BuzzFeed, moving up from cute-cat-tricks to catty-Senator-tricks, caused a few ripples in the political swamp on October 22 with its belated, skewed reporting of Republican Senator John McCain calling U.S. Admiral John Kirby an “idiot” on a rightwing radio show in North Carolina on October 15. OK, nobody really expects BuzzFeed News to publish honest news.
Less defensible, though hardly surprising, is the way the Washington Post and other less well known media outfits picked up the “idiot” story fragment and ran with it as if it was the whole story, without further context, much less identifying Sen. McCain’s own idiotic statements and falsehoods in the very same radio interview.
Here’s the nut of the story, when Sen. McCain, in response to no question, interrupts the host and says out of the blue:
“It’s the most amazing thing. It’s the most amazing thing. The spin and the lies out of this White House. I mean, it’s, it’s unbelievable. This idiot Admiral Kirby was asked, I think yesterday, that said, ‘John McCain says that we are losing, what do you say?’ The guy, you gotta run it, you gotta run it. Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah. I mean, it’s amazing. And how can they possibly now, with ISIS taking about two thirds of the city of Kobani – they’re saying this is effective. You know, there’s two hundred thousand refugees out of that town, thousands have been slaughtered…. [rambling on other subjects for another minute]”
Radio Host Tyler Cralle didn’t know enough, or care enough, to interrupt the senator and point out that Kobani’s total population in 2004 was about 50,000. Or that Kobani has been a haven for internal refugee Syrians fleeing the civil war. Or that this flood of displaced persons from elsewhere has reportedly pushed Kobani’s population perhaps as high as 400,000. Not surprisingly there’s no accurate count of these refugees becoming re-refugees, either elsewhere in Syria or in neighboring Turkey. If McCain actually cared about uprooted Syrians, he would have been advocating for them three years ago.
Fear-mongering is what people do when they have no cogent argument
Sen. McCain couldn’t possibly have known whether it was true to say, “ISIS taking about two-thirds of the city of Kobani.” It’s unlikely anyone knew with any precision, including those on the ground. Whether it was ever true, which is doubtful, it’s not true more than a week later, according to the BBC. It’s a small point, but its importance is how it shows Sen. McCain’s willingness to demagogue and falsify in the service of his perennial fear-mongering.
Taking fear-mongering as far as it can go, Sen. McCain claims that ISIS is:
“… now the largest and most powerful terrorist organization in history, uh, they control area the size of, uh, state of Indiana, and they are winning and we are losing. And that is very serious, and it poses a direct threat to the United States of America….”
That should be “poses as” a direct threat, since no serious person can make a credible case for ISIS being a significant threat to the U.S. now, or for the foreseeable future. Or perhaps Sen. McCain knows more about the ISIS Air Force and the ISIS Navy than is presently apparent, and this justifies his fear-mongering.
There is no persuasive evidence that “they are winning and we are losing.” There is no persuasive evidence that anyone is winning or losing. What persuasive evidence there is seems to show that everyone is losing. In recent months, the fighting in Syria and Iraq has been stalemated, with minor gains and losses on any side making little if any overall difference.
McCain is fear-mongering even when he claims ISIS controls an area the size of Indiana, roughly 36,400 square miles. All of Syria is 72,000 square miles. What ISIS controls is a patchwork of roads and communities. This patchwork is intertwined with other patchworks of roads and communities controlled by others. And these patchworks continue to change almost daily. “Control” is a chimera in both Syria and Iraq.
As for “the largest and most powerful terrorist organization in history,” Sen. McCain is simply saying: be afraid, don’t think, just quiver in your boots, that’s what Republicans want the American people to do more than anything. For McCain’s claim to have any credibility, one must assume that ISIS is larger and more powerful than, among others, al-Qaeda, Hamas, the Taliban, Hezbollah, or U.S. Special Forces.
That conclusion would require rational assessments and that’s no way to win elections.
McCain’s fear-mongering is rooted in his unchallenged Big Lie
As anyone who pays attention knows, the decision to pull U.S. combat troops out of Iraq was made by President George Bush in November 2008, apparently without consultation with then president-elect Barack Obama. On November 17, 2008, the Bush administration signed the Status of Forces Agreement that sealed the U.S. pullout by December 31, 2011, leaving it for the next administration to carry out. Some in the Bush administration, especially at the Pentagon, started a media campaign to leave U.S. combat troops in Iraq under some other name, but the deal was done. In an official White House statement, President Bush praised his administration’s accomplishment:
“The Strategic Framework Agreement sets the foundation for a long-term bilateral relationship between our two countries, and the Security Agreement addresses our presence, activities, and withdrawal from Iraq. Today’s vote affirms the growth of Iraq’s democracy and increasing ability to secure itself….
Two years ago, this day seemed unlikely – but the success of the surge and the courage of the Iraqi people set the conditions for these two agreements to be negotiated and approved by the Iraqi parliament. The improved conditions on the ground and the parliamentary approval of these two agreements serve as a testament to the Iraqi, Coalition, and American men and women, both military and civilian, who paved the way for this day…. these historic agreements that will serve the shared and enduring interests of both our countries and the region.” [emphasis added]
The complete withdrawal of U.S. troops by December 2011 was sealed in treaty by the Bush administration. It was what the Iraqi government dearly wanted. But Sen. McCain has his own, false, self-serving version of this history that he put this way to Tyler Cralle:
“There’s many failings of this president [Obama], but, he doesn’t want to lead, it’s created a vacuum, and the best example of that is – every one of our military leaders, uh, that wanted to retain a residual force in Iraq – thanks to [Gen.] David Petraeus and the surge and so many brave people back in – actually North Carolinians from our bases here in North Carolina – we had it won, it was, it was, uh, it was stabilized. But the president had to get everybody out. All of his commanders said, ‘Leave a stabilizing force behind and everything will be fine.’ We pulled them all out and, as [Sen.] Lindsey Graham and I and others predicted…. things went to hell.”
This is a Big Lie that the right has been repeating for years, with little or no correction from mainstream media, or even from Democrats. The BuzzFeed News “idiot” story carried no hint of McCain’s deceit, and the follow-up coverage by the Washington Post and others was equally free of accurate context.
Sen. McCain has been wrong about Iraq and the region since 2002, and he’s still wrong. He is the son of an admiral, and the grandson of an admiral, and he joined the Navy and didn’t make admiral, and surely being a POW in Vietnam had something to do with that. But none of that justifies a 78-year-old rejected presidential candidate going around calling a current, serving admiral an “idiot,” does it?
This raises the question: what’s a good working definition of “idiot”? Dictionaries offer dozens of synonyms, including: fool, ass, halfwit, dunce, dolt, cretin, moron, imbecile, dork, butthead, dingbat, and nitwit. Some people might argue that an “idiot” is someone who undermines the commander in chief during wartime, but that’s really more like “traitor,” to use an all-too-common rightwing trope. Others, including a number commenting on various websites, say the best working definition of “idiot” is: someone who chooses a running mate like Sarah Palin.
William Boardman is a writer living in Vermont.