Corn has broken stories on presidents, politicians, and other Washington players. He's written for numerous publications and is a talk show regular. His best-selling books include Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.
On the Sunday morning television shows this past weekend—against the backdrop of an Iraq in flames—former Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) continued their ongoing feud and the battle for the (national security) soul of the Republican Party. In recent months, as Mother Jones has reported that Paul in 2009 accused Cheney of using 9/11 as an excuse to launch the Iraq invasion to benefit Halliburton (the corporation Cheney once led) and called on the GOP to disassociate itself with the former vice president, Cheney's allies have slammed the senator for expressing reckless positions. During a private speech in March, without mentioning Paul by name, Cheney contended that Paul's skepticism about US intervention abroad would endanger the United States. On ABC News' This Week on Sunday, Cheney explicitly assailed Paul as "basically an isolationist"—a term of profound derision in the neocon wing of the GOP. Meanwhile, on Meet the Press, Paul was asked if Cheney could be considered a credible critic of President Barack Obama's foreign policy, and Paul, without saying Cheney's name, replied, "The same questions could be asked of those who supported the Iraq war. You know, were they right in their predictions? Were there weapons of mass destruction there? That's what the war was sold on. Was democracy easily achievable?...They didn't really, I think, understand the civil war that would break out." This was obviously a jab at the former vice president.
But though Paul, who is mulling a 2016 presidential bid, has not hesitated to challenge the hawks of the GOP, he has softened his language. He no longer accuses Cheney of pushing the Iraq war to reap corporate profits. (He even recently claimed that was not what he had meant to say.) And in these latest rounds, Paul has not voiced his previously stated view that the GOP is the party of war-mongers at odds with true Christian beliefs.
Last week, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) went ballistic. In response to the intensifying crisis in Iraq, an apoplectic McCain took to the Senate floor and demanded the resignation of President Barack Obama's entire national security team. He huffed that Obama's advisers have "been a total failure." He suggested that Obama was somehow responsible for the present predicament in Iraq. And what was McCain's big idea for addressing the crisis? What steps would he take had he not been prevented from becoming commander in chief by Obama? The senator proposed calling in former General David Petraeus, who led US forces in Iraq during the 2007 surge, and former General James Mattis, who succeeded Petraeus. That was it: Ask Petraeus what to do.
Well, it turns out, McCain wouldn't abide by his own advice. Earlier this week, I contacted Petraeus' office to ask what he thought the president should be doing in Iraq. Not surprisingly, Petraeus did not respond to the invitation (which was probably one of many from reporters). But on Wednesday, Petraeus, speaking at a conference in London, did share his current views. He accused Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of "undermining" national reconciliation—an obvious point made by most observers. He also declared that Iraq needed a more inclusive government—another obvious point that the president and others have pushed. And Petraeus dismissed the possibility of US airstrikes against the Sunni insurgents that have captured several cities in Iraq:
This cannot be the United States being the air force of Shia militias or a Shia-on-Sunni Arab fight. It has to be a fight of all of Iraq against extremists who do happen to be Sunni Arabs but extremists that are wreaking havoc on a country that really had an enormous opportunity back in 2011, has made progress in certain areas but has certainly not capitalized on that enormous opportunity in the way that we had all hoped.
McCain, apparently, wasn't listening. On Thursday, McCain went full McCain. He called for ousting Maliki. (Obama and his aides are trying to nudge Maliki aside, but it's not a snap-of-the-fingers task to get rid of a Washington-endorsed guy who was elected.) And McCain demanded, yes, airstrikes:
Of course Maliki has to be transitioned out. But the only way that's going to happen is for us to assure Iraqis that we will be there to assist. And let me make it clear: No one that I know wants to send combat troops on the ground, but airstrikes are an important factor, psychologically and many other ways, and that may require some forward air controllers and some special forces.
