Iraq, al-Qaeda, and John McCain

When McCain says that if we pull out of Iraq “al-Qaeda in Iraq” will wind up “taking a country,” he’s saying something demonstrably absurd. Michael Cooper and Larry Rohter provide the demonstration, with Kenneth Pollack of Brookings in the role of Deputy Clown.

Sunni Arabs are a small minority in Iraq: about 20% of the population. A minority of the Sunni Arabs are actively resisting the U.S. occupation and rule by an Iraqi government dominated by the Shi’a majority. A small minority of that minority of a minority makes up the group called “al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia” or “al-Qaeda in Iraq.”

The relationship between al-Qaeda in Iraq and the parent organization headed by Osama bin Laden is unclear. Before the invasion, there was no al-Qaeda in Iraq, as Saddam Hussein wouldn’t have tolerated its presence. If the U.S. were to withdraw, the members of al-Qaeda in Iraq, along with the rest of the Sunni Arab population, would be under the thumb of the Shi’a majority and the various Shi’a militias, though no doubt AQI would do its level best to stir up trouble, possibly successfully.

John McCain knows that Americans hate al-Qaeda for the murders of 9/11. And he hopes that he can bamboozle some voters into believing that the enemy in Iraq is “al-Qaeda,” though of course bin Laden and his command group are actually holed up a thousand miles away, on the other side of Iran and the Gulf, way over somewhere in the borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

So he says things like:

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.

Now this is, to put it bluntly, batsh*t insane. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is about as likely to “take” Iraq as the Ku Klux Klan is to “take” Harlem.

Of course, if you’re writing news stories for a major newspaper (for example, if you’re Michael Cooper and Larry Rohter writing for the New York Times) you’re not allowed to say that the presumptive Presidential nominee of the currently ruling party is batsh*t insane. You have to say things like:

Critics say that in framing the war that way at rallies or in sound bites, Mr. McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, is oversimplifying the hydra-headed nature of the insurgency in Iraq in a way that exploits the emotions that have been aroused by the name “Al Qaeda” since the Sept. 11 attacks.

And of course, because every question has two sides, you need to find someone to claim that batsh*t insanity is actually pretty sensible. And of course the Brookings Institution now exists primarily to give a veneer of moderate respectability to batsh*t-insane foreign policy ideas.

Some other analysts do not object to Mr. McCain’s portraying the insurgency (or multiple insurgencies) in Iraq as that of Al Qaeda. They say he is using a “perfectly reasonable catchall phrase” that, although it may be out of place in an academic setting, is acceptable on the campaign trail, a place that “does not lend itself to long-winded explanations of what we really are facing,” said Kenneth M. Pollack, research director at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

Hmmmm…. “a perfectly reasonable catchall phrase.” I’ll have to remember that one. Would you think of “a screwdriver” a “perfectly good catchall phrase” to mean six hammers, four wrenches, a power drill, a table saw, and a screwdriver? No, neither would I.

Now that David Boren and Sam Nunn have endorsed Barack Obama, this would be a good first assignment for the two of them: making relentless fun of John McCain’s ignorance and irresponsibility when it comes to the actual business of keeping the country safe.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: