusations against Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi and the warrant for his arrest prove that we have done little more than facilitate the transition from a Sunni dictator to a Shiite in Iraq.  What’s your take?

It is too soon to tell what the nature of Iraq’s political system will be. Prime Minister Maliki has consolidated an immense amount of power in his hands over the past three years. He has not implemented the Irbil Agreement on power-sharing and political inclusivity, and as the events of the past several days show, he is wielding power in an increasingly authoritarian manner. Furthermore, I do not think it is merely a coincidence that the Prime Minister made these moves on the day that the last U.S. troops left the country. And the fact that he did so immediately after returning from meetings in the Oval Office makes the U.S. government appear complicit.

"Had U.S. troops remained in the country, it would have provided added reassurance to all of Iraq’s factions that the political process was the best avenue for resolving their differences." -John McCainDespite the recent crisis, however, Iraq still possesses a democratic system. It still has the democratic laws and procedures for Iraq’s elected leaders to hold the Prime Minister accountable or, in the extreme, to bring a vote of no-confidence against his government. I believe a majority of Iraqis want their country to remain democratic and want their leaders to be accountable for their actions. It will be up to Iraq’s leaders to resolve this political crisis, and we must hope that they can and will do so peacefully through the political process. It will be up the United States to use what influence we still have left to support the Iraqi people and their elected representatives in a way that strengthens the integrity, inclusivity, and effectiveness of Iraq’s democratic institutions.


The hyperbole used to characterize supporters of the war in Iraq suggests that we wanted troops to stay in Iraq “forever”, that any departure would have been “too soon”; the corollary to that is that Iranian domination of Iraq is and was inevitable.  When would have been the right time to leave Iraq?  Or are people asking the wrong question?  What would a long term strategic partnership with Iraq have looked like?

Had U.S. and Iraqi leaders agreed to keep an effective presence of U.S. troops in Iraq, it would have been up to our respective democratic governments to determine how long they would have remained there. But the tasks that U.S. troops would have been in Iraq to perform—assisting the Iraqi Security Forces in increasing their capability to protect their airspace, to gather and fuse intelligence, and to improve their counterterrorism operations, among other missions—would not have taken forever to accomplish.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of all was the stabilizing influence that our force presence had on Iraq’s politics. The surge succeeded in ending large-scale sectarian violence and thereby opening up greater space for Iraq’s leaders to work to resolve their differences through politics, not violence. Iraqis have accomplished a great deal in that regard, but as the current crisis makes clear, they still have not resolved some of their greatest political disputes, and Iraq’s democratic institutions remain fragile. Had U.S. troops remained in the country, it would have provided added reassurance to all of Iraq’s factions that the political process was the best avenue for resolving their differences. Furthermore, it would have ensured that the United States continued to possess substantial influence to support Iraqis in reinforcing their country’s democratic development. The Obama Administration did not adequately and effectively use that influence over the past three years, and now they have left Iraq in a way and at a time that has exacerbated the lingering mistrust among Iraqis. We had an important window to help Iraqis further lock in their democratic institutions and habits of behavior, at least through their next election. Had we kept some U.S. troops in Iraq, it could have been a critical part of a broader political strategy to strengthen all of the positive trends made possible by the surge.

"Afghans have told me how unsettled they are about the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq." -John McCainAs I have said repeatedly, the American people are not opposed to keeping U.S. troops overseas, as we have for decades in places like Germany and South Korea—so long as our troops are not taking heavy casualties for no discernable reason and with no prospect of success. That was no longer the case in Iraq. So I think Americans would have supported a presence of U.S. troops in Iraq, but that would have required the President to build support for it and explain why such a troop presence was in our national security interest.


How do you think President Obama’s decision to depart Iraq will affect our ability to counter the Iranian challenge in the region?

It will only make that challenge harder. We have diminished our influence in Iraq, and the worst elements of the Iranian regime are now seeking to fill that vacuum.  Polls consistently show that Iraqis resent the Iranian government’s meddling in their internal affairs and have no desire for Iran to dominate their country. But as we have seen in the past, if Iraqis feel they do not have a strong counterweight to Iran’s ruthless and violent activities, they will make what they feel are the necessary accommodations to survive. I fear that dynamic has only been exacerbated by the full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Furthermore, the President’s announcement of a premature draw down of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, which our military commanders have said was more aggressive than they had wanted, only adds to the perception that U.S. power is weakening and withdrawing in the broader Middle East. The resulting dynamic will only embolden the Iranian regime and diminish our ability to effectively counter its destabilizing actions.


Do you believe there will be repercussions in Afghanistan from the decision to depart Iraq?

Absolutely. Afghans have told me how unsettled they are about the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. They have told me that there is a perception in Afghanistan that if the United States is willing to pull all of its troops out of Iraq, then surely it will do the same in Afghanistan. If I were President Karzai, or another Afghan leader, I would have second thoughts about any promises and commitments made by this Administration to keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan after 2014. I think it only reinforces President Karzai’s instincts to hedge his bets on the United States and to search for the support he needs for his country from nearby neighbors that are far less friendly to U.S. interests. I also think the withdrawal from Iraq is a source of encouragement for our enemies in Afghanistan. It can only add to their belief that, if they just hang on and keep fighting, eventually U.S. forces will leave.


Many critics of the war stress the costs of Operation Iraqi Freedom in blood and treasure.  You understand all too well the heavy cost of war, the toll on families, the sacrifice of our troops.  How can we judge whether the war was worth the cost?

The war in Iraq has already accomplished worthy goals. Our troops removed one of the most horrific dictators in history—a man who started regional wars, had a history of developing destabilizing weapons, tortured and oppressed the Iraqi people for decades, and murdered hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. The world is a better place now that the Saddam Hussein regime is gone, and our troops and their families can rightfully be proud in that accomplishment.

The greater question is what kind of country will Iraq ultimately become, and the prospect of a decent outcome has now been placed at unnecessary risk because of the full withdrawal of U.S. troops. I fear that General Jack Keane is right when he said, “We won the war in Iraq, and we are now losing the peace.” All the gains we have achieved in Iraq are now at risk, and the enormous expenditure of blood and treasure that those gains entailed are now in jeopardy of being viewed by history as sacrifices made in vain.

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