McCain's Gaffe in the Middle East: Much More Than "a Senior Moment"

Leave it to conservative FOX News' Washington, D.C. managing editor Britt Hume to raise the specter of John McCain's age as an issue in the 2008 election. Appearing on this week's Fox News Sunday program, Hume suggested McCain's advanced age was responsible for the Arizona senator's factually incorrect remark last week that the country of Iran is training al-Qaeda terrorist and sending them into Iraq.

McCain's gaffe revealed that the senator is unaware that Iran is a Shiite country that views al-Qaeda, a predominantly Sunni group, as an enemy. Given the chance to clarify his remarks, McCain only made matters worse, suggesting that his misinformed views were widely held. It is "common knowledge and has been reported in the media," he told reporters, "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."

What's unfortunate is that the Republican nominee for president knows so little about Iraq and Iran and the religious divide that has fostered their historic hostility toward each other. So it was left to Senator Joe Lieberman to rescue McCain in the middle of a news conference, correcting the GOP candidate and instructing him to say that Iran is supporting extremists in Iraq.

Rather than allow an impression to develop that the Republican nominee for president has no clue about the realities in a perilous part of the world, FOX anchor Hume suggests that the blame should be placed on "a senior moment," a polite way of suggesting that McCain made a momentary mistake, one that should not be of significant concern to us.

But, John McCain's age shouldn't be an issue in the coming election, and Britt Hume was wrong to introduce it into the discussion. It is John McCain's ignorance, not his age, that's the issue. Many Americans older than McCain know the difference between Sunnis and Shiites. I've met seniors across the country who have a far better understanding of the complexities in the Middle East than John McCain demonstrates.

Age is beside the point. Last summer, Barack Obama said in the middle of the AFL-CIO's debate in Chicago that he would deal with NAFTA by contacting the "president of Canada." Of course, Canada has a prime minister, not a president. But no one suggested that the 46-year old senator's gaffe was a result of his youthful inexperience. His age didn't enter the discussion.

John McCain's age should be left out of it as well. In fact, Senator McCain made the same false statement about Iran and al-Qaeda not once, but three times last week, demonstrating that ignorance was the real culprit. Last Monday, for example, he told listeners of right-wing radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt: "As you know, there are al-Qaeda operatives that are taken back into Iran, given training as leaders, and they're moving back into Iraq."

It is disturbing that John McCain appears not to know that al Qaeda is a Sunni organization, and he doesn't understand the key role sectarian divisions play in the violence unleashed since our invasion of Iraq. No wonder he supports keeping our troops there for 100 years.

Moreover, these "misstatements" are more than a momentary lapse. McCain told Larry King in 2002 that winning a war in Iraq "will be fairly easy." He told Chris Matthews "we will be welcomed as liberators." He told Tim Russert in 2003 that the war would soon be over: "I believe that this conflict is still going to be relatively short," he said on Meet the Press.

John McCain was wrong then. He is wrong now. Britt Hume and the rest of McCain's buddies in the media should stop making excuses for his blunders and make sure the American people know about John McCain's long history of being wrong on Iraq. He doesn't understand the region and his lack of understanding has consequences. As we commemorate the 4,000th American death in Iraq, let's not make the mistake of electing a new president who shares George W. Bush's ignorance. And let's not blame that ignorance on age.