In normal election years, the news cycle typically spins slowly on midsummer weekends. Generally, there is time to kick back a bit, and suffer the effects of global warming. But since we live in abnormal times, it was not surprising to discover a delicious news nugget at roughly 7:45 last Friday night, when the McCain campaign quietly put out the word that chief economic adviser Phil Gramm was being dumped as campaign co-chair, as symbolic punishment for his recent dismissal of Americans as "whiners" whose economic woes are mere figments of their imagination. It was worth noting that the campaign sought to bury this embarrassing announcement on a Friday evening, after the major eastern newspaper and network broadcast deadlines had past, in the hopes of minimizing public attention.
And that might have been enough political news for one summer weekend, since that announcement raised all kinds of fresh questions. (Was McCain still retaining the basic economic blueprint that Gramm had drawn up for him? Yup. And hadn't McCain himself stated on various occasions that some of our economic woes were just "psychological"? Yup, repeatedly.) But wait...the Gramm news turned out to be mere foreplay. The best was yet to come.
Imagine my surprise, early Saturday morning, to discover, in my email in-box, a news bulletin from the White House, calling attention to an interview that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki had just given to the German newspaper der Spiegel. In that interview, Maliki offered some strong opinions about the issue of U.S. troop withdrawals...and made it quite clear that he likes the concept of a 16-month withdrawal timetable - as proposed by the Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama.
It was barely past dawn when I scanned that email, and, given the fact that it was already roughly 723 degrees outside my window, I at first thought that I must be suffering from heat exhaustion. Maliki was siding with Obama? And thereby dealing a major political blow to John McCain, who has been trying to paint Obama's Iraq proposals as naive and irresponsible? Not possible. This email had come from the White House. Surely the Bush team would never call attention to such a story. Therefore, I must have misread the email.
Well, as it turned out (and this tidbit would not be known for many hours), the Bush team screwed up. (Hardly the first time.) The White House had intended to circulate the der Spiegel story for internal use only; mistakenly, it had sent it out to the broader journalistic community. Thanks, guys!
And there was Maliki, in the story, implicitly doing quite a number on the McCain campaign. Some quote-worthy highlights: "Artifically prolonging the tenure of U.S. troops in Iraq would cause problems. U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months (for a withdrawal timetable). That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes....Whoever is thinking about the shorter term (for withdrawal) is closer to reality. Artificially extending the stay of U.S. troops would cause problems...Those who operate on the premise of short time periods in Iraq today are being more realistic...The Americans have found it difficult to agree on a concrete timetable for the exit because it seems like an admission of defeat to them. But it isn't."
While reading Malkiki's eye-opening remarks (here's the der Spiegel version), I could almost hear the grinding of the Bush spin machinery kicking into gear. Because there was no way that the White House would let those comments stand. Maliki is deemed by Bush, and by his compatriot McCain, to be the sovereign leader of a sovereign nascent democracy, but only when his statements are deemed to be in sync with Bush policy. Clearly, a stated preference for Obama's proposal would not be tolerated.
Meanwhile, the McCain camp had to react somehow. Here was Maliki cutting off McCain at the knees - what would his aides say? What could they possibly say? They've been hammering at Obama, claiming that the 16-month timetable reflects ignorance of the facts on the ground...and here was Maliki, sounding supportive for a 16-month timetable, based on his own reading of the facts on the ground. Turns out, it took the McCain people all day Saturday to come up with some kind of response. In the early evening, finally, they did. It was transparently weak: "John McCain believes withdrawal must be based on conditions on the ground. Prime Minister Maliki has repeatedly affirmed the same view, and did so again today."
That spin wasn't very effective, given the fact that Maliki had essentially refuted almost every facet of McCain's Iraq policy. On Saturday, there were also some McCain-friendly attempts to dismiss Maliki's remarks by saying that, well, Maliki just has to say that kind of stuff to appease domestic Iraqi opinion. But that argument is weak as well, because, if true, it merely confirms what polls have long been saying - that most Iraqi people would prefer that we leave. And if Iraq is truly what Bush says it is - a "young democracy" - shouldn't Maliki be reflecting the prevailing democratic opinion?
So clearly, the McCain camp needed more help. And the Bush war apparatus did their best to help, but not until the we hours of early Sunday morning. That's when U.S. military command headquarters put out a statement, quoting an Iraqi government official, saying that the der Spiegel newspaper had "misunderstood and mistranslated" the Maliki remarks. The problem was, the statement never pinpointed where the misunderstanding and mistranslations had occurred. It offered no actual examples; it didn't address how it was possible for a translator to have misinterpreted so many remarks (as highlighted above), all of which said roughly the same thing. And, most glaringly of all, the statement omitted the pertinent fact that the translator was employed not by der Spiegel, but by Maliki's office.
On Sunday, der Spiegel published a new story, saying that it "stands by its version of the conversation." It then forwarded audio of the interview to The New York Times, which did its own translation and, in today's paper, affirmed the der Spiegel version. It reported, too, that Maliki had brought up the Obama plan on his own, and it added this quote to the record: "Who wants to exit in a quicker way has a better assessment of the situation in Iraq."
And today, in the wake of a meeting between Obama and Maliki, the Iraqi government has now jettisoned all the "mistranslation" nonsense and essentially sided with the Obama approach. A Maliki spokesman said today that the government endorses the concept of "a real timetable" for U.S. troop withdrawal. He then said that the targeted year for withdrawal is 2010. Which happens to be Obama's targeted year.
Well, what does McCain say now? In April 2004, at a Council of Foreign Relations event, McCain was asked what we should do if a sovereign Iraqi government made it clear that we should leave. He replied: "Well, if that scenario evolves, then I think it's obvious that we would have to leave, because - if it was an elected government of Iraq - and we've been asked to leave other places in the world."
So, in the wake of this Maliki episode, McCain basically has three choices: (1) He can flip-flop on what he said in 2004, and position himself even to the right of Bush, whose administration now speaks of "joint aspirational time horizons" for withdrawal; (2) he can ease his way toward Obama's position on Iraq, just as he has lately on Afghanistan, thereby demonstrating that the wisdom gap on national security is a lot smaller than he'd like it to be; or (3) he can try to ride out this whole embarrassment, and hope that relatively few swing voters take notice.
But, all told, the best assessment was probably offered on Saturday, when a Republican strategist spoke on background to Atlantic magazine blogger Mark Ambinder. Here's what he said about the Maliki remarks: "We're screwed."