Anbar Awakening, MSM Sleeping

Where are the mainstreamers on McCain’s major mistake?

There are gaffes, and then there are Gaffes. And yesterday, John McCain made a Gaffe. Speaking with Katie Couric about Iraq on the CBS Evening News, McCain questioned the way Obama credited the Iraqis for some of the positive outcomes of the surge:

Katie Couric: Senator McCain, Senator Obama says, while the increased number of US troops contributed to increased security in Iraq, he also credits the Sunni awakening and the Shiite government going after militias. And says that there might have been improved security even without the surge. What’s your response to that?

McCain: I don’t know how you respond to something that is as—such a false depiction of what actually happened. Colonel MacFarland was contacted by one of the major Sunni sheiks. Because of the surge we were able to go out and protect that sheik and others. And it began the Anbar awakening. I mean, that’s just a matter of history.

Except—Gaffe!—no, that’s not a matter of history. In fact, the Anbar Awakening predated the U.S. troop surge. The surge began in February 2007; the Awakening began in the summer…of 2006. That’s just a matter of history.

Here’s Colin Kahl (h/t: Democracy Arsenal), writing in Foreign Affairs (emphasis ours):

The Awakening began in Anbar Province more than a year before the surge and took off in the summer and fall of 2006 in Ramadi and elsewhere, long before extra U.S. forces started flowing into Iraq in February and March of 2007. Throughout the war, enemy-of-my-enemy logic has driven Sunni decision-making. The Sunnis have seen three “occupiers” as threats: the United States, the Shiites (and their presumed Iranian patrons), and the foreigners and extremists in AQI. Crucial to the Awakening was the reordering of these threats.

And here’s The New York Times, writing about the Anbar Awakening on March 3, 2007 (emphasis ours):

Sheik Abdul Sattar and the Anbar Salvation Council, the group of 25 tribes that the sheik said he had helped pull together to fight Al Qaeda, would be central to any such move by the Americans.

The sheik said he and his allies, who also call themselves the Anbar Awakening, had recruited 6,000 fighters from the tribes into the Anbar police, helped appoint a new provincial police chief and formed a 2,500-member “emergency brigade” answering to him.

A United States Army civil affairs officer in Ramadi, Capt. Travis L. Patriquin, said in an e-mail message shortly before he was killed by a roadside bomb in Ramadi in December that the tribal fighters in the Iraqi police constituted “the first successful, large force of men we’ve had since the start of the war.”

And here’s another Times piece about the Awakening, also published March 3, 2007 (emphasis, again, ours):

The formation of the group in September shocked many Sunni Arabs. It was the most public stand anyone in Anbar had taken against Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, which was founded by the Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

And here’s Kevin Drum, writing about the Awakening in The Washington Monthly in August 2007:

The Anbar Awakening is genuinely good news, but (a) it had nothing to do with the surge, (b) it’s happening only in homogeneous Sunni areas, and (c) it involves arming and training Sunni forces who are almost certain to turn against both us and the Shiite central government as soon as they’ve finished off AQI. Pretending otherwise is simply fraudulent.

Anyway. You get the idea. Anbar Awakening™, Iraqi owned and operated since September 2006; Surge™, American owned and operated since February 2007. McCain had the events’ timing—and thus his post-hoc-ergo-propter-hoc reasoning about their relationship—backwards.

It was the proto-blogger Spencer Ackerman who, yesterday evening, first identified McCain’s error. The Colonel MacFarland to whom McCain referred in the Couric interview “is now a one-star general, and his name is Sean MacFarland,” Ackerman writes. “He was commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, based in Ramadi in 2006 and early 2007 and is a key figure in embracing the Anbar Awakening before it even had that name.”

