Ever since John McCain said at a town hall meeting in January that he could see U.S. troops staying in Iraq for a hundred years, the Democrats have been trying to use the quote to paint the Arizona senator as a dangerous warmonger. And lately, Barack Obama in particular has stepped up his attacks on McCain’s “100 years” notion.
But in doing so, Obama is seriously misleading voters—if not outright lying to them—about exactly what McCain said. And some in the press are failing to call him on it.
Here’s McCain’s full quote, in context, from back in January:
Questioner: President Bush has talked about our staying in Iraq for fifty years
McCain: Maybe a hundred. Make it one hundred. We’ve been in South Korea, we’ve been in Japan for sixty years. We’ve been in South Korea for fifty years or so. That’d be fine with me as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed. Then it’s fine with me. I would hope it would be fine with you if we maintain a presence in a very volatile part of the world where Al Qaeda is training, recruiting, equipping and motivating people every single day.
It’s clear from this that McCain isn’t saying he’d support continuing the war for one hundred years, only that it might be necessary to keep troops there that long. That’s a very different thing. As he says, we’ve had troops in South Korea for over fifty years, but few people think that means we’re still fighting the Korean War.
Nevertheless, back in February, Obama said: “We are bogged down in a war that John McCain now suggests might go on for another hundred years.”
And, on a separate occasion: “(McCain) says that he is willing to send our troops into another hundred years of war in Iraq.”
Since then, some conservatives have drawn attention to the distortion, and Obama’s been a bit more careful with his language. Today, for instance, he said: “We can’t afford to stay in Iraq, like John McCain said, for another hundred years.” It’s technically true that McCain said that, but Obama’s clear goal in phrasing it that way was to imply, falsely, that McCain wants the war to continue for that long. In other words, he’s gone from lying about what McCain said to being deeply misleading about it. Progress, of a kind.
Still, some outlets continue to portray the issue as a he-said, she-said spat. A long takeout on the controversy by ABC News, opining that McCain’s comment “handed his Democratic opponents and war critics a weapon with which to bludgeon him,” is headlined: “McCain’s 100 Year Remark Hands Ammo to War Critics: McCain Haunted by January Remarks Suggesting 100 More Years in Iraq.” And today’s L.A. Times story, headlined “Obama, McCain Bicker Over Iraq,” is similarly neutral.
To be fair, the ABC News piece does provide the quote in its full context, giving enough information to allow conscientious readers to figure out the truth. That’s better than the L.A. Times piece, which says only that “McCain has stressed since then that he meant that U.S. troops might need to remain to support Iraqi forces, not to wage full-scale warfare”—instead of simply telling readers that it’s clear from the context that McCain did indeed mean that. Still, neither piece stated high up and unequivocally that Obama is distorting McCain’s words.
To be clear, if Obama wants to take issue with McCain’s willingness to keep U.S. troops in Iraq for a hundred years in any capacity, that’s obviously his right. But that’s not the same as misleading voters about what McCain is proposing,
This matters. Obama has given every indication that his general election strategy on Iraq and foreign policy will be to portray McCain as dangerously bellicose. If he’s going to do so by distorting McCain’s words, the press should forcefully call him out on it each time.