The question McCain wants to ask, but not answer

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Chuck Hagel was not at all supportive of the 2007 Bush/Cheney troop “surge” in Iraq, and at his confirmation hearing this morning, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) seemed to characterize it as a make-or-break issue for the former senator’s confirmation.

For those who can’t watch clips online, McCain noted Hagel criticizing the surge policy at the time as the “most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam.” McCain demanded to know “Were you correct in your assessment?” When Hagel deferred to “the judgment of history,” McCain continued to hammer away, demanding, “I want to know if you were right or wrong.”

Watching the exchange, it might seem as if Hagel is being evasive, or at least defensive, about a misstep on his record. But the larger context is important.

For McCain, the surge worked, ergo, anyone who questioned the policy is necessarily a fool who lacks credibility on foreign policy, national security, and the use of military power. In reality, conditions in Iraq may have improved in 2008 and 2009, but there were a variety of factors – including the Sunni Awakening, which pre-dated the surge, and a ceasefire announced by Shiite militia leader Muqtada Sadr – that contributed to the decline in violence. To argue that “surge = success” demonstrates a lack of depth.

But more important in this instance is McCain pretending to have credibility. “I want to know if you were right or wrong”? That’s not a bad question, necessarily, but I’d love to hear McCain himself try to answer it.

This guy wants to launch a fight over who was correct about the war in Iraq? Seriously?

I’m reminded of this amazing Frank Rich piece from 2009.

[McCain] made every wrong judgment call that could be made after 9/11. It’s not just that he echoed the Bush administration’s constant innuendos that Iraq collaborated with Al Qaeda’s attack on America. Or that he hyped the faulty W.M.D. evidence to the hysterical extreme of fingering Iraq for the anthrax attacks in Washington. Or that he promised we would win the Iraq war “easily.” Or that he predicted that the Sunnis and the Shiites would “probably get along” in post-Saddam Iraq because there was “not a history of clashes” between them.

What’s more mortifying still is that McCain was just as wrong about Afghanistan and Pakistan. He routinely minimized or dismissed the growing threats in both countries over the past six years, lest they draw American resources away from his pet crusade in Iraq.

Two years after 9/11 he was claiming that we could “in the long term” somehow “muddle through” in Afghanistan. (He now has the chutzpah to accuse President Obama of wanting to “muddle through” there.) Even after the insurgency accelerated in Afghanistan in 2005, McCain was still bragging about the “remarkable success” of that prematurely abandoned war. In 2007, some 15 months after the Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf signed a phony “truce” ceding territory on the Afghanistan border to terrorists, McCain gave Musharraf a thumb’s up. As a presidential candidate in the summer of 2008, McCain cared so little about Afghanistan it didn’t even merit a mention among the national security planks on his campaign Web site.

He takes no responsibility for any of this.

McCain now seems eager to have a conversation about who has credibility on Bush-era wars, even with the benefit of hindsight. It’s one of the more profound examples in recent memory of a politician lacking in self-awareness.

Indeed, as of this morning, McCain actually seems to believe it’s worse to get the surge question wrong than to get the entire war wrong.

“I want to know if you were right or wrong,” McCain said. You first, senator.

Chuck Hagel, John McCain and Iraq

The question McCain wants to ask, but not answer

Updated