Democrats have rounded on John McCain’s claim to be the uniquely qualified presidential candidate to deal with Iraq after he embarrassingly confused key players in the conflict.
During a Middle East tour intended to highlight his foreign policy acumen, the Republican nominee mistakenly claimed that Iran was training al-Qaeda in Iraq, seemingly unaware that the Shia nation and the Sunni militant group represent opposing interests.
Speaking in Amman, Jordan, after his first trip to Iraq as the Republican nominee, Mr McCain said it was “well-known” that Iran was training al-Qaeda in Iraq.
We continue to be concerned about Iranians taking al-Qaeda into Iran, training them and sending them back,” he told a news conference.
Challenged about the claim, he continued: “Well, it’s 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.”
It was not until Joseph Lieberman, an independent senator travelling with Mr McCain on the congressional trip, whispered in his ear that the candidate corrected himself.
“I’m sorry, the Iranians are training extremists, not al-Qaeda,” he said.
It was the second time that Mr McCain had made the mistake, having made similar comments during an interview with Hugh Hewitt, a conservative radio host. Speaking to the show on Monday, he said: “As you know, there are al-Qaeda operatives that are taken back into Iran, given training as leaders, and they’re moving back into Iraq.”
The Democrats immediately jumped on the error as evidence that Mr McCain did not understand the nuances of the conflict in Iraq.
“After eight years of the Bush Administration’s incompetence in Iraq, McCain’s comments don’t give the American people a reason to believe that he can be trusted to offer a clear way forward,” Karen Finney, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee, said in a statement. “Not only is Senator McCain wrong on Iraq once again, but he showed he either doesn’t understand the challenges facing Iraq and the region or is willing to ignore the facts on the ground.”
The McCain camp immediately embarked on a damage limitation exercise, issuing the following statement:
“In a press conference today, John McCain misspoke and immediately corrected himself by stating that Iran is in fact supporting radical Islamic extremists in Iraq, not al-Qaeda – as the transcript shows. Democrats have launched political attacks today because they know the American people have deep concerns about their candidates’ judgment and readiness to lead as commander in chief.”
It did not, however, address why the candidate had made the same error in the Hugh Hewitt interview.
The Republican candidate will no doubt be braced for further attacks from Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who are both due today to discuss their plans to withdraw US troops from Iraq.
Mr McCain was also pressed at the same news conference as to whether he would support strikes against Iran if Tehran didn’t cease its alleged nuclear activities.
He refused to say explicitly whether he would do so, saying only: “At the end of the day, we cannot afford having a nuclear-armed Iran.”
Mr McCain found himself in difficulty last year when he joked about bombing Iran during a campaign stop. Asked by a member of a South Carolina audience what he would do about Iran, he jibed: “Remember that old Beach Boys song, Bomb Iran?” and launched into a rendition of the band’s hit Barbara Ann with the words changed to “bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb bomb Iran”.