Information Landmine

"The Americans keep telling us how successful their system is. Then they remind us not to stray too far from our hotel at night." - An un-named EU trade representative quoted during international trade talks in Denver, Colorado, 1997.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


There's a popular image of John McCain being built up in the press that seems to have absolutely nothing to do with the man himself. To listen to most news sources, you get an idea of a principled, albeit sometimes cranky elder statesman who, while he may be a touch weak on some of the economic issues, has a load of foreign policy experience and understanding, albeit from a bit of a hawkish perspective.

That last meme, the idea that he's some sort of experienced foreign policy genius, seems to be particularly hard to kill off. Why people should think this is unclear. I'm sure as a war vet (and one who's been tortured at that) he'd have a lot of credibility talking to US troops, but when it comes to talking to anyone outside the US (which I understand to be at least a part of the president's job), would anyone really feel happy knowing that the guy who came out with this little gem was on the case? Is a "maverick" really what you want on one side of ticklish, high-level negotiations between heavily armed nation-states?

Neocon cheerleader Max Boot tried to make the case that, yes, actually this was exactly what was needed a few months back. It's the same old neocon stuff - we can make them do what we want if we just scare them enough - an idea that's been kicking round at least since Nixon's "madman theory", or possibly since Caligula declared that intimidating was the new popular.

Boot's wrong, of course. Looking scary may have been a good idea when the US knew exactly who or what it was meant to be intimidating (the USSR), but, in the current security climate, looking like you might flip out and bomb the shit out of anyone at any moment is just going to mess with an already delicate situation, and help otherwise disparate powers coalesce against the bigger security threat you represent.

Even if you did think that intimidation was the way forward in US foreign policy, you'd presumably want someone with a sound enough grasp of the facts to know who to intimidate and when. Sadly, McCain ain't your man. He's off in the Middle East seeing people trying to make friends abroad and bolster his foreign policy credentials, talking about Iraq. You know, the place with the bitter sectarian conflict that he knows all about, that prompted him to back the surge in troop numbers to maybe put a lid on that whole Sunni/Shia violence issue? Here's how he's doing:

Speaking to reporters in Amman, the Jordanian capital, McCain said he and two Senate colleagues traveling with him continue to be concerned about Iranian operatives "taking al-Qaeda into Iran, training them and sending them back."

Pressed to elaborate, McCain said it was "common knowledge and has been reported in the media that al-Qaeda is going back into Iran and receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran, that's well known. And it's unfortunate." A few moments later, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, standing just behind McCain, stepped forward and whispered in the presidential candidate's ear. McCain then said: "I'm sorry, the Iranians are training extremists, not al-Qaeda."

Now that'd look pretty uninformed coming from a first year international relations student. But from a guy who's running on a platform of foreign policy experience, it's terrifying. Also can't believe that the "what the hell, they're all just Muslims" attitude that it reveals is really the one you want on display in Jordan.


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