A quiet Sunday evening here in Hollywood – long shadows in the Hollywood Hills outside the window, a light breeze off the distant Pacific, the just-past-full moon about to edge up into the darkening sky, and only one police helicopter thumping away, but far in the distance, down Echo Park way – just another day in paradise, or so they say. Late in the evening there will be the dull booms from the fireworks at the Hollywood Bowl, just on the other side if the hill. It is summer, and we all expect that most evenings. It’s oddly amusing. Harriet-the-Cat, long gone now, used to just lift her head and give a little cat-shrug, and go back to her pleasant cat-dreams. You get used to distant explosions – just part of life here.
And, as with most weekends, there was little hard news – the media knows everyone is out and about, and if they’re watching television at all, it’s golf or baseball or old movies. Much of talk radio – rants left or right – was repeats of segments from the previous week, or filler – infomercials for wonder cures. If something big happens on a weekend the coverage is not exactly minimal – just perfunctory. The media stars have the weekends off. It can all wait until Monday.
But there was big news over the weekend, or so it seemed to some of us. On Saturday, July 19, the big story was Der Spiegel’s interview with Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki – he explicitly endorsed Barack Obama’s sixteen-month timeline for withdrawal of all US troops in Iraq. The administration was so unnerved by this that they mistakenly sent an email to the entire White House press corps – “Iraqi PM Backs Obama Troop Exit Plan.” Someone pushed the wrong button – it was supposed to be an internal distribution. They were rattled. Then they followed up by leaning on Maliki to retract what he had said, but that got a bit absurd – they released the Iraqi statement clarifying matters from our military’s Central Command press office.
All of this was covered in these pages here – and since then the White House admitted that they pressured Maliki to take it back, but Der Spiegel said it was standing by its story – there was no mistranslation of anything. At Politico, see Ben Smith with this:
It’s almost a convention of politics that when a politician says he was misquoted, but doesn’t detail the misquote or offer an alternative, he’s really saying he wishes he hadn’t said what he did, or that he needs to issue a pro-forma denial to please someone. The Iraqi Prime Minister’s vague denial seems to fall in that category. The fact that it arrived to the American press via CENTCOM, seems to support that.
There was no putting the toothpaste back in the tube, if you know that metaphor – and it’ll do fine.
Something is up. And one of the two proofreaders here – yes, the typos do get fixed, eventually – mentioned that he noticed the reader comments on this matter were not the usual pro-Bush, pro-McCain right-wing insults, and he wondered if there was a change in the air.
That’s hard to tell, at least on a Sunday evening. What many saw, and what was cited by so many political pundits in the original run-down of all this – about how this is a big deal that cuts McCain off at the knees – did not seem to be the consensus in the media.
Of course it was the weekend – the first-string pundits/media-stars/commentators/summarizers were all at the beach, or in the Hamptons. You expect Chris Matthews on Monday, on his MSNBC show, to leap to McCain’s defense – Matthews has often said McCain will win this election because McCain is so irresistibly manly, so manly that Matthews confesses just seeing McCain walk on stage gives him chills. Or was that Fred Thompson? In any event, it’s not for nothing McCain has often shrugged at people who note he doesn’t have the GOP base on his side – McCain is fond of saying “the press is my base.” And he laughs his little stiff laugh.
Perhaps that is so. But then Matthews also gushes about Obama now and then. Obama also give him chills. Matthews is a strange fellow. Perhaps a mild sedative would be useful – modern medicine offers a wide array of moderately effective antipsychotics.
But the press was indifferent to the news. See Josh Marshall:
I’ll be watching to see whether the major papers continue to downplay the story. As Todd Gitlin notes, of the LA Times, Washington Post and NY Times, only the LA Times put the story on the front page of their Sunday paper, though the Post had it as an ambiguous subhead on their front page Obama to War Zone story.
Notably and humorously, the Post editorial page appears to ignore the issue entirely.
But then Marshall was reminded that weekend editorials are usually “banked in advance and” not written in response to the news of the preceding day – so his expectations were unreasonable. And it was the weekend, too.
But you do see how this puts McCain in a pickle. McCain now has to say the Iraqi Prim Minister is wrong – and he knows more about what is good for Iraq, and about the conditions on the ground there, than that Maliki guy. McCain has already said Maliki is just playing to the local crowd – it’s all politics. But that would mean all the Iraqis want us out of there yesterday – as, logically, that’s the public opinion over there that Maliki must deal with. So McCain’s idea we stay there forever is not at all what they would ever agree to. And, if that is so, as McCain implies, we have to tell them they cannot have the country they say they want, and foolishly think they have. McCain has to say that what they think and what they want is irrelevant. But the whole point for the war was “democracy” and all that. The logic traps him.
It’s a good thing all the news bureaus were staffed by those who had to work on the weekend – the second-stringers. Still, one first-stringer was on duty over the weekend – William Kristol on Fox News. He dismissed it all and said this of Obama – “I never before have seen someone running for President in a time of war who was so unqualified to be Commander in Chief. No, I don’t mean that in a polemical way.”
