Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) offered some of his toughest criticisms of the Obama administration’s handling of Iraq on Friday during several testy exchanges with the hosts of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
McCain said the Iraq War was won after the successful troop surge ordered by President George W. Bush and blamed the current situation on President Obama’s decision to not leave a residual U.S. force in Iraq.
“The fact is, we had the conflict won. The surge had succeeded,” McCain said. “And then, the decision was made by the Obama administration to not have a residual force in Iraq.”
The fight over Iraq is strikingly personal to McCain, who backed the surge in 2007 and then became his party’s presidential nominee in 2008. Obama opposed the surge and defeated McCain handily in the 2008 presidential election.
McCain ever since has been one of Obama’s fiercest critics, particularly on war and foreign policy. On Thursday, he called for the firing of Obama’s entire national security team because of Iraq, where Sunni fundamentalists have taken over several cities and are within 70 miles of Baghdad.
Obama and McCain also battled over the failure of the U.S. and Iraq to reach an agreement that would have allowed some U.S. forces to remain in Iraq to train Iraqi troops and help provide security. U.S. troops left Iraq at the end of 2011, after no deal could be met.
McCain argued Friday that a residual force should have been left behind similar to the ones after World War II in Germany and Japan, in Korea after the war there and in Bosnia after the United Nations’ involvement in the conflict surrounding Yugoslavia’s breakup.
McCain said Friday that Iraq’s government had been ready to accept a residual force, and he had begged the administration to leave one behind, “and they wouldn’t do it.”
“We had it won, and I predicted in 2011, when we left, there would be a colossal failure,” he said.
MSNBC “Morning Joe” host Mika Brzezinski questioned McCain on whether blame for the problems in Iraq should also fall on the Bush administration.
“What about going in in the first place, and what about churning the hate, and what about taking the Sunnis out of leadership positions in 2003, what about the fact that there might have been some parts of this that were on the previous administration that might be litigated as well?” she asked McCain.
“Well what about the fact that we had it won?” McCain said as the two began to talk over one another. “What about the fact that people like me said we’ve got to fire Rumsfeld, we’ve got to get the surge going.”
“Did we?” Brzezinski asked.
“Yes, we did, finally,” McCain said.
“Now I expected you and others to blame it on all these different events. The fact is, we had the conflict won, and we had a stable government, and a residual force such as we have left behind — we even have forces in Bosnia, Korea, Germany, Japan, where we could have, but the president wanted out, and now we are paying a very heavy price.”
Later, McCain also battled with Sam Stein of The Huffington Post, who asked whether McCain foresaw keeping forces in Iraq in perpetuity.
“I just want to nail down what it means to have it won,” Stein said. He argued the U.S. had spent $25 billion propping up the Iraqi military, only to see it fold this week as Sunni Muslim insurgents advanced in the country.
“So I’m curious, what is the definition of victory; what is the definition of winning? Does it mean having a residual force basically without end date? I’m just a little confused and want to know what victory is to you, Sen. McCain,” Stein said.
“I think you are confused because you didn’t know what happened with the surge, where we basically had the country pacified; we had a stable government in Baghdad, and we had the conflict basically for all intents and purposes won,” McCain retorted.
“So I‘m sorry about your confusion,” McCain later added, “but anyone who was there can tell you we had the conflict won.”
Brzezinski then asked if McCain wanted the U.S. to commit troops without an end date in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. “How long can you ask this of American troops and think it’s OK? I just want to know,” she said.
“With all due respect, do you think we ought to pull our troops out of Korea? With all due respect, do you think we ought to pull our troops out of Bosnia,” McCain said.
He said sacrifices already made would be in vain if Iraq and Afghanistan fell, and he argued that residual forces would not be in combat.
“We’re talking about a residual forces to keep a nation stable, and the American people would support such a thing if it was explained to them,” he said.