John McCain: Situation in Iraq is "unraveling"

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on CBS' "Face the Nation," Jan. 8, 2012.
CBS/Chris Usher

Arizona Senator John McCain on Sunday warned that the situation in Iraq is "unraveling" due to recent U.S. foreign policy actions there - and that a "very chaotic situation" could give way to a rise in Iranian influence in the region.

McCain, speaking to Bob Schieffer on CBS' "Face the Nation," argued that the recent U.S. military drawdown from Iraq is creating a dire situation in that country.

"It's unraveling because we didn't keep residual force there, because the President of the United States pledged to get out of Iraq," McCain said. "We could have kept a residual force there and kept some stability. And instead it's unraveling, and Iran's influence is increasing and there's every possibility you could see a very chaotic situation there."

Mr. Obama announced in October his decision to withdraw troops from Iraq by the end of 2011, which is in keeping with a timetable first put in place by former President George W. Bush and which has been generally popular with the American people.

But a number of Republican lawmakers objected to that decision on the grounds that Iraq's political system and security remained fragile, and possibly vulnerable to the influence of Iran.

Now, McCain argues, those fears are being realized.

"I think there's clearly an unraveling going on which could eventually lead basically into three different kinds of states in Iraq," he said. "We needed to keep residual force there. That was what the Bush administration envisioned. And that is what we should have done."

McCain, the ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Armed Services, lambasted President Obama for allegedly "leading from behind" and subsequently weakening U.S. foreign policy overall.

"What the perception is now, particularly in that part of the world, is that the United States is weak and that we're withdrawing," McCain said. "That is also having its effect in other places, including emboldening Iran. Leading from behind is not what this world needs and we still do have the best military in the world, we still do have the most efficient and capable ways of defending the nation."

McCain conceded that "savings have to be made" in U.S. defense, and that the Pentagon houses a "culture of corruption" when it comes to cost overruns. But he said he was wary of the new defense strategy recently unveiled by Mr. Obama, which calls for a smaller, more flexible military force.

"I'm very worried about ignoring the lessons of history. After World War II, there was never going to be another land war. After Vietnam, we ended up in a, quote, hollow army," he said. "I understand these savings have to be made. But I am more worried about the perception in the world of what the United States is doing."

McCain said he did not think that the several thousand Americans remaining in Iraq were safe, and suggested that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta does not adequately "understand" the situation there.

"Look, what Secretary Panetta may not understand - and I have great admiration and respect for him - is that the situation is unraveling," McCain said.

He continued to criticize Mr. Obama for failing to more actively support protesters in Iran in July of 2009. (At the time, Mr. Obama said he did not want to be used as a "foil" in the conflict, but said he was "deeply troubled" by the violence surrounding the protests and warned the Iranian government that the "world is watching."

"The biggest mistake that has been made in recent history is when a million and a half Iranians were demonstrating in the streets of Tehran, chanting, 'Obama, Obama, are you with us or are you with them?'" McCain said. "And his response was, 'I don't want to jeopardize my chances to negotiate with Iran.' We are paying a very heavy price."

In a separate appearance on the show, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and General Martin Dempsey jointly warned against thinking that the new defense strategy would mean the U.S. military is in decline.

"I think that's what worries me is that, because the conversation that we're having, this year, about changing strategy and budget problems, that there may be some around the world who see us as a nation in decline, and worse, as a military in decline," Dempsey told Schieffer. "And nothing could be further from the truth...So what I'd like to say right now is we're the same partner we've always been, and intend to remain that way."