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John McCain's selective memory on Libya

Whatever you think about the Obama administration's handling of the Libya situation so far, I propose we can all take some comfort in the knowledge that decisions made by a McCain administration would likely be much worse. John McCain was gung-ho to bomb Libya, but that's no surprise. It's his reasoning that's raising eyebrows, as noted by Salon's Justin Elliott:

Speaking on CBS' "The Early Show" today, McCain twice cited the fact that Moammar Gadhafi has "American blood on his hands" as a reason the U.S. should try to oust the dictator. McCain specifically referred to the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, which was indeed carried out by a Libyan agent.

That's a very valid reason to be opposed to Gadhafi's remaining in power. But it didn't always seem that way to John McCain. As Elliott notes, under George W. Bush and then Barack Obama, U.S. relations with Gadhafi had been improving.

Who else was involved in the effort to forge better ties with Gadhafi? John McCain. In August 2009 he led a delegation of senators, including fellow hawks Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman, on a trip to visit the Libyan leader in Tripoli. Discussed during the visit was delivery of -- get this -- American military equipment to Gadhafi (a man with American blood on his hands no less).

Elliott followed up in another post with more details about McCain's formerly cooperative stance toward Gadhafi. Some of the details are courtesy of WikiLeaks. But it's not as though McCain was keeping the mission a secret at the time:


And Jason Linkins points out that the diplomatic meeting in August 2009 where McCain et al. discussed the possibility of the U.S. providing military equipment to Gadhafi happened not a week before the Lockerbie bomber returned to Libya and was received as a hero. McCain and company knew the release was being negotiated; the AP reported that they "warned Libyan officials of possible damage to U.S.-Libyan relations if al-Megrahi's return were to be handled in the wrong fashion." So it's not as though he'd plumb forgotten about the American blood on Gadhafi's hands back in 2009. It just didn't get in the way of discussing possible U.S. military aid to his government.In the Early Show interview (which you can watch here), McCain makes reference to the Lockerbie bombing as just one reason why Gadhafi deserves our wrath -- part of what makes him "a proven quantity" (and therefore worth ousting regardless of how little we know about his opponents). But as Elliott concludes:

There's nothing contradictory about previously advocating for normalization of relations with Gadhafi and then shifting, in the face of Gadhafi's attacks on rebels, to supporting a bombing campaign. That's not what McCain is doing. He is arguing that Ghadafi needs to be ousted because he has American blood on his hands (from 1988), when the senator himself was meeting with and praising the Libyan regime a mere 18 months ago.

Wouldn't it be nice if a television journalist went into an interview like this one prepared to ask the subject about his previous positions on the topic, especially where those positions had obviously changed? It's possible McCain would have a thoughtful explanation for how he got from 2009 to now. But nobody asked.

Erica Hill did have one very good question, however, which prompted an answer from McCain that I found even more alarming than his unacknowledged about-face on Gadhafi. Should we arm the rebels in Libya, she asked, and what about the risk that in doing so we might end up arming Al Qaeda? McCain replied that he (now) thinks arming the rebels in Libya is a good idea, because after all, we got arms to the rebels in Afghanistan when they were fighting the Soviets. And what a success story that turned out to be! Right? Too bad Hill didn't ask a follow-up question there. It seems relevant.

About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.



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Mollie, you pose some great questions the interviewer should have asked. I am often frustred with the superficial coverage these issues get because of the time limits the interviewers are under (and, let's face it, some of them are chosen more for their pretty faces than their ability to research and ask probing questions.I don't think there's any question that Gadhafi is worth ousting, but not necessarily by us.I take very little comfort in the "McCain would have been worse" scenario you suggest, given that the Obama strategy seems to be plenty risky enough. Hillary Clinton assures us that we'll be handing this off to an international force in a matter of days or weeks. I hope she's right, but we're already embroiled on two fronts in the Muslim world that I would consider quagmires.I think the strategy is especially troubling since we don't really know much about the factions that might take over from if he falls. The military has not given clear signals it's with the rebels as it did in the Egyptian uprising. Anyone we help install may not be strong enough to hold the country together. (Karzai has hardly been a ringing success in Afghanistan; he acts contrite about corruption when the diplomats slap him around, but we continue to prop him up.) It's very hard to watch people rise up against their oppressors and get beaten down, but (and I realize I sound like Sarah Palin as I say this) you can't just hop on your white horse and gallop in with your reins in your teeth, six guns a-blazin', until you know who's screaming "help!"

Granted,: we aren't at all sure what sort of people the players here are, But this seems to be a damened-if-we-do-damned-if-we-don't situation, and there's no telling at this point which course really is best. So a decision must be made -- tolerate Ghaddafi by default or support possible reformers? I say the reasonable choice is to take a chance on a long-term good --a decent government for hte Libyan people. To choose to tolerate G. is a known evil.

I say the reasonable choice is to take a chance on a long-term good a decent government for hte Libyan people.

