Over the past two days, John McCain has repeatedly made the same foreign policy gaffe, confusing Sunnis and Shiites and the relationship between Iran and Al Qaeda. While on a radio show, McCain suggested Iran was training Al Qaeda, and later repeated the claim multiple times in Israel. In the most publicized of those incidents, Senator Joe Lieberman is seen (and heard) correcting McCain, a scene Keith Olbermann referred to as a possible "senior moment." And despite being ridiculed by the media about those mistakes on Wednesday, the McCain campaign made the same mistake, yet again on Thursday, this time in a statement marking the war's fifth anniversary.
His error was not simply a misstatement; its repetition speaks for itself. It was, instead, evidence of a fundamental misunderstanding of Middle East politics. For a man who stakes his credibility on military affairs, to be unaware of the difference between Sunni and Shiite is unthinkable. This is not an issue of complexity or of disagreement and debate; it is as basic as knowing the difference between the two sides of this war. More importantly, McCain's ignorance seems to suggest an extremely limited comprehension of the politics of the entire region. Iran and Iraq are predominantly Shiite, but Shiites make up only 15% of the Muslim world. Might knowing that context help a president understand Iran's political objectives more clearly? Might knowing that fact help inform our decision making throughout the entire region, including Iraq? How can a man who doesn't understand a conflict help to resolve it?
His series of gaffes will no doubt become coveted ammunition, perhaps as damaging as his suggestion that the war might last 100 years. But they are also evidence of a larger problem McCain faces on the trail: the Grandpa problem. As a 71 year old man, John McCain would be the oldest man ever elected president. Recognizing the enormous rigor of the job, and the toll it has etched on the faces of those who have held it, many wonder if McCain can serve competently, and whether he will even contemplate a second term. Each time McCain makes a mistake on the campaign trail -- as he is often prone to do -- he will face questions about age, and whether the campaign and the presidency will strain him beyond his capacity.
McCain has tried to confront his age in a number of ways. He kept a rigorous campaign schedule during the Republican primary, proving an enormously impressive stamina. For a man who cannot lift his arms above his shoulders, the result of years of prison camp torture, he has certainly impressed. But he cannot afford to be seen as a grandfather confronting the first signs of senility. It would have been far better for McCain to have corrected the misstatements himself, hours, even days, after making the initial blunders. But having Senator Lieberman whisper the answer in his ear produced an undeniable imagery, that of weakness and dependency, of a grandfather struggling and confused.
Well-intended as he may have been, Joe Lieberman did a serious disservice to John McCain, a deeply satisfying irony. McCain cannot afford to have the general election debate focused on his age. But if he continues to show an alarming lack of knowledge on subjects crucial to the country, he may well help hasten his downfall.
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