McCain on the Red Phone

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, March 26, 2008

It is 3 a.m., and the stillness of the White House night is shattered by the ringing of the red phone. President John McCain, rousing himself from a deep sleep, turns on the light and picks up the receiver. A U.S. embassy in a Middle Eastern country, he is told, has been blown up, and al-Qaeda is taking credit.

McCain takes a deep breath. "Character counts, my friend," he says. "Bomb Iran. Bomb, bomb Iran."

There is a rustling of blankets, and, brushing aside Cindy McCain, a concerned Joe Lieberman rises from the bed. "Not Iran, Mr. President," he says. "They hate al-Qaeda."

"That's right," the president says. "I remember now." He sighs with relief. "Good thing you're here every night, Joe."

But suppose, dear reader, that John McCain becomes president and Joe Lieberman doesn't bunk with the McCains on a nightly basis. How easily should the rest of us sleep? It's anything but an academic question after McCain's bizarre performance in Jordan last week.

There, he told reporters that he was "concerned about Iranian [operatives] taking al-Qaeda into Iran, training them and sending them back" to Iraq. "That's well known," he continued -- at which point Lieberman whispered a correction in his ear. "I'm sorry," McCain then said. "The Iranians are training extremists, not al-Qaeda."

What are we to make of this moment? Was it a senior moment? A jet-lagged moment? Or, worse, was it really a moment at all? After all, the evening before, McCain had told listeners of Hugh Hewitt's radio talk show that "there are al-Qaeda operatives that are taken back into Iran, given training as leaders, and they're moving back into Iraq."

So the al-Qaeda-Iran alliance wasn't just a passing thought. It was a thought that had taken up residence in McCain's brain for at least a day, possibly longer. Whether it was a simple mistake, a neoconservative delusion or a habit of mind that lumps together all of America's enemies (either sincerely or calculatedly, to build public support for military action), we cannot say. What we can say is that the idea of any or all of these options is profoundly disquieting. The very thought of a president who deliberately conflates or erroneously confuses our adversaries with each other is appalling, though not without precedent. We're mired in a war that has its roots in George W. Bush's both imagining and fabricating an alliance between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Do we really want to perpetuate these habits of mind in the next administration?

McCain's meshugas didn't really get the attention it deserved, however. He was fortunate that his descent into fantasy occurred in the same week as Barack Obama's reverend crisis and Wall Street's near-meltdown. He got a pass from most of the media, too, in part because his statements in Jordan ran so completely counter to his image as an expert on national security.

What's been missing from the prevailing narrative of McCain's national security expertise, however, is any serious assessment of the nature of his beliefs. As early as 1999, McCain was recommending "rogue state rollback" as our policy toward such nations as Iraq. He remains an unabashed advocate of preventive war, as his comments on bombing Iran have made clear, and of permanent war, as his comments on remaining in Iraq have made clear. His advocacy of a missile defense system is rooted in a preference for military unilateralism -- though it may stimulate a new arms race -- over diplomacy. If you liked Bush's foreign and military policy, you'll love McCain's.

But McCain's thinking, unlike his life, remains an undiscovered country to his countrymen, though he is the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. On economic matters, that may be because he doesn't seem to have devoted much time or energy to thinking about the economy. That dearth of thought was apparent yesterday in his speech on the financial crisis. Even some of the barons of Wall Street, looking at the mess they've made, have been recommending stepped-up regulation of financial practices and institutions, but not McCain, who called for "removing regulatory, accounting and tax impediments to raising capital." Never mind that a leading cause of our liquidity crisis is that so many financial institutions are exempt from the regulations that would require them to back their investments with actual assets or would enable them just to value the assets that are on their books.

Hard to say what's more dangerous -- McCain's approach to the economy or McCain's approach to the world. The thought of him answering the red phone at 3 a.m. fills me with foreboding. Hell, I don't want him answering the red phone at 3 p.m.

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