Several other GOPers joined McCain on the Senate floor to denounce Obama. On the other side of the Capitol, House Speaker John Boehner has been blasting Obama on Iraq, accusing the president of "napping" but not proposing any specific actions. On Wednesday, Boehner refused to comment on whether Obama should order airstrikes. The crisis is confounding Obama's GOP critics. And they're not even listening to Petraeus.
The Washington Post broke a big scoop on Tuesday with the news that US special forces, working with FBI agents, mounted a secret raid in Libya this past weekend that captured Ahmed Abu Khattala, who is suspected of masterminding the attack on the US diplomatic facility in Benghazi that resulted in the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. The Post story noted that the operation had been months in the making. In fact, US Special Forces had a plan to apprehend Abu Khattala last October, days after US commandos in Tripoli snatched Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, who was accused of bombing US embassies in East Africa in 1998. But that attempt to apprehend Abu Khattala had to be called off at the last minute.
So for a long stretch, maybe a year or more, the Obama administration had been trying to figure out how best to grab Abu Khattala, who was identified as a possible Benghazi ringleader soon after the September 11, 2012, assault. Yet for much of that time, Republican critics of the president have repeatedly criticized Obama for not capturing the Benghazi perps. Even though it took a decade to nab Osama bin Laden, GOPers have depicted Obama as feckless on the Benghazi front, with some even saying that he was not truly interested in bringing the Benghazi killers to justice.
Here's a sampling of those GOP attacks:
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas): In November, Cruz criticized the Obama administration for failing to use a State Department program that offers rewards to people with information about terrorists in order to track down the Benghazi attacker: "The State Department's Rewards for Justice Program exists to help the US identify and apprehend its enemies, but the Obama administration has not used it to pursue the terrorists who attacked our personnel in Benghazi," he said.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.): In August, Issa, the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which has held numerous hearings on the Benghazi attack, harped on the administration's "delay" in apprehending Abu Khattala: "If our government knows who perpetrated the attack that killed four Americans, it is critical that they be questioned and placed in custody of US officials without delay," he said. "Delays in apprehending the suspected Benghazi killers will only put American lives at further and needless risk."
Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), and John McCain (R-Ariz.): In a February letter to Obama, the three GOP senators wrote, "In almost 17 months, none of the terrorists have been brought to justice. The families of the murdered Americans deserve to see the terrorists brought to justice. Moreover, terrorists around the world need to know that if they kill Americans, we will hunt them down and bring them to justice. Allowing terrorists apparently involved in the attack to sit and give interviews in cafés sends a dangerous message that there are no consequences for killing Americans."
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah): "[L]et's not forget the Benghazi terrorist attackers," Chaffetz told USA Today in October. "There's been no visibility on whether or not we're pursuing that."
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.): In August, when the Justice Department filed charges against Abu Khattala, Wolf suggested the administration wouldn't have acted without Republican pressure. "I think they're feeling pressure to do something, to show they're making progress," he told the Washington Times, adding that charges against suspects have likely been delayed by "confusion" among US law enforcement authorities.
By now, it should be obvious: It can take a while—even years—to capture a suspected terrorist overseas. (Ruqai, the embassy bombings suspect, was apprehended 15 years after the attacks.) Yet that didn't stop these Republicans and other conservatives from slamming the president and suggesting publicly—in a real underhanded dig—that Obama was not seeking the murderers of Benghazi. Now what will they say? That his heart wasn't really in it?
This past weekend, as the crisis in Iraq intensified, Paul Wolfowitz appeared on Meet the Press to share his wisdom on the current predicament there. Wolfowitz was the deputy defense secretary and an architect of the US invasion of Iraq during the Bush-Cheney administration, and he remarked on the show that talk of sectarian violence in Iraq was misguided: "This is more than just those obscure Shia/Sunni conflict[s]." He advised that the United States should "stick with our friends, and those friends are not always perfect." Wolfowitz seemed to be suggesting that the Obama administration should stand strong with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, despite Maliki's authoritarian, corrupt, and inept ways. But moments later Wolfowitz said, "It's a complicated situation in which you don't just come up with, 'We're going to bomb this, we're going to do that.'" And then he said, "Maliki is a big part of the problem. He's not a leader of Iraq. We need to find people there."
