In the Arena

McCain’s Sunni Shi’ites

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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 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.


I just received a mass email from the McCain campaign, a statement from the Senator’s combative aide, Mark Salter, a response to Barack Obama’s elegant–and substantive–critique of McCain’s Iraq myopia earlier today. Here’s the first paragraph:

Senator Obama says that ending the war will not be easy, that ‘there will be dangers involved.’ Yet, in that patented way of his, he declines to name those dangers. Let me enumerate a few: al Qaeda, which is now on the run, will survive, claim victory and continue to provoke sectarian tensions that, while they have been subdued by the ‘tactics’ of the surge, still exist and are ripe for provocation by al Qaeda, which would almost certainly ignite again civil war in Iraq, a civil war that could easily descend into genocide. To say that invading Iraq was used as a recruiting tool for al Qaeda is one thing. To pretend that our defeat there won’t provide an even bigger one is foolish supposition. Iran, which trains Shia extremists and is known to arm and equip Sunni extremists, a fact Senator Obama is apparently unaware of, will also view our premature withdrawal as a victory, as will other countries in the region, and the biggest state supporter of terrorists, a country with nuclear ambitions and a stated desire to destroy the State of Israel, will see its influence in the Middle East grow significantly. These are some of ‘dangers,’ that our premature withdrawal from Iraq will engender, and they all have the potential to destabilize the entire region. A realistic plan to prevent them from occurring is what people with experience in statecraft call ‘strategy,’ something Senator Obama has not offered yet.

There are some problems with this:

1. Salter is more nuanced than his boss usually is, but still oversimplifies. Al Qaeda won’t take over the country, as McCain has claimed, but it “will survive, claim victory and continue to provoke sectarian tensions…” All true. But the real impetus for sectarian tensions is the fact that Iraq’s Sunni, Shi’a and Kurds simply don’t like each other very much. The very use of the name “Al Qaeda” is a bit of bloody-shirt waving. Why doesn’t Salter cite the 1920 Revolutionary Brigades–a former Sunni insurgent group, now flipped to our side, but likely to return to insurgency as we leave? (Especially given the prejudice against them by the Shi’ite leadership in cities like Baquba.) There are plenty of other former Sunni insurgent groups just biding their time, waiting for their next shot at the Shi’ites. But these are indigenous groups, many of them former Ba’athists, who have rejected Al Qaeda in Iraq. Similarly, Al Qaeda has nothing to do with the internecine battle between the Shi’ite Mahdi Army and Badr Corps that is cooking along down south, but likely to flare as we leave. And, of course, AQI has little to do with the explosion that will occur if the Kurds take control of Kirkuk or declare their independence. Those are the real issues in Iraq. McCain rarely talks about them.

2. Here’s a fascinating bit of sleight of hand:

Iran, which trains Shia extremists and is known to arm and equip Sunni extremists, a fact Senator Obama is apparently unaware of, will also view our premature withdrawal as a victory…

This can only be seen as a clumsy attempt to paper over McCain’s goof. Iran isn’t training Al Qaeda, but it is, uh, arming…Sunnis. This is true, but they’re not Iraqi Sunnis. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps has sent weapons to the Palestinians–remember the shipful of arms, the Karine A, that was intercepted a few years ago?–and it is arming Hamas. But where does Salter get the idea that Obama isn’t aware of that? Obama’s speech is full of references to the Iranian threat–the nuclear program, the threats against Israel, the support for Hizballah. Which leads me to…

3. Salter is just wrong when he says:

A realistic plan to prevent [these “dangers”] from occurring is what people with experience in statecraft call ‘strategy,’ something Senator Obama has not offered yet.

Obama has presented a regional strategy. McCain has not. Obama’s strategy is to put more emphasis on the fight against the real Al Qaeda–in Afghanistan and Pakistan–and less on the fight against the AQI remnant in Iraq. Obama’s strategic hope is that the reality of an American withdrawal will force the Iraqis to get their act together. It may be a vain hope, but it’s one I’ve often heard expressed by high-level experts in the U.S. military, intelligence community and State Department. McCain’s plan in Iraq is, in fact, quite irresponsible: he would leave strategy in the hands of the very able–but junior–theater commander, David Petraeus, who couldn’t possibly have an accurate sense of how Iraq plays into the regional threat matrix. That’s what George W. Bush is doing now. It is an abdication of executive authority.

I have my problems with Obama on Iraq. His “plan” to remove a brigade or two a month, and get it all done in 16 months, is a joke…or, as Samantha Power put it more delicately, “a best case scenario.” It won’t be as easy as that and Obama said as much in his speech today. But, even taking into account the feckless expediency of his “get out now” rhetoric, Obama has shown a more sophisticated strategic intelligence than McCain has (and Hillary Clinton has, too)…and no amount of bluster from the McCain camp can change that.

Petraeus Says It’s Syria not Iran that’s supporting AQI…or, at least, is the usual pathway for fighters and arms. Thanks to TPM for this