By Monday, July 21, is was clear that the McCain folks should have never taunted the Obama folks – saying Obama knew nothing about anything and he really ought to get his ass over to Afghanistan and Iraq and see what was really going on, and talk to the generals, and the troops. The idea seemed to have been that they’d all laugh at Obama, tell him he was a fool, and Obama would look idiotic – and then hang his head in shame, return home all humble, and admit McCain had been right about everything all along. He’d change his tune.
They really could not have thought that, exactly – that would be the deliriously optimistic best-case scenario. The Commander-in-Chief is a Republican, obviously, and his generals do what their civilian leader tells them to do – or they’re gone – but the Army and the other services are not yet the armed militia of the Republican Party. This isn’t Iraq – political parties don’t yet have their own private armies. Our military, heavy with Republicans and evangelical Christians, still prides itself on being relatively neutral – they do the job they been assigned, and do it better than anyone in the world. That’s a matter of duty, honor, and country – and pride. But they don’t concern themselves with high-level policy, or above that, geopolitical strategy for long-term economic and security aims. They implement – they don’t originate.
So the McCain folks could not have expected the brass to slap down Obama and tell him his strategic vision for that region, and his strategies for Afghanistan and Iraq specifically, were foolish. They’d only tell him what they thought they could implement, given the conditions on the ground and their resources, and what would be the cost of implementing this or that thing Obama had in mind – all useful information for whoever has to figure out what’s best for us to do in this sorry world. And all that back-and-forth would not be particularly useful, politically, to McCain. It’s shop-talk, really – not talk of the big ideas, even if it is absolutely critical to getting where you want to be.
The McCain folks were probably hoping that what would happen would have to do with what people these days call the optics of the thing – the lanky, young Obama would look goofy in that setting, he’d say something stupid in front of the whole world, with all the cameras rolling, he’d make a factual mistake, confusing Sunnis, Shi’a and Kurds (as McCain had done), and seem just plain unqualified to be president. The hope may have been to bank a whole library of just-look-at-this-guy clips to run in television spots. The trip would, presumably, provide a ton of those. They had him trapped – he had to make the trip after all, to try to look presidential, and he clearly couldn’t pull that off.
Then it all fell apart. The plan didn’t work.
As previously covered in McCain Shot Out of the Sky Over Iraq and McCain’s Press Pass Now Crucial – in far too much detail, of course – first Nouri al-Maliki told Der Spiegel that he thought Barack Obama’s sixteen-month timeline for getting out of Iraq was pretty much on target, that he saw Obama as the realistic guy. Then his spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, tried to walk that back, claiming that Maliki’s comments were mistranslated – but they were not. And on Monday, July 21, Dabbagh was back, and he was saying Maliki likes Obama’s timeline after all. And he said it in English. And you could see clips of him saying it on all the news shows.
The McClatchy account:
After talks with Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama on Monday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki reaffirmed that Iraq wants U.S. combat troops to withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2010, a few months later than Obama had proposed.
Ali Dabbagh, the prime minister’s spokesman, said Maliki and Obama didn’t discuss specifics during the hour-long meeting. But he said the Iraqi government would like to see all American combat troops out of the country by the end of 2010, a bit later than Obama’s proposal to draw down all combat brigades within 16 months after he’d become president.
“Barak Obama showed his support to this government,” Dabbagh said. “He came to listen to our views and the views of the prime minister. And the prime minister gave him his point of view about the presence of U.S. forces and what we want from the forces.”
Kevin Drum has it right:
There’s no walking things back this time. For better or worse, Maliki has now firmly endorsed Barack Obama’s vision for the future of U.S. troops in Iraq.
That wasn’t supposed to happen. McCain had to counter, and he appeared on all three networks’ morning shows, trying to say Obama was all wrong about everything.
