This morning on the Senate floor Mitch McConnell lit into President Obama for having withdrawn American troops from Iraq, in light of the recent ISIL chaos. This was in addition to McConnell’s criticism of Obama’s announcing a pending withdrawal from Afghanistan, “placing substantial trust in…diplomacy,” and ending “CIA interrogation and detention programs.” McConnell said that “once again, [Obama has] announced Step A without thinking through the consequences of Step B” and has “always been a reluctant commander in chief.”
Dick Cheney couldn’t have delivered the speech any better himself. McConnell also said yesterday that Obama should “act quickly” to stop ISIL in Iraq, but “the Kentucky Republican stopped short of saying what U.S. assistance to Baghdad should look like.” Cheney and Bill Kristol probably have about 100,000 boot-wearing suggestions on that one, though McConnell isn’t ready to rule that in or out.
However, just four short years ago, McConnell had a much different take on America beginning its withdrawal of troops from Iraq. As Obama pulled out the last remaining combat troops and signaled a final withdrawal ahead, McConnell saw this as an opportunity to lavish praise on President… Bush.
Republicans say their party should be credited for bringing about this milestone.
“It makes it easier to talk about fulfilling a campaign promise to wind down our operations in Iraq when the previous administration signs the security agreement with Iraq to end our overall presence there,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said today. “By adopting the Bush administration’s plan for winding down the war and transitioning security responsibilities to the Iraqi military over time the President has enabled us and the Iraqis to build on the gains our troops have made.”
Of course, Mitch McConnell is a coldly strategic political actor if anything, so it’s difficult to take any of his statements at face value without factoring in whatever power move is in his head at the time. Staying on the subject of Iraq for this point, look no further than his actions in the fall of 2006, as Iraq was in chaos and the public increasingly wanted to get the hell out of there. At the time, McConnell was busy publicly calling Democratic advocates of withdrawal a bunch of cut-and-runners and appeasers. But in the White House, according to Bush’s autobiography, the political animal McConnell was calling for a withdrawal to begin—not because it was the right thing to do, but because it would help the GOP win elections.
In his autobiography, “Decision Points,” former President George W. Bush describes a Sept. 2006 meeting with McConnell in the midst of a tough time in the Iraq occupation and an upcoming mid-term election. According to the former president, McConnell urged him to bring some troops home from Iraq to lessen political risks, as the Democrats looked ready to take seats from the Republican Party. Mr. Bush rebuffed McConnell’s request—and the Republicans did receive a “shellacking” by the voters.
On Sept. 5, 2006, as part of his political maneuvering, McConnell said, “The Democrat[ic] leadership finally agrees on something—unfortunately it’s retreat,” referring to a letter from Democrats calling on Mr. Bush to reduce troop levels in Iraq.
After the book was published, McConnell said that he did not recall that conversation. Fortunately, Dick Cheney’s autobiography came out the next year to refresh his memory, where he stated that ten months after that meeting with Bush, McConnell was still privately and hypocritically advocating the withdrawal of troops from Iraq—to save his own skin in his own re-election race:
As dinner broke up, Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell walked over to me. Mitch had been one of the most concerned of the Republicans. He was up for reelection and had suggested to the president that he needed to begin a withdrawal in order to avoid massive defection of Republican senators. “Dick,” McConnell said, “I may have been wrong. Tell the president that I think we may well be able to win these votes and hold the Senate Republicans for the month of July.” That would get us through to the August recess and into September, when Dave Petraeus and Ryan Crocker were scheduled to testify. That was all we needed.
To paraphrase from McConnell this morning, it’s like he publicly announced support for Position A while simultaneously expressing support for Position B in private.
McConnell now finds himself in another tight re-election race with his career on the line, and another crisis in Iraq. So what’s a political animal to do? McConnell always feels comfortable ripping Obama as a treacherous failure—as he did on the Senate floor today—but he has to know that voters in Kentucky are not clamoring to get in the middle of another sectarian war in the Middle East. That’s likely why he’s making vague statements about “acting quickly” with no detail, and suggesting that Obama is free to act without congressional approval.
His opponent this fall, Alison Lundergan Grimes, stated flatly that she does not support boots on the ground in Iraq, and seems unlikely to budge from that position. And unlike McConnell, Grimes is not shedding any tears about the fact that America will soon pull out of its other unpopular and seemingly pointless war in Afghanistan.
Going forward in the campaign, I can only be certain of two things about McConnell’s position on Iraq: he will criticize Obama’s actions no matter what the president does, and no one can be certain that Mitch even really believes what he’s saying.