McCain's Iraq Barack Attack Shows A Crack

The media should be paying attention here, to more than just the first big skirmish of the putative general election, which reframed the foreign policy distinctions between the two candidates.

Yesterday John McCain launched an attack on Barack Obama, showing a hint of general election strategy β€” and more than a hint of vulnerability. Plain and simple, Barack Obama won this round, and potentially exposed a major McCain vulnerability on foreign policy.

By now you all know what happened: In Tuesday night's debate , Obama answered a question on Iraq policy by saying, "[A]s commander in chief, I will always reserve the right to make sure that we are looking out for American interests. And if al Qaeda is forming a base in Iraq, then we will have to act in a way that secures the American homeland and our interests abroad."

McCain licked his chops and chortled out the following:

"I have some news β€” Al Qaeda is in Iraq. It's called 'Al Qaeda in Iraq.' My friends, if we left, they wouldn't be establishing a base. They'd be taking a country and I'm not going to allow that to happen."

This gave Obama the chance not only to fire back, but to have a do-over on his original comment, which at best needed clarification and at worst betrayed confusion on his part. Instead, he got the chance to fire back at McCain, and how:

"I have some news for John McCain. There was no such thing as Al Qaeda in Iraq until George Bush and John McCain decided to invade Iraq... So John McCain may like to say he wants to follow Osama bin Laden to the gates of Hell, but so far, all he's done is follow George Bush into a misguided war in Iraq."

Point: Obama β€” McCain just got schooled, and how, because Obama's answer was right and John McCain's was pretty easy to pick apart. Here's why: There are two al Qaedas, really (at least for our purposes here). One flew planes into buildings on September 11th, the other wasn't in Iraq until after the 2003 invasion and is less a wing of the larger group than what back in September General David Petraeus called "not a unified force," really more like insurgents who had formed "a loose confederation with al Qaeda at various times." That group comprises approximately anywhere 2 - 15% of the insurgency. Once again, for emphasis: Not the same al Qaeda that attacked America on September 11th, nor the same al Qaeda led by Osama bin Laden whom George Bush vowed to hunt down and bring to justice but instead got sidetracked in a country that hadn't had anything to do with 9/11.

This not-so-subtle distinction is easily overlooked owing to the fact that the two groups share the same name. That is, of course, intentional. The phrase "al Qaeda" was being thrown around all over the place back around the time of the Petraeus hearings (which were right around the time of September 11th!); in fact, Petraeus called al Qaeda in Iraq "public enemy number one" which he then had to retract on NBC Nightly News under vigorous questioning from Brian Williams, who forced him to make the distinction between the two terrorist groups and admit that al Qaeda in Iraq was a very different entity.

John McCain knows this darn well, which is why his comment to Obama was so darn arrogant: He knows the distinction, but would certainly never make it in such a way so that voters got the difference. The very fact that he smugly assumed β€” or tried to imply β€” that Obama might not actually know it himself is evidence of how confusing the matter is.

This was a golden opportunity for Obama, and he took it. He took McCain's condescension ("I have some news") and called him on it ("I've been paying attention, John McCain"), smoothing over his own initial gaffe and instead makig the key distinction that McCain did not and twisting the knife further by pointing out that, while al Qaeda was actually in Afghanistan, McCain was following George Bush into an al Qaeda-free Iraq. The message: Don't underestimate me. And also: I've got your number.

The media should be paying attention here, to more than just the first big skirmish of the putative general election. What this did β€” or should do β€” was reframe the foreign policy distinctions between the two, and the assumptions about each candidate. McCain is seen as the battle-tested war hero, the foreign policy guy who had the guts to support an unpopular policy (the Surge) and was vindicated when it ended up working out (though let's add the usual caveats regarding ethnic cleansing, population displacement, and utter lack of diplomacy here). Obama has been cast as the newbie, the one-term junior Senator who said he'd bomb Pakistan but only after having tea with our enemies. This exchange should change that, because not only does Obama know what he's talking about, he knows how to use that knowledge against John McCain. More than that, it should put McCain on the defensive β€” from the press as well as Obama β€” because now the onus is on him to prove that he, too, understands the difference.

McCain also exposed another crack in his reasoning yesterday, one that Obama alluded to but Dems would be wise to pick up on. He said: "My friends, if we left, they [al Qaeda] wouldn't be establishing a base. They'd be taking a country and I'm not going to allow that to happen." This is the classic rationale for staying in Iraq and it can be undercut. In fact, an equally strong argument can be made for a McCain presidency attracting al Qaeda: Saying that the U.S. is going to be in Iraq for the next hundred years is nothing short of a recruiting tool β€” what's (and HuffPo's) Jon Soltz called "a dangerous recruiting poster for insurgents." That's an invitation to come fight against the hated American occupiers β€” and as Stoltz notes, the people who will bear the consequences of such a reckless remark will be the troops on the ground.

Obama was also smart to bring in Afghanistan β€” which the U.S. had and lost, where George Bush failed to find Osama bin Laden, which actually is an al Qaeda stronghold. Iraq is the buzzword, but Afghanistan is its own disaster, and one that McCain failed to recognize (Feb. 2007: "We are doing many things right in Afghanistan.") It's actually sort of amazing how much this exchange laid bare β€” and all of it should be putting McCain on the defensive.

Maybe this is why today McCain quickly reframed the matter, saying that what mattered now was moving forward. But if he wants to do that based on his judgment, it falls to Obama (and Clinton, who must be kicking herself today) to expose how flawed that judgment is. It also falls to the media, even though they love the old guy (er, the NYT excepted) They've been too quick to anoint him the foreign policy leader here, and too slow to really examine exactly where he's stood and what that's meant. It's the media that has allowed McCain to be the presumptive leader on foreign policy, and the media has framed this race in terms of Democrats having to challenge him on the war.

After this exchange, John McCain should be just as challenged. After all, all of the above is the result of the Bush administration's disastrous Iraq War policy β€” which John McCain stands behind. Defending against the fallout from that is much more complicated than just saying, "America doesn't cut and run!" John McCain, the presumptive foreign policy candidate, the presumptive national security candidate, has a lot of 'splaining to do.

NB: By the way, this is classic Obama, turning a gaffe into a victory, like he did the other night with the Farrakhan question. He was wrong initially about al Qaeda being in Iraq β€” presumably he was going for a slightly different interpretation, but he did misspeak. This is also turning out to be classic Clinton, who has been left out of this exchange and missed her opportunity to jump on Obama's gaffe.

Update, Mar. 19/08: This has suddenly come back into the headlines again with McCain's second big gaffe, stating that Iran was supporting al Qaeda in Iraq.

*Alternate headline: "Barack Smacks Back Against McCain's Iraq Attack"

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