Problem is that in this instance Obama's greatest strength proved to be his weakness. Too much deliberation and sifting led to sending uncertain and indecisive signals which allowed Quadaffi to mobilize and it appears disrupt and destabilize the opposition.Whether he (or Americans or the world for that matter) likes it or not, the USA is the leader and nations look to it in times of stress for leadership.To be fair, just a few years ago Quadaffi had moderated and was subsequently designated as a friend and taken off the terrorist list or whatever the state department calls it. Now in some kind of Orwellian twist, he is a foe again. I think the long term prospects look poor and the danger is that America is going to look like it "lost". The fear of that will lead to mission creep and the US will slowly be drawn further in to a civil war which appears to already have been lost.I personally think this waffling and wafing even now is weak. As Roy Orbinson is reported to have said privately to Bob Dylan when Bob Dylan was being difficult. "You're either in your not". He remained in and whining stopped.

That was in the Travelling Wibury's of course.

As long as Qaddafi is holed up in cities with his army and mercenaries and unable to move beyond the city gates with his armor because they will be destroyed from the air , the end is predicable and soon. A set piece war will be short. Only a sympathetic population fed guerrilla war is a quagmire. Over in a month.

So, you're worried about McCAIN'S hypocrisy on our latest war?[Question] In what circumstances, if any, would the president have constitutional authority to bomb Iran without seeking a use-of-force authorization from Congress? . . .[Answer] The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.As Commander-in-Chief, the President does have a duty to protect and defend the United States. In instances of self-defense, the President would be within his constitutional authority to act before advising Congress or seeking its consent. History has shown us time and again, however, that military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the Legislative branch. It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action.The answer is from Senator Barack Obama in 2007.

"Wouldnt it be nice if a television journalist went into an interview like this one prepared to ask the subject about his previous positions on the topic, especially where those positions had obviously changed?" Even the interviewers on PBS (the Lehrer News Hour, for example) seem unwilling to ask difficult questions of their interviewees. I recall, some years back, an interview by Lehrer with then SecDef Donald Rumsfeld, in which the latter was allowed to get away with some outrageous statements. In the days when I used to be able to get BBC news, I recall a woman named Lise Doucette (spellling?) who would let her interviewees get away with absolutely nothing, and held their feet to the fire until they answered (or pretended to answer) the questions she asked. Nor would she let them get away with changing the subject and answering the questions they would have preferred to those of the interviewer (I have in mind a recent shameless performance by one of my own senators, Bernie Sanders (D-VT), who evaded every question thrown at him, and gave answers to questions not asked. And he's by no means unusual).Another by-the-way comment on the practice. Why does every politico -- from Obama down to the merest Tea Party member -- insist on prefacing what he (or she) wishes to do with the phrase "The American people want. . . . " What gives any of them the right to speak for the American people? Why not just say "People want. . " or, more modestly, "I think people want. . . . "All very reminiscent of the way in which Beijing -- whenever anyone says anything nice about, say, the Dalai Lama or Taiwan -- spouts the old line that "The Chinese people are (insulted, outraged, chooose your word) by such statements."

No doubt: Lyse Doucet is cool. The bigger problem, of course, is that media interviewers as a whole are unwilling to put feet to the fire. What happens if reporter A from network X asks tough questions? Next time the pol's handler will arrange a nice chat with reporter B from network Y, and A's boss will fret because X can't sell as much male enhancement, beer, and cars as Y.Self-deception: what a great way to lead. Really inspires confidence, doesn't it?

David -- obviously by "interesting man" he meant "proven quantity." I love Lyse Doucet too! (I had to look up the spelling.) One must never be fooled by her gentle accent -- she'll get the story. And I too am annoyed by the "The American people want..." tic. It just seems so bizarre: the news producers want to get someone like John McCain to comment on this subject because, given his background, his viewpoint ought to be particularly well-informed and worth listening to. But then when they actually interview him, the fact that he is who he is, and has the history and background he does, seems not to influence the exchange at all. He gave answers not only independent of, but completely contradictory to, his own actual history with and knowledge of the subject. So what's the point of talking to John McCain, if both you and he are going to ignore his biography entirely?I think Todd is right that Erica Hill, for example, knows she can't be "hostile" to someone like McCain (where "hostile" = "asking obvious questions any journalist would ask"), because then CBS won't have access to McCain anymore. But what's frustrating is that even obvious kid-gloves treatment like this does nothing to stop people like McCain from complaining about their persecution at the hands of "the liberal mainstream media" and its "gotcha questions" when it's convenient.

Nicholas, yes! I remember that Lehrer-Rumsfeld interview. Rumsfeld was on offense as only he can be and rolled over Lehrer like a Panzer division. It was a train wreck.

I have to say that I disagree with Jim Lehrer on this, but he has stated quite explicitly that he does not feel it is his role to "cross-examine" the person he is interviewing. He basically feels his role is to ask question. Now, in the good old days (I wonder if anyone remembers him but me) we had Lawrence Spivak on Meet the Press. He knew how to grill a guest!

