Speaking in the Senate last week to register his displeasure with the Iraq pullout, prominent Iraq war supporter Sen. John McCain said, "It is clear that this decision of a complete pullout of United States troops from Iraq was dictated by politics and not our national security interests." He’s not wrong. The pullout of U.S. troops from Iraq was dictated by politics — Iraqi politics. With very few exceptions, the Iraqi people wanted U.S. troops out of their country, and, whatever else they may have said in private, Iraqi parliamentarians weren’t willing to publicly disagree with them on that.
Confronted with this point while on a panel at last month’s Halifax International Security Forum, Sen. McCain was shockingly dismissive of Iraqi politics. "We’ve got troops in Kuwait, and we didn’t have to pass it through their parliament!" he spat.
In today’s Wall Street Journal, Fouad Ajami, another big supporter of the war, similarly condemned the withdrawal. "A president who understood the stakes would have had no difficulty justifying a residual American presence in Iraq," Ajami wrote, as if all it would have taken to keep U.S. troops in Iraq was a president who was really committed to making the Iraqis see things our way.
But, as Brett McGurk, who served as a senior adviser to three U.S. ambassadors in Baghdad, wrote in November, "The decision to complete our withdrawal was not the result of a failed negotiation but rather the byproduct of an independent Iraq that has an open political system and a 325-member parliament." Trying to force an agreement through that parliament would have been "self-destructive," McGurk wrote. "That had nothing to do with Iran and everything to do with Iraqi pride, history and nationalism. Even the most staunchly anti-Iranian Iraqi officials refused to publicly back a residual U.S. force — and in the end, they supported our withdrawal."
What’s really troubling, though, about the comments of McCain, Ajami, and others who refuse to recognize the political facts on the ground in Iraq is what they suggest about the reaction to future foreign policies in the region that they don’t like. If, as a result of the Arab Awakening, countries of the Middle East do become more democratic, as I hope they will (I assume McCain and Ajami both hope so too), getting shown the door in Iraq is just a taste of what may come. As Arab leaders become more responsive to populations which are, I think we can agree, less sympathetic to America’s self-defined security imperatives, they will be less easily pressured by us to simply do what we want. There will be negotiations. Sometimes they will fail.
In this respect, the response to the Iraq withdrawal should be seen as a test. And it’s one that many of the war’s supporters are failing. Even as they’ve unconvincingly tried to credit the Iraq war with contributing in some positive way to the Arab Awakening, they’ve revealed themselves as unprepared to accept the sort of policies that the Awakening could, and likely will, produce.