On one of those shows, Meredith Viera asked McCain about the obvious fact that the Iraqi government keeps praising his opponent’s vision – they kept saying his opponent had the forward-looking Iraq policy. And McCain came back with this:
I have been there too many times. I’ve met too many times with him, and I know what they want. They want it based on conditions and of course they would like to have us out, that’s what happens when you win wars, you leave. We may have a residual presence there as even Senator Obama has admitted. But the fact is that it should be – the agreement between Prime Minister Maliki, the Iraqi government and the United States is it will be based on conditions. This is a great success, but it’s fragile, and could be reversed very easily. I think we should trust the word of General Petraeus who has orchestrated this dramatic turnaround.
Matthew Yglesias raises some points:
Clearly, it would be a bad idea to totally ignore the views of General Petraeus at CENTCOM. And you’re also going to want to talk to General Odierno commanding US forces in Iraq. And you’re going to want to talk to a variety of other civilian and military officials responsible for US policy in Iraq and around the region. You don’t want to just ignore anyone’s point of view. But by the same token you can’t ignore Maliki’s perspective.
That’s not even a question of Maliki versus Petraeus – it’s a question of Maliki’s views being relevant to Petraeus giving any serious assessment of the situation. Until these past couple of weeks it wasn’t even controversial to say that if the Iraqi government wants us to go, we should go. The debate was about whether we should go even if they want us to stay.
Second – the arrogance on display here is stunning. McCain is saying we should ignore the expressed views of the Iraqi government because he knows (through telepathy? experience? “cred”?) that secretly these aren’t their views. That’s ridiculous.
That’s the trap – he has to say the Iraqis don’t really want what they say they want, as they really want what he knows they want, even if they don’t know they want it. And Petraeus also knows what they want. Who knows? Maybe Petraeus will tell them, nicely, what they really want. Or Nouri al-Maliki may mysteriously disappear? No – it’s too late now for the CIA to take him out. The damage is done.
Over on ABC’s Good Morning America the topic was Afghanistan, and McCain refused to call the situation there “precarious and urgent” – but he admitted that “we have a lot of work to do.” And he warned of a “very hard struggle, particularly given the situation on the Iraq-Pakistan border.”
The video clip is here, with a useful map. There is no Iraq-Pakistan border – there’s seven or eight hundred miles of Iran between the two.
See Kevin Drum here:
Even we partisans can get a little tired of pointing out John McCain’s constant verbal flubs and, um, moments of confusion. But Jesus. The question was about Afghanistan in the first place, which was an obvious invitation to talk about its ongoing border problems with the tribal areas of Pakistan. So what does McCain do? He deliberately pivots away to mention the nonexistent Iraq/Pakistan border. Does he even know what a map of central Asia looks like? Isn’t this supposed to be his strong suit?
Well, it was a slip-up, as everyone knew what he really meant. As with the current president, you don’t expect precision – you give him the benefit of the doubt, and McCain is an old guy. But what if he’s really confused? That could be a problem. Or worse yet, what if he actually imagines there is such a border. You don’t want a leader imagining what just isn’t so, and making policy decisions based on what is wholly imaginary.
The parallel with Bush was noted here on July 27, 2003 – remarks from the President, who was standing next to United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan at a photo opportunity, as documented by a White House Press Release on July 14, 2003 2:11 P.M. EDT –
The fundamental question is did Saddam Hussein have a weapons program? And the answer is, absolutely. And we gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn’t let them in. And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power, along with other nations, so as to make sure he was not a threat to the United States and our friends and allies in the region. I firmly believe the decisions we made will make America more secure and the world more peaceful.
This seemed at the time extraordinary. Bush was saying that all the news folks got it flat-out wrong. Yes, we all watched that stuff from the UN – that Blix fellow and his team were in Iraq looking for weapons of mass destruction and coming back to New York every few weeks to talk about what they had and had not found. Now it seemed that just never happened. No UN inspectors ever went into Iraq. They were never allowed in. So our government went to war precisely because Blix never made those trips that CNN and the rest were reporting. He wasn’t ever allowed in – no matter what you thought you read or saw.
