John McCain Rewrites His Epitaph
As John McCain launched his first run for the White House in 1999, he was forced to confront the Keating Five scandal that nearly ended his political career. "The fact is, it was the wrong thing to do," McCain acknowledged, "and it will be on my tombstone and deservedly so."
As it turns out, John McCain didn't just speak too soon; he's going to need a much larger tombstone. After all, in 2008 McCain invented Sarah Palin, an unqualified, petty partisan whose elevation to Vice President would have jeopardized the country he claimed to "put first." But while McCain etched that two word addition to his epitaph, in 2010 the Supreme Court in Citizens United erased another, gutting the campaign finance reforms that had been his penance for his S&L sins. Now as the same man who was wrong about almost every national security issue of the past decade rages at President Obama over Libya, Iraq and Iran, the debasement of John McCain is complete.
To be sure, McCain's devolution from "the Maverick" to a bitter, sore loser was well underway long before his raving this week about the Benghazi tragedy that claimed the lives of four Americans. (Appealing to the GOP's Tea Party base in April 2010, McCain announced that "I never considered myself a maverick" and declared, "I'm madder than I've ever been.") Before he threatened to block a potential nomination of Susan Rice as Secretary of State, before he slandered her as "not very bright," before he declared "no one died during Watergate" and before even his allies rejected his call for a Senate select committee to probe the Benghazi attacks, John McCain blasted President Obama and the top military brass for the draw-down in Iraq.
Last November, McCain attacked Joint Chiefs Chairman nominee General Martin Dempsey for having opposed the 2007 Iraq surge. As he put during the confirmation hearings, "We're all responsible for the judgments that we make and obviously that affects the credibility of the judgments that we make now on Iraq." McCain also took to the Senate floor to decry Obama's decision to withdraw all U.S. forces:
"I believe that history will judge this president's leadership with scorn and disdain, with the scorn and disdain that it deserves."
Sadly for Obama's vanquished foe, history's judgment on John McCain is already in. As a look back at his calamitous forecasts, disastrous predictions and jaw-dropping assessments on Iraq shows, it is McCain who should receive the scorn and disdain he deserves.
Consider McCain's statements during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Aboard the U.S. aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt in January 2002, Senator McCain declared, "Next up, Baghdad!" That followed by three months McCain's baseless claim that the anthrax attacks that fall could have been the work of Saddam Hussein:
"I think we're doing fine [in Afghanistan]...I think we'll do fine. The second phase - if I could just make one, very quickly - the second phase is Iraq. There is some indication, and I don't have the conclusions, but some of this anthrax may - and I emphasize may - have come from Iraq."
Or may not have come from Iraq. In any event, McCain insisted, the United States would make short work of Saddam's forces. As the Bush administration was making its case for war by warning of "the smoking gun that could come on the form of a mushroom cloud," McCain in the September 2002 assured Americans that "I am very certain that this military engagement will not be very difficult" because "I cannot believe that there is an Iraqi soldier who is going to be willing to die for Saddam Hussein." (As for Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi National Congress leader who joined President Bush for the 2003 State of the Union Address only to later be linked to Iran, McCain declared, "He's a patriot who has the best interests of his country at heart.") It's no wonder McCain told MSNBC's Christ Matthews on March 12, 2003 that American forces would "absolutely, absolutely" be greeted as liberators, a claim he repeated two weeks later:
"There's no doubt in my mind that we will prevail and there's no doubt in my mind, once these people are gone, that we will be welcomed as liberators."
As it turned out, not so much. The victory John McCain predicted in January 2003 would be "rapid, within about three weeks" did not come to pass. Two months after the invasion, he crowed that "we won a massive victory in a few weeks, and we did so with very limited loss of American and allied lives." As for the "Mission Accomplished" banner draped behind President Bush during his victory speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, McCain pushed back against those arguing the conflict was not over. As he responded to Neil Cavuto of Fox News on June 11, 2003, "Well, then why was there a banner that said mission accomplished on the aircraft carrier?"
"I have said a long time that reconstruction of Iraq would be a long, long, difficult process, but the conflict -- the major conflict is over, the regime change has been accomplished, and it's very appropriate."
Appropriate, that is, to mark the end of a just--and justifiable--war. One month before President Bush initiated his campaign of "shock and awe," McCain warned that Iraq had the "definitive footprints of germ, chemical and nuclear programs." On June 11, 2003, he was firm in his belief that Saddam's non-existent WMD would turn up:
"I remain confident that we will find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq."
But as the chaos and carnage of the Sunni insurgency spun out of control, John McCain began singing a different tune. With just weeks, he reversed his March 7, 2004 proclamation that "I'm confident we're on the right course." Instead, he pointed out in April, "Things go wrong in war. Mistakes happen." His confident pre-war prediction ("I think we could go in with much smaller numbers than we had to do in the past. But any military man worth his salt is going to have to prepare for any contingency, but I don't believe it's going to be nearly the size and scope that it was in 1991.") was gone, replaced in April 2004 by:
"I was there last August. I came back after talking with many, many people, and I was convinced we didn't have enough boots on the ground."
