McCain on Bin Laden in 1998: "Look, is this guy... really the bad guy that's depicted?"

by: Matt Stoller

Sun Oct 05, 2008 at 20:00

This is a remarkable answer from McCain on bin Laden, from 1998  (h/t SM).

Question: You not only have had combat experience in Vietnam, but you were also a prisoner of war. When you look at terrorism right now, with people like Osama bin Laden, do you have any reservations about watching strikes like that?

Answer: You could say, Look, is this guy, Laden, really the bad guy that's depicted? Most of us have never heard of him before. And where there is a parallel with Vietnam is: What's plan B? What do we do next? We sent our troops into Vietnam to protect the bases. Lyndon Johnson said, Only to protect the bases. Next thing you know.... Well, we've declared to the terrorists that we're going to strike them wherever they live. That's fine. But what's next? That's where there might be some comparison.

Matt Stoller :: McCain on Bin Laden in 1998: "Look, is this guy... really the bad guy that's depicted?"

Let's put aside the breathtakingly awful instincts about terrorism and national security in a post-Cold War world.  McCain's rationale for not caring about bin Laden or even thinking he's a bad guy is that he'd never heard of him before.  And that's basically how McCain thinks about the world, ignorant narcissist that he is.  If McCain hasn't heard of it, it cannot possibly be relevant.  And remember, this interview was published in November/December 1998, and the embassy bombings that killed hundreds of people and were pinned on Bin Laden happened in August, 1998.

In 1998, McCain wasn't sure that bin Laden was a bad guy, even though bin Laden had killed hundreds of people in high profile terrorist bombings and issued multiple fatwas against the United States.  Today, McCain says he'll follow Bin Laden to the 'gates of hell'.  That's just your standard McCain preening because today Osama bin Laden and terrorism allows him to play the heroic action figure, whereas in 1998 bin Laden wasn't the big bad villain he is today.

To some extent it's true all politicians are headline driven, and seek to position themselves in ways that take advantage of public interest.  But the modern Republican party is the epitome of such politicking, so much so that reality is pretty much irrelevant.  In that sense, McCain is just like Bush.  Both of them are basically children who want to play with weapons, and they just don't care about or even believe in things that don't appeal to their own sense of heroic narcissism.  It's who these people are, but it's also what the Republican party is about.

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Shorter John McCain: (4.00 / 1)
The fundamentals of our counter-terrorism capacity are sound.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

wow (0.00 / 0)
the rest of that Mother Jones interview is quite a familiar McStew of not-really-Maverickishness, loose logic, and nearly meaningless blather and posturing. (The only thing he can be commended for is his Telecommunications Act vote, where he joined Feingold, Leahy, Simon, and Wellstone.)

Otherwise, he failed to persuade his own party on campaign finance reform; he failed and got beaten up by Big Tobacco (although a much weaker settlement passed that Nov.); he didn't think Bill Gates knew where his industry was going; and didn't blame Ken Starr for expanding his charter needlessly and wasting millions--he blamed the special counsel statute itself, and Congress and Clinton for reauthorizing it (McCain voted aye).

But the most eerily relevant section is his thoughts about character and war. Of "character" he says:

Finally, speaking of presidential politics and ethics: What is character?

Human foibles, whether they be a predilection, or immorality, or gambling, or mistreating your wife, or kicking dogs -- that's a different kind, in my view, of morality. Whereas character -- I'm trying to think who it was who said, "Character is who you are in the dark."

And then he goes on to contrast Clinton-era polling and politics with Truman-era backbone and grit. "Character," to McCain, has primarily to do with making the very difficult, and sometimes unpopular, decision of sending Americans to war.

How many Americans do you think favored the United States, under the aegis of the United Nations, sending 480,000 Americans to fight and 54,000 of them dying in Korea? What if Harry Truman had said, Let's take a poll here as to whether the American people want us to send troops to Korea. See what I mean? That's my point. That's what character is, OK?

Well, Gallup was polling during the Korean War, and Truman was undoubtedly aware that his decision in June 1950 to send US ground forces into Korea was approved by 78% of the American people.
Opinion was up and down during the war, and basically ended up very ambivalent.

In any case, what was George H. W. Bush's acclaimed effort at coalition-building in 1991 but an outsized, months-long poll, and a very clear attempt to shape and hold public opinion?

To McCain, the only measure of a man is whether or not he's willing and able to send his fellow citizens to fight and die. The quality of the decision doesn't matter; only the fortitude to carry it out. His is the admirable, perhaps even heroic, but ultimately forever limited, perspective of the American serviceman. And that's not a President we can believe in.

the obvious response from the McCain camp would be... (0.00 / 0)
Hindsight is 20/20. No one in power expected the Cole bombing, much less 9/11.

The truth about Saxby Chambliss

Wouldn't this contradict a popular rethuglican talking point? (4.00 / 1)
After all, they attacked Clinton vehemtly as not being determined enough in the fight against terror. Remember the ABC miniseries controversy!

Hmm, is there any commentary from McCain on that series on record? Would be good to be prepared if he flipflops again...

[ Parent ]
McCain was chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee (0.00 / 0)
in 1998, so it's a bit surprising that the name BinLadin didn't rang any bell for him. After all, that was the name of a mighty Saudi Arabian construction corporation, that started to build business ties with the Calyle Group at that time. In that year, both ex-president George H.W. Bush and ex-Secretary of State James Baker met the BinLadins. But John McCain didn't recognize the name? Hmm.

However, this is not a very strong line of attack against McCain. Interesting for us, but too remote a connection for  voters to get excited about this, imho.


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