John McCain is embarrassing himself

John McCain embarrassed himself Thursday by saying something crazy, illogical and stupid — ridiculously confused, really.

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.

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Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 06/17/2016 - 11:21 am.

    McCain is a good example

    of someone who achieved fame not for what he accomplished, but for what he experienced.
    The same is true for Trump, whose main accomplishmenty has been collecting capital gains on his inherited investments.

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 06/17/2016 - 11:36 am.

    It’s an election year

    Time to fight off the attempts from the primary challenger.

    Once every six years McCain puts on his republican costume.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/17/2016 - 01:32 pm.

      “His Republican Costume”

      Embracing vainglorious military action? Acting befuddled and out of touch? Espousing laughable conspiracy theories?

  3. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 06/17/2016 - 12:20 pm.

    Senator McCain is a war hero

    Senator McCain, without a doubt, is a war hero and I honor him for his service, but he is not a good politician and he has exhibited a lot of bad decision making. I remember when he suspended his campaign to help solve the US economy problem. He didn’t have any answers. He brought Sarah Palin to his campaign and she became a joke. McCain voted for the Iraq war along with many others, but being a war hero does not give him good judgement when it comes to war. The true John McCain came forth during his presidential run where he proved to me he is pretty much an empty shirt. McCain and Palin didn’t have any content beyond talking points so they relied on rabble rousing, which Trump has taken to new heights. McCain’s statement about the Orlando massacre makes zero sense. It is time for McCain to be put out to the political pasture.

  4. Submitted by Bill Kahn on 06/17/2016 - 12:54 pm.

    The problem is and always will be the balance of power between the people who know, the people who believe,and the people without a clue; unfortunately, none of us know to which group we belong and no one will until some future folks relate an accurate history. That happens a little faster than it used to, but I think that we can safely say that today most in the apparat of the Republican party are without a clue.

  5. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 06/17/2016 - 01:06 pm.

    Cognitive Dissonance at work

    For McCain to deny the justification of the Vietnam war. and the wars that followed it would be to reject the reason for his sacrifice and make him simply the victim of a random act of violence (and incompetent piloting). Not exactly heroic.
    This has colored his political career — his war hawking is a way to make his sacrifices meaningful to himself.

  6. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 06/17/2016 - 01:11 pm.

    Over the years I have thought that John McCain was one of the more interesting of Republican Senators, and I was actually proud of him when he corrected that ignorant Minnesota woman at a campaign town hall in 2008 when she blathered on about Obama being a Muslim, etc. A high point that still didn’t make up for his foolish naming of Palin for VP.

    But this week he showed that he is too old and muddled to be in the Senate any more. That “correction” of Obama-but-I-didn’t-mean-Obama-personally is right up there next to Trump’s suggestion that our President has committed treason and favors ISIS in some weird way.

    Who’s running against McCain? Like to send some money to that person.

  7. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/17/2016 - 02:12 pm.

    I’ve thought

    McCain to be an honorable man.

    Mistaken, sometimes, but nonetheless honorable. Until now, his greatest mistake in political judgment involved accepting know-nothing Sarah Palin as his VP nominee, but then, courage under duress doesn’t automatically translate into wisdom, political or otherwise. This latest episode simply provides an illustration, and I’m inclined to agree with several previous commenters that what his statements reveal of Senator McCain is that he’s lost touch with reality. While common among right-wingers, I’d given him more credit than that, but perhaps Ms. Sullivan is correct. Perhaps he’s now reached the point where his thinking is so muddled that someone else ought to be occupying that Arizona seat in the U.S. Senate.

    Given what I’ve read of Arizona Republicans, just who McCain’s eventual replacement might be is cause for some anxiety among thoughtful Americans, but before we get to that point, it would be nice if a way could be found to gently shunt Senator McCain off into a corner where he can’t really do much damage. Sadly, I’m not aware of a way to do that.

    • Submitted by Harris Goldstein on 06/17/2016 - 05:36 pm.

      Was, not so sure about “is”

      McCain doesn’t seem to have the political backbone of his friend Lindsay Graham.

      After criticizing Trump before, he is now supporting him (albeit tepidly). It’s likely this is his last Senate race, he could have won as a political hero or lost as a political hero. Instead, the best he could do is win as a political coward.

  8. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 06/17/2016 - 05:29 pm.

    McCain & Pailn

    Whoa, wait up here. The commenters have been too easy on McCain’s choice of Paul as VP.

    Remember, his campaign slogan from the beginning was “Country First.” And it was widely reported that his first choice as VP was his good friend and conservative Democrat Joe Lieberman. But his staff knew that he needed a Hail Mary pass to beat Obama. So McCain ditched “Country First”, and choose a completely unqualified VP candidate in Palin.

    While many could reasonably disagree with Lieberman, few would say he was unqualified as VP.

    It wasn’t just a poor choice by McCain. It was “To Hell With the Country, I’ll Do Whatever it Takes To Get Elected, Even If It Means Foisting This Hilly-billy On You.”

  9. Submitted by Richard Parker on 06/18/2016 - 12:12 am.

    Remember Adm. Stockdale?

    I too admire John McCain the war hero, but not McCain the politician, and am sorry that he appears to be losing it. His situation reminds me of Adm. James Stockdale, another Navy pilot who was shot down over Vietnam. He spent seven years as a POW, was awarded the Medal of Honor, was a college president after his recovery, but is remembered as an addled, confused old man because of his performance in a vice-presidential debate when he was Ross Perot’s running mate in 1992. He began his opening statement with the rhetorical question, “Who am I? Why am I here?” I was among the many people who took his question literally, even though I admired him. I felt sorry for him.

    Eric Black told his story in 2012:

  10. Submitted by Jim Million on 06/18/2016 - 01:56 am.

    Back to the Past?

    What a bunch of general you-know-what here. Exactly what is the relevance of Sen. McCain (Arizona) in Minnesota in 2016? None…period. Reaching for irrelevant topics here, I certainly believe.

    So, let’s re-litigate the Viet Nam war? That’s pretty pathetic. Just filling space until something somewhat important comes along to get everyone going again. Please indulge my loss of patience.

    Here’s an unbiased observation: John McCain was a fine airman…who went down, was captured and received some serious cognitive re-wiring by the NVA/Chinese brain masters. Nobody comes out of that quite “normal” ever after, OK? Those who have observed his past and fairly frequent anger management issues should know about such implications. Those tendencies seem to have abated, perhaps due to some effective medication in recent years. So, here’s my summary judgment:

    Has he done some good things in the Senate over the years? Yes
    Has he been emotionally erratic over those years? Yes
    Should he have been POTUS (regardless of running mate)? No
    Is he too old now to be heard as a significant voice? Probably
    Is this still 2008? Maybe…

  11. Submitted by Paul Nelson on 06/18/2016 - 09:28 pm.


    John McCain was an exemplary prisoner and suffered a lot, too much. He is a rare Republican politician to oppose torture. Every now and then he pops up to say something sensible. Mostly, though, he is a reliable vote against the best interests of the American people. He is old, rich, angry white guy, hence the soul of the Republican Party. It’s really a shame that in this moment when he might take a principled stand, there is nothing there.

  12. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/20/2016 - 07:35 am.

    McCain has dishonored himself and the Senate

    You only have as much honor as the last dishonorable thing you did, and you only have as much integrity as the last dishonest or disingenuous thing you did.

    McCain demolished his honor and integrity when he brought Sarah Palin on board as a possible president of the United States. Not only has he failed to regain his honor and integrity since then, antics like this latest attempt to make political hay out of a tragic mass murder have put further distance between McCain and he honor and integrity he once earned.

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