Wednesday, March 26, 2008

McCain's Brainfart

All candidates, of course, make mistakes. They may issue unreasonable policy statements, get a fact wrong here and there in a debate, or reveal a gap in their knowledge on an important issue. You can't know everything as a candidate - that's not even what we pay you to do. Presidents have advisors for that.

Yet, I still find a reason to be a little bit apprehensive at McCain's blunder last week. For those of you who don't know, McCain, during a speech in Jordan, mistakenly asserted that Iran was training al-Qaeda operatives for battle in Iraq; he was corrected by Joe Lieberman (R I-CT), and then asserted that Iran was training extremists, which is certainly more true. It's an understandable error but not a minor one.

The more cynical among us would assert that McCain is trying to conflate Iran with anti-American terrorism and thus whip up support for military action against Iran should he become President. I don't buy it. Instead, I think McCain is making a more fundamental error. I think he believes that there are only two sides to any conflict - with us and against us, and that everyone who is against us is on the same side. As such, it's natural to confuse Iran and al-Qaeda - they both don't like us, so they must be on the same side, right?

This worries me because it's the same attitude that got Bush into so much trouble. The mistake of conflating two of our enemies - the secularist Hussein regime and the stridently Islamist al-Qaeda - is what got us into this mess. The fact that McCain made this mistake (and, according to the Post's Harold Meyerson, had made it before) makes me wonder whether he has the mindset necessary to deal with a multifaceted conflict where America is one of three or more disputing parties. And that describes most foreign conflicts nowadays. One thing we don't need is another president who can't see past the with us/against us dichotomy.

This little slip-up might not be that meaningful, and maybe McCain will demonstrate his capability to understand complex foreign interrelations at some point in the future. It does mean, however, that we can't simply assume McCain posesses it.

16 comments:

Ben said...

Maaaaaaybe. But I dunno.

Your theory as to why McCain's slip-up indicates he doesn't think about foreign policy correctly.....well, it strikes me as less of a stretch than Andy's theory that Rev. Wright has anything to do with Obama's qualifications for the presidency. But it still strikes me as a stretch.

Everybody makes verbal slip-ups. Some of us even make them more than once. Doesn't mean we can't understand nuance. Yes, we shouldn't take for granted that McCain can do so......but he doesn't strike me as so us-against-them as Bush. I'm willing to hear evidence to the contrary, but this doesn't strike me as such evidence.

Without more, I'd strike this up as another irrelevancy.

Ben said...

Ben Stark, winner of the "How Many Times Can I Use The Word 'Strike' In One Comment Without Referring to Baseball or Bowling?" Award.

Jess said...

If we are going to critique candidates for their slip-ups, let us at least be fair and criticize the Democrats as well!

Unlike McCain (at least as far as I am aware so feel free to correct me if I am wrong), HRC is attempting to strengthen her campaign using false or, at least, somewhat stretched claims, i.e. the sniper fire incident.

Mike said...

Yeah, I gotta agree with Ben -- I don't think this is a case of an us-vs-them mentality coming to the surface. I'm more worried that it could indicate that McCain believes the Middle East is a much more homogeneous region than it actually is -- and even as I type this, it occurs to me that's more what you were getting at, so maybe I should just shut up now, since I really have nothing else to add.

Andy said...

Clearly others have already pointed out what the first reaction to this should be -- it was a slip up. Ironically, Ariana Huffington, in her attempt to smear McCain over it, slipped up saying "...let's review, at a stop in Jordan last week, McCain made the ludicrous claim that Al Qaeda insurgents were being trained in Syria. Asked about it again..." You get the picture, people slip up. Do you make a big deal of it? Try to spin McCain as the old-fart candidate that can't remember anything? Wonder how that will play with older voters...

Second, McCain could be right and Lieberman got it wrong. The 9/11 Commission (page 240) talks about Iran trying to make contacts within AQ after The USS Cole bombing. There are other snippets lying around such as: "The Sun, in a series of dispatches from northern Iraq and Baghdad, detailed claims that Iran has supported Al Qaeda in Iraq. One such dispatch, published on April 25, 2007, quoted the director of the security ministry for the Sulaimaniyah province, Sarkawt Hassan Jalal, as saying Iran had harbored the leadership of a group calling itself Al Qaeda in Kurdistan in five towns on the Iraqi border." So actually what may be in question is Is Iran supporting Al Qaeda or THE Al Qaeda. Does it matter? Iran's problems are long documented.

Do the two paragraphs above contradict each other? OF COURSE! Which means this is pretty much a non-issue.

Andy said...

