So first came the question posed by Tim Russert and Barack Obama’s answer in Tuesday evening’s debate in Cleveland, which went like this according to the official transcript:
‘ MR. RUSSERT: . . . do you reserve a right as American president to go back into Iraq, once you have withdrawn, with sizable troops in order to quell any kind of insurrection or civil war?
SEN. OBAMA: . . . Now, I always reserve the right for the president — as commander in chief, I will always reserve the right to make sure that we are looking out for American interests. And if al Qaeda is forming a base in Iraq, then we will have to act in a way that secures the American homeland and our interests abroad. So that is true, I think, not just in Iraq, but that’s true in other places. That’s part of my argument with respect to Pakistan. . .’
Note that Obama was simply responding to Russert’s hypothetical, which assumed that the US was already out of Iraq but that in the aftermath, there was “insurrection” or “civil war.” The world that Russert imagined was presumably one in which Iraq had firmed up enough for the US to get out, but then at some later time it developed substantial civil unrest. Russert was presumably attempting to find out if the Democratic candidates were adopting an isolationist position, of getting out and staying out. Obama implied that no, if al-Qaeda came back to Iraq and formed a new base years from now, he would “act” in such a way as to “secure American interests.” He is not an isolationist. Note that he was not specific about how exactly he would act.
So then, according to MSNBC, McCain tried to make some hay, admitting he had not actually heard Obama’s exact statement.
‘ “…I am told that Senator Obama made the statement that if Al Qaeda came back to Iraq after he withdraws — after the American troops are withdrawn — then he would send military troops back, if Al Qaeda established a military base in Iraq. I have some news: Al Qaeda is in Iraq. Al Qaeda, it’s called Al Qaeda in Iraq, and my friends if we left they wouldn’t be establishing a base, they wouldn’t be establishing a base, they’d be taking a country. And I’m not going to allow that to happen my friends. I will not surrender. I will not surrender to Al Qaeda.” ‘
But Obama had not said anything of the sort. He was answering a journalist’s question about the future. That McCain cannot be bothered to get the exact quote before he puts words in his opponent’s mouth and makes a lot of wild, inaccurate charges, doesn’t suggest he could be trusted with sensitive diplomacy or other presidential tasks.
Moreover, the allegation that he makes about there being ‘al-Qaeda in Iraq’ that could well take over the country is part lie and part insanity. The Sunni Arabs are no more than 20% of the Iraqi population. How could a tiny minority from within them take over the whole?
The technical definition of al-Qaeda is operatives who have sworn fealty to Usama bin Laden. There were only a few hundred of them. I doubt whether more than a handful of such individuals are in Iraq.
So there isn’t any “al-Qaeda” in Iraq in the technical sense. There are “Excommunicating Holy Warriors” (Takfiri Jihadis), i.e. devotees of political Islam who are violent and willing to deploy terror for political purposes. They declare other Muslims who disagree with them “not Muslims,”– thus the “excommunicating” bit. But there are only a few hundred foreign fighters. A small minority of Iraqis has associated with them. They don’t call themselves ‘al-Qaeda in Iraq.’ The major such group is “The Islamic State of Iraq.” And to say that they have “bases” in Iraq is pretty grandiose. They have some safe houses and try to take and hold neighborhoods, so far with indifferent success.
The idea that this small minority of violent Muslim fundamentalists could take over Iraq is completely crazy. They haven’t even been able to keep their toehold in Baghdad– the Sunnis have been largely ethnically cleansed from the capital by Shiite militias.
So the Shiites would not allow an “al-Qaeda” takeover of Iraq. Neither would the Kurds. Nor would most Sunni Arabs (as in al-Anbar Province, where the Dulaim tribe is at daggers drawn with the Excommunicating Holy Warriors).
Moreover, the neighbors would not allow the radical Sunnis to take over. Iran would sit on its hands while Shiites were massacred in Baghdad? Secular Turkey would allow this development? Baathist Syria? Hashemite Jordan (which played a major role in tracking down and killing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi)?
McCain’s assertions that “al-Qaeda” has a strong position in Iraq or has any chance of taking over the country if the US leaves are both inaccurate. One is an error, the other is a dark but insubstantial fantasy.
‘“I’ve got some news for John McCain, that is there was no such thing Al Qaeda in Iraq until George Bush and John McCain decided to invade.
“I’ve got some news for John McCain. I’ve got some news for John McCain. He took us into a war, along with George Bush that should have never been authorized, never been waged. They took their eye off the people who were responsible for 9/11 and that would be Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, that is stronger now than at any time since 2001. I’ve been paying attention John McCain!
“John McCain may like to say that he wants to follow Osama bin Laden to the gates of Hell. But so far all he’s done is follow George Bush into a misguided war in Iraq that’s cost us thousands of lives and billions of dollars and that I intend to bring to an end so that we can actually start going after Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and in the hills of Pakistan, like we should have been doing in the first place. That’s the news John McCain! ‘
Obama is correct that there was no al-Qaeda in Iraq before Bush overthrew the Iraqi government. I haven’t been able to get anyone interested in it, but there is proof positive that the Baath authorities were very scared of al-Qaeda and that when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi showed up in Iraq, they put out an APB on him and branded him dangerous. (Dick Cheney told fairy tales about how Zarqawi was put up in fancy hotels by a solicitous Saddam.)
So to sum up, McCain shot from the hip. He grossly mischaracterized Obama’s stance. He hadn’t bothered to get the exact quote. Then he made wild and implausible statements about “al-Qaeda” in Iraq, alleging that they are capable of taking over the country. Then Obama let him have it with both barrels.