McCain’s Revealing Debate Mistake

Sunday, September 28th, 2008

From the transcript of Friday night’s debate, here’s John McCain:

First of all, I won’t repeat the mistake that I regret enormously, and that is, after we were able to help the Afghan freedom fighters and drive the Russians out of Afghanistan, we basically washed our hands of the region.

And the result over time was the Taliban, Al Qaida, and a lot of the difficulties we are facing today. So we can’t ignore those lessons of history.

Those “freedom fighters” were of course the mujaheddin in Afghanistan waging jihad against the Soviets, including one Osama bin Laden and one Zayman Al Zawahiri. We backed and funded them–sort of. We didn’t “create bin Laden,” as some have alleged. But we certainly supported the factions fighting alongside him, factions every bit as militantly Islamic as bin Laden–as even the State Department concedes.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright documents how in Afghanistan, the U.S. saw the opportunity to give the Soviet Union, in the words of Secretary of State National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, “its own Vietnam.” By most accounts, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in part out of naked aggression, but also to quell the militant Islamism gaining traction in the country (sound familiar?)&tag=theagitator-20. So in our effort to bog down the Soviets, the U.S. gave its own money and helped divert billions in Saudi money to the Pakistan’s ISI secret police, which then distributed the funds to seven separate mujaheddin tribes, one of which was led by bin Laden (just how much U.S. money bin Laden received through ISI isn’t clear–at least from what I’ve read). The Saudis also provided additional funding to bin Laden’s group through other channels.

Anti-communists in the Regan administration regularly referred to the mujaheddin as “freedom fighters,” apparently for no other reason than that they were fighting the Soviets. We now know, of course, that they were fighting for independence, not freedom. There’s a big difference. That McCain continues to use the Reagan-era terminology is telling. Our support–even if indirect–of bin Laden in his jihad against the Soviets ought to be a lesson in the perils of meddling in foreign conflicts. But in the McCain-Bush black-and-white, you’re-with-us-or-you’re-against-us foreign policy, the side America backs is always the side of freedom. It’s foolhardy to think it’s always that simple.

Moreover, you sort of wonder what McCain thinks we should have done. Should we have sent in U.S. troops to set up bases and occupy the country the moment the Soviets pulled out? Installed a puppet regime? I can’t think even a by-then crumbling Soviet Union would have stood for what would have been the equivalent of a U.S. satellite on its southern border. Until then, our support for anti-Soviet Afghans was it least covert. I’m sure the Soviets knew about it, but it wasn’t a slap in the face, as the installation of a base or a blatantly pro-U.S. government would have been.

It would be nice to see a campaign correspondent ask McCain to clarify.  Does he really still think the mujaheddin were “freedom fighters?”  And what does the think we should have done once the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan?

One other thing: Can you imagine the uproar on the right if Obama had referred to the Afghan mujaheddin as “freedom fighters?”

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38 Responses to “McCain’s Revealing Debate Mistake”

  1. #1 |  Rationalitate | 

    It’s funny though…we think of al-Qaeda, bin Laden, and al-Zawahiri as American-made, but the truth is, the Russians have had a lot more influence with the group in recent years. But the world doesn’t seem to have noticed.

  2. #2 |  Rationalitate | 

    Oops. Let’s try that link again…

  3. #3 |  z | 

    The american support for the “freedom fighters” of Afghanistan against Russia seems completely analogous to today’s Iranian support of Iraqi “insurgents”.

  4. #4 |  Mike | 

    I can’t say what McCain meant, but it’s pretty common to state that what we should have done post Soviet withdrawal in Afghanistan was to flood the country with humanitarian aid just like we had previously flooded it with arms. It’s made pretty clear in Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars, and stated even more explicitly in Charlie Wilson’s War (both the book and the movie). Again, I can’t say for sure what McCain meant, but when someone says we made a mistake in “washing our hands” of the region, they usually meant that we should’ve sent in humanitarian aid, not sent in troops or set up a puppet regime.

  5. #5 |  Reaganite | 

    It was money well spent. There were a whole range of factions, including what made up the future Northern Alliance. The Taliban did not show up until 1996 three years after the Soviet-sponsored regime fell. Most important, this support did weaken the Soviets to the point of collapse, substantially protecting us from nuclear world war.

