11/27/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

McCain's Middle East Policy, Part I: Confusion About Facts, Clarity About War

We are in the home stretch of the presidential elections. Although the economy has dominated the discussions since mid-September, foreign policy and how to deal with several important crises around the world will be at the top of the next president's agenda come January. Before the collapse of the stock market and the emergence of ominous signs of deep economic troubles ahead, John McCain's greatest asset in his run for the presidency was supposedly his foreign policy expertise and experience.

In his first debate with Barack Obama, McCain tried to beat him by talking about his experience and foreign trips, and by presenting two starkly different candidates: One, Barack Obama, whom McCain tried constantly to ridicule by claiming that he does not "understand" important issues, or does not "get" it, or is "naive." And the second, himself, a seasoned, foreign policy expert, respected by world's leaders. In reality, there was not much difference between him and Obama when it came to, for example, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

When they debated the deepening crises in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Senator Obama stated that if Pakistan is not willing or cannot stand up to the Taliban and their Pakistani sympathizers, and prevent them from staging attacks in Afghanistan, the U.S. should do the job herself. I do not believe that this would be wise, but that is beside the point. What is important here is McCain's solution for the same problems.

McCain ridiculed Obama for announcing his approach but, in order to differentiate himself from Obama, said that he may do the same, but would not announce it. Of course, since McCain has publicly said that he does not know how to use computers, he does not also recognize that in the era of internet and instant information one cannot do what President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger did to Cambodia in 1970-1971, namely, secretly attacking a country without the world knowing about it!

When it comes to foreign policy, nowhere in the world is currently more important than the Middle East. Although many pundits have praised McCain's experience and knowledge of foreign policy issues, his specific positions regarding the immense problems that the U.S. is facing in that region should be scrutinized more. The goal of this article and the next two is to do just that: to see whether a McCain administration will have a prudent Middle East policy. In this article, we focus on McCain's declared positions. Part II will describe the consequences of the Middle East policies that McCain has ardently supported over the past decade, while Part III will give a quick look at McCain's foreign policy advisors.

Alas, a close look at McCain's past statements and positions reveals that he actually does not know many of the issues and facts, from the simplest to the most complex and important:

(1) McCain has talked about the Iraq-Pakistan border, which does not exist, as Iran, a large country, separates the two. When asked about the problems in Afghanistan by Diane Sawyer of ABC's Good Morning America, McCain said, "It's a serious situation, but there's a lot of things we can do. We have a lot of work to do, and I'm afraid that it's a very hard struggle, particularly given the situation on the Iraq/Pakistan border."

(2) McCain has consistently confused the Muslim Sunnis with the Shi'ites. The former are in the majority in most of the Islamic world, but not in Iraq and Iran (and a few other Muslim countries). Much of the factional fightings in Iraq have been between the Sunnis who controlled all levers of power, and the Shi'ites who were repressed, when Saddam Hussein was in power. The Shi'ite groups are allied with Iran.

(3) McCain has been confused about Al Qaeda in Iraq. During a testimony by General David Petraeus in the Senate, McCain asked him about whether Al Qaeda in Iraq was still a major threat, to which the General responded by saying, "It is still a major threat, though it is certainly not as major a threat as it was, say, 15 months ago." McCain then responded, "Certainly not an obscure sect of the Shi'ites overall ..." hence confusing Al Qaeda, a Sunni group, with Iraqi Shi'ite.

(4) McCain exhibited the same confusion about the source of violence in Iraq, and the non-existent relation between Iran and Al Qaeda when, during a trip to Jordan, he claimed that, "Well, it is 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." The gaffe was so bad that McCain's pal, Joe Lieberman, had to whisper in his ear to correct him.

(5) McCain was totally confused about what transpired during Shi'ites factional fighting in Basra in southern Iraq between the militia of the firebrand Moqtada al-Sadr and the forces of the central government of Nouri al-Maliki. Sadr's militia had inflicted heavy losses on Maliki's forces. So, Maliki asked Iran to intervene, which Iran did by arranging a cease fire. But, McCain claimed that it was Sadr -- the victor -- who had asked for Iran's intervention.

