Media reporting on McCain-Obama dispute over Iraq ignore previous McCain statements on Iraq as a potential "base for Al Qaeda"

››› ››› MATT GERTZ

Numerous media outlets have reported Sen. John McCain's criticism of Sen. Barack Obama's recent comments about Iraq and Al Qaeda, but they have neglected to report that McCain himself has made comments similar to those he criticized.

During the February 26 Democratic presidential debate, Obama said that as president he would act if "Al Qaeda is forming a base in Iraq" after U.S. troops are withdrawn. In comments that were widely reported, McCain mocked Obama, saying: "I have some news. Al Qaeda is in Iraq. It's called Al Qaeda in Iraq."

But, notwithstanding McCain's mocking comment, Obama did not say that Al Qaeda currently has no presence in Iraq. He was speaking of the future, saying: "[I]f 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."

And, in fact, McCain himself has frequently spoken in such terms, most recently on December 8, 2007. So, not only did McCain attack Obama for something he didn't say; he attacked Obama for saying something similar to what he himself has said on many occasions:

  • A December 8, 2007, Concord Monitor (New Hampshire) article about a meeting McCain had with "a group of Monitor reporters and editors" reported that McCain "is unflinching in his belief that a stable Iraq is vital to U.S. interests going forward," and quoted McCain's assertion, "Compared to Saddam Hussein, compared to having it be a base of al-Qaida operations, which Gen. [David] Petraeus said it would be if we left, it's a success."
  • During the November 28, 2007, CNN-YouTube debate, McCain asserted, "If you read [Abu al-] Zarqawi, if you read [Osama] bin Laden, if you read [Ayman al-] Zawahiri, read what they say, they want to follow us home. They want Iraq to be a base for al Qaeda to launch attacks against the United States."
  • A September 13, 2007, Quad-City Times (Iowa) article about a McCain campaign event in Des Moines reported that McCain said, "We cannot set a date for surrender, which would be a date for withdrawal from Iraq," and that "[i]f we leave under those conditions, you will see chaos, genocide in Iraq, and we will be back. And we will be back because it will become a base for al-Qaida activities."
  • During the June 5, 2007, CNN-WMUR-New Hampshire Union Leader Republican presidential debate, WMUR's Scott Spradling asked McCain, "If our top military commander in Iraq, General Petraeus, reports back to Congress this September that the surge hasn't significantly improved the situation on the ground, what then?" In his response, McCain asserted: "I am convinced that if we fail and we have to withdraw, they will follow us home. It will be a base for Al Qaeda."

During the February 26 MSNBC Democratic presidential debate, Obama stated:

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.

I think we should always cooperate with our allies and sovereign nations in making sure that we are rooting out terrorist organizations, but if they are planning attacks on Americans, like what happened in 9-11, it is my job -- it will be my job as president to make sure that we are hunting them down.

Among the print media outlets that reported McCain's February 27 criticism of Obama without noting McCain's earlier statements were the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal.

From the February 27 AP article:

McCain criticized Obama for saying in Tuesday night's Democratic debate that, after U.S. troops were withdrawn, as president he would act "if al-Qaida is forming a base in Iraq."

"I have some news. Al-Qaida is in Iraq. It's called 'al-Qaida in Iraq,' " McCain told a crowd in Tyler, Texas, drawing laughter at Obama's expense. He said Obama's statement was "pretty remarkable,"

[...]

Throughout the primary season, McCain has repeatedly attacked Obama and Hillary Clinton for saying they would withdraw troops from Iraq.

"And my friends, if we left, they (al-Qaida) wouldn't be establishing a base," McCain said Wednesday. "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-Qaida."

From the February 28 Los Angeles Times article:

Asked if he would reserve the right as president to send U.S. troops back into Iraq to quell an insurrection or civil war, Obama replied: "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."

Reacting Wednesday morning in Tyler, Texas, McCain taunted: "I have some news: Al Qaeda is in Iraq. ... It's called 'Al Qaeda in Iraq.' " Some in the town-hall audience laughed.

"If we left ... they wouldn't be establishing a base," the Arizona Republican said. "They'd be taking a country, and I'm not going to allow that to happen, my friends."

From the February 28 New York Times article:

Mr. McCain, the likely Republican nominee for president, previewed a possible general election contest with Mr. Obama, the Democratic front-runner. Seizing on a comment from Tuesday night's Democratic debate, Mr. McCain said that Mr. Obama's plan to withdraw American troops rapidly from Iraq would leave the country in the hands of Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups.

In that debate, Mr. Obama had said in response to a hypothetical question that although he intended to withdraw American forces as rapidly as possible, he reserved the right to send troops back in ''if Al Qaeda is forming a base in Iraq.''

Mr. McCain pounced on the remark. ''I have some news,'' he said at a town-hall-style meeting in Tyler, Tex. ''Al Qaeda is in Iraq. It's called 'Al Qaeda in Iraq.' My friends, if we left, they wouldn't be establishing a base. They'd be taking a country, and I'm not going to allow that to happen.''

From the February 28 Washington Post article:

Despite McCain's war-hero status and years of foreign policy experience, Obama made it clear that he will not back down from such a fight, issuing a quick rebuke of McCain that linked him to President Bush and the war in Iraq.

The spat began when McCain seized on a comment by Obama that he would reserve the right to return to Iraq after withdrawing troops "if al-Qaeda is forming a base in Iraq."

"I have some news," McCain told voters at a rally here Wednesday morning. "Al-Qaeda is in Iraq. Al-Qaeda is called 'al-Qaeda in Iraq.' My friends, if we left, they wouldn't be establishing a base. ... they would be taking a country. I will not allow that to happen, my friends. I will not surrender."

McCain has pledged to keep U.S. forces in Iraq as long as it takes to create stability, form a unified government and defeat terrorist groups. He favors adding more troops, if necessary, to achieve those goals.

From the February 28 Wall Street Journal article:

Yesterday, the Arizona senator opened a town-hall meeting by criticizing Mr. Obama for comments he made during a Democratic debate the night before. In the debate, Mr. Obama responded to a question about whether he would invade Iraq again if al Qaeda resurged after he withdrew troops. "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," Mr. Obama replied.

Mr. McCain fired from Texas: "I have some news: Al Qaeda is in Iraq ... It's called al Qaeda in Iraq. And, my friends, if we left they wouldn't be establishing a base ... they'd be taking a country."

That prompted a reply from Mr. Obama as he campaigned in Ohio. He said he knows al Qaeda is in Iraq and that is why he plans to continue to strike at the terrorist group. He quickly went on offense.

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