It was confusing. After the invasion of Iraq, the Bush crew backed a consolidation of power by the Maliki-led coalition of religious-oriented Shiite parties and decimated the Sunni establishment that had previously controlled the government and the military. And now Wolfowitz was saying that Washington should hang tough with its pal—but that its pal was also the problem. Huh? The big brain behind the Iraq War had nothing of consequence to recommend.
1. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney invaded Iraq with no clear and comprehensive plan for what to do after the invasion and the end of Saddam Hussein's regime. Weeks before the war, the administration stated there was no reason to fear that sectarian conflict would ensue after Saddam was booted.
2. Following the invasion, the Bush-Cheney administration decided to prohibit the Sunni-dominated Baath Party from participating in a post-Saddam government and decommissioned the existing Baathist-led military. This caused deep resentment among Sunnis, especially former military commanders and soldiers (who would now be available for an armed opposition). The move had the effect of banishing Iraqis with governing and security experience from the post-Saddam order. That would be good for chaos and conflict.
3. The Bush-Cheney deciders, having decimated the Sunni ruling establishment, backed the creation of a government led by hard-line Shiite religious parties, including the party of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The Maliki regime has been corrupt, authoritarian, and incompetent—and allied closely with the Shiite government in Iran. (Iran was a key sponsor of Maliki when he was in exile during the Saddam years.) The thuggish Maliki government, supported by the Bush administration and then the Obama administration, has treated the Sunni areas of Iraq as enemy territory and refused to share power with Sunnis—stoking the deep-seated tensions between Sunnis and Shiites. (As the murderous Sunni ultra-extremists of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, have gained power in Mosul and other Sunni-dominated cities and towns, non-extremist Sunnis have sided with—or tolerated—the jihadists because of their shared hatred of the Maliki regime and the Iraqi military, which Sunnis in Mosul considered an occupying force).
4. President Barack Obama did not leave a residual force of American troops in Iraq after he withdrew US troops because Maliki would not sign a Status of Forces Agreement protecting US soldiers. Though Bush also did not negotiate a long-term SOFA, prominent Republicans, including Senator John McCain and Mitt Romney, have slammed Obama for failing to obtain such an agreement. But Fareed Zakaria reports that a senior Iraqi politician told him, "Maliki cannot allow American troops to stay on. Iran has made very clear to Maliki that it's No. 1 demand is that there be no American troops remaining in Iraq. And Maliki owes them."
5. The United States has provided much training and equipment to the Iraqi military—$25 billion in military aid—before and after the US withdrawal. Yet under Maliki the Iraqi army has not been professionalized and has committed repeated abuses against civilians, according to Human Rights Watch, including unlawful raids and arrests, torture, and indiscriminate shelling. When a relatively small band of jihadists attacked Mosul and Tikrit, four major divisions folded. Training and equipment does not help if soldiers strip off their uniforms and flee because they are not committed to the mission and the government.
6. More US assistance to Maliki and his military may not make the difference. (See No. 5.) Moreover, Iran has sent special forces to Iraq to assist Maliki—bolstering Iraq's dependence on Iran. If the United States were to funnel additional military equipment (and more advanced equipment) to Maliki's army, it could well end up with the ISIS jihadists (given the Iraq military's habit to cut and run) or—get this—with the Revolutionary Guard of Iran. A good deal for Tehran. And if US air strikes are ordered in Iraq to assist Maliki, American fighter jets or drones would be deployed in a tactical alliance with Iran.
7. The current crisis is not the result of inadequate US support of Maliki and the Iraqi military. It is the outcome of Maliki's failures, which have provided the evildoers of ISIS—a band that does threaten civilians and stability in the region—an opportunity, and these failures were enabled by the Bush administration and unaddressed by the Obama crew. Unless the basic dynamic is altered, any military action—whether taken by the United States, regional allies, and/or NATO—will be as effective as pounding sand.