Of course, this is the guy who eight years ago argued, over and over, that George Bush was superbly qualified to be president, and now has a column twice a week in the New York Times. How do you get a gig like that – and how do you not only keep your job as a leading thinker, but then rise in the ranks to the very top of the heap? It’s a mystery. Maybe it’s his smile.
As for the comments left here – not from the McCain right this time – that may show that there’s no fixing this.
Kevin Drum here notes that the Iraqi retraction – not from Maliki and issued from our own command center, claimed that Maliki’s comments were “misunderstood, mistranslated and not conveyed accurately” – but it just wasn’t once sentence or a few words:
Today, we in Iraq want to establish a timeframe for the withdrawal of international troops – and it should be short. … US presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes. … Those who operate on the premise of short time periods in Iraq today are being more realistic. … The tenure of the coalition troops in Iraq should be limited.
Drum argues that there’s just no way that all of that was mistranslated. Maliki, for whatever reason, wants American troops out, and he wants them out sooner rather than later. There’s really no way to spin that away.
And he points to UCLA’s Mark Kleiman here:
1. The key point isn’t that al-Maliki agrees with Obama about the timeframe for withdrawal; what’s important is that al-Maliki, like Obama but unlike McCain or Bush, isn’t willing to turn Iraq into an American protectorate. It’s not the 16 months; it’s the 100 years. And that’s what Obama should start saying; 16 months is negotiable, but 100 years isn’t.
2. Obviously al-Maliki more or less blindsided Bush on this one. He’d been talking about a timetable, and the Bush folks pushed back, trying to go for a “timeframe” rather than a “timeline,” something “aspirational.” [In the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about aspiration.] And now al-Maliki goes public with his original position, stated even more bluntly. The fact that the White House press office wasn’t ready with a response is telling.
3. Equally obviously, someone in Washington or in the Embassy in Baghdad twisted an arm inside the Iraqi government to get al-Maliki’s spokesman to issue a semi-hemi-demi non-retraction retraction, complaining vaguely about having been “misunderstood and mistranslated” without saying what the correct understanding or translation would have been, followed by two paragraphs of diplomatic flannelmouth adding up to precisely nothing.
And he speculates on why Maliki did this thing. He offers four interpretations, “not mutually exclusive” of course:
a) “Yanks Out!” is a winning slogan in Iraqi politics, and al-Maliki has an election to fight in October.
b) He figures Obama is going to win, and this way Obama owes him one.
c) He thinks he’s now strong enough to take out the Sadrists and either make a deal with some group of Sunnis or just rule them as a subject population after our troops leave.
d) “100 Years” genuinely creeps him out.
Kleiman concludes this:
Obama is either very good or very lucky. Somehow “troops out of Iraq to add to Afghanistan” and “go after al-Qaeda in Pakistan without asking Musharraf’s permission” and “negotiate with Iran” have all become not just mainstream views but Administration policy. And now this.
But will that be what is reported, or does McCain get a pass on this? Time’s Joe Klein here says not this time, as McCain’s original support of the surge, which is his main talking point on Iraq policy, “is a small, tactical truth too complicated to be understood by most Americans. Maliki Endorses Obama Withdrawal Plan is a headline everyone can understand.” The press will go with what people can get.
See Kevin Drum:
Unfortunately, we’re in sort of a fluid phase right now in which the press seems unsure of what narrative to adopt on the current state of American foreign policy. Consider: (a) negotiations with North Korea have recently started paying off, (b) we sent a U.S. diplomat to talk with Iran over the weekend and are apparently thinking about opening an interests section in Tehran, (c) the security situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating, leading to calls for an increased troop presence, and (d) Maliki has endorsed the idea of a 16-month withdrawal timeline from Iraq. All of these are directions that Obama has endorsed for some time.
So does the press decide that this means Obama has shown good judgment and good instincts in foreign affairs? That seems like it would be the most reasonable interpretation, but alternatively the press could decide that what this really means is that there are now very few differences between Obama and McCain on foreign policy – without implying any judgment about who was right and who was wrong. That’s a stretch, but it would be nice and faux-neutral, something that appeals to reporters.
Or, who knows? Maybe something entirely different will bubble up from the press corps. This ought to be a pretty good foreign policy moment for Obama, but we won’t know for sure until the media narrative takes shape.
And the first-string returns after the weekend. You have to wait.
But Monday morning the New York Times reported that they got their hands on the actual audio of the Maliki comments, and commissioned their own translation:
The following is a direct translation from the Arabic of Mr. Maliki’s comments by The Times: “Obama’s remarks that – if he takes office – in 16 months he would withdraw the forces, we think that this period could increase or decrease a little, but that it could be suitable to end the presence of the forces in Iraq.”
He continued: “Who wants to exit in a quicker way has a better assessment of the situation in Iraq.”
That’s even worse for McCain. He said McCain has assessed things wrong.
