Soon after authorizing targeted airstrikes against Islamic militants in Iraq on Thursday, President Barack Obama faced a barrage of criticism from lawmakers and pundits blaming the unfolding crisis on the Obama administration's 2012 decision to withdraw combat troops from the region.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), an outspoken Iraq hawk, appeared on CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday criticizing Obama's strategy against the Islamic State, previously called ISIS, as overly cautious.
"That's not a strategy. That's not a policy. That is simply a very narrow and focused approach to a problem, which is metastasizing as we speak," McCain said. "I predicted what was going to happen in Iraq. And I'm predicting to you now, that if we pull everybody out of Afghanistan, not based on conditions, you'll see that same movie again in Afghanistan."
But simply suggesting that the U.S. should never have left raises a number of questions. Here are a few of them.
1. How many troops should we have left in Iraq?
In a Washington Examiner op-ed published Saturday, conservative columnist Byron York pressed Obama critics to address the issue, noting that even 100,000 American soldiers failed to keep the insurgency under control:
The view of the Iraqi situation behind the president's "lid" remarks is that the U.S. invasion of Iraq unleashed murderous sectarian forces that had been kept in check -- under a "lid" -- by the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. After a period of chaos and great violence, which grew even with the presence of more than 100,000 U.S. troops, President George W. Bush sent a surge of even more troops into the country -- the peak number was 168,000 -- to put a new lid on Iraqi sectarianism. The surge succeeded, but later, when American forces left under an order from commander-in-chief Obama, the lid came off. Now murderous sectarian violence threatens the very existence of Iraq as a nation.
If 168,000 wasn't enough in 2007, how many would be needed to stop insurgents in 2014?
Currently, the U.S. has roughly 750 troops in Iraq, 100 of which were stationed in the region before the recent escalation, according to the Pentagon. Another 650 military personnel have been sent to provide additional security assistance.
2. How long is long enough?
Echoing McCain's sentiments, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) appeared on "Fox News Sunday," urging the president to commit to a longer-term "air campaign" in both Syria and Iraq.
"[Obama is] trying to avoid a bad news story on his watch," Graham said. "This is not a replacement for a strategy to deal with an existential threat to the homeland. To every member of Congress, we've been told by every major intelligence leader in our nation that we're threatened. The homeland is threatened by the presence of ISIL in Iraq and Syria. To change that threat, we have to have a sustained air campaign in Syria and Iraq. We need to go on offense."
Is the long-term solution to the country's violent schism to plant American troops in Iraq forever? If airstrikes fail to address the root of the problem in a region long-haunted by religious warfare, will an ongoing foreign military presence help?
3. Should troops have stayed in Iraq without a status of forces agreement?
Without a SOFA, any American soldier in Iraq could be tried in Iraqi courts for anything those courts found a soldier to be plausibly guilty of.
"Under the previous administration, we had turned over the country to a sovereign, democratically elected Iraqi government. In order for us to maintain troops in Iraq, we needed the invitation of the Iraqi government and we needed assurances that our personnel would be immune from prosecution if, for example, they were protecting themselves and ended up getting in a firefight with Iraqis, that they wouldn't be hauled before an Iraqi judicial system," Obama reiterated on Saturday, defending his decision to withdraw military personnel from the region. "And the Iraqi government, based on its political considerations, in part because Iraqis were tired of a U.S. occupation, declined to provide us those assurances. And on that basis, we left."
4. Would U.S. troops try to retake Mosul and Fallujah? You want another Battle of Fallujah?
Although Obama has repeatedly rejected sending U.S. ground troops in any ongoing operations, Republicans such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry are calling for a return to war.
"The president historically has been late to action on a lot of these issues that have occurred in the Middle East in particular," Perry told reporters on Sunday. "Our allies need to know that we're going to be there for them. I think signaling whether we are going to have boots on the ground or whether we're going to be doing it through this particular means or not -- I think we need to keep all of our options open."
Yet, amid the hasty call to arms, do critics intend to engage in the same costly battles that ultimately failed to establish a lasting foothold for American forces against insurgents in crucial Iraqi provinces?
In January, the Islamic State took over the western Iraqi city of Fallujah, recapturing grounds on which American forces experienced the bloodiest battle of the Iraq War -- the Second Battle of Fallujah.
In an expanding offensive this June, insurgents captured Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, after U.S.-trained Iraqi soldiers and police officers fled their posts, leaving large quantities of U.S.-supplied weaponry in militants' hands.
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