    It would have been smart to leave, leave the Middle East, and abandon Israel afterwards. I doubt a 9/11 or anything like it would have happened in that case. But just because there have been many dumb interventions over the years, doesn’t mean the Cold War was a mistake or that the particular support for the Mujahadeen was. It was appropriate, just as teaming up with the Soviets against Hitler was appropriate. It’s impossible to know how things will play out, and even if we did, it’s still makes sense to team up with relatively weak folks like the Afghan resistance to deal with the humongous Soviet threat, even if there is a possibility of a falling out down the road. You can’t always see or plan ten steps ahead, and even if you cant, dealing with big problems today for smaller problems tomorrow often makes sense.

  6. #6 |  Les | 

    Anti-communists in the Regan administration regularly referred to the mujaheddin as “freedom fighters,” apparently for no other reason than that they were fighting the Soviets.

    They also called the terrorists in Nicaragua “freedom fighters” for the same reason. U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War was a sad mixture of incompetence and evil.

  7. #7 |  thorn | 

    You’re quite right, Les.

    The world would be a more safer, stable place if Russia was still the USSR. I’m quite sure the East Germans wish that wall was still standing. And if the missles had loaded into Cuban silos, no doubt we’d all live in glittering mansions and frolic in the fields with unicorns.

    Soviet communism was an evil cancer. If the USSR hadn’t started their reign by killing a few million of their own population, perhaps by the 1980’s America would have put a bit more trust in their Afghan activities.

  8. #8 |  Honeyko | 

    > The world would be a more safer, stable place if Russia was still the USSR….

    I swear: Some days I think everybody else is a completely blind moron, because is just, plain stoopid with extra ‘o’s.

    Putin is turning Russia back into the USSR, and first order of business is to intimidate breakaway republics and sail nuclear warships to Venezuela for wargames in the Caribbean.

    So, are you feeling safer and more stable yet?

  9. #9 |  Honeyko | 

    > They also called the terrorists in Nicaragua “freedom fighters” for
    > the same reason. U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War was a
    > sad mixture of incompetence and evil.

    A sad mixture only exceeded only by that of the Left, which has had its collective lips firmly in a vice-lock around Danial Ortega’s schlong for over twenty-five years.

    (These are the people whom Les is calling “terrorists”, a Sandinista smear parroted ceaselessly by useful-idiots.)

  10. #10 |  Les | 

    thorn,

    So, I’m assuming your sarcasm is your way of saying, “The USSR would never have collapsed if the U.S. hadn’t supported terrorism and mass-murdering dictators.” Personally, I think the USSR would have collapsed if we had fought the cold war exactly the same way, except for supporting terrorists and mass-murdering dictators.

    It’s funny that whenever I say something as non-radical as, “supporting terrorism and helping dictators imprison, torture, and murder dissidents are bad things to do,” some reflexive typist responds with the brilliant sarcasm of, “Oh, I guess the Soviet Union was a great place!” kind of response.

    It’s like when you point out somewhere that police officers are frequently brutal and corrupt and then someone comes back with, “Oh, I guess you’d rather have a society with no cops! Good luck calling 911 the next time home invaders are raping your mother!”

    It’s really the same kind of anti-intellectual, knee-jerk loyalist mentality that’s necessary for the state to perpetrate atrocities.

  11. #11 |  Les | 

    Honeyko,

    Another response I frequently get when I point out the documented fact that the U.S. supported terrorism and mass-murdering dictators during the Cold War is the finger pointing, “but what about THEM?” (“them” being leftists that committed atrocities)

    It’s just like when I point out to leftists the tyranny of the Castro regime and they point their fingers at the U.S. government and say, “but what about THEM?”

    Knee-jerk loyalists on the left and the right have so much in common. The objective fact is, contrary to what leftists would say, the Sandinistas were guilty of many atrocities, and many Nicaraguans supported the Contras. The equally objective fact is, contrary to what U.S. loyalists would say, is that the Contras were terrorists, who kidnapped and murdered civilians. Neither fact cancels the other out and both are well documented. The world is complicated that way.

    It could be argued, however, that the atrocities committed by the Contras should matter more to U.S. citizens, because they were paid for, in part, with U.S. tax dollars.

  12. #12 |  Rationalitate | 

    Actually, Les, police officers are rarely brutal and almost never corrupt. Suburban cops can be dicks, but in the places where the real drug wars are fought – the inner cities – the ratio of arrests to situations where an officer could make an arrest is very low. The problem is with the laws, not the enforcement. If anything, the fact that most cops don’t act like robots (arresting every junky, open bottle violator, and 14-year-old left holding the stash) is very much an ameliorating factor in the war on drugs.

