News & Politics

Conservatives Used to Be Smart About Iraq -- in the 1990s

Yep, Dick Cheney and John McCain both realized what they were getting into in Iraq, but rejected their own accurate thinking a decade later.

It seems almost odd in retrospect, but when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, John McCain was not an enthusiastic supporter of a military confrontation. At the time, McCain said, “To start putting American troops into that kind of meat grinder I just don’t think is a viable option.” As the first Bush administration began formulating plans to intervene, McCain wanted to limit the response to an air campaign.

The president chose a different direction, and McCain quickly fell in line. But the anecdote is a reminder that the McCain we see today, filled with neocon ideas and bellicose rhetoric, used to be far more cautious about putting U.S. troops in harm’s way.

The DNC’s research department highlighted an even more striking example, noting a 1991 interview between McCain and Larry King.
MCCAIN: …I’m not sure that if we did go in on the ground we could tell a Shiite from a Sunni, even from a Kurd. And who is it that we’d be fighting and battling against on the streets of Baghdad? And, if we got into Baghdad, we would lose all of our military supremacy and we would take casualties.
KING: If they’d welcome this-
Sen. McCAIN: One more point - real quick. I want to get rid of Saddam Hussein. There’s a few other dictators I’d like to get rid of, too. And I hate to use the phrase “slippery slope,” but if we’ve got to get rid of this dictator, which ones do we take on next?

That John McCain sure used to be smart, didn’t he?

It reminds me of a speech Dick Cheney gave in 1991, in which he noted the intense sectarian rivalries that dominate Iraqi society and the likely inability to maintain stability in Baghdad. As for replacing Saddam with a democracy, Cheney asked his audience, “How much credibility is that government going to have if it’s set up by the United States military when it’s there?” He added:
“The notion that we ought to now go to Baghdad and somehow take control of the country strikes me as an extremely serious one in terms of what we’d have to do once we got there. You’d probably have to put some new government in place. It’s not clear what kind of government that would be, how long you’d have to stay. For the U.S. to get involved militarily in determining the outcome of the struggle over who’s going to govern in Iraq strikes me as a classic definition of a quagmire.”

Then, in 1994, Cheney reiterated his position.
Steve Benen is a freelance writer/researcher and creator of The Carpetbagger Report. In addition, he is the lead editor of's Blog Report, and has been a contributor to Talking Points Memo, Washington Monthly, Crooks & Liars, The American Prospect, and the Guardian.