24 jul. 2008

John McCain’s Polish Moment, Iranian Style

John McCain has executed an Islamic-style divorce from reality. Three times he’s said that Iran is training al Qaeda.
Wrong. Once he even admitted he was wrong, but his campaign HQ went back to the original goofiness two days later.
To some, the Republican candidate’s strange behavior was a replay of that historic 1976 campaign gaffe, when President Gerald R. Ford declared that Poland was “independent and autonomous” from the Soviet Union.
Millions of Poles found that surprising.
Ford had a chance to regroup, but he passed it up. He insisted that “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.”
You could still hear the guffaws at the polling booth.
Likewise, McCain’s headquarters put out a reaffirmation of the candidate’s confusion about who was on what side in Iraq during a press conference in Jordan.
Mind you, this was two days after McCain, nudged by travelling companion Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman , I-Conn, corrected and amended his accusation that Iranian operatives in Iraq have been “taking al Qaeda into Iran, training them and sending them back.”
Lieberman whispered in his ear.
“I’m sorry,” McCain said, “the Iranians are training extremists, not al Qaeda”.
Well, yes, and some of those “extremists” are followers of Iraqi Shiite political parties in the government we are propping up in Baghdad.
McCain had it backward, in other words.
To be sure, elements in Iran, the Shiites’ Vatican, have indeed entered into a few marriages of convenience with their historical arch enemy, the Sunnis, by helping al Qaeda here and there.
But to insist that the fortunes of al Qaeda, whose roots go deep in Sunni asceticism, are tied to Shiite Iran, is absurd. It misses the whole point.
It’s like saying Northern Ireland’s Protestants were creatures of the Pope.
Haven’t we been here before?
Liberals bloggers and the media jumped all over McCain, the former Vietnam fighter pilot and prisoner of war, some recalling the widely circulated columns here exposing the ignorance of top American intelligence officials about the Middle East.
So, is McCain still a bottom-half-of-the-class student, like he was at the U.S. Naval Academy? Or does he understand the power of linking al Qaeda to Iran all too well?
Either way, it’s loser.
But what was missing in the heckling of McCain was the other half of the al Qaeda equation.
The inconvenient truth is that al Qaeda and its supporters gets their lion’s share of money and manpower from sources in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan, Sunni bastions all, and America’s key allies in the war on terror.
In addition, Libya, a nascent U.S. ally (see below), and North Africa in general, has also proved to be fertile recruiting grounds for al Qaeda, according to a treasure trove of documents captured in Iraq last year.
The future suicide bombers are smuggled into Iraq in small groups from Syria, said the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., which analyzed the documents. They are Sunni Arabs, in other words, not Iraqi Shiites supported or trained by Iran.
Gerald Ford never recovered from his Polish moment, and lost to former Georgia Gov. and peanut farmer Jimmy Carter.
Of course, he had other problems — the Vietnam and Cambodian debacles, domestic spying scandals, his pardon of the disgraced Richard M. Nixon in the Watergate affair.
But ever since, Ford’s Polish moment has been the measuring rod for campaign gaffes.
Will McCain suffer a similar fate?

A number of factors argue against it.
It’s too early, for starters.
Ford stumbled at the climax of both campaigns, when millions of Americans were riveted to the television debate.
In contrast, McCain’s moment occurred far away, and involved issues too complicated for most Americans to understand, not to mention members of Congress and national security officials themselves.
As for his campaign staff’s bizarre statement repudiation of their candidate’s apology, it’s unlikely it made it past the blogosphere to the water cooler.
Finally, while Ford’s Polish moment drew a national howl, conservative writers such as the New York Sun’s Eli Lake have been making a somewhat effective counterargument by stitching together instances of Iran-al Qaeda cooperation.
So McCain probably escaped relatively unscathed.
Still, he and his supporters must know this: He cannot afford another moment like that.

McCain asks Petraeus, “Do you still view al Qaeda in Iraq as a major threat?” The general responded, “It is still a major threat, though it is certainly not as major a threat as it was say 15 months ago.” McCain added, “Certainly not an obscure sect of the Shi’ites all overall?” Petraeus answered, “No,” though McCain quickly added, “Or Sunnis or anybody else.”

I’ve watched the exchange a few times, and I keep coming to the same conclusion: by rhetorically asking if al Qaeda is a Shiite sect, McCain was once again demonstrating that he’s confused about the terrorist group’s religious background. He added, “Or Sunnis or anybody else,” not to necessarily to clarify, but to cover his bases — he figures al Qaeda has to be affiliated with an Islamic tradition, even if he doesn’t know which one.

Ilan Goldenberg added, “McCain did genuinely mix up Sunnis and Shi’a again…. Now, I know that there is a bit of gotcha going on here. But this man claims that his greatest qualification for the Presidency is that he understands foreign policy. But the differences between Sunni and Shi’a matter. They matter a lot! And this nasty habit of mixing it up just seriously needs to stop.”

Indeed, I’d say it’s the “nasty habit” that makes this morning’s mix-up especially interesting. If McCain had consistently demonstrated a firm grasp of events in the Middle East, it’d be easier to overlook confusion over whether al Qaeda is Sunni or Shi’ia.

But therein lies the point — McCain has struggled with this before.

* On Feb. 28, McCain told the Baker Institute for Public Policy in Houston, Texas, “Al Qaeda is there [in Iraq], they are functioning, they are supported in many times, in many ways by the Iranians.”

* On March 17, McCain appeared on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show and said, “There are al Qaeda operatives that are taken back into Iran and given training as leaders and they’re moving back into Iraq.”

* On March 18, McCain held a press conference in Jordan in which he repeated the same claim, twice, including his insistence that it was “common knowledge and has been reported in the media that al-Qaeda is going back into Iran and receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran, that’s well known.”

Eventually, McCain backpedalled, but only after Joe Lieberman whispered in his ear that he was wrong. Asked why he would repeatedly insist that Sunni al Qaeda was benefitting from training from Shiite Iran, McCain would only say he “misspoke.”

Complicating matters, McCain also appeared confused last week about events in Basra.

As recently as November 2006, McCain couldn’t even talk about his own opinions on the war without reading prepared notes on national television. As recently as March 2007, McCain was embarrassing himself by insisting that Gen. Petraeus travels around Baghdad “in a non-armed Humvee” (a comment that military leaders literally laughed at, and which CNN’s Michael Ware responded to by saying McCain’s credibility “has now been left out hanging to dry.”)

Add up the errors, and we see a Republican candidate whose problem is not with words but with facts.