  13. #13 |  Les | 

    Rationalitate, are you talking about individual officers? I agree with you about problematic laws, but it seems to me that every week I read another news report of a police officer using excessive force or being brought up on charges for corruption, so I’d have to disagree with your assertion that cops are “rarely brutal and almost never corrupt.”

  14. #14 |  appletree » Blog Archive » McCain refers to Taliban as ‘freedom fighters’ | 

    […] me when I watched the debate on Friday: John McCain referred to bin Laden and the Taliban as “freedom fighters“: From the transcript of Friday night’s debate, here’s John […]

  15. #15 |  Mike T | 

    Can you imagine the uproar on the left if McCain was an associate of an unrepentant terrorist like Timothy McVeigh? Suppose he described his relationship with Terry Nichols as just some guy he knew, who may have at one time had hard feelings toward the federal government?

    It would destroy his candidacy.

    I’m not supporting either guy in this election, but as the facts come out, Obama looks more and more like an even bigger asshole if you use the left’s own criteria against him.

  16. #16 |  Javad | 

    Mike T –

    Wow – quoting pajamas media about a relationship that occurred decades ago. I must admit that I went to the University of Illinois. And Ayers taught there at the same time. And my little brother’s middle name is Hossein (close enough to Hussain). Holy crap…I may be a terrorist! I expect a no knock raid any second now.

    J

  17. #17 |  Steve Verdon | 

    Moreover, you sort of wonder what McCain thinks we should have done. Should we have sent in U.S. troops to set up bases and occupy the country the moment the Soviets pulled out? Installed a puppet regime? I can’t think even a by-then crumbling Soviet Union would have stood for what would have been the equivalent of a U.S. satellite on its southern border. Until then, our support for anti-Soviet Afghans was it least covert. I’m sure the Soviets knew about it, but it wasn’t a slap in the face, as the installation of a base or a blatantly pro-U.S. government would have been.

    My understanding is that we simply walked away and this left plenty of room for the ISI to set up a regime that would be friendly to the ISI/Pakistan and allow for goods to travel across Afghanistan. After we left the area turned into a region divided up by warring warlords who made many via heroin. They were extremely viscious and the whole region was a chaotic mess. So the ISI looked around found the Taliban, armed them, helped them recruit the mujaheddin that the U.S. trained/armed/etc. They rolled across Afghanistan and were initially hailed as saviors since they instituted laws, killed off the Warlords and their fighters, etc. Then it turned out that the Taliban were just as vicious in their own way and their flavor of Islam was very much like that of Bin Laden et. al. So Afghanistan became Bin Laden’s new home and eventually allowed him to plot, train for, and eventually execute the 9/11 attacks. A classic case of blowback.

    And to be honest, pulling out of Iraq right now does leave me concerned that this situation could happen again. Now maybe it wont or it is very unlikely, but it behooves those who advocate such action to outline why that risk is either not very large or we should take such a risk. That is, what are the benefits to pulling out and how do they outweigh the possibility of creating another “Club Med for Terrorists” this time in an oil rich country. I’m not a big foreign policy guy and I know even less about the Middle East and its politics, so having this explained in a forthright manner would be nice.

    Honeyko,

    — Putin is turning Russia back into the USSR, and first order of business is to intimidate breakaway republics and sail nuclear warships to Venezuela for wargames in the Caribbean.

    So, are you feeling safer and more stable yet?

    I think you need to re-read your first phrase,

    “Putin is turning Russia back into the USSR,….”

    That pretty much means that getting rid of the USSR was a good thing. That Putin is going back in that direction is a bad thing, and that yes, we are less safer the more he does it. It does not negate that getting rid of the Soviet Union was a good thing. Of course that isn’t justification for the U.S. to engage in dubious foreign policy like propping up vile and vicious dictators who slaughter and torture their fellow countrymen. I agree that the USSR would likely have collapsed if we hadn’t supported such dictators/regimes and even if we had skipped out on Vietnam. The problems with the USSR was that entire economic system was unsustainable, and as the late Herb Simon said, “Unsustainable trends are not sustained.”

  18. #18 |  Rationalitate | 

    Rationalitate, are you talking about individual officers? I agree with you about problematic laws, but it seems to me that every week I read another news report of a police officer using excessive force or being brought up on charges for corruption, so I’d have to disagree with your assertion that cops are “rarely brutal and almost never corrupt.”

