Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Iraq, the unraveling (Part LXVII): The difference between Sen. McCain and me

Sen. John McCain said yesterday on Face the Nation that: Iraq is unraveling. It’s unraveling because we didn’t keep a residual force there because the president of the United States pledged to get out of Iraq. And we could have kept a residual force there and kept some stability. Instead, it’s unraveling, and Iran’s influence ...

PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

Sen. John McCain said yesterday on Face the Nation that:

Iraq is unraveling. It's unraveling because we didn't keep a residual force there because the president of the United States pledged to get out of Iraq. And we could have kept a residual force there and kept some stability. Instead, it's unraveling, and Iran's influence is increasing, and there's every possibility you could see a very chaotic situation there.… The vice president of Iraq is now hiding out in Irbil. There is militias and death squads operating. There is a breakdown in the Iraqi government, and there will be increased tensions on the border between the Kurdish areas and Iraq.

The difference between me and Sen. McCain is that I think it is possible that the unraveling was inevitable, from the moment the U.S. military entered Iraq in the spring of 2003. We untied the knot that was Iraq.

Sen. John McCain said yesterday on Face the Nation that:

Iraq is unraveling. It’s unraveling because we didn’t keep a residual force there because the president of the United States pledged to get out of Iraq. And we could have kept a residual force there and kept some stability. Instead, it’s unraveling, and Iran’s influence is increasing, and there’s every possibility you could see a very chaotic situation there.… The vice president of Iraq is now hiding out in Irbil. There is militias and death squads operating. There is a breakdown in the Iraqi government, and there will be increased tensions on the border between the Kurdish areas and Iraq.

The difference between me and Sen. McCain is that I think it is possible that the unraveling was inevitable, from the moment the U.S. military entered Iraq in the spring of 2003. We untied the knot that was Iraq.

I admit it: When I was writing The Gamble I thought for a while that such a residual force was the way to go. But with the passage of the years since then I increasingly have come to believe that the Iraqis were simply sitting around keeping their powder dry and waiting for Uncle Sam to get out of the way, so they could sort themselves out. Remember, the surge was half a war ago — it began five years ago, in January 2007. Iraq was given a lot of time. I do not see what keeping 15,000 troops there for another year or two would do that it did not do in 2009 or 2010. Plus, President Obama was not elected to keep us in Iraq; he was elected, in part, to get us out. So it would be pretty hard to keep troops there without a clear indication that it would do any good. Especially since Iraqis seemed to want us out.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.