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Does McCain Really 'Know Better'?

During his dust-up with Barack Obama yesterday over Iraq, John McCain said: “[M]y friends, if we left, they (al-Qaida) wouldn’t be establishing a

During his dust-up with Barack Obama yesterday over Iraq, John McCain said:

“[M]y friends, if we left, they (al-Qaida) wouldn’t be establishing a base,” McCain said Wednesday. “They’d be taking a country, and I’m not going to allow that to happen, my friends. I will not surrender. I will not surrender to al-Qaida.”

Now, McCain fancies himself something of an expert on matters regarding the military, national security, and foreign policy, which makes it all the more interesting when he says dumb things that don’t make any sense.

AQI can’t “take a country,” and certainly can’t “take” Iraq. McCain hasn’t shown up for work in a while, so perhaps he’s missed some briefings, but the reality is AQI has no real allies in Iraq. The Kurds have no use for them, the Shiite majority has no use for murderous Sunni jihadists running around their country, and Sunnis have been rising up against AQI since before the “surge” even began. If we left, al Qaeda would “take” Iraq? Not in this reality, it won’t.

Time’s Joe Klein notes how wrong McCain is, and adds, “The sadness here is that McCain knows better.” But does he really?

Klein argued:

The sadness here is that McCain knows better. He knows the complexities of the world, and the region. But I suspect he’s overplaying his Iraq hand in order to win favor with the wingnuts in his party. That is extremely unfortunate: As McCain should know better than anyone, it is extremely dishonorable for politicians to play bloody-shirt games when the nation is at war.

There may be some truth to this. McCain is going out of his way to act like an uniformed hack — on purpose — because the Republican Party’s far-right base is just confused enough to think AQI really could somehow take over Iraq. McCain doesn’t want to educate them; he wants to exploit their confusion and ignorance for electoral gain. It’s easier, in McCain’s case, for voters to be wrong — an informed voter is less likely to support him.

But I’m not at all sure why we should assume that McCain really does know what he’s talking about. He’s offered precious little evidence of it. McCain was wrong before the invasion (he said the conflict would be short and easy); he was wrong at the start of the occupation (he supported the Rumsfeld strategy and said we simply needed to “stay the course”); and he’s been wrong about the surge (he predicted widespread political reconciliation, none of which has happened).

As recently as November 2006, McCain couldn’t even talk about his own opinions on the war without reading prepared notes on the subject. As recently as March 2007, McCain was embarrassing himself by insisting that Gen. Petraeus travels around Baghdad “in a non-armed Humvee” (a comment that military leaders literally laughed at, and which CNN’s Michael Ware responded to by saying McCain’s credibility “has now been left out hanging to dry.”)

So, how do we know McCain really “knows better”? Is it unreasonable to at least entertain the possibility that the senator simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and that his reputation for expertise is a media-hyped mirage? At this point, the difference between a politician who gets Iraq wrong on purpose to make right-wing activists happy, and a politician who gets Iraq wrong accidentally is fairly small.

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