For those of us who followed nearly every minute of the 2008 presidential campaign, it’s fascinating to watch how John McCain has become the GOP point person in arguing that July 2011 is a date certain that will embolden the enemy. For starters, McCain never called for more troops to Afghanistan until July 15, 2008 — nearly a year after Obama; for McCain, Iraq was the center on the war on terrorism, not Afghanistan. Second, he never put up much a fight when the Iraqi government and Bush White House established a “time horizon” to withdraw from Iraq. And third, he himself talked about timetables during the campaign, saying that Maliki’s 16-month timeframe was “a pretty good timetable” and also saying that all U.S. forces would be home from Iraq by 2013.
McCain would argue — rightly — that his talk about timetables was always tied to conditions on the ground. But that’s also true for Obama’s July 2011 date. Here’s what the president said on Tuesday: “Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground.”
And that’s really the most frustrating aspect of the media’s obsession with McCain. He’s on the airwaves constantly, touted as an expert, despite the fact that he’s demonstrated literally no understanding of the issue at all.
It’s annoying enough when major news outlets overlook the fact that McCain lost last year’s presidential election badly, but the real problem here is one that’s been persistent for too long — reporters are convinced, without evidence, that McCain understands the complexities of foreign policy and national security. Pressed to name a single instance in which McCain has earned this reputation, no one seems able to point to anything outside his service in Vietnam several decades ago.
In reality, the Arizona senator has been consistently wrong about his signature issue. In September, Frank Rich labeled him “Wrong-Way McCain” for good reason.
To appreciate this crowd’s spotless record of failure, consider its noisiest standard-bearer, John McCain. He made every wrong judgment call that could be made after 9/11. It’s not just that he echoed the Bush administration’s constant innuendos that Iraq collaborated with Al Qaeda’s attack on America. Or that he hyped the faulty W.M.D. evidence to the hysterical extreme of fingering Iraq for the anthrax attacks in Washington. Or that he promised we would win the Iraq war “easily.” Or that he predicted that the Sunnis and the Shiites would “probably get along” in post-Saddam Iraq because there was “not a history of clashes” between them.
What’s more mortifying still is that McCain was just as wrong about Afghanistan and Pakistan. He routinely minimized or dismissed the growing threats in both countries over the past six years, lest they draw American resources away from his pet crusade in Iraq.
Two years after 9/11 he was claiming that we could “in the long term” somehow “muddle through” in Afghanistan. (He now has the chutzpah to accuse President Obama of wanting to “muddle through” there.) Even after the insurgency accelerated in Afghanistan in 2005, McCain was still bragging about the “remarkable success” of that prematurely abandoned war. In 2007, some 15 months after the Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf signed a phony “truce” ceding territory on the Afghanistan border to terrorists, McCain gave Musharraf a thumb’s up. As a presidential candidate in the summer of 2008, McCain cared so little about Afghanistan it didn’t even merit a mention among the national security planks on his campaign Web site. He takes no responsibility for any of this. […]
Along with his tribunes in Congress and the punditocracy, Wrong-Way McCain still presumes to give America its marching orders. With his Senate brethren in the Three Amigos, Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham, he took to The Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page to assert that “we have no choice” but to go all-in on Afghanistan — rightly or wrongly, presumably — just as we had in Iraq. Why? “The U.S. walked away from Afghanistan once before, following the Soviet collapse,” they wrote. “The result was 9/11. We must not make that mistake again.”
This shameless argument assumes — perhaps correctly — that no one in this country remembers anything.
McCain’s track record is humiliating, to be sure, but it’s the political establishment’s habit of pretending this track record is actually impressive that’s the problem.