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McCain's smear campaign takes a detour

Just a week ago, Sen.

Just a week ago, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was not only trying to destroy Susan Rice's reputation, he went so far as to say he doesn't want any Secretary of State to be confirmed next year until his still-vague Benghazi questions are answered.

Yesterday, making his 21st Sunday show appearance of the year, the senator read from a new script.

For those who can't watch clips online, Fox News' Chris Wallace asked McCain if there's anything Ambassador Rice "can do to change your mind." The senator replied:

"Sure. She can, I'd give everyone the benefit of explaining their position and the actions that they took. I'd be glad to have the opportunity to discuss these issues with her. Why did she say that, why did she say that al Qaeda has been 'decimated' in her statement here on this program? Al Qaeda hasn't been decimated. They're on the rise."

When Wallace followed up, asking if Rice "could conceivably get your vote" if she were nominated for Secretary of State, McCain said, "I think she deserves the ability and the opportunity to explain herself and her position."

Though hardly an endorsement, this is a significant departure from the line McCain had previously embraced. In recent weeks, the Republican insisted that Rice is guilty of "not being very bright," accused her of being "incompetent" and "not qualified" for the position, and vowed, "I will do everything in my power to block her from being the United States Secretary of State."

After McCain's recent tantrums, it's very hard to believe he's sincere about giving her a fair hearing, but at least he seems to be publicly backing off his indefensible smear campaign.

That said, what's with the Republican preoccupation with the word "decimated"?

The right has been endlessly fascinated, for example, by the fact that intelligence agencies changed the word "terrorist" to the word "extremist" in talking points as part of a larger national security strategy. Likewise, when Rice appeared on Sunday shows in September, she noted that al Qaeda has been "decimated" in recent years. Conservatives are now hung up on that, too.

McCain was eager to complain about it yesterday on Fox, but he's not the only one. Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) demanded answers about Rice's word choice last week, and Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) complained about it last week on "Meet the Press."

There's no great mystery here. "Decimated" does not mean "permanently destroyed." Rice said al Qaeda's network has been decimated because it really has been decimated.

For someone like John McCain, who's eager to see new and expansive wars, these details are apparently inconvenient, but as Ian Millhiser noted, the National Counterterrorism Center reported this year a sharp drop in the number of al Qaeda attacks, and 22 senior-level al Qaeda operatives and leaders were captured or killed -- including Osama bin Laden -- between May 2011 until May 2012.