On Iraq, Let’s Ignore Those Who Got It All Wrong

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On Iraq, Let’s Ignore Those Who Got It All Wrong

Senate Armed Services Committee member Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 4, 2014. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

At noon on Friday, President Obama issued his first statement on the deteriorating situation on Iraq. “This is not solely or even primarily a military challenge,” he said. “The United States will do our part, but understand that ultimately it’s up to the Iraqis as a sovereign nation to solve their problems.”

Obama left the door open to unspecified “actions,” but repeated that the Iraqis themselves had to seize the opportunity that the years of American effort gave them.

This will no doubt be greeted by the President’s opponents with something akin to apoplexy. They will be arguing that in fact the problem does have a military solution, that the U.S. can solve it, and that whatever is happening, everything would be better if we applied more force.

We have now reached the rather ironic situation in Iraq where we find ourselves allied with Iran in an effort to save the corrupt and thuggish government of Nouri al-Maliki, while the army we spent eight years training falls apart. I’m not going to pretend to have unique insight into Iraqi politics (I’d suggest reading Marc Lynch, for starters, as a way of getting up to speed on what has led to this point).

But there are few people who understand Iraq less than the Republican politicians and pundits who are being sought out for their comments on the current situation.

As you watch the debate on this issue, you should remind yourself that the most prominent voices being heard are the very ones who brought us the Iraq War in the first place, who promised that everything was simple and the only question was whether we’d be “strong” and “decisive” enough — the same thing they’re saying today. They’re the ones who swore that Saddam was in cahoots with Al Qaeda, that he had a terrifying arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, that the war would be quick, easy and cheap, that since Iraq was a largely secular country we wouldn’t have to worry about sectarian conflict, and that democracy would spread throughout the region in short order, bringing peace and prosperity along with it.

We can start with the man on every TV producer and print reporter’s speed dial, John McCain. McCain does provide something important to journalists: whatever the issue of the moment is, he can be counted on to offer angry, bitter criticism of the Obama administration, giving the “balance” every story needs. The fact that he has never demonstrated the slightest bit of understanding of Iraq is no bar at all to being the most quoted person on the topic.

For context, here’s a nice roundup of some of the things McCain said when he was pushing to invade Iraq in the first place. When asked if Iraqis were going to greet us as liberators, he answered, “Absolutely.” He said, “Post-Saddam Hussein Iraq is going to be paid for by the Iraqis” with their oil wealth (the war ended up costing the American taxpayer upwards of $2 trillion). And my favorite: “There is not a history of clashes that are violent between Sunnis and Shias, so I think they can probably get along.”

The conflict between Sunnis and Shiites is the central dynamic of the Iraq conflict, of course. Yet today, the media once again seek out John McCain’s wisdom and insight on Iraq, which is kind of like saying, “Jeez, it looks like we might be lost — we really need to ask Mr. Magoo for directions.”

Of late, he has a habit of walking out in the middle of briefings where he might actually learn what’s going on so he can head to the cameras and express his dudgeon. His current genius idea is for the administration to rehire David Petraeus and send him to Iraq, where he’ll…do something or other. He showed his deep knowledge yesterday by saying “Al Qaeda is now the richest terrorist organization in history,” apparently unaware that ISIS, the group sweeping through Iraq, is not in fact the same thing as Al Qaeda.

And the rest of the neocon gang is getting back together. Here’s Lindsey Graham advocating for American airstrikes — and I promise you that if the administration does in fact launch them, Graham will say they weren’t “strong” enough. Here’s Max Boot saying that what we need is just short of another invasion of Iraq: “U.S. military advisers, intelligence personnel, Predators, and Special Operations Forces, along with enhanced military aid, in return for political reforms designed to bring Shiites and Sunnis closer together.” Former Bush administration official and torture advocate Marc Thiessen is appalled that Barack Obama squandered George W. Bush’s glorious Iraq victory.

And Bill Kristol, who may have done more than any single person outside the Bush administration to make the war a reality, and whose predictions and assessments about the war were so spectacularly wrong they constituted their own genre of stupidity? He’ll be on ABC News’ “This Week” on Sunday, so he can enlighten us about what’s really going on.

We’re facing yet another awful and complex situation in the Middle East where we have a limited set of options, and none of them are good. But whenever you hear anyone say that the answer is simple and that being “strong” is the key — as one conservative after another will no doubt be saying in the coming days — don’t forget what happened the last time the country listened to them.

Paul Waldman

Paul Waldman is a contributing editor for the American Prospect and the author of Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success.

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