    I’m talking about the vast majority of police officers. The reason you see reports like that is because there are a lot of police officers. No doubt some are corrupt and brutal. But this is relatively rare. And, ultimately, it’s not the problem. Even if you do away with these officers, the greater problem of the drug war in general hasn’t gone away. The vast majority of the damage done by police is legal. A few corrupt cops are nothing compared to the dangerous legislation that legit cops have to enforce (luckily, most of the time they don’t).

  19. #19 |  Les | 

    The vast majority of the damage done by police is legal.

    Even though I still have to disagree that cops are “rarely brutal and almost never corrupt” (“rarely,” I can see in a statistical, big picture sense; “almost never corrupt” is, I think, demonstrably untrue), I agree with your above statement 100%.

  20. #20 |  Honeyko | 

    Les:
    > Another response I frequently get when I point out the
    > documented fact that the U.S. supported terrorism and
    > mass-murdering dictators….

    Shut the fuck up with the dissembling bullshit, and deal with the matter of you being a lying sack peddler of Sandinista propaganda regarding, among others, the Mosquitos they tried to exterminate, and Eden Pastora. They drove damn near everybody on the east coast up into Honduras and Guatemala while guys like you sat around and gave a big runny I-don’t-give-a-shit.

    IMO there is no bigger jerk-off on the face of the earth than useful-idiot apologists and water-carriers for socialist juntas, and that is you pal. Yeah, yeah, bore me now with your collection of sources written by circle-jerking Marxist assholes. Fuck them too. There are jerk-offs of all stripes, of course, but the ass-clowns still defending Soviet-aligned tyrants are the worst.

    The Sandinistas were opportunistic scumbags who could wait to drive around in big Mercades and loot the whole country the second they were in power.

  21. #21 |  Les | 

    Wow, Honeyko, you should try a decaffeinated coffee. Or maybe you’re really young. Whatever the cause is, I think it’s my duty to respectfully inform you that you’re acting like an asshole.

    I don’t know if you read what I posted (if so, you might want to work on your comprehension skills), but I didn’t defend the Sandinistas. So, I don’t really know what you’re so angry about.

    Maybe, in your eyes, condemning the use of terrorism to fight an enemy means that I must have supported that enemy. But that’s really simplistic and silly, when you think about it (if you choose to think about it). Like I said, rejecting terrorism as a tool in wartime is not a radical idea.

  22. #22 |  Cogswell | 

    “freedom fighter”

    How do we really define this?

    Freedom from what… right? Isn’t that what we at least THINK when we hear it.

    I would suggest that at the time we were thinking these people were seeking freedom from 2 things…

    1) Godless military leaders…
    Were the people (generally religious) fighting a people who were (offically) athiest “freedom fighter”s?

    2) A command and control economy dictated from Moscow.

    Should we not call them Freedom fighters just because they didn’t have the same concept of freedom as CATO? Can freedom come a bit at a time – and from where they were at at the time? (no real gov. – but lots of oppression)…

  23. #23 |  Radley Balko | 

    Cogswell —

    These people were fighting for the “freedom” to impose a Taliban-like government. In fact, many of them went on to endorse and serve in the Taliban. Others went on to form al-Qaeda. At least two of them then orchestrated the September 11 attacks. They weren’t motivated by the Soviets’ command and control economy. They were motivated by the Soviets’ atheism. And yes, they were fighting “Godless military” leaders in the Soviets. Is that really worse than the militant, God-fearing, Sharia-based government that eventually took root?

    Maybe we had to back them at the time, because the Soviet threat was greater. I’m not convinced. But to call them “freedom fighters” still today instead of the lesser of two evils betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of our foreign policy history. It’s not that the mujaheddin “didn’t have the same concept of freedom as Cato,” it’s that the vast majority of them were thuggish, murdering religious zealots with no concept of freedom at all.

  24. #24 |  charlotte | 

    Jesus! If only if only … What the hell?

  25. #25 |  Honeyko | 

    LEs:
    > I didn’t defend the Sandinistas. So, I don’t really know
    > what you’re so angry about.

    Yes, you did, and yes you do. Don’t play dumb.

    > Maybe, in your eyes, condemning the use of terrorism to
    > fight an enemy means that I must have supported that enemy.

