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A McCain Moment: Do You Want Four More Years of This?

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If our polarized country can agree on one thing, it's that the greatest danger facing America over the next decade will not be Islamic extremism and instability in the Middle East, but rather Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. That's just "common knowledge," right?

So it only makes sense that the media have focused non-stop on this looming threat while paying scant attention to the fact that the presumptive Republican nominee for president apparently doesn't have a clue about what's going on in the Middle East.

And with the U.S. death toll hitting 4,000 (with 25 American soldiers killed over the last two weeks, the deadliest fortnight for our troops since September 2007), and with another 57 people killed in Iraq yesterday, John McCain's tenuous grasp on what is happening in the region becomes all the more worthy of attention.

For those who were too busy watching Rev. Jeremiah Wright damn America for the 10,000th time to hear about McCain, let's review: at a stop in Jordan last week, McCain made the ludicrous claim that Al Qaeda insurgents were being trained in Iran*. Asked again about it, he dug in deeper, claiming it was "common knowledge and has been reported in the media that al-Qaeda is going back into Iran and receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran, that's well known."

A few moments later, McCain's chief lady in waiting, Joe Lieberman, leaned forward and whispered in his ear. McCain promptly offered a quick rewrite: "I'm sorry, the Iranians are training extremists, not al-Qaeda."

Now, it's been widely reported that, heading into the Iraq war, George Bush had no clue about the differences between Sunni and Shia. But that was 2003, and it was George Bush. This is five years later and we're talking about John McCain. But it turns out this acclaimed foreign policy expert doesn't know the difference between Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda in Iraq, Sunni insurgents, Iran and Syria. Or, perhaps more charitably, he's doesn't care to know.

Yes, John McCain is a war hero, and yes, we're all grateful for his service during the Vietnam war. But as McCain's embarrassing foreign fact-finding fiascos make clear: having acted heroically in a foreign war does not magically translate into foreign policy expertise and judgment.

Yet every time McCain packs a suitcase, the press automatically anoints him as "presidential." They dutifully did it on this latest trip, even though it came just under a year after McCain's clownish stroll through a Baghdad market, which he declared proof that one could "walk freely" around Baghdad -- while being guarded by three Blackhawk helicopters, two Apache gunships, and 100 armed soldiers.

The fact that the presumptive Republican nominee doesn't grasp the general outlines in Iraq would seem to be a big story. But not to the mainstream media. As soon as they heard that the Straight Talk Express had run off the road, they sprang into action to get the wreckage out of view. Move along folks, nothing to see here.

To the Washington Post, it was just a "gaffe." CNN let stand the McCain campaign's assertion that he had just "misspoke." Brit Hume, senior member of the McCain Support Team, brushed it off as "blip," and a "senior moment." (Of course, Hume had a very different take on "senior moments" when it came to Jack Murtha.)

Not content with excuses, one of McCain's foreign policy advisors, Max Boot, decided to tout the "misstatement": "What gaffe?" Boot asked, going on to claim, "there is copious evidence of Iran supplying and otherwise assisting Al Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni terrorist groups (including Al Qaeda central). The 9/11 Commission itself noted a number of links between Iran and Al Qaeda." And McCain senior foreign policy advisor Randy Scheunemann claimed there is "ample documentation" for this.

This would be news to Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno. In July, Odierno, then the No. 2 commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said, "We don't see any evidence, significant evidence, that shows that [Iranian-controlled] groups that are funding and providing arms to Shia extremists are directly related to al Qaeda."

No matter, because as Brit Hume says, "we all agree that McCain has understanding and knowledge of world affairs."

Sorry, Brit, but we don't all agree. In fact, we don't all agree at all.

Yes, McCain loves to talk about war. He loves to talk about "service," and "character," and "sacrifice" -- which are all great things. But McCain's version of foreign policy is simply rah-rah melodrama. It's like watching a John Wayne movie.

This was no gaffe. A gaffe would be something that was out of the ordinary. This is the opposite of a gaffe. This is evidence. And it's evidence we should not ignore. We already know what it's like to have a president who just assumes that whichever way he wants things to be is "common knowledge." It turns out that it's not just George Bush's war that McCain wants to continue; it's George Bush's approach.

Does the country want another George Bush in the White House? Voters should at least be given all the facts so they can make that decision for themselves. The problem is that the media have got an image in their creaky narrative machines about John McCain and they're sticking to it. It's much easier to just present the tried-and-true version of McCain that that has prevailed since 2000 instead of presenting the new McCain as he's become: cavalier, dismissive, and lazy about the facts.

John McCain doesn't need surrogates. He's got the media. Which is why his "gaffe" wasn't bigger news. Doyle McManus, Washington bureau chief of the L.A. Times explained it this way on Face the Nation yesterday (as Harry Shearer noted on HuffPost): "Iraq wasn't what was on voters' minds." Unlike the sermons of Jeremiah Wright.

Sometimes, the reason why McCain's dangerously tenuous grasp on the facts doesn't strike the media as odd is because they believe the same thing. Here's a video of CNN's Kyra Phillips pushing the same Iran/al Qaeda nonsense in an interview with Gen. Petraeus. To his credit, the General sets her straight.

I know one thing that might have made the media play McCain's "misstatement" bigger: if it had been uttered by a Democrat. As NBC's Chuck Todd pointed out, if Clinton or Obama had said such a thing "this would have been played on a loop, over and over."

And it's hard to claim it's all just because the public is bored with Iraq and prefers a good story about incendiary pastors. If that's true, why was there no feeding frenzy about Rev. John Hagee, the bigoted minister who endorsed McCain, partly because McCain's foreign policy fits neatly into Hagee's apocalyptic (and I'm not speaking metaphorically) worldview? Again, the media rushed to let McCain off the hook, even though, as Hagee himself said in Sunday's New York Times Magazine, "McCain's campaign sought my endorsement."

You can count me as one who actually does have Iraq on my mind and who wants the next president to have a mind capable of understanding it -- and a thirst to do so. As his trip to Iraq makes clear, McCain is not a candidate who has crossed that threshold.

* This sentence originally read "...at a stop in Jordan last week, McCain made the ludicrous claim that Al Qaeda insurgents were being trained in Syria." Thanks to the Weekly Standard's Michael Goldfarb for pointing out my "senior moment," which led to a copy editing lapse. McCain did mention Syria, but it was his repeated claims about Iran that were ludicrous.