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