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"Muddle Through" McCain Rewrites History on Afghanistan

June 25, 2011

Say what you will about the President's Afghan strategy, but if nothing else, Barack Obama has been consistent. Having criticized the Bush administration for diverting badly needed resources to fight the wrong war in Iraq, candidate Obama promised to dramatically increase U.S. troop strength and to strike unilaterally in Pakistan to eliminate Osama Bin Laden and other high value Al Qaeda targets. And it was John McCain, now his harshest critic on the planned troop drawdown, who opposed it all when it could have made a difference. After all, McCain not only said America could "muddle through" in Afghanistan in 2003 and claimed the U.S. had already "succeeded" in 2005, but during his run for President insisted he would not launch the mission which ultimately killed Bin Laden.
Of course, you'd never know it from John McCain's histrionics on the floor of the Senate this week. In response to President Obama's Afghanistan address, McCain was predictably scathing:

"Just when they are one year away from turning over a battered and broken enemy in both southern and eastern Afghanistan to our Afghan partners -- the president has now decided to deny them the forces that our commanders believe they need to accomplish their objective."

Sadly for McCain, his record of denying U.S. commanders the resources they needed to finish the job against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan is a long one.
Attacking President Obama now for taking an "unnecessary risk" and warning the U.S. "washed our hands" and left "once before after the then-Soviet Union was driven out of Afghanistan," McCain seemed perfectly content to do just that in order to focus on Saddam Hussein in Iraq. As he put it in November 2003, the troops, intelligence assets and equipment diverted to Iraq was no problem:

"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."

By the next year, Senator McCain went even further, declaring that the United States had already succeeded in Afghanistan. As ThinkProgress detailed, McCain suffered from frequent bouts of premature emancipation:

"Nobody in Afghanistan threatens the United States of America." [Hannity & Colmes, 4/10/03]
"The facts on the ground are we went to Afghanistan and we prevailed there." [Wolf Blitzer Reports, 4/1/04]
"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." [CNN, 3/2/05]
"Afghanistan, we don't read about anymore, because it's succeeded." [Charlie Rose Show, 10/31/05]

As it turns out, McCain's pronouncements on Osama Bin Laden are even more embarrassing. While President Bush came under fire for claiming after the Tora Bora debacle that "I truly am not that concerned about him," McCain similarly said in March 2002 that Bin Laden wasn't "that important." But as the 2008 presidential campaign neared, McCain changed his tune, telling anyone who would listen that "I will follow him to the gates of Hell."
But when then-candidate Obama declared, "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will," John McCain mocked him for it.
As he made clear again in July 2008, Obama pledged to send U.S. forces after Bin Laden in Pakistan with or without Islamabad's blessing:

"We cannot tolerate a terrorist sanctuary, and as President, I won't. We need a stronger and sustained partnership between Afghanistan, Pakistan and NATO to secure the border, to take out terrorist camps, and to crack down on cross-border insurgents. We need more troops, more helicopters, more satellites, more Predator drones in the Afghan border region. And we must make it clear 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."

But for months, Senator McCain insisted that was precisely what he would not do, as this exchange with CNN's Larry King that same month revealed:

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.

In February 2008, on the same day the Washington Post reported on the Bush administration's accelerated use of drones to target terrorist targets within Pakistan, John McCain blasted Obama's hard line on Al Qaeda's safe havens:

"Will we risk the confused leadership of an inexperienced candidate who once suggested invading our ally, Pakistan?"

(As Media Matters noted, USA Today dutifully reported that McCain was "ridiculing comments Obama has made" without adding the correction that Obama had said no such thing about "invading" Pakistan.)
Despite his frequent claims on the campaign trail that "I know how to win wars" and "I know how to get bin Laden," John McCain was dead set against the strategy that led to the Al Qaeda chieftain's elimination three years later.
And so it goes. Literally a Johnnie come lately to the effort against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, McCain would apparently now keep large numbers of U.S. troops there indefinitely. Of course, that's no surprise coming from the man who said years ago that America could "muddle through" and had already prevailed in Afghanistan. After all, as David Corn explained about the supposed Maverick's support for a perpetual U.S. presence in Iraq:

"I asked McCain about his 'hundred years' comment, and he reaffirmed the remark, excitedly declaring that U.S. troops could be in Iraq for 'a thousand years' or 'a million years,' as far as he was concerned."

Or as John McCain put it in 2007, "We have had troops in South Korea for 60 years and nobody minds."


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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