What if?

Jun 22, 2014, 10:40 PM | Updated: 10:41 pm

As the collapse of Iraq continues, so does the blame game here. John McCain is one of the many Republicans trying to dump the failure of our tragic, ill-conceived, ill-executed misadventure into Iraq on President Obama’s doorstep. McCain says, “We had it won. General Patraeus had the conflict won, thanks to the surge (in 2007). And if we had left a residual force behind, we would not be facing the crisis we are today. Those are facts. Those are fundamental facts.”

Really? What if John McCain had won the election in 2008? Would he have been able to convince Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to tear up the agreement he signed with President Bush that all U.S. troops would leave Iraq by 2011? What would McCain have used for leverage? A gun to al-Malaki’s head? Given Shiite al-Malaki’s close relationship with Shiite Iran right next door, al-Malaki never would have signed, even staring down the barrel of a gun. But for the sake of argument, let’s say President McCain somehow got al-Malaki to agree to a “residual force.” How big would it have needed to be? How long would it have had to stay? After more than 4,400 American combat deaths and a potential cost of $6 trillion or more already, would Congress and the American people have supported him?

How would President McCain have handled the revolution in Syria? Would he have been able to arm only the “moderates” seeking to bring down Bashar al-Assad? Would that have guaranteed the moderates’ success? If the moderates had succeeded, what would have prevented Syria from going the way of Iraq once the lid of al-Assad’s brutal rule was off the sectarian pressure cooker? American boots on the ground ordered in by President McCain? Within weeks after we ousted Saddam, Iraq began descending into chaos. The “surge” just put the lid back on the pressure cooker there for a while. And look at Egypt. After their brief flirtation with democracy, the people there have elected another military strongman to put the lid back on in their country.

What would President McCain do with the situation in Iraq as it is today? Order airstrikes against the Sunni militants? Against what targets exactly, and called in by whom? Would he be willing to so openly support the minority Shiite government in majority Sunni Iraq? Would he not conclude that fighting on behalf of the Shiites would actually help the Sunni’s recruitment efforts? Sen. McCain was expressing an opinion in his statement, not facts. We will never know where we would be today if a residual force had stayed in Iraq, just as we will never know what Iraq and the Middle East would be like today if we had never invaded, or if we had conceived and executed the invasion perfectly. Here’s what we do know, and should always remember. Bullets and bombs can kill fanatics, but they can’t kill fanaticism.

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What if?