(6) I am not trying to do hair splitting to criticize McCain. But while Americans have very negative impressions of groups such as Hezbollah and the Mahdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr, and though it is true that Hezbollah committed terrorist acts in the 1980s, they are political movements with deep support among the population of their countries. In fact, Hezbollah is part of the legitimate and democratically-elected government of Lebanon. Lumping these movements together with Al Qaeda, the true enemy and a terrorist group, is as dangerous as any mistake that one may make about one of the most volatile and important regions of the world.

(7) McCain was confused about the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, a simple and basic fact. At a town meeting in Wisconsin in May, McCain said, "So I can tell you that it is succeeding. I can look you in the eye and tell you it's succeeding. We have drawn down to pre-surge levels." This was totally wrong. The number of U.S. troops in Iraq at that time was 155,000, far above the 130,000 before the surge.

(8) McCain was so confused about what to do with Hamas that his campaign had to issue a statement. Two years ago, he told James Rubin of Sky News the following about Hamas: "They are the government. Sooner or later we are going to have to deal with them, one way or another....It's a new reality in the Middle East." But, in May, after Rubin published an op-ed in the Washington Post about this, McCain's campaign issued a statement saying, "There should be no confusion. John McCain has always believed that.... Hamas must change itself fundamentally."

(9) McCain was confused about two other Islamic nations, the Sudan and Somalia. When he appeared on Straight Talk Express and was asked about the crisis in the Sudan, he said, "How can we bring pressure on the government of Somalia?" Somalia has not had a central government since early 1990s, and was invaded last year by Ethiopia which the Bush administration supported.

(10) Add to above list McCain's confusion about other issues, and one gets one confused statesman and foreign policy expert. For example, McCain has talked about Czechoslovakia, a nation that disappeared peacefully from the political map on January 1, 1993, and mentioned "President Putin of Germany" during a trip to Germany.

So, you would think that a man as confused as McCain is, or should be, more cautious when it comes to wars and violent conflicts. Absolutely not! He is crystal clear about how his heart warms up whenever there is talk of war. In fact, when it comes to the Middle East, McCain has developed a set of ten "principles." I do not use the "C" word for the ten, as I am afraid that I will be accused of being anti-something.

(i) They [all the regimes] are all in two groups: those that are with us, and those that are against us.

McCain has implied this division by suggesting the establishment of a "League of Democracies." In addition to the fact that this is an attempt to destroy the United Nations -- a long-time dream of right-wing fringe in the U.S. -- let's see what the implications of this League would be for the Middle East.

Except for Israel, all the regimes that are allied with the U.S. in that region will not be part of the League and, therefore, will be counted among the enemies. This includes Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar, and Jordan. Other important allied regimes in the vicinity of that region, such as Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan will also be counted as our enemies. So, what will a McCain administration do to them? Attacking them? No, McCain will probably do something similar to what the apartheid regime in South Africa did. That regime wanted to have close relations with Japan. But, the Japanese people are not, of course, of the white race. So, the apartheid regime declared them "honorary whites." McCain will probably declare all these corrupt and dictatorial regimes as "honorary democracies," in order not to count them as enemies of the U.S.

McCain does not also see the irony in his proposal: He proposes to establish a League of Democracies, but does not respect the democratic aspiration and demand of the Iraqi people for the U.S. forces to leave their country.

(ii) They [Iranians and Syrians] are developing weapons of mass destruction.

McCain has repeated such baseless statements too many times. For example, in a speech to the AIPAC, the Likud/Israel lobby in the U.S., McCain said, "Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons poses an unacceptable danger that we cannot allow." The International Atomic Energy Agency, and the latest National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, have both said that there is no evidence that Iran has a nuclear weapon program. Syria does not have any nuclear program to begin with.

(iii) They are ignoring the international community.

