Foreign Policy Blogs

John McCain Blames ISIS on Obama

(Pete Souza / White House)

(Pete Souza / White House)

In June, Senator John McCain made a bold claim regarding the consequences of President Obama’s foreign policy decisions. He asserted that Obama’s policy on Iraq—specifically, his decision to remove U.S. troops at the end of 2011—was “directly responsible” for the carnage in Orlando, Florida.

McCain told reporters: “Barack Obama is directly responsible for it because when he pulled everybody out of Iraq, al-Qaeda went to Syria, became ISIS, and ISIS is what it is today thanks to Barack Obama’s failures—utter failures, by pulling everybody out of Iraq, thinking that conflicts end just because you leave. So the responsibility for it lies with President Barack Obama and his failed policies.

He repeated the charge several times at the behest of surprised reporters, who evidently wanted to give him a chance to moderate the claim. Soon afterward, he issued a statement that appeared to be moderated (changing his terminology from ISIS to ISIL in the process).

The new statement read: “I misspoke. I did not mean to imply that the President was personally responsible. I was referring to President Obama’s national security decisions, not the President himself. As I have said, President Obama’s decision to completely withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011 led to the rise of ISIL.”

It went on, arguing that “I and others have long warned that the failure of the President’s policy to deny ISIL safe haven would allow the terrorist organization to inspire, plan, direct or conduct attacks on the United States and Europe as they have done in Paris, Brussels, San Bernardino and now Orlando.”

How this differs in any meaningful way from the original statement frankly escapes me, but apparently both McCain and the White House were uninterested in pursuing the issue further and let it drop. Perhaps I am less forgiving than either of them, but the statement has stuck with me. I would like to examine this claim further. For one thing, I suspect that a lot of people will agree with it without devoting a much thought to the matter, so I think it is a mistake to let that slip by.

First of all, whatever one thinks of the link between Obama’s withdrawal order and the creation of ISIS, it is important to notice that the Islamic State had no direct contact with the Orlando attacker. The only connection is that the shooter appears to have been inspired by ISIS. The group does not need to control any territory  for that to happen. The shooter could as easily have said that he was inspired by the 19th-century abolitionist John Brown, and the fact that Brown has been dead for 157 years would not have prevented it. The efforts needed to counter shooting incidents like that in Orlando (or the one in Aurora, Colorado, for that matter) are unrelated to conflicts in the Middle East.

Second, McCain’s brief sequence of events stands out. That is, “…he pulled everybody out of Iraq, al-Qaeda [in Iraq] went to Syria, became ISIS, and ISIS is what it is today…” Is this the causal argument that McCain meant to present? Obama pulled the troops out of Iraq, so the enemy went to chaotic, war-torn Syria, where they became ISIS?

If we accept that going to Syria was a key element in the transformation of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) into ISIS, how was that caused by Obama pulling troops out of Iraq? Did the creation of a vacuum in Iraq somehow blow them in the opposite direction? If U.S. troops had stayed in Iraq, would AQI then have been unable to go to Syria? If U.S. troops were still fighting them in Iraq, would that not have given them an even greater incentive to go to Syria? The causal relationship here is a bit confusing.

Finally, it is also necessary to mention—as many commentators already have—that the decision for the withdrawal was made by the Bush administration in 2008, in agreement with the Iraqi government. Of course, Condoleezza Rice stated subsequently that the Bush administration did not really mean it, which at first glance seems a curious kind of boast.

What she had in mind, naturally, was that the administration had hoped to negotiate some sort of small-scale, long-term U.S. military presence—short of war fighting—that might have bolstered the Iraqi military and perhaps served as a sort of deterrent. (We shall leave aside for now the fact that the introduction of a large-scale war-fighting force in 2003 did not deter a fight, but rather started one.) The fact is that the Obama administration was aware of this intention and attempted to do just that, but they and the Iraqis could not come to agreement.

The official reason for the failure to come to an agreement had to do with a technical issue: Which country would have legal jurisdiction over crimes committed by U.S. personnel in Iraq? Traditionally, U.S. agreements with host countries permit the United States to prosecute such crimes, but Iraq said no.

Although I cannot prove it, my suspicion is that the two sides could have overcome this impasse if they had really wanted to do so. It is quite possible that Obama was not interested in pressing hard for the privilege of staying in Iraq, but I believe the real obstacle was on the other side. After eight years of war, the U.S. military presence had become so toxic that no Iraqi politician wanted to be seen as favoring its continuation.

There were, to be sure, some Iraqi leaders who quietly confessed that a continued U.S. military presence would be useful, or even necessary, but they could not be brought to say so in public, much less vote for it in Parliament. Some American commentators have criticized the Obama administration for insisting on a public vote instead of simply doing what was necessary behind the scenes. But what would have happened in that case? The Iraqi public was not going to overlook that fact that troops were still there. The first time that something went wrong—and it would not take long for that to happen—the people who were unable to endorse a U.S. presence in public would start making statements like, “I didn’t ask them to stay. They just wouldn’t go.” Eventually the situation would be much as it is today, with two significant exceptions:

1. We would be in the middle of it.

2. The Shi’a would be shooting at us, too, because we wouldn’t leave

It is worth noting that even now, despite all the problems Iraq has had with ISIS over the past two years, no Iraqi leader has asked us to come back in with a full military presence.

What McCain has done is not unusual. Whenever a government chooses between two paths and the outcome is negative, people are quick to assume that the opposite choice would have brought complete success. Nonetheless, there is no sure way to know whether the opposite choice would have created a situation that was better, basically the same in all but the details, or even substantially worse.