John McCain has said something nutty about American foreign policy.
Shocking, I know.
Asked about gun control proposals in the wake of the terrorist attack at a gay club in Orlando, McCain said,
Barack Obama is directly responsible for [the attack], 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… So the responsibility for it lies with President Barack Obama and his failed policies.
Earlier in the week, GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump had offered some vague but darkly conspiratorial comments about Obama’s failure to stop the attack.
But McCain’s remark went right there and said it: Obama was “directly responsible.” He would later walk back the claim, shrugging that
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.
A couple of things are worth discussing here. First is the type of the claim being made. Usually, the sort of argument McCain leveled against Obama is made against interventionists like John McCain. The argument normally goes that because of a U.S. intervention, something bad and costly has befallen the United States, and we therefore should be wary of further intervention. You can see Rudy Giuliani’s embarrassing exchange with Ron Paul during the 2008 presidential primary for a case study in how these arguments go.
Jeane Kirkpatrick perfected this sort of demagogy 24 years earlier with her famous “blame America first” speech at the 1984 GOP convention. Kirkpatrick rattled off the U.S. invasion of Grenada, the Marine barracks bombing in Lebanon in 1983, failed arms control negotiations with the Soviets, and Marxism in Latin America and blasted Democrats this way: “they always blame America first. The American people know better.”
It’s an exceptionally effective demagogic approach, so I apologize for the headline. The idea that the American government’s interactions with foreigners may have negative consequences for the country becomes blaming America for whatever bad thing might result. It’s a conclusion most people find unappealing, which makes it effective framing.
Let’s stipulate, then: of course it’s plausible that the action or inaction of the American government can have negative unintended consequences for national security. We should accept McCain’s (and Ron Paul’s) logic and evaluate their claims based on the evidence.
So the second question becomes: What evidence is there that keeping a permanent U.S. military presence in Iraq would have stopped Omar Mateen from killing 49 people and wounding 53 others? Is there any evidence that, as McCain claimed in his walkback, “President Obama’s decision to completely withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011 led to the rise of ISIL”?
One could imagine a scenario in which ISIS, whose existence well predates 2011, simply ceased to exist, or never came about at all, and therefore could not have inspired Mateen. For it never to have come into being, the United States would have had to not invade Iraq, something we can assume McCain does not mean. But there is little reason to believe that a rump U.S. presence in Iraq–which still exists, by the way–could have destroyed it.
One hesitates to ponder what would or wouldn’t have inspired Mateen, but the better approach surely would have been to point out, as John Mueller and Mark Stewart do here, that ISIS is actually history’s most pathetic caliphate, one that has failed to topple even the lowly Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, one that reigns over an expanse of mostly uninhabited desert, and one that is suffering serious losses against its local adversaries and a halfhearted U.S.-led bombing, training, and logistical campaign against it.
But none of that would have given John McCain a thrill.