And We have Fox news that has mastered the softball pitch... that is slow and over the plate.. .. we are now subject to constant cable propoganda rather than news. Maybe we can have a subtitle script that reveals the subjects conflict of interests like the business channel does with their stock commentators. With political commentary, something like '"he has a book' 'Has a foundation salary' 'he is a hack' etc.

Interesting that the only people left in the msm who know how to grill are on the Comedy Channel. I don't think Mr Stewart or Mr Colbert are exactly on the outs with the suits in the head office. Let that sit and simmer among career video journalists: comedians outperform Brian Williams, Katie Couric, and the other celebrity-heads. How's that for working your way up?

What's Gitlin's phrase? "Stenographers with amnesia," I think.

This is a pip:

March 7:VAN SUSTEREN: What would you do about Libya?GINGRICH: Exercise a no-fly zone this evening, communicate to the Libyan military that Gadhafi was gone and that the sooner they switch sides, the more like they were to survive, provided help to the rebels to replace him. I mean, the idea that we're confused about a man who has been an anti-American dictator since 1969 just tells you how inept this administration is. They were very quick to jump on Mubarak, who was their ally for 30 years, and they were confused about getting rid of Gadhafi. This is a moment to get rid of him. Do it. Get it over with.March 23:GINGRICH: Let me draw the distinction. I would not have intervened. I think there were a lot of other ways to affect Qaddafi. I think there are a lot of other allies in the region we could have worked with. I would not have used American and European forces.

Whatever you think about McCain on the Libya situation, McCAIN IS NOT THE PRESIDENT, OBAMA IS.Giingrich is not the president either. And even George W. Bush is no longer president. OBAMA IS THE PRESIDENT.And reflexive lashing out at others who are not president is not going to change that fact.

David, that's a perfect example (count on Gingrich to win the shamelessness award). Just as McCain is supposed to be a foreign-policy expert, Newt is supposed to have valuable insights as a historian. So he, of all people, should not be left unchallenged when he says something like "the idea that were confused about a man who has been an anti-American dictator since 1969 just tells you how inept this administration is." Of course, he was talking to Greta Van Susteren on Fox at the time. But why should he then get booked on the Today show? Can't we find someone, anyone, more likely to give an honest and informative assessment of the situation? An actual historian perhaps? I guess it's because they're not really looking for an honest and informative assessment of what's happening in Libya, they're looking for someone to say "What Obama is doing is bad," to balance whoever just said "What Obama is doing is good." Recognizable name a plus. Past credit history not relevant.P.S. Great ironic quote in the Think Progress article Dave Weigel links to: "He told Politico over the weekend less than 24 hours after Obama took action that 'it is impossible to make sense of the standard for intervention in Libya except opportunism and news media publicity.'

If anybody disagrees that Obama is in charge here, I haven't heard from them. As for myself, I'm very open to criticism of Obama's decisions so far. Which is why these interviews strike me as worth noting: Criticism this nakedly partisan and dishonest is worse than no criticism at all. It simply reinforces the idea that on any issue, whether it's tax cuts or entering another war, one's position ought to be determined by which team you're on. With an issue this important, the fact that Obama is the president shouldn't be the only relevant factor in deciding whether to cheer or boo (or lie on television).

I agree that McCain and Gingrich, as the elders in their parties, are worth interviewing, but I have to agree with Bender: Obama's the one calling the shots here.As Ann notes, the intervention in Libya is a gamble; if we wait until we have all the information we want, Gadhafi might have restored his power. But I'm not sure that this is a good time or place to be gambling.

"And reflexive lashing out at others who are not president is not going to change that fact."Actually, the fact is that none of these programs interviewed the president. They interviewed other politicians who, as you rightly remind us, are not in charge.My own sense is that politicians bought and paid for by corporations will sell the product rather than offer wisdom, coherency, honesty. Rather than lashing out, I'd say we're all calmly clucking about lies and inconsistencies masquerading as commentary on the one in charge.As for myself, I will place myself a bit more into the critic camp than Mollie. War is wrong, and violence is neither a moral or effective way to combat evil. Non-violent non-cooperation would accomplish much more. Reliance on military might is just as wrong today as it was in 2003, 2001, 1991, 1983, 1965, 1950, 1914, 1870, ...

It seems to me that the president has not led on this issue. Obama (or Hillary Clinton) needs to be front and centre explaining this mission better than they have to date, clearly articulating the aims and objectives, and conducting interviews about. Heck I wouldn't even care if they just went to sympathetic media outlets that are generally supportive.When there is a vacuum in leadership the media will fall to whoever wants to speak and that, naturally, is going to be the opposition. But if you are going to criticize and oppose do so in a principled manner. I think the parliamentry concept which is part of commonwealth democracies of LOYAL opposition.It is obvious that McCain and Gingrich don't have a clue of what they are talking about and just want to embarras and undermine the president for their own advantage.

P.S. Alex Pareene at Salon has a preview of "Newt Gingrich's next two weeks of policy statements."

The One is in way over his head, and your response is to spin a what-if scenario about McCain? Pitiful.

As I was saying...

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