See Hilary Bok:
McCain’s entire rationale, as a candidate, turns on Iraq and related issues, like terrorism and (to a lesser extent) Iran. What else is he going to run on? His grasp of the economy? His health care proposals? The widespread popularity of the Republican brand? He can’t even run on the rest of foreign policy: McCain’s approach to foreign policy has always lacked any kind of integrative vision; he treats problems in isolation from one another. This means two things: first, McCain really doesn’t have an overarching foreign policy vision, and second, for him, Iraq has always been The Big Thing, and as a result, everything else got slighted. …
On Iraq, McCain begins with a huge disadvantage: he advocated the invasion of Iraq, which most Americans feel was a mistake. (He’s always urging voters to look back and consider who showed good judgment on the surge, but he doesn’t want them to look too far back, lest they find themselves thinking about who showed good judgment on the invasion.) He therefore has to argue something like this: now that we’re in this mess, we need someone we can trust, someone who will be able to manage this catastrophe as well as possible. McCain is solid. Obama is untested, inexperienced, risky. There was always a problem with this story: namely, it involves saying that we should trust McCain, who made the wrong call on invasion, over Obama, who got it right. But sowing doubts is pretty much all McCain has.
So you see where this leads. Everything disintegrates:
First the Bush administration started appeasing negotiating with Iran, as Obama had suggested; then McCain essentially adopted Obama’s position on Afghanistan; then the Bush administration agreed to what they called a “general time horizon” for withdrawing troops. (Wait: now it’s “Joint aspirational time horizons”!) McCain and Bush seemed to be adopting Obama’s positions all over the place. For a risky, inexperienced novice, Obama seemed to have gotten a lot of things right. And for an experienced, serious old hand with a command of foreign policy, McCain seemed to be spending a lot of time playing catch-up. And every time Obama gets to say, in effect, ‘Hi, John! What took you so long?’ – McCain’s only winning message gets that much weaker.
But will that be the narrative?
All that’s left for McCain is to say we should override the wishes of the Iraqi government. And Bok doesn’t think that will fly:
The obvious default position is that when a country’s government asks us to withdraw our troops, we should do so. To say that that’s not true in a given case, like Iraq, you need to provide some sort of explanation. Part of that explanation would normally be: the government is unrepresentative or dysfunctional or awful in some way, and so its wishes do not carry the weight they would in, say, Switzerland.
But saying something like that about the Iraqi government – that it doesn’t really speak for the Iraqi people, or isn’t capable of making its own decisions about Iraqi territorial integrity – would undercut McCain’s claims about progress in Iraq. Again, McCain would have to choose: does he say that Iraq’s government has made some real political progress, and is capable of making its own decisions? In that case, he should accept its wishes. Does he say that he can disregard its requests on matters of Iraqi sovereignty? In that case, he undercuts a lot of his claims that the surge has enabled real and lasting progress in Iraq.
As I see it, Maliki’s statement is all upside for Obama. It neither poses risks for him nor presents him with problems. But it’s a minefield for McCain. And this will, I think, become clearer as time goes on, when people begin to ask him these sorts of questions.
But will they ask those questions? McCain is a war hero (and so manly) and a lovable maverick. That’s the embedded narrative. And you do not risk alienating your reflexively patriotic audience by questioning the war hero. McCain does have a free press pass – or maybe it’s a “Get Out of Jail Free” card.
And New York Magazine Sam Anderson explains McCain’s free ride:
In a new book, The Anti-Intellectual Presidency, Elvin T. Lim subjects all the words ever publicly intoned by American presidents to a thorough statistical analysis – and he finds, unsurprisingly, an alarmingly steady decline. A century ago, Lim writes, presidential speeches were pitched at a college reading level; today, they’re down to eighth grade…
Since 1913, the length of the average presidential sentence has fallen from 35 words to 22. Between Nixon and the second Bush, the average presidential sound bite shrank from 42 seconds to 7. Today’s State of the Unions inspire roughly 30 seconds of applause for every 60 seconds of speech. Although it’s tempting to blame the sorry state of things on the current malapropist-in-chief, Bush is only the latest flower (though, obviously, a particularly striking one) on a very deep weed. Our most brilliant presidents, Lim says, often work hard to seem publicly dumb in order to avoid the stain of elitism – amazingly, Bill Clinton’s total rhetorical output checks in at a lower reading level than Bush’s. Clinton’s former speechwriters told Lim that their image-conscious boss always demanded that his speeches be “more talky” – today, he’s widely remembered as a brilliant speaker who never gave a memorable speech.
Obama seems to have taken the opposite tack: He’s a Clinton-style natural who flaunts the artifice of his speeches and refuses to strategically hide his intelligence. Compared with his rivals, Obama’s skill-set seems almost otherworldly. His phrases line up regularly in striking and meaningful patterns; his cliché ratio is, for a politician, admirably low; his stresses and pauses seem dictated less by the usual metronome of generic political speech than by the actual structures of meaning behind his words. He tolerates complexity to such an extent that he’s sometimes criticized as “professorial,” which allows him to get away with inspirational catchphrases that would sound like platitudes coming from anyone else. His naïve-sounding calls for change are persuasive largely because he’s already managed to improve one of our most intractable political problems: the decades-old, increasingly virulent plague of terrible speechifying.
Perhaps the press just cannot handle that.