I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Sen. John McCain because, although he is an inveterate war-monger who seems incapable of entertaining the growing mountain of evidence that most of America’s recent wars have turned out to be mistakes, he is a person of proven honor and courage and also of unusual candor for an American politician of our era. He is rare among Republicans in recognizing and criticizing the disaster of the U.S. system of campaign finance, as co-sponsor of the McCain-Feingold act of 2002, which has since been eviscerated by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Unfortunately, McCain embarrassed himself Thursday by saying something crazy, illogical and stupid — ridiculously confused, really. Then, because he is a person of honor, he attempted to rectify his mistake. But he couldn’t get it done because he is so deeply committed to war-mongering that it tripped up his honorable instinct and his attempted half-assed retraction made no sense.
I’ll offer some chapter and verse to back that up. But first, some background that you may already know. McCain’s father was a high-ranking admiral during the Vietnam War. McCain attended the Naval Academy, became a Navy pilot, was shot down over North Vietnam and was a prisoner of war for several years. This is how he got his white hair. He was injured from his crash, but also beaten and tortured in captivity. When the North Vietnamese learned this his father was admiral, they offered to release him but he refused to accept special treatment and remained in captivity, which included long periods of solitary confinement.
Donald Trump, early in his presidential candidacy, said that McCain was “not a war hero.” Since Trump, a model of clarity, often says the opposite of what he just said, then said of McCain: “He’s a war hero because he was captured.” Then, because he is a winner in all things and takes a dim view of losers, Trump added sarcastically: “I like people that weren’t captured.”
That was the first of several times that I was convinced that Trump (who had enjoyed a series of draft deferments during the Vietnam War era) had just said something so despicable that his candidacy would be ended. I was wrong, although I still don’t really understand why.
Here, if you are so inclined, is a Washington Post story, headlined “What Donald Trump was up to while John McCain was a prisoner of war,” that was published in 2015 after Trump disputed McCain’s heroism. Trump, during that period, was partying in nightclubs and starting to get even richer than he was born.
During his long Senate career, McCain has, so far as I can tell, taken the hawkish side of every foreign and military policy issue. To me, the evidence grows and grows that most U.S. military adventures of recent decades have been mistakes or, at the very least, have failed to deliver the benefits the architects of these wars promised. Vietnam and Iraq were two of the biggest cases. McCain has never said that either was a mistake.
He was wholeheartedly in favor of the decision to bomb, invade and occupy Iraq. He has never expressed any regrets about that support and, at every turn, advocated the U.S. military staying in Iraq with as many troops and other assets as necessary.
Illogical and erroneous statement
This leads us to the illogical, erroneous statement that he made after the Orlando massacre. The statement was:
“Barack Obama is directly responsible for it, because when he pulled everybody out of Iraq, Al Qaida went to Syria, became ISIS. And ISIS is what it is today thanks to Barack Obama’s failures, utter failures, by pulling everybody out of Iraq. So the responsibility for it lies with President Barack Obama and his failed policies.”
This is pitiful. The invasion of Iraq was a colossal mistake. McCain argued for it, voted for it, favored it unreservedly and still defends it. (Trump, by the way, in the only public statement anyone can find before the war, also favored it in a muddled way, although he constantly claims to have opposed it. That’s a lie.)
No Iraq war; no rise of ISIS in Iraq. McCain (and Trump, half-assedly) supported the Iraq War. Obama opposed the Iraq war.
The invasion of Iraq did not lead to the discovery of Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction,” because they didn’t exist, and did not produce the flowering of democracy that American war-planners had promised would start in Iraq and spread across the region. It set off a vicious civil war that has never really ended.
The Americans installed a terrible, corrupt, violent post-war leader, Nouri al-Maliki. That didn’t happen under Obama, but under President George W. Bush.
Maliki’s Shiite supremacism set off a civil war, which was certainly among the top causes of the rise of ISIS. The appointment of Maliki (under U.S. control) and the decision, made while the Bush administration still controlled Iraq, to disband the Iraqi military have been cited by many experts as two of the key reasons that gave rise to Iraq’s Sunni insurgency, which then gave rise to ISIS.
The increase in U.S. troops, known as the “surge,” which McCain enthusiastically supported, also happened under Bush. And it had some success in tamping down the rebellion of the group that would turn into ISIS and forced ISIS to shift its operations from Iraq into Syria.
And yes, as many other commentators have noted, the withdrawal of U.S. troops that McCain decries was the fulfillment of a plan and a schedule that had been worked out during the Bush administration.
Atrocity in Orlando
Now we finally have the moment to which McCain is referring in his effort to blame Obama for the atrocity in Orlando.
McCain is arguing that if Obama had been more willing renegotiate the timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal that Bush had negotiated (Obama did try, but presumably McCain thinks he should have tried harder) and if Obama had been more willing to get militarily involved in the Syrian civil war, ISIS would have been weakened and would have been unable to maintain the status among radical Islamists that may have — only may have because the evidence on what caused Omar Mateen to do what he did is still being sort out — given ISIS the cachet that enabled it to inspire Mateen to murder 49 revelers at the Pulse nightclub.
You can believe this if you want to. And McCain wants to because he seems to believe that U.S. military action always produces great results. To me, it’s reasonably far-fetched, and it’s hard to understand why all of the previous failed efforts to fix Iraq via U.S. military action were less responsible than Obama’s unwillingness to invade yet another neighboring Arab/Muslim nation, namely Syria.
But John McCain is an honorable man. And he realized that his efforts to place personal responsibility for Mateen’s homicidal rampage on Obama personally was a rash, over-the-top statement. So he attempted to clean it up. He issued a withdrawal/clarification/obfuscation of what he wished he had said. This is how it came out (and it actually took the form of a press release from the McCain Senate office):
“I misspoke. I did not mean to imply that the President was personally responsible. I was referring to President Obama’s national security decisions, not the President himself. As I have said, President Obama’s decision to completely withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011 led to the rise of ISIL. I and others have long warned that the failure of the President’s policy to deny ISIL safe haven would allow the terrorist organization to inspire, plan, direct or conduct attacks on the United States and Europe as they have done in Paris, Brussels, San Bernardino and now Orlando.”
Yes, quite the apology. Seems to me the “clarification” reaffirms McCain’s belief that Obama is directly and even “personally” responsible for the massacre in Orlando (although he wants to take back the “personal” part, while reasserting it). He wants us to understand that Obama didn’t intend to cause the carnage, only that he did cause it by his ill-advised policies.