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Posted at 11:38 AM ET, 03/20/2008

McCain's Foreign Policy 'Gaffe'

By Michael Dobbs

In Amman, Jordan, March 18, 2008, with Sens. Lieberman and Graham.

"As you know, there are al Qaeda operatives that are taken back into Iran, given training as leaders, and they're moving back into Iraq.

--John McCain, Hugh Hewitt Radio Show, March 17, 2008.

Getting the facts right about Iraq remains a challenge for American politicians five years after the U.S. invasion. Speaking in Amman, Jordan, after a visit to Iraq, Republican candidate John McCain was obliged to correct himself after telling reporters that Iran was training al-Qaeda operatives, who were then moving back into Iraq to engage in terrorist activities. The Arizona senator made this claim at least twice, first in an interview with conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt and then at a press briefing the following the day.

McCain is hardly the first U.S. politician to be tripped up by the complexities of Iraqi and Middle East politics.

The Facts

The last five years have produced ample evidence that American leaders were woefully ill-informed about the country they came to rescue. Much has been written about the assumption in the upper ranks of the Bush administration that U.S. troops would be greeted with flowers as liberators and that democracy would flourish on the banks of the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. Pentagon planners paid little attention to the Sunni-Shiite ethnic divide that would take the country to the brink of civil war and cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and nearly 4,000 Americans.

The startling ignorance about Iraqi reality was reflected in a January 13, 2002 op-ed piece by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that spoke of the "Sunni majority which now dominates Iraq" and the "Shiite minority." Even as he laid out the case for the overthrow of the dictator Saddam Hussein, America's foreign policy eminence grise revealed a total misunderstanding of the most basic fact of Iraqi politics. The immediate consequence of the U.S. invasion, which Kissinger completely failed to understand, was the political empowerment of the Shiite majority (roughly 60 percent of the population) at the expense of the Sunni minority (15-20 percent.)

By invading Iraq, the U.S. did much more than depose a bloodthirsty dictator. It touched off a social revolution and brutal struggle for power between competing ethnic groups, the consequences of which are still reverberating around the Middle East.

The Kissinger op-ed is still available on his website here, stripped of the incorrect references to the "Sunni majority" and "Shiite minority" (and no acknowledgment of the original mistake.) The original, as it ran in the Washington Post and other newspapers, is available here.

With tutors like Kissinger, it is hardly surprising that President Bush had a less than firm grasp of Iraqi history and demographic complexities when he invaded the country. According to George Packer, author of The Assassins' Gate, a detailed account of the run-up to the war, his ignorance startled Iraqi exiles who met with him two months before the invasion. The exiles were obliged to spend much of the January 2003 meeting "explaining to the president that there are two kinds of Arabs in Iraq, Sunnis and Shiites."

In fairness, I should note that the Packer account is disputed by one of the Iraqi exiles who were present at the meeting, Rend Francke, now at the U.S. Institute of Peace. In an e-mail to me, she described the Packer version of the meeting as a "myth." It is nevertheless clear that Bush and his advisers grossly underestimated the destructive potential of the Sunni/Shiite divide.

Now it is McCain who stands accused of mixing up Sunnis and Shiites. The liberal ThinkProgress website points out that Iran and al Qaeda represent opposite sides in the Iraqi civil war. Al Qaeda is a Sunni movement while Iran is the world's leading Shiite state (90 percent of Iranians are Shiites). So why should Iran be training Sunni extremists and sending them back into Iraq on suicide missions against Shiites?

McCain repeated his charge that al-Qaeda is receiving support from Iran in a statement Wednesday marking the fifth anniversary of the war that you can read here.

The McCain camp vehemently denies that the presumptive Republican nominee is at all confused about Iraqi ethnic politics. The senator's foreign policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann, says that there is ample evidence to show that Iran has assisted Sunni extremist groups in the past, including the Palestinian group Hamas and the Taliban in Afghanistan. (Hamas has always denied receiving financial support from Iran.)

Scheunemann also cited statements by a top American general in Iraq, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, tracing weapons used by Sunni insurgents with ties to Al Qaeda back to Iran. Speaking at a Baghdad press conference in June 2007, Lynch said that some "explosively formed projectiles" used by Sunni insurgents had "Iranian markings."

The number 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, Lieut. Gen. Ray Odierno, was asked directly about the Iran-al Qaeda connection at a July 19, 2007 Baghdad press conference. Here is his reply in full:

We don't see any evidence, significant evidence, that shows that [the Iranian-controlled] groups that are funding and providing arms to Shi'a extremists are directly related to al Qaeda. [Fact Checker's Italics.] Now, we all know that al Qaeda uses Iran and they do in some cases traffic some of their individuals through Iran to Iraq, but it's a very small number of people and it's mostly through the Kurdish regions up north, where you have the old Ansar al-Sunna connections. But beyond that, there is no specific connection between the Shi'a extremists -- excuse me -- the [Iranian] Quds Force operations and supporting the Shi'a extremists and that of al Qaeda, and supporting al Qaeda.

A Fact Check sheet distributed by the McCain campaign leaves out the disclaimer in the first sentence that I have placed in italics.

The McCain campaign also provided links to a study on Iranian influence in Iraq and Afghanistan by scholars at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington D.C. think tank that argued the case for the invasion of Iraq and is now advocating a showdown with Iran. They also cite a Jan. 3, 2007 article in the New York Sun--hardly an authoritative source--that claims that captured Iranian documents show a working relationship between the Iranian Quds force and "Sunni Jihadist groups" in Iraq, such as al Qaeda.

The Pinocchio Test

There is no reason to doubt the statements by U.S. generals that some of the weapons and munitions used by Sunni extremists in Iraq can be traced back to Iran. Odierno's statement about movements of "a small number" of al Qaeda personnel through Iran to Iraq also seems quite credible. But it is a big stretch to conclude from these statements that Iran is providing organized support for al Qaeda in Iraq.

The charge that McCain mixed up Sunnis and Shiites is probably unfair. After numerous trips to Iraq, the senator surely understands the difference between the two ethnic groups. Nevertheless, the evidence that the McCain camp has produced to back up the senator's claims for Iranian support for al Qaeda in Iraq is ambiguous and inconclusive. At the very least, McCain is guilty of gross over-simplification on an extremely sensitive national security matter.

(About our rating scale.)

By Michael Dobbs  | March 20, 2008; 11:38 AM ET
Categories:  2 Pinocchios, Candidate Watch, Iraq  
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