In the Arena

McCain: Soft on Al Qaeda?

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A curious passage from John McCain’s victory speech last night:

Or will we risk the confused leadership of an inexperienced candidate who once suggested invading our ally, Pakistan, and sitting down without pre-conditions or clear purpose with enemies who support terrorists and are intent on destabilizing the world by acquiring nuclear weapons?

In time, I’m sure, Barack Obama will explain that any meetings with Iranian leaders will be fully prepped by staff in advance, including advance meetings at the ministerial level…but what about the first part of the quote? Utter nonsense. Here’s what Obama actually said:

I understand that President Musharraf has his own challenges. But let me make this clear. There are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans. They are plotting to strike again. It was a terrible mistake to fail to act when we had a chance to take out an Al Qaeda leadership meeting in 2005. If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will.

And, in fact, Obama was merely saying that he supported current U.S. policy. A month ago, for example, a bomb launched from a CIA predator drone killed the Al Qaeda leader Abu Laith al-Libi in Pakistan. Was McCain opposed to that?

The point is, McCain’s loose, inaccurate talk continues a sad pattern he has shown on national security matters, particularly with regard to Iraq, where he is a loose cannon, firing off hot-button words like “victory” and “surrender”–words that his hero General David Petraeus has never and would never use. As it now stands, McCain believes that Iraq, where 150,000 U.S. troops are chasing after 3,500 Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia terrorists, is the “central front” in the war against terrorism–and he is on the record opposed to taking military action against the real Al Qaeda, which is actively working to destabilize Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and may be planning the next 9/11 in the mountains of Waziristan. Indeed, the election results in Pakistan this week may lead to further instability, perhaps a military coup, which could make U.S. action–action, not invasion–to root out Al Qaeda all the more necessary.

A central foreign policy discussion in the general election should be: Are our troops deployed appropriately to meet the threats we are facing? Should we have more in Afghanistan and fewer in Iraq? (McCain, like Bush, has already ceded his authority as Commander-in-Chief on that decision to Petraeus, whom, he says, should have the last word on troop levels in Iraq–an abdication of authority that raises deep questions about McCain’s ability to conduct a coherent national security policy.)

In sum, John McCain, who claims to take national security seriously, made a foolish statement to score political points last night. At the very least, I hope he retracts it and joins Obama in the effort to defeat Al Qaeda.

Update: Ilan Goldenberg also made this case last night at Democracy Arsenal