Friday, March 21, 2008

McCain and Cheney - Then vs. Now

It's been well-chronicled (Jon Stewart did a brilliant piece about it), but here's a nice reminder from Steve Benen of The Carpetbagger Report ( on how the Iraq positions of John McCain and Dick Cheney in the 1990's made so much sense, and how completely they've abandoned them.

I really hope someone in the Democratic camp is smart enough to get McCain in a debate and throw those quotes back at him. What's changed? 9/11? We just had a Pentagon report conclusively proving no link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. Some kind of mushy "post-9/11" Giuliani-style line? Didn't work so hot for Rudy. A crass sell-out to the Bush-programed right wing in an attempt to win the Republican nomination? Well ...

Right now, McCain has caught both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in the polls. The war is down the list on important issues. But come general election time, and with the 4,000th American casualty milestone coming, I truly believe the war will become a bigger issue. And it's things like this that give the Democrats a real opportunity - if they're smart enough to take advantage of it.


It seems almost odd in retrospect, but when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, John McCain was not an enthusiastic supporter of a military confrontation. At the time, McCain said, “To start putting American troops into that kind of meat grinder I just don’t think is a viable option.” As the first Bush administration began formulating plans to intervene, McCain wanted to limit the response to an air campaign.

The president chose a different direction, and McCain quickly fell in line. But the anecdote is a reminder that the McCain we see today, filled with neocon ideas and bellicose rhetoric, used to be far more cautious about putting U.S. troops in harm’s way.

The DNC’s research department highlighted an even more striking example, noting a 1991 interview between McCain and Larry King.

MCCAIN: …I’m not sure that if we did go in on the ground we could tell a Shiite from a Sunni, even from a Kurd. And who is it that we’d be fighting and battling against on the streets of Baghdad? And, if we got into Baghdad, we would lose all of our military supremacy and we would take casualties.
KING: If they’d welcome this-
Sen. McCAIN: One more point - real quick. I want to get rid of Saddam Hussein. There’s a few other dictators I’d like to get rid of, too. And I hate to use the phrase “slippery slope,” but if we’ve got to get rid of this dictator, which ones do we take on next?
That John McCain sure used to be smart, didn’t he?

It reminds me of a speech Dick Cheney gave in 1991, in which he noted the intense sectarian rivalries that dominate Iraqi society and the likely inability to maintain stability in Baghdad. As for replacing Saddam with a democracy, Cheney asked his audience, “How much credibility is that government going to have if it’s set up by the United States military when it’s there?” He added:

“The notion that we ought to now go to Baghdad and somehow take control of the country strikes me as an extremely serious one in terms of what we’d have to do once we got there. You’d probably have to put some new government in place. It’s not clear what kind of government that would be, how long you’d have to stay. For the U.S. to get involved militarily in determining the outcome of the struggle over who’s going to govern in Iraq strikes me as a classic definition of a quagmire.”
Then, in 1994, Cheney reiterated his position.

“Once you got to Iraq and took it over, and took down Saddam Hussein’s government, then what are you going to put in its place? That’s a very volatile part of the world and if you take down the central government in Iraq, you can easily end up seeing pieces of Iraq fly off. How many additional dead Americans is Saddam worth? And our judgment was — not very many and I think we got it right.”
Yep, Dick Cheney and John McCain both realized what they were getting into in Iraq, but rejected their own accurate thinking a decade later.

I suppose it’s inevitable that McCain and his campaign will respond to this the same way Cheney backers did — by arguing that “9/11 changed everything.” But don’t buy it. The old McCain asked all the right questions and made all right assumptions about sectarian divisions in Iraq, and the inherent challenges in even knowing who we’d be fighting.

The conditions in Iraq didn't change at all, only McCain’s willingness to abandon the judgment that was right a decade before it was wrong.

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