24 jul. 2008

Intellectual Laziness and the ‘al Qaeda’ Shorthand


About a year ago, it became painfully obvious that the president started lying about al Qaeda in Iraq as part of a cynical approach to bolstering support for the war. While that was hardly unexpected, the more noticeable problem was that the media started playing along with the White House’s scheme, and began characterizing everyone who commits an act of violence in Iraq as an al Qaeda terrorist.
The New York Times’ public editor, Clark Hoyt, eventually tackled the subject head on in a terrific column; the paper took steps to make amends; and news outlets have generally been more responsible about not equating all Iraqi violence with AQI.
Now, if only John McCain had been paying attention at the time.
As he campaigns with the weight of a deeply unpopular war on his shoulders, Senator John McCain of Arizona frequently uses the shorthand “Al Qaeda” to describe the enemy in Iraq in pressing to stay the course in the war there.
“Al Qaeda is on the run, but they’re not defeated” is his standard line on how things are going in Iraq. When chiding the Democrats for wanting to withdraw troops, he has been known to warn that “Al Qaeda will then have won.” In an attack this winter on Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, the Democratic front-runner, Mr. McCain went further, warning that if American forces withdrew, Al Qaeda would be “taking a country.”
Critics say that in framing the war that way at rallies or in sound bites, Mr. McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, is oversimplifying the hydra-headed nature of the insurgency in Iraq in a way that exploits the emotions that have been aroused by the name “Al Qaeda” since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Well, yes, critics do say that, but only because it’s true.
Some students of the insurgency say Mr. McCain is making a dangerous generalization. “The U.S. has not been fighting Al Qaeda, it’s been fighting Iraqis,” said Juan Cole, a fierce critic of the war who is the author of “Sacred Space and Holy War: The Politics, Culture and History of Shi’ite Islam” and a professor of history at the University of Michigan. A member of Al Qaeda “is technically defined as someone who pledges fealty to Osama bin Laden and is given a terror operation to carry out. It’s kind of like the Mafia,” Mr. Cole said. “You make your bones, and you’re loyal to a capo. And I don’t know if anyone in Iraq quite fits that technical definition.”
Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia is just one group, though a very lethal one, in the stew of competing Sunni insurgents, Shiite militias, Iranian-backed groups, criminal gangs and others that make up the insurgency in Iraq. That was vividly illustrated last month when the Iraqi Army’s unsuccessful effort to wrest control of Basra from the Shiite militia groups that hold sway there led to an explosion of violence.
The current situation in Iraq should properly be described as “a multifactional civil war” in which “the government is composed of rival Shia factions” and “they are embattled with an outside Shia group, the Mahdi Army,” Ira M. Lapidus, a co-author of “Islam, Politics and Social Movements” and a professor of history at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote in an e-mail message. “The Sunni forces are equally hard to assess,” he added, and “it is an open question as to whether Al Qaeda is a unified operating organization at all.”
And McCain’s confusion on the issue inevitably leads him to say dumb things, such as making up Iran’s non-existent role in training AQI terrorists, getting confused about the difference between Sunni and Shi’ia, and exaggerating what AQI is even capable of in this reality.
The political news was: McCain takes a roundhouse swing at Obama; Obama counterpunches elegantly. But what caught my Iraq-obsessed eye was this statement from McCain:
“And my friends, if we left, they (al-Qaida) wouldn’t be establishing a base,” McCain said Wednesday. “They’d be taking a country, and I’m not going to allow that to happen, my friends. I will not surrender. I will not surrender to al-Qaida.”
They’d be taking a country? Last time I checked, Iraq has a Shi’ite majority. McCain thinks the Shi’ites–the Mahdi Army, the Badr Corps (and yes, the Iranians)–would allow a small group of Sunni extremists to take over? In fact, as noted above, the vast majority of indigenous Iraqi Sunnis aren’t too thrilled about the AQI presence in their country, either. (The usual caveats apply: AQI is barbaric, dastardly and intent on violating the Qu’ran by engaging in the annihilation of innocents. We can’t get rid of them fast enough.)
The sadness here is that McCain knows better. He knows the complexities of the world, and the region. But I suspect he’s overplaying his Iraq hand in order to win favor with the wingnuts in his party. That is extremely unfortunate: As McCain should know better than anyone, it is extremely dishonorable for politicians to play bloody-shirt games when the nation is at war.
It is dishonorable, but there’s no need to assume that McCain “knows better.” He’s either intentionally deceiving the public about the nation’s most serious terrorist threat, or he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It’s a close call, but I’m leaning towards the latter.

Is Puttin the president of Germany, as the "foreign policy expert" John McCain said?