Hook, Line & Sinker

April 28, 2008 11:22 p.m.

It seems the AP has fallen for the McCain campaign’s and the RNC’s effort to prevent anyone from using McCain’s own words against him during the 2008 presidential campaign. As noted earlier, what the McCain campaign is pushing for here is a standard in which any negative ad targeting McCain must be delivered with the McCain camp’s own spin included in order to be within bounds — a standard few politicians, to say the least, have ever been granted. And even though the political press has been highly indulgent of the McCain campaign on this issue, I don’t think I’ve seen any news organization so egregiously buy into McCain’s false statements as the Associated Press.

The AP article lede reads: “The Republican National Committee demanded Monday that television networks stop running a television ad by the Democratic Party that falsely suggests John McCain wants a 100-year war in Iraq.”

So, as you can see, the AP begins by stating as fact the McCain camp’s claim that the ad is false. Then it actually directly misstates what the ad says.

As you’ll remember, there was some jousting a few weeks back over whether it was accurate to say that McCain is willing to continue the ‘war’ in Iraq for 50 or 100 years. This is because McCain adds the caveat that it’s fine with him because he thinks that the occupation will soon be like our longstanding presence in Germany, Japan and Korea in which we have a substantial troop presence but no soldiers dying in hostile action since the population and governments are content to have us there. So is it really ‘war’ or only ‘occupation’ or ‘presence’?

The truth is that McCain’s wishful thinking doesn’t change the fact that he’s saying he’s happy to have US troops stay in Iraq essentially forever (a century, in political terms, is essentially forever), something very few Americans think makes any sense. But the ad doesn’t even get into this question of definitions or McCain’s special pleading about whether it’s ‘war’ or ‘occupation’ or ‘presence’ or whatever. The ad literally just has McCain speaking in his own voice.

In case you haven’t seen it, here’s the ad …

The ad begins with a questioner at a New Hampshire townhall saying to McCain, “President Bush has talked about our staying in Iraq for fifty years … ” McCain responds, “Maybe a 100.” And then later, “That’d be fine with me.” It doesn’t get into ‘war’ or ‘presence’ or any of the second or third order spin. It just has McCain’s own words. And not only does the RNC and the McCain campaign say that’s false and unacceptable but the AP agrees it’s unacceptable too.

If you have questions about the full context and the multiple times McCain made this pledge, I encourage you to watch this episode of TPMtv from earlier this month where we play the full video of his different statements with every word of context …

The rub here is this: McCain does not want to leave Iraq. Period. He wants tens of thousands of troops to stay in Iraq permanently. He made a big point of this during the primaries when it was politically advantageous to do so. And he followed up with a qualifier explaining that it’s okay because our occupation of Iraq will soon be like our presence in Germany and Japan where nobody gets killed. But there’s little reason to believe our occupation of Iraq will ever be like that. We tried this in Lebanon; the French tried this in Algeria; the British even tried it in Iraq. Western countries have a very poor history garrisoning Muslim countries in the Middle East. Iraq isn’t like Germany or Japan, not simply because of the history of the country but because both countries accepted decades-long US deployments as a counterweight to threatening neighbors. The relevant point is that McCain believes American troops should stay in Iraq permanently. His pipe dream about Iraq turning into Germany doesn’t change that. It just shows his substitution of wishful thinking for sound strategic judgment.

If there is an unfair supposition at work here, there is a simple way to find out. Someone should ask McCain how long he’s willing to have us stay in Iraq even if we are sustaining casualties. Since he believes it is in our strategic interests to stay there on a permanent basis I doubt very much he’ll say that in that case he’d only be comfortable staying two or five or some other relatively short span of years. That is because he believe we should stay there on a permanent basis, ideally with no casualties but with casualties if that’s what it takes. The New Yorker’s Rick Hertzberg put it all quite elegantly back in January just after McCain started saying this. “McCain,” he wrote, “wants to stay in Iraq until no more Americans are getting killed, no matter how long it takes and how many Americans get killed achieving that goal–that is, the goal of not getting any more Americans killed. And once that goal is achieved, we’ll stay.”

McCain’s position is miles away from where the American people are on Iraq. It’s no mystery why his campaign doesn’t want the Democrats to be harping on this point. But the AP doesn’t need to spin or fib on McCain’s behalf.

Beyond all this there is still a simpler point. There is a way foreign policy questions are hashed out in quiet symposia and a way they are fought over in political campaigns. They are not the same. McCain and his surrogates are demanding something no one else gets: namely, the right to have their words repeated only in their fullest context and most generous, most amply spun interpretation. He wants his own set of rules, an election with a stacked deck. If the Democrats have any intention of winning this race, that’s not something they can possibly accede to, or accept reporters going along with.

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