Despite the mounting U.S. casualties, McCain insisted that the victory he already declared won was just around the corner:
"I think we missed an opportunity during the first six months or so of our occupation of Iraq." (April 16, 2004.)
"We're either going to lose this thing or win this thing within the next several months." (November 12, 2006.)
"My friends, the war will be over soon, the war for all intents and purposes although the insurgency will go on for years and years and years." (February 25, 2008.)
Meanwhile in Afghanistan, John McCain like President Bush had taken his eyes off the prize. With Al Qaeda still in the field and Osama Bin Laden still at large, McCain concluded victory there, too, was already in hand. He boasted on April 10, 2003, "Nobody in Afghanistan threatens the United States of America." In November, he explained, "I think Afghanistan is dicey...but I believe that if Karzai can make the progress that he is making, that in the long term we may muddle through in Afghanistan." And over the next two years, Senator McCain only dug a deeper hole for himself:
"The facts on the ground are we went to Afghanistan and we prevailed there." (April 1, 2004)
"Could I add, it was in Afghanistan, as well, there were many people who predicted that Afghanistan would not be a success. So far, it's a remarkable success." (March 2, 2005.
"Afghanistan, we don't read about anymore, because it's succeeded." (October 31, 2005.)
In retrospect, statements like those about the war against Bin Laden's Al Qaeda should have been enough to silence John McCain. Instead, he lashed out against then-Senator Barack Obama when the Democratic presidential candidate pledged, "that if Pakistan cannot or will not act, we will take out high-level terrorist targets like bin Laden if we have them in our sights." As this August 2007 exchange with CNN's Larry King showed, McCain opposed the very kind of operation that President Obama later ordered to kill Osama Bin Laden:
KING: If you were president and knew that bin Laden was in Pakistan, you know where, would you have U.S. forces go in after him?
MCCAIN: Larry, I'm not going to go there and here's why, because Pakistan is a sovereign nation. I think the Pakistanis would want bin Laden out of their hair and out of their country and it's causing great difficulties in Pakistan itself.
McCain's criticism grew harsher as his general election match-up with Obama neared. Misrepresenting Obama's call for unilateral U.S. strikes in Pakistan against high-value AL Qaeda targets, McCain in February 2008 asked:
"Will we risk the confused leadership of an inexperienced candidate who once suggested invading our ally, Pakistan?"
Of course, President Obama was proven right, and John McCain, like George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, was proven wrong. So much for McCain's comical boasts that:
"We will do whatever is necessary. We will track him down. We will capture him. We will bring him to justice, and I will follow him to the gates of hell." (May 2007)
"My friends, I want to stand before you now and tell you that if I have to follow him to the gates of hell I will get Osama Bin Laden and I will bring him to justice. I will get him!" (January 2008)
When John McCain wasn't bungling the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he was casually pushing the United States towards conflicts with Iran and Russia. When he wasn't singing "bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran," he was joking that unlike President Bush, "When I looked into Putin's eyes and I saw three letters: a K, a G and a B." In 2008, McCain upped the ante. First, he called from Russia's expulsion from the G8. And when Georgia and Russia fought over the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia that summer, McCain quickly announced, "We're all Georgians now."
But as later became clear, McCain had it wrong on the conflict between Tbilisi and Moscow. U.S. diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks and a report commissioned by the Council of the European Union found that Georgia "started [an] unjustified war."
"The shelling of Tskhinvali (the South Ossetian capital) by the Georgian armed forces during the night of 7 to 8 August 2008 marked the beginning of the large-scale armed conflict in Georgia," the report says.
It adds later: "There is the question of whether [this] use of force... was justifiable under international law. It was not."
For his role in that episode, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili in 2010 bestowed upon John McCain the honor of "National Hero of Georgia." That was a nice reward from the country he put first.
And yet, John McCain's calamitous record of national security missteps and foreign policy failures hardly ends there. Before and after the invasion of Iraq, he mocked U.S. allies including Germany and the French ("They remind me of an aging movie actress in the 1940s who is still trying to dine out on her looks but doesn't have the face for it"). McCain repeatedly confused Sunni and Shiite in Iraq, wrongly claimed the U.S. troop surge predated the essential Sunni Awakening, and insisted that as with South Korea, Germany or Japan, American forces could remain in Iraq "for 'a thousand years' or 'a million years,' as far as he was concerned." And 18 months before tragedy of Benghazi (and three years after he traveled to Tripoli to meet with Muammar Qaddafi), McCain said of the rebels in Libya, "they are my heroes."
Nobody as consistently and tragically wrong as John McCain should regarded as an authority on matters of U.S. national security, let alone be a fixture on the Sunday talk shows. He's not an expert or even an elder statesman. Now, John McCain is just raging at the world like King Lear, only without the crown he desperately sought but never acquired. At the end of the day, the Vietnam POW Barack Obama lauded as a national hero is now just a sore loser, a small and bitter old man.
And that, along with Keating Five and Sarah Palin, may truly be his epitaph.
This piece originally appeared at DailyKos.