On his website, McCain calls for international pressure on Iran and Syria to "change their behavior," since they are supposedly ignoring the will of the international community. He makes many unfounded allegations about both nations, such as Iran's alleged help to "the most extreme and violent Shia militias," an allegation repeated many times without an iota of credible evidence ever presented.

(iv) They support Hezbollah, Hamas, and terrorism.

In the same speech to the AIPAC, McCain said, "Iran sponsors both Hamas and Hezbollah. It has trained, financed, and equipped extremists in Iraq." There is no doubt that Iran (and Syria) has provided aid to both Hamas and Hezbollah. But, both are political movements with deep support that take the aids, but not orders from Iran. They pursue their own agenda. Saudi Arabia also supports Hamas. As for "extremists" in Iraq, see (iii).

(v) They are making trouble for us in Iraq.

For example, on his website, McCain says, "Syria has refused to crack down on Iraqi insurgents..." The truth is completely the opposite. Syria has hosted over a million Iraqi refugees, escaping the slaughter and destruction in Iraq. It has tightened its border with Iraq, and has cooperated with the U.S. in not allowing its territory to be used by foreign fighters who want to go to Iraq. As for Iran, the accusations are by now old and worn out; see above.

(vi) They [Iranians] are making trouble for us in Afghanistan

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, William Wood, and some U.S. commanders have alleged that Iranian arms are entering Afghanistan and reaching Taliban. Such allegations have been routinely supported by McCain.

As anybody who follows the events in the Middle East knows, there is a vast market in the Middle East in which weapons made practically in any nation are sold and traded. This, of course, includes Iranian weapons. But, that is a far cry from accusing the Iranian government -- a bloody enemy of the Taliban -- to be involved in the arms traffic to Afghanistan. Iran played a fundamental role in overthrowing the Taliban regime; an indispensable role in the formation of the Afghan National Unity Government in December 2001 after the Taliban were overthrown, and next to the U.S. has made more economical investments in Afghanistan than any other nation.

(vii) Their populations [Iranian and presumably Syrian] want regime change [by the U.S.].

Although after Lieberman whispered into his ear, McCain corrected himself about the non-existent connection between Iran and Al Qaeda, his national security spokesman Randy Scheunemann, who was a spokesman for the neoconservative Committee to Liberate Iraq that advocated overthrowing Saddam Hussein, retracted the correction later and made the following statement to the New York Sun: "There is ample documentation that Iran has provided many different forms of support to Sunni extremists, including Al Qaeda as well as Shi'ia extremists in Iraq. It would require a willing suspension of disbelief to deny Iran supports Al Qaeda in Iraq."

Given both Scheunemann's and McCain's history of enthusiasm for the use of force, the retraction is important because the same "rationale' and non-existent connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein were utilized to justify invasion of Iraq. Recall what McCain said in February 2003, a month before the invasion: "Only a regime change will make Iraq a state that does not threaten us and others, and where a liberated people assume the rights and responsibilities of freedom."

(viii) They [Iran] are immune to sanctions.

McCain has consistently said that the military option against Iran should not be taken off the table. In the same speech to the AIPAC, he talked about imposing very tough sanctions against Iran. But, he has also mentioned actions that his administration would take that can be interpreted by any reasonable person as acts of war, including supporting a Senate Resolution (now tabled) that advocated imposing a naval blockade of Iranian ports.

(ix) They cannot be negotiated into submission.

Given McCain's bellicose tone when it comes to Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Palestinians, and Afghanistan, this does not need any explanation.

(x) Therefore, put more soldiers in the Middle East, keep them there for 100 years, and bomb, bomb, bomb them.

McCain's infamous talk of a 100 year war in Iraq is too well-known, as is his talk of bomb, bomb, bomb Iran. His solution for every conflict, not only in the Middle East, but also around the world, is putting soldiers on the ground. Recall what he said after the Georgia/Russia war broke out? "We are all Georgian."

Tomorrow: The consequences of the Middle East policies that John McCain has supported for a long time.