    This is simply moral-equivalizing which conveniently dovetails with Sandinista propaganda and which tidely boxes up ALL recipients of US military help as terrorists. Oooo, that icky-poo raygun “terrorizing” the oppressed people of Nicaragua. …who you may observe weren’t fleeing to Honduras and Costa Rica when Somaza was in power.

  26. #26 |  Podger | 

    McCain had some gaffes in the debate, but I don’t think this was much of a mistake. The point he was making, ineloquently, was that he believes that, despite all of the differences between Iraq and Afghanistan, if we do not establish a more-or-less permanent presence in Iraq, it will become a major base for terrorist operations. And yes, the fact that he said this using 1980’s Republican jargon just reveals where his thinking comes from.

  27. #27 |  Ape Man | 

    This is a good group and a great site, so let me waste my breath with a recommendation that to my knowledge no group of blog commentators has ever heeded:

    The only way to prevent your decent and illuminating discussion from being destroyed by people like Honeyko is to ignore them completely.

    Seriously. Just. Don’t. Respond.

    APS

  28. #28 |  Rex | 

    Wow, Honeyko! You sure do bring the crazy. Try reading Les’ argument instead of attacking the argument you wish he were making.

  29. #29 |  Frank Harold | 

    Honeyko, I think your posts would be improved, or at least less resemble insane rants, if you left out the childish cursing and insulting. Those are usually negative additions to any argument of any kind, in my experience.

  30. #30 |  nitpicker | 

    Honeyko: The Sandinistas were opportunistic scumbags who could wait to drive around in big Mercades [sic] and loot the whole country the second they were in power.

    Isn’t that how the “Republican revolution” ended, too?

  31. #31 |  gregs | 

    Brzezinski was NSA not SoS

  32. #32 |  ToKnow | 

    Sadly, the western world has repeatedly made the same mistakes in the Middle East – get in, get what we want, and leave a war-ravaged countryside to rebuild itself. Despite the author’s indication otherwise, with our attitudes about the middle east, and our poor foreign policy and humanitarian aide to the region, we did create the chasm that exists today.

    I would have hoped never to say “McCain is right”, but the quote mentioned is spot on. We should not have left Afghanistan as we did, and while I am as against the war in Iraq as anyone, I am proud that we are at least attempting to rebuild that which we destroyed.

  33. #33 |  Les | 

    Honeyko,

    You say I did defend the Sandinistas, I still do it, and I shouldn’t “play dumb.”

    Okay, please show me where I defended the Sandinistas. Find the sentence. Copy and paste it for all to see.

    If you can’t (and you can’t because I didn’t; in fact, I pointed out that the Sandinistas were guilty of atrocities), I hope you’ll be man enough to admit your passions got the best of you and you falsely accused me of saying something I didn’t say and holding a position I don’t hold.

    But I’ll say again that terrorism is wrong no matter who uses it (though terrorists and loyalists on the left and right would disagree) and that frequently both sides in a military conflict will be guilty of atrocities. Again, these are not radical notions.

  34. #34 |  Les | 

    Ape Man,

    You’re right. I know you’re right. I think I have a problem. There’s a part of me that believes that people like Honeyko can be reasoned with, that they’ll reconsider their positions if presented with rational arguments. I know it’s probably not true, yet still I try. It’s like a misguided kind of optimism in humanity. I’ll definitely try to resist in the future. Maybe every time I’m tempted to respond to someone like Honeyko, I’ll just have a drink, instead.

    This could work.

  35. #35 |  Culprit | 

    It’s interesting to me that US foreign policy is always about achieving a short-sighted goal in a region (mid-east/far-east/latin america), and later when this goal leads to humanitarian consequences in the region, the new policy is always framed around the idea of creating a freer/better society for the peoples of said region. Until American politics can identify the self-interested notions of our foreign entanglements, can the political discourse (like the McCain quote) actually reference the reality of motivations and consequences these policies are based on.

    Unfortunately self-critical perspective seems to take at least a generation to develop within enough of the electorate to be politically viable.

  36. #36 |  Culprit | 

    Just to be clear, I do not think McCain is using a self-critical perspective when examining the current foreign policy options for the US. I believe this is because any critical comments of party members past decisions are rarely politically viable. Party ideology on the right/left are defined by a historical facade that members are discouraged from examining deeply.

    Maybe a historical account of cause and effect that could be agreeable to both sides would enable a more nuanced foreign policy discussion in the large political discourse. Until then, I guess I’ll be stuck in the margins with the rest of you.

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