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ROSA BROOKS

McCain: So wrong, so what?

May 22, 2008|ROSA BROOKS

Unsolved mysteries of the universe: Where did matter come from? Why did all those ships vanish in the Bermuda Triangle? Is there really a Loch Ness Monster?

And here's a new one to add to your list. In poll after poll, about two-thirds of Americans say they oppose the war in Iraq, believe things in Iraq are going badly for the United States, disapprove of the way President Bush is handling the war, consider even the initial decision to go to war to have been wrong and want the next president to end the war quickly. Yet -- and here comes the mystery -- polls also show that more Americans trust presumptive Republican nominee John McCain than either Democratic presidential candidate when it comes to handling the war in Iraq.

Go figure.

McCain's the one presidential candidate pledging to continue the very Bush administration policies that got us into the mess we're now in, and McCain's record of getting it embarrassingly wrong on Iraq is virtually unparalleled.

Here's McCain, in his own words, getting Iraq wrong from Day One:

"Saddam Hussein [is] developing weapons of mass destruction as quickly as he can," he informed Fox News in November 2001. By February 2003, McCain had upgraded Hussein's capabilities and was warning Americans that "Hussein has the ability to ... [turn] Iraq into a weapons assembly line for Al Qaeda's network."

Well, no. But never mind that. We won't hold McCain responsible for the Bush administration's cooking of the intelligence books.

So how'd McCain do on his other Iraq-related predictions?

On the Cheney/Rumsfeld Delusional Thinking Index, McCain scores a perfect 10 out of 10. "I believe that the success will be fairly easy," he assured CNN's Larry King in September 2002.

Quagmire? Insurgency? Naah. "We're not going to get into house-to-house fighting," he scoffed to Wolf Blitzer in 2002. "We're not going to have a bloodletting." In fact, by March 2003, McCain was positively giddy with Rumsfeldian enthusiasm: "There's no doubt in my mind ... we will be welcomed as liberators."

When it came to predicting the sectarian conflicts that have wracked Iraq since we "liberated" it, McCain was equally off target. "There's not a history of clashes that are violent between Sunnis and Shias," he explained confidently on MSNBC in April 2003, "so I think they can probably get along."

McCain's had five long years since then to reflect on just how well Sunni and Shiite groups are getting along, but he's still having a tough time keeping the whole thing straight. In Jordan this past March, he pronounced it "common knowledge ... that Al Qaeda" -- a Sunni-dominated group -- "is going back into Iran" -- a country led by hard-line Shiites -- "and receiving training ... from Iran." Oops

A slip of the tongue on McCain's part? That would be easier to buy if McCain hadn't repeated variants of the claim on multiple occasions, insisting to a Texas audience in February that Iran was aiding Al Qaeda and wondering during Senate hearings if Al Qaeda in Iraq was "an obscure sect of the Shiites overall? ... Or Sunnis or anybody else."

McCain seems more than a little confused about who's who in the Middle East, which is maybe why he's so dead-set against the idea of talks with anyone not already a U.S. ally. It's always embarrassing, from a diplomatic perspective, to have no idea who you're talking to.

But back to Iraq. McCain has rarely questioned the overall Bush administration Iraq strategy, and he recently reaffirmed his commitment to maintaining U.S. combat troops there until Iraq becomes "a peaceful, stable, prosperous, democratic state." "We will have victory," he promised. But he's never explained how a strategy that's failed so far is going to magically start succeeding in 2009.

Of course, maybe his success -- for the time being -- with the American public has convinced McCain that if you just repeat something long enough and confidently enough, people will start believing it. McCain keeps boasting of his own national security expertise and insisting that Barack Obama, his chief Democratic rival, is naive and "does not understand ... the fundamental elements of national security and warfare" -- even though Obama, unlike the "experienced" McCain, managed to get it right on Iraq from the very beginning.

And astonishingly -- mysteriously! -- polls suggest that a majority of Americans are buying McCain's line.

If you're one of them, there's this bridge I'd like to sell you. And there's an upcoming tour of the Bermuda Triangle that might interest you too.

--

rbrooks@latimescolumnists.com

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