McCain’s repeated “slips of the tongue” on Iran and al-Qaida

Joe Klein and the rest of the media excuse McCain's false statements about Iran as a "slip of the tongue" -- even though he repeated it three times.

Topics: Washington, D.C.,

(updated below)

Regarding John McCain’s patently false statement that Shiite Iran is training Sunni Al Qaeda members in Iraq — a falsehood which the McCain campaign attributed merely to the fact that “John McCain misspoke and immediately corrected himself” — Time‘s Joe Klein today said:

I was going to give John McCain a break on his Al Qaeda-Iran gaffe yesterday. After all, it wasn’t a Kinsleyian gaffe — the inadvertant (sic) blurting of an unacceptable truth — it was just a plain old slip of the tongue, a brain fart. Surely, McCain knows that Iran is Shi’ite and Al Qaeda is Sunni . . . and I’ve been pretty rough on the Senator from Arizona lately . . . and I’d prefer to deal with McCain’s larger problem: his tendency to oversimplify the situation in Iraq for demagogic, bloody-shirt effect.

Klein then goes on to criticize various statements from the McCain campaign on Iraq for “oversimplifying” the war, but he sticks to his generous view that McCain’s error was nothing more than a “brain fart” — meaning that McCain obviously knows that what he said isn’t true and it was just a matter of misspeaking, of nothing more than a momentary disconnect between the brain and the mouth.

But that attempt to excuse McCain’s ignorance about the most basic facts in Iraq is clearly frivolous, because McCain had been making the same exact statement before Joe Lieberman whispered in his ear. On Monday, McCain was on the Hugh Hewitt Show, and this exchange occurred:

HH: What’s the concern you have about Iran, and about, in particular, Ahmadinejad? Some people want to meet with him. He’s not on your agenda this trip.

JM: (laughing) The day I meet with the president of Iran will be the day after he announces his country no longer is dedicated to the extinction of the state of Israel, the day after they stop exporting these most lethal explosives into Iraq. Just yesterday, up in the Mosul area, they uncovered a cache of weapons, and a lot of it was these Iranian copper, high . . .st lethal explosives. As you know, there are al Qaeda operatives that are taken back into Iran, given training as leaders, and they’re moving back into Iraq. I think Americans should be very angry when we know that Iran is exporting weapons into Iraq that kill Americans. And so all I can say is that I think they continue to be a threat.

That’s the same exact “brain fart,” to use Klein’s exculpatory phrase. Independently, as Think Progress noted today, McCain made the same assertion about Iranian training of Al Qaeda operatives on a separate occasion in the same Press Conference, before he said it a second time and was corrected by Joe Lieberman:

We continue to be very concerned about Iranian influence in Iraq and the region . . . . We continue to be concerned about Iranian taking Al Qaeda into Iran, training them, and sending them back.

Those two incidents are what preceded his “brain fart” in Iraq — one which Fox News, and now Klein and many other media members, helpfully characterize as a nothing more troubling than a mere “misstatement”:

FOX: But in a news conference with local reporters, McCain misspoke in the way he accused Iran of fomenting violence in Iraq.

MCCAIN: It’s common knowledge, and it’s been reported in the media, that Al Qaeda is going back into Iran and receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran.

FOX: Except that Al Qaeda in Iraq is largely Sunni, and Iran’s government is largely Shia. After a whispered reminder from Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberamn, McCain immediately corrected himself.

MCCAIN: I’m sorry. The Iranians are training extremists. Not Al Qaeda.

But he made the same claim, virtually verbatim, on three separate occasions just this week alone. Whatever explains these falsehoods, “misspeaking” or a “brain fart” is plainly not it. Only some serious neurological affliction would produce the same exact “brain fart” on three separate occasions. The alleged Iran-Al Qaeda link was a deliberative and premeditated assertion from McCain.

There are only two plausible possibilities which could account for McCain’s false statements: (1) he was engaged in the standard tactic of war advocates — perpetrated ever since 9/11 — of just asserting that disparate (and even warring) Muslim factions are allies with one another in the Endless War without there being any evidence that this is so (Saddam loves Al Qaeda which loves Hezbollah which loves the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood which loves Iran which loves the Taliban which loves Hamas which loves Osama bin Laden, etc. etc.), or (2) McCain is just completely ignorant of the most elementary facts about the region and the war in which the media has decreed him to be a Great Expert.

The media consensus that national security is some sort of great asset for McCain is completely baseless. Just go read McCain’s pre-invasion speeches and they are filled to the brim with the most extreme, gullible and false assertions about Iraq. This whole McCain Myth is predicated on the Beltway principle that anyone who supports war and cheers on war and wants to prolong the occupation of Iraq is inherently Serious when it comes to National Security, no matter how little they know and how unbroken a record of Wrongness they’ve compiled. And in McCain’s case, the fact that he was in Vietnam 40 years ago immunizes him from having his National Security expertise questioned (though it didn’t for John Kerry).

On the fifth anniversary of the invasion, one was inundated with commentary from the “experts” — almost uniformly from those who supported this most disastrous invasion — because the pro-war position is the intrinsically Serious one. John McCain supported the war, still supports the war, believes in more war, and thus is an expert in national security.

Thus, when completely false and ignorant statements come out of his mouth, it can’t be that he is confused and misinformed, or that he was deliberately misleading. This is a Serious, honorable hawk. It must be that he just had an understandable “brain fart” — an innocuous case of “misspeaking” — even though it happened three times in a row in a matter of a couple of days.

As Atrios put it: “He’s honest, so he cannot lie, he’s supporter of reform, so he cannot be corrupt, and he has “foreign policy experience,” so he cannot be wrong.” The only qualification for being granted irrevocable status as a Serious Foreign Policy Expert is enthusiasm over the use of military force to invade, bomb and occupy other countries. That is deeply, deeply Serious. John McCain exudes that enthusiasm more than anyone this side of Bill Kristol, and National Security is thus a real strength of his.

UPDATE: Juan Cole notes that McCain’s attempt to link Al Qaeda and Iran is consistent with a long-standing Pentagon myth which even they were forced slowly and quietly to abandon. McCain wasn’t “misspeaking,” but rather, deliberately repeating — whether from ignorance or an intent to mislead — a long-standing, now-discredited claim that neocons have been making for years.

Additionally, Cole — citing this post — observes:

Glenn Greenwald demonstrates that McCain has repeatedly made this looney assertion and that it wasn’t just a momentary slip. You wonder whether, if he had been corrected by anyone but Lieberman, he would even have backed off momentarily.

That’s exactly right. What happened here is actually quite obvious. McCain was emphatically repeating this falsehood with great confidence (as he told Hewitt: “As you know, there are al Qaeda operatives that are taken back into Iran, given training as leaders, and they’re moving back into Iraq”).

He only “corrected” himself because he reflexively repeated what Lieberman whispered in his year (Iran’s not training Al Qaeda; they’re training Shiite extremists). Then, once McCain retracted it, his campaign had no choice but to claim it was just a “misstatement.” But the fact that he repeated it twice before that (at least) leaves no doubt that he meant to say it. The only real question is whether he meant to say it due to profound ignorance or the will to deceive.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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