What leaders believe matters – other people die based on what they believe. In the Bush case it looked like actual, and dangerous, delusion – if you saw the video clip, he looked as if he deeply and seriously believed this was so, not that he was oversimplifying things for dramatic effect. It was spooky, as if he just made things up, and then acted on them.
In McCain’s case, this new geographical fantasy was most likely just a slip of the tongue. But some might worry. Been there – done that – and don’t want to ever go there again.
But, you see, this was the sort of thing the McCain folks fully expected Obama to do – the big gaffe that shows he’s not ready to run anything, much less this country. The trap would have been sprung, and that would be that. So McCain, again, blows it, and not Obama. Calling Doctor Freud!
But then McCain won’t be hurt by this minor matter, or all the others like it. He has nothing to prove – he’s John McCain, after all, the man who was a prisoner of war for almost six years, the hero. And that’s something Obama will never be. The odd thing is that strategy seems to be working well enough, so far – ask Wesley Clark about that.
It’s all about branding – McCain as a brand name and Obama as the off-brand, the generic you pick up at the discount store that you discover is really crap. You should have known better – you buy Tide, not Acme Laundry Soap. It’s all in the name.
Do you doubt that is what is happening? See the new McCain television ad – the one about high gasoline prices. It comes down to images and words on how bad things are, and then the narrator asks portentously – “Who can you thank for rising prices at the pump?” That is followed by a picture of Obama on the right side of the screen and all that background noise of a crowd chanting – “Obama! Obama!” There is no explanation. None is needed.
How Obama could be responsible for gas at five bucks a gallon here in Hollywood is absent. Demand from China and India, no new refineries in America in forty years, speculators jacking up the market, dwindling resources – there’s none of that. There’s just one name at the end, and the name is not McCain. Yes, it’s stupid, but, in its way, effective. Go with the brand name.
Roy Edroso, at the ACLU blog here, notes the same thing is happening in all economic issues. He looks at polling data and concludes this – “The longer Americans believe their country’s going to shit, the more conservatives insist it’s all in their minds.” If you follow his links, he shows conservative after conservative agreeing with Phil Gramm, the McCain co-chair who said we’re a nation of whiners, and things are just fine, and then had to quit the McCain campaign.
Astonishingly, the same poll shows that “Only 34% of Americans believe the United States has the world’s best economy.” Since it has been scientifically proven that evil reporters have been playing Jedi mind-tricks on us, shouldn’t citizens be snorting up fat lines of irrational exuberance and launching into Larry-Kudlow-style “America is back” monologues?
The force of habit, not to say brainwashing, is powerful, so if the Republicans pull these gimp-strings hard enough, they’ll win some votes even if Bush goes door-to-door molesting children and the National Debt gets so high we have to sell Hawaii to Saudi billionaires to make the vig. But there’s a big difference between rounding up a few weak-minded stragglers and the mass psychosis to which these people are clearly accustomed, and for which they are clearly nostalgic.
Could this be the year in which Mencken’s Law is broken, and somebody goes broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people?
Perhaps so. More and more people may understand that sometimes the brand name product is just awful – and McCain, differentiating himself from Bush as much as he is able, may be the New Coke. From 1985 to 1992 they tried to say the new stuff was wonderful. It was crap. They gave up. McCain as the reformulated New Republican could be in trouble. Underestimate the intelligence of the American people at your peril.
And then the McCain folks walked into a trap – they tried to set up Obama, as the trip would show he was nothing much – and he became, somehow, the hip, quality brand.
And with Afghanistan and Iraq taken care of, Israel, Lebanon and three major European capitals to come, and momentum, all McCain can do now is say go with the brand name, as it’s a new and improved version – and watch syndicated reruns of Murder She Wrote and Matlock, and you remember they were quite good way back when, and distrust the new guy.
It’s kind of pathetic.