The NYT’s David Kirkpatrick had a very strong piece yesterday on John McCain’s foreign policy worldview, his embrace of neoconservatism, and his response to the attacks of 9/11. It applies a little more scrutiny than McCain is probably accustomed to receiving.
[By the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001], Mr. McCain, the Vietnam War hero and famed straight talker of the 2000 Republican primary, had taken on a new role: the leading advocate of taking the American retaliation against Al Qaeda far beyond Afghanistan. In a marathon of television and radio appearances, Mr. McCain recited a short list of other countries said to support terrorism, invariably including Iraq, Iran and Syria.
“There is a system out there or network, and that network is going to have to be attacked,” Mr. McCain said the next morning on ABC News. “It isn’t just Afghanistan,” he added, on MSNBC. “I don’t think if you got bin Laden tomorrow that the threat has disappeared,” he said on CBS, pointing toward other countries in the Middle East.
Within a month he made clear his priority. “Very obviously Iraq is the first country,” he declared on CNN. By Jan. 2, Mr. McCain was on the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt in the Arabian Sea, yelling to a crowd of sailors and airmen: “Next up, Baghdad!”
Just to clarify, by October 2001, McCain was already a cheerleader for invading Iraq. This was his reflexive response to the terrorism perpetrated by al Qaeda.
It’s an anecdote that reminds us of so many questions surrounding McCain, including his temperament, his judgment, and his “hothead” personality.
“He has the personality of a fighter pilot: when somebody stings you, you want to strike out,” said retired Gen. John H. Johns, a former friend and supporter of Mr. McCain who turned against him over the Iraq war. “Just like the American people, his reaction was: show me somebody to hit.”
And while that may strike some as appealing, the problem with McCain’s approach is its indiscriminate attitude — he looks for somebody to hit before he actually thinks about the merit and/or consequences.
Looking back at this period also reminds us of just how wrong McCain has been.
While pushing to take on Saddam Hussein, Mr. McCain also made arguments and statements that he may no longer wish to recall. He lauded the war planners he would later criticize, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney. (Mr. McCain even volunteered that he would have given the same job to Mr. Cheney.) He urged support for the later-discredited Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi’s opposition group, the Iraqi National Congress, and echoed some of its suspect accusations in the national media. And he advanced misleading assertions not only about Mr. Hussein’s supposed weapons programs but also about his possible ties to international terrorists, Al Qaeda and the Sept. 11 attacks. […]
[A]fter Mr. Bush declared he would hold responsible any country condoning terrorism, Mr. McCain called his leadership “magnificent” and his national security team the strongest “that has ever been assembled.” A few weeks later, Larry King of CNN asked whether he would have named Mr. Rumsfeld and Colin L. Powell to a McCain cabinet. “Oh, yes, and Cheney,” Mr. McCain answered, saying he, too, would have offered Mr. Cheney the vice presidency.
Even during the heat of the war in Afghanistan, Mr. McCain kept an eye on Iraq. To Jay Leno in mid-September, Mr. McCain said he believed “some other countries” had assisted Osama bin Laden, going on to suggest Iraq, Syria and Iran as potential suspects. In October 2001, when an Op-Ed page column in The New York Times speculated that Iraq, Russia or some other country might bear responsibility for that month’s anthrax mailings, Mr. McCain interrupted a question about Afghanistan from David Letterman on that night’s “Late Show.” “The second phase is Iraq,” Mr. McCain said, adding, “Some of this anthrax may — and I emphasize may — have come from Iraq.” […]
[W]hen the Czech government said that before the attacks, one of the 9/11 hijackers had met in Prague with an Iraqi intelligence official, Mr. McCain seized the report as something close to a smoking gun. “The evidence is very clear,” he said three days later, in an Oct. 29 television interview. (Intelligence agencies quickly cast doubt on the meeting.)
On Friday, McCain told the NYT, “I believe voters elect their leaders based on their experience and judgment — their ability to make hard calls, for instance, on matters of war and peace. It’s important to get them right.”
That would sound more compelling if McCain hadn’t been so wrong for so long.