Just in case anyone was in any doubt about the awesome advantage in understanding conferred by a trip to Iraq, John McCain provides a perfect illustration:

“So I can tell you that it is succeeding. I can look you in the eye and tell you it’s succeeding. We have drawn down to pre-surge levels. Basra, Mosul and now Sadr city are quiet and it’s long and it’s hard and it’s tough and there will be setbacks.”

As ThinkProgress notes, Mosul isn’t quiet. Moreover, Nico Pitney at HuffPo notes that McCain apparently doesn’t know how many troops we have in Iraq. Pre-surge, there were 130,000 troops in Iraq. The number of troops is supposed to be down to 140,000 by July.

Steve Benen quotes John Kerry’s response:

“If you don’t know the numbers of troops, it’s very difficult to make a judgment about whether or not they’re over-extended. It’s also very hard to have an understanding, as a citizen, about what levels of troops he’s going to keep there. If he thinks 150,000 is ‘pre-surge,’ and that’s where he’s going to stay, that’s a deeply over-extended military, and it raises serious questions about his comprehension of this challenge.”

The McCain campaign’s response is a bit bizarre:

“Clearly John Kerry and Barack Obama have very little understanding of troop levels, but considering Barack Obama hasn’t been to Iraq in 873 days and has never had a one on one meeting with Gen. Petraeus, it isn’t a surprise to anyone that he demonstrates weak leadership.

“What informed people understand, John McCain included, is that American troops are not even close to surge levels. Three of the five Army ‘surge’ brigades have been withdrawn and additional Marines that were initially deployed for the ‘surge’ have come home as well — the remaining two brigades will be home in July.

“Talk about a political stunt, it’s sending out campaign surrogates to parse words about a topic Barack Obama has no experience with, and has shown zero interest in learning about.”

Maybe, if John Kerry and Barack Obama had McCain’s deep understanding of troop levels, they would see that while 130,000 and 150,000 are different numbers in normal cases, when you’re talking about troop levels, they are the same. Somehow, I doubt it.

McCain was wrong. He should just admit it, especially since he wasn’t just off by a little. The entire surge involved about 40,000 troops. We are now about 20,000 above pre-surge levels. The problem, of course, is that he can’t admit his mistake without undercutting his line that he’s the one who really understands Iraq, despite having been consistently wrong both about the broad policy and about such minor details as who the players are.


My favorite part of the exchange:

“McCain national security adviser Randy Scheunemann conceded that McCain said troop levels “have” been drawn down to pre-surge levels. “If he had said ‘we’d drawn down,’ he’d be accurate,” Scheunemann said. “If he had said ‘we were drawing down,’ he would be accurate.”

“To get into a debate about a verb tense rather than the real fundamental national security issues … is really a distraction.””

Sometimes it matters whether something is true now, or will become true in the future. (If you doubt this, try explaining to the IRS why the fact that you will eventually send in your tax return is all that matters.) This is one of those cases. Eventually there will be no US troops in Iraq. That does not mean that if McCain had said that there are no US troops in Iraq now, noting that that was false would be debating verb tenses.

Still, it’s nice to know in advance that we can expect John McCain not to care about the difference between past, present, and future. It will be very useful, if he becomes President, to know that he regards a statement like “I have taken action” as equivalent to “I will, eventually, get around to doing something, but I haven’t yet”, and that he takes “I have already made all the documents available” and “several decades from now, I will get around to releasing them” to be interchangeable.