05/28/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Another McCain Foreign Policy Gaffe

Deception or ignorance? That seems to be the question every time John McCain makes a foreign policy gaffe. Whether its Sunnis or Shi'a or yesterday on the nature of Iran's government. Joe Klein reports:

At a press conference here, I just asked John McCain about why he keeps talking about Obama's alleged willingness to talk to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has no power over Iranian foreign policy, rather than Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who does. He said that Ahmadinejad is the guy who represents Iran in international forums like the United Nations, which is a fair point. When I followed with the observation that the Supreme Leader is, uh, the Supreme Leader, McCain responded that the "average American" thinks Ahmadinejad is the boss.

Let's be clear: Iran has a very complex system of government with varying institutions, but at the top of it sits Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who essentially has only accountable to the Council of Guardians made up of clerics, many of whom are appointed by Khamenei. So, Ahmadinejad is not the leader. And as the Council on Foreign Relations explains, especially in the area of foreign policy, Ahmadinejad has very little influence.

On top of that as Klein points out, the president's job is to educate the public on questions of policy. So if the "average American" thinks that Ahmadinejad is the ultimate leader of Iran, it's up to the president to dissuade them of this notion -- not reinforce it. Back in 2002 more then half of Americans thought Saddam was responsible for 9/11 and President Bush did nothing to disprove this assumption (In fact, while never directly claiming that Saddam was responsible for 9/11 the administration did everything it could to reinforce the notion). That doesn't mean our policy should be based on those false assumptions.

Then there is the fact that in 2003 McCain and other conservatives dismissed efforts by Democrats to engage the reformist President of Iran Mohamed Khatami claiming that he had no real power. Now that the president is a hardline demagogue he is the sole voice in Iran that matters. That seems convenient.

Considering the bellicose language and all the speculation about war with Iran, you'd think the Republican nominee for president who consistently touts his foreign policy expertise should either get better briefings on the structure of Iran's government or start exercising that "straight talk" he is supposedly so famous for.

Update: Adam Blickstein has more on McCain's philosophy in 2003 to dealing with a moderate Iranian President:

So, for McCain, when the moderates held elective office, the religious clerics were the final arbiters of Iranian politics and policy. But now that a more hard-line president has control in Iran, he is characterized as the true leader and the religious clerics are marginalized. The ideology of Iran's presidents may have differed over the years, but this in no way changes the fact that the political structure itself over time doesn't change, and largely hasn't changed, since the Iranian Revolution in 1979.