Thursday, March 20, 2008

McCain and the 3:00 A.M. Phone Call

Days Until Bush Leaves Office = 305

John McCain, traveling in the Middle East to showcase the depth of his foreign policy knowledge and experience, made headlines yesterday. And not in a good way.

Since McCain is a United States Senator, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he is billing the trip, literally and figuratively, as official business, which means taxpayers are footing the bill. The fact that John McCain is the putative Republican nominee for president is, of course, incidental to the trip. As is, apparently, the campaign fundraiser scheduled to take place in London later this week.

But, odd as it seems, that wasn’t the headline. No, the headline sprang from remarks McCain made in Amman, Jordan. Talking up the dangers of Iranian meddling in Iraq, McCain said, “Al-Qaida is going back into Iran and is receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran.” When a reporter asked McCain to flesh out that statement, the senator obliged by saying it is “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. And it's unfortunate.”

Not so much unfortunate as patently and wildly inaccurate. Without getting too deep into the historical and theological weeds, suffice it to say that the Shiites running Iran are not exactly cozy with the Sunni affiliation of al-Qaida’s leadership. This is something that a lot of people understand, or at least recognize, including McCain’s senate colleague and Iraq war soul-mate Joe Lieberman, who is traveling with McCain’s delegation this week and was on the podium as McCain spoke. Realizing McCain’s error, Lieberman intervened by delicately whispering in McCain’s ear that the bad guys in question were not, in fact, affiliated with al-Qaida, but were more accurately referred to as “Shiite extremists.” McCain pivoted immediately, “I'm sorry, the Iranians are training extremists, not al-Qaeda,” adding again, “I’m sorry.”

I’ll give McCain the benefit of the doubt and assume that his second “I’m sorry” was not an expression of regret that Iran really isn’t training al-Qaida, after all, or perhaps that al-Qaida is not an extremist organization, as opposed to those whom Iran is training, but rather was an additional apology for his gaffe.

No one disputes that Iran supports and trains violent extremist groups (Hezbollah, anyone?), and does so with specific reference to Iraq. The problem with McCain's statement in Amman is that he lumps all Islamic groups under the al-Qaeda moniker, either out of personal ignorance or a desire to frighten voters with the name of the one terrorist organization they are likely to know of. That fact that McCain retracted and apologized after being corrected by Lieberman does rather force one to assume ignorance (and distinctly not confusion) is the culprit.

The point is that John McCain, who has derided both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as dangerously unqualified starry-eyed know-nothing dreamers when it comes to foreign policy, and promoting himself as the only candidate equipped to be America’s Commander in Chief, lacks even a basic grasp of facts that are central and fundamental to life in the Middle East, an area of vital American interest where our armed forces are bogged down in a war we have thus far been able neither to win nor otherwise end. John McCain is running for president in large part because he claims superior understanding of foreign policy and security issues. The Amman gaffe is the latest, but by no means the only, indicator that McCain's grasp of detail, which I think most people can agree is important for a president, is no better in these matters than that of the current incumbent. The clear implication is that with no better grasp of factual detail than George W. Bush, Americans can expect no better results for the country than they've seen these past 7-plus years.

This embarrassing episode for McCain not only undermines his central claim to superior presidential fitness, but also makes it harder for voters to imagine McCain as the man answering the White House phone when it rings at 3:00 in the morning. But let me urge those who may be feeling that way not to be too hasty. Don’t despair. You can still imagine John McCain answering the 3:00 phone call.

In fact, it may go something like this:

It’s 3:00 A.M. and your children are safe and asleep. But there’s a phone in the White House and it’s ringing. Something’s happening in the world.

Phone: *riiiiing. Riiiiiiiing. Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing! RRRRIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIING!!*
McCain: Hmph.Grmph?
McCain: Ugh. Hello?
Voice on Phone: Mr. President, this is your national Security Advisor.
McCain. Oh. Good Lord, do you know what time it is?
Voice on Phone: Indeed I do, sir. It’s 3:00 A.M.
McCain: What the hell are you doing calling me at this hour?
Voice on Phone: Well, sir, we have a situation in the Middle East.
McCain: Oh, no. Baltimore?
Voice on Phone: Er, no sir. The Persian Gulf. Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia.
McCain: I know, I know. And all those little countries, too. Well, what’s happening?
Voice on Phone: If you would join us in the Situation Room, sir, the Joint Chiefs are assembled and waiting to brief you.
McCain: Now? It’s 3:00 A.M., for God’s sake.
Voice on Phone: Yes, sir.
McCain: OK. But make sure Vice-President Lieberman’s there. And call the folks on K Street and tell them I may be late for the weekly meeting.
Voice on Phone: Yes, sir.
McCain: OK. The Situation Room: that’s upstairs, right? Near the attic?
Voice on Phone: No sir, it’s closer to the basement.
McCain: I’m sorry, the basement, not the attic. I’m sorry.

You get the picture. For anyone seriously contemplating voting to elevate John McCain to the office of president, Wednesday’s gaffe in Amman, even if it didn’t happen at 3:00 A.M., should serve as your wake up call.

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