Ben, nice job on the five-bagger in your first post.

Jeff said...

Wow, posting sleep-deprived half-baked ramblings produces waaay more comments! Awesome!

Jess: Not familiar with the sniper-fire thing - I guess it's not on WaPo front page or BBC America's nightly news (where I get most of my info). What's going on here?

Others - I'd be more inclined to write it off as a slipup if he hadn't made the same damn mistake on Hugh Hewitt's radio show the previous night.

Andy, it wouldn't surprise me if Iran were supporting al-Qaeda in Iraq... after all, we're supporting Islamist groups in their rebellions against Iran, and we supported bin Laden in Afghanistan. The point is, unless McCain knows something we don't, he can't make that assumption.

Try to spin McCain as the old-fart candidate that can't remember anything? Wonder how that will play with older voters...

Meh... they'll forget about it anyway.

-Dave said...

RE: HRC and snipers.

The Senator recently claimed a vivid memory of when she flew in to Bosnia as first lady and had to run to the cars with their heads down because of sniper fire. (Assumption: this memory was shared to say "I'm tough, I've been there.")

There was, however, video footage of the arrival in question, and not only was there no sniper fire and no running with head down toward a limo, but there was a ceremony with a local girl reading a poem, and HRC and her daughter climbing up on a guard tower.

Senator Clinton's later statements acknowledge that she "misspoke" and that "they had to land in a certain fashion because of reports of snipers in the hills around the city," but I believe it was a Washington Post reporter who was there for the ceremony that utterly contradicted her hurried-rushed-dangerous version of events.

-Dave said...

Letting the video do the talking:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8BfNqhV5hg4

Personally, I find it untrue but not surprising, so I don't care that much. I find her hypothetical "If Reverend Wright were my pastor..." to be much less flattering.

Andy said...

Jeff said:

Meh... they'll forget about it anyway.

Well played, good sir. Well played indeed.

Andy said...

Jeff said: "The point is, unless McCain knows something we don't, he can't make that assumption."

I had been thinking about this for a day now. What if he does? Are there things that Representatives, Senators, Secretaries of State or the President can know that we don't necessarily need to know as citizens? Am I (John Q. Public) entitled to every detail?

Mike said...

I refuse -- simply REFUSE -- to believe that anyone named Clinton could ever possibly "misspeak" about anything for political benefit. As if.

Are there things that Representatives, Senators, Secretaries of State or the President can know that we don't necessarily need to know as citizens?

I've often struggled with that mysrmn elf. My desire for freedom of information conflicts with being (in a manner of speaking) from a family of spies. Whether or not we are entitled to every detail, it may be in our best interests not to. I can't believe I'm about to quote "Men in Black" here, but I remember Tommy Lee Jones' character saying something to the effect of, "There's always an alien spaceship of some kind ready to wipe out our planet, and the only way people can get on with their happy lives is that they do not know about it." To an extent, I believe that's true of us as well, but I'm not sure who should be allowed to make that decision.

That having been said, it may be that McCain knows something we don't, but in this case, I don't really see what the harm would be in revealing it, as more of the American public probably believes it anyway.

Ben said...

McCain's latest foreign policy speech goes far to make me believe he can be nuanced when it comes to foreign policy.

Andy said...

Ben said: "McCain's latest foreign policy speech goes far to make me believe he can be nuanced when it comes to foreign policy."

What do you mean? (If 'swiftboat' was the 2004 mot-du-jour, 'nuance' definitely is 2008's.)

Ben said...

By nuanced I mean intelligent....able to grasp the complexities of the world and not see things in black-and-white, good-and-evil, us-versus-them. He sees the importance on maintaining our alliances and working within the international system, as opposed to simply flexing America's muscle w/o caring a whit what the world thinks.

In other words, I think Jeff's concerns in his blog post are misplaced.

Andy said...

Ben, I would agree with this -- McCain is clearly not four more years of Bush. But his foreign policy does have a few holes that worry me. I understand he feels the need to stay in wars we're currently fighting (Iraq and Afghanistan) but his Bomb-Bomb-Iran joke made me uneasy. He says, I don't like war and torture (why would he, being on the wrong end of both). But he certainly doesn't seem against it.

Plus, the ridiculous "energy/oil independence in 5 years" statement that's completely unlikely (just a dash of pander, please). Or his suggestion of a League of Democracies -- great, more UN-ish groups. They've worked so well in the past.

And why not end with this: "We also need to develop a deployable police presence to, when necessary, help maintain law and order where it is lacking..." Hey, remember when we were just figuratively the world's police? McCain would make that an actuality.