Monday, July 21, 2008

Was Maliki misquoted on Obama's Iraq withdrawal timetable?

Well, as people always say, you need to look at the whole context. So let's look at it (the two sentences in bold are the ones that have been widely quoted):

SPIEGEL: Would you hazard a prediction as to when most of the US troops will finally leave Iraq?

Maliki: As soon as possible, as far as we're concerned. U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes.

SPIEGEL: Is this an endorsement for the US presidential election in November? Does Obama, who has no military background, ultimately have a better understanding of Iraq than war hero John McCain?

Maliki: Those who operate on the premise of short time periods in Iraq today are being more realistic. Artificially prolonging the tenure of US troops in Iraq would cause problems. Of course, this is by no means an election endorsement. Who they choose as their president is the Americans' business. But it's the business of Iraqis to say what they want. And that's where the people and the government are in general agreement: The tenure of the coalition troops in Iraq should be limited.
So, when you look at it in context ... is there anything inaccurate about saying that Maliki endorsed Obama's timetable for withdrawal? I don't think so. And I think this is huge.

Of course he's not endorsing Obama as a candidate overall -- he'd have no business telling us who our president should be. I don't know of anyone who's claimed otherwise. The question is whether he's endorsed Obama's Iraq policy.

If there's any wiggle room here, aside from the minimal qualifier ("with the possibility of slight changes"), I'm not seeing it. Maliki said he agrees with Obama on the 16-month timetable for withdrawal. End of story.

McCain's whole candidacy hinges on Iraq (and by extension, terrorism, national security, foreign policy, etc.). If he can't trump Obama on Iraq, it's hard to see how he can win -- assuming the voters are going to cast their votes on substantive grounds.

So how can McCain -- whose spokesman has said we would withdraw if the Iraqis asked us to -- continue to depict Obama's plan for Iraq as dangerous and defeatist?

His campaign has released a statement. But really, it's just McCain's usual spiel on why he disagrees with Obama on Iraq, with a cursory reference to Maliki thrown in. So that's not much.

He might fall back on this pseudo-clarification from Maliki's aide:
Comments al-Maliki made to the magazine were "misunderstood and mistranslated'' and were not "conveyed accurately,'' al-Dabbagh said in the statement.
That's from a story with the headline: "Maliki Doesn't Endorse Obama Troop Withdrawal Plan."

Wait -- really? Maliki didn't endorse Obama's troop withdrawal plan?

Well, there are three problems with this:

1. The pseudo-clarification was given only under pressure from the United States.

2. There's very strong evidence that there was no "mistranslation." As the New York Times has reported, the translator of the original interview was provided by Maliki himself, not the newspaper. And the Times has now done an independent translation and confirmed the accuracy of the original translation.

3. The wording of Maliki's aide's statement is revealing. Ben Smith at Politico explains:
It's almost a convention of politics that when a politician says he was misquoted, but doesn't detail the misquote or offer an alternative, he's really saying he wishes he hadn't said what he did, or that he needs to issue a pro-forma denial to please someone.

The Iraqi Prime Minister's vague denial seems to fall in that category. The fact that it arrived to the American press via CENTCOM, seems to support that. It came, as Mike Allen notes, 18 hours later, and at 1:30 a.m. Eastern, a little late for Sunday papers; his staff also seems, Der Spiegel reports, not to have contested Iraqi reporting of the quote, even in the "government-affiliated" Iraqi press.

The notion this was a misquote also bumps up against Der Spiegel's standing by its reporting, and providing a long, detailed transcript.
This is a standard ploy for when you have to put on a show of disagreeing with someone, but you know there's nothing you can really say.

You need to say something. But you can't really say anything. So you figure out a way to say something without saying anything.

As a rule of thumb (which has plenty of exceptions), the test of someone's credibility is their ability to give convincing details to back up their general assertions. If someone who disagrees with you says, "That's not accurate!" but never gets around to specifying what exactly is inaccurate, that's a good sign that you can safely omit the "not" from their sentence.

It's similar to the many critics of Justice Clarence Thomas who don't know much about his work but want to vent their disgust with him. So what do they say? "He's not smart enough." "His opinions aren't well-written." It's very easy to make assertions like those, which are so vague as to defy being disproved. How can you prove that something is "well-written"?

It also reminds me of the custom of criminal defendants always making a pro forma "not guilty" plea at the beginning of a case. If you think that means the defendant isn't guilty, you're crazy.

Anyway, back to the campaign. I'm still waiting to see if McCain can explain his way out of this.

It's clear that McCain and his surrogates are going to hammer away at one argument: we wouldn't even be in this situation if it hadn't been for the surge! McCain was for the surge, and Obama was against it! Ha!

Well, is the election going to be about the past? Or is it going to be about the way forward?

If the election is going to be about the positions on Iraq that McCain and Obama have taken in the past ... then I can think of another decision I'd like the voters to focus on.

My hunch is that a "prominent Republican strategist who occasionally provides advice to the McCain campaign" was correctly analyzing the situation when he said, in response to Maliki's statement:
"We're fucked."

UPDATE: Jaltcoh gives you tomorrow's MSM analysis, today! The day after I posted the above, Eugene Robinson writes in the Washington Post:
Here's my schematic of the changed landscape. For years, the best argument available to supporters of George W. Bush's stay-the-course policy has been that we have to look forward. Critics of the war were engaged in useless arguments about the past, they said. The important thing wasn't to argue about whether the administration misled the nation into war, or to point out that Iraq hadn't quite become the Jeffersonian democracy that the hawks had promised. No one could change the past, however unfortunate it might be. The important thing was to look ahead and engineer the best possible outcome.

The important change is that now the look-forward argument is on the side of Obama and the advocates of setting a timetable for withdrawal. After all, that's what the U.S.-backed Iraqi government wants -- in fact, it's what the Iraqi government demands. Suddenly, it's the stay-the-course crowd that insists on fighting a battle that has already been consigned to the past. Obama and the Iraqis are looking to the future. The question isn't whether U.S. troops leave. It's how soon and how fast.

Someone might want to mention these developments to John McCain.


LemmusLemmus said...

It should be added that Spiegel has a well-known policy of having people read through their interviews and allowing them to make corrections - so when you read a statement by someone in a Spiegel interview, you can be pretty sure that's actually their opinion, rather than something that was just said in the heat of the moment.