Thursday, April 10, 2008

Sunnis, Shiites, Whatever

Even after the public spectacle of Joe Lieberman whispering in John McCain's ear to inform him that Iran is not arming al Qaeda in Iraq, Sen. McCain repeated the error earlier this week in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. McCain's recidivism on this issue tends to rule out the possibility that he just "misspoke" in the way that anybody---especially somebody who is sleep-deprived or jet-lagged---can occasionally become tongue-tied. I'll identify three possible explanations for the repeated error:

1) McCain's age. This seems unlikely. McCain is 71, substantially older than either Hillary Clinton (60) or Barack Obama (46), but not so old that one would expect to see dementia or much age-related memory loss. Moreover, while McCain routinely confuses Shiites and Sunnis, he doesn't confuse other categories, like liberals and conservatives, or Ohio and Iowa.

2) McCain's worldview. In the neocon view of the Middle East, ancient sectarian battle lines between Shiites and Sunnis exist, but are swamped by the defining conflict of "Islamofascism" against the West. Thus, Cheney and Rumsfeld pressed their intelligence officers to find a link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11, even though area experts assured them that Saddam, a secular Stalinist who used religious symbolism only opportunistically, would not sufficiently trust al Qaeda, a radical fundamentalist movement dedicated, among other things, to overturning regimes like Saddam's. Likewise, even though people familiar with the region understand that al Qaeda---as an organization that treats Shiites as heretics worthy of slaughter---would not be popular with the Shiite theocrats who rule Iran, the neocons see such conflict as mere intramural squabbling, and have little difficulty imagining that the Iranians and al Qaeda in Iraq would unite to fight the U.S. And as the New York Times reports today, McCain has been taking advice from neocons lately.

3) McCain as Bush. Although widely perceived as world-savvy and ready on day 1 to answer the 3 am phone call, McCain is not especially knowledgeable about foreign affairs. His credibility appears to be based principally on: a) His undeniable courage and self-sacrifice as a Vietnam War POW; b) his long Senate career; and c) his willingness to shoot from the hip and more generally, his apparent ironic detachment from politics, taken by the press and the public as a sign of deeper knowledge. In fact, McCain is a pretty smart fellow, whose dismal class rank at Annapolis was more the product of frequent disciplinary issues than poor studies. However, like George W. Bush---who also is not a dummy---McCain has an uncanny ability to filter out, or not even show any interest in, information that does not conform to his world view.

None of the above explanations is good news for the McCain Presidential campaign, and a smart Democratic campaign would exploit that fact. One of Karl Rove's innovations as a political tactician was to go at opponents' strengths, rather than their weaknesses. This can be done unfairly, as with the SwiftBoating of John Kerry, but it also can be done fairly. McCain will be running a campaign based on his national security credentials. An important piece of the the Democratic strategy to defeat him should be to show, honestly, that these credentials---as reflected by the judgments he has made and the world view he holds---are weak.

Posted by Mike Dorf


egarber said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
egarber said...

I think (2) is the closest explanation.

I heard Obama make a point on Larry King a few weeks back that should get more attention:

He basically said that just because people keep saying that U.S. withdrawal from Iraq will create a dream home for Al Qaeda, that doesn't make it so. After all, Iraq / Iran are majority Shia; there's little reason to think a Sunni terrorist groups will be able to run rampant in that landscape.

In the context of your point (2), it's no coincidence that McCain is the one who maybe most often repeats the "Al Qaeda safe haven" line. I also think that conflation is a tool of choice among neocons -- mention two things together enough times, and folks will come to vaguely believe they're tied. And the idea that the Middle East works under one "Islamo-fascist" flag with monolithic goals (defeating the U.S., etc.) is well, just laughable.

The irony of course, is that Al Qaeda does indeed have a safe haven in Afghanistan and in the tribal regions of Pakistan. But we're stretched too thinly to do much about it.

Sobek said...

"None of the above explanations is good news for the McCain Presidential campaign..."

The worst news for the McCain campaign is that John McCain is involved.

Howard Wasserman said...

The question will be how the Democratic nominee does that without looking like it is belittling McCain war record. That record and his individual bravery says nothing about his ability to be commander in chief. But you cannot even appear to criticize the ability of a military person (or former military person) anymore.

egarber said...

I was chatting with a friend today, and we were wondering if any of the candidates would nullify any of W's presidential signing statements -- particularly those that have bloated CIC powers under Article II. It might be interesting to ask McCain if he would keep in place the statement that weakened his own anti-torture bill. In the bigger sense, his answer might tell us something about his worldview and how much it's influenced by hard line thinking.

Michael C. Dorf said...

Apparently, McCain has said that he would not issue ANY signing statements, which strikes me as excessive, but certainly an improvement over the Bush approach. I'm not sure there could be a procedure for "repealing" a signing statement.

egarber said...

I'm not sure there could be a procedure for "repealing" a signing statement.

Are they similar in any way to executive orders? Do presidents repeal EO's?

Maybe signing statements are simply statements about how that particular president sees a law. So if a new president does nothing, it simply ceases to mean anything?

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