Ackerman goes on to quote MacFarland’s explanation of the surge, which he gave in a press conference to Pam Hess, then of UPI, on September 29, 2006—which was, Ackerman notes, “at least two months before Bush decided upon the surge, and about three before he announced it to the public”:

With respect to the violence between the Sunnis and the al Qaeda—actually, I would disagree with the assessment that the al Qaeda have the upper hand. That was true earlier this year when some of the sheikhs began to step forward and some of the insurgent groups began to fight against al Qaeda. The insurgent groups, the nationalist groups, were pretty well beaten by al Qaeda.

This is a different phenomena [sic] that’s going on right now. I think that it’s not so much the insurgent groups that are fighting al Qaeda, it’s the—well, it used to be the fence-sitters, the tribal leaders, are stepping forward and cooperating with the Iraqi security forces against al Qaeda, and it’s had a very different result. I think al Qaeda has been pushed up against the ropes by this, and now they’re finding themselves trapped between the coalition and ISF on the one side, and the people on the other.

“For McCain to say that the Anbar Awakening is the product of the surge,” Ackerman concludes, “is either a lie or professional malpractice for a presidential candidate who is staking his election on his allegedly superior Iraq judgment.”

Ackerman’s either/or is apt. One wants to give McCain the benefit of the doubt here, but it’s hard even to know what that would be. The kindest scenario is that McCain was suffering from faulty memory—or that he was just, à la Hillary Clinton and her Boznia recollections, fatigued. But one wonders: could his comment, like his Sunni/Shi’a confusion earlier, have belied a fundamental misconception of the timeline of recent events in Iraq? Was McCain revealing miseducation about the surge, or the Awakening, or both?

I don’t know. Because, so far as I’ve seen, no one in the MSM has asked.

And that’s, perhaps, what’s most disturbing in all of this: the silence on the matter from the MSM. It started with CBS itself, which didn’t air the footage of McCain’s mistake in its prime-time news hour; it edited that part out. In a statement emailed to Politico, spokesperson Jennifer Farley defended CBS’s actions:

As all news organizations do with extended interviews, last night’s Obama and McCain interviews were edited to fit the available time and to give viewers a fair expression of the candidates’ major differences. The full transcript and video were and still are available at

They are. Yet Couric’s question was left intact in the primetime version; CBS edited in a different response to the same question. Which is, put as charitably as possible, misleading to audiences.

But this is bigger than CBS. Now that Ackerman and other bloggers—Andrew Sullivan, Political Animal’s Kevin Drum, Politico’s Ben Smith, The Huffington Post’s Seth Colter Walls—have shed light on McCain’s mistake, where’s the MSM follow-up? Where are the “Breaking News” announcements on cable, the updates on newspaper Web sites? Keith Olbermann aired a segment about the matter on last night’s Countdown…but where’s the commentary from the nonpartisan newspeople? The AP briefly mentioned it in a short piece about Obama’s and McCain’s back-and-forth on Iraq; but it buried it in the sixth graf of a story whose lede was, “Republican presidential candidate John McCain says Democrat Barack Obama is wrong about the Iraq war”—and which ended with McCain’s quote about Obama’s stance on the war: “He was wrong then, he is wrong now.”

But don’t voters deserve more than he said/he said stenography here? Shouldn’t the press be looking more deeply into McCain’s statement? This wasn’t a minor gaffe, after all. It was a fundamental, factual error about the surge—which is, politically speaking, McCain’s baby. This isn’t forgetting your kid’s birthday; it’s forgetting how old he is in the first place.

In his interview with Couric yesterday, McCain declared of Obama’s take on the surge, “I don’t know how you respond to something that is…such a false depiction of what actually happened.”

I’d direct that back to McCain. And I’d argue that the best way for us to respond to McCain’s own false depiction is to, you know, ask him about it. We owe it to ourselves—and to Iraqis—to do so. McCain might well become our president. His understanding of the situation in Iraq might well, come January 20, be determining American policy in that country. So why would he misspeak about it? Why would he err about the surge? And why isn’t our press doing more to find out?

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.