Times Harps on McCain's "Embarrassing Mistake" on Al Qaeda

The paper won't let go of McCain's brief slip during Tuesday's questioning of Gen. David Petraeus when he described Al Qaeda as Shiite, and immediately corrected himself.

The Times takes another bite out of John McCain for his Shia-Sunni bloopers in Thursday's front-page story by Elisabeth Bumiller and Larry Rohter, "Foreign Policy: 2 Camps Seeks McCain's Ear." Those camps would be the realists (or as the Times prefers, "pragmatists") and those dreaded neocons.

The paper really piles on the "neoconservative" labels (one pasted by lefties on the backs of conservatives they really despise), and for the second day in a row Bumiller hits McCain on his brief gaffe at Tuesday's Congressional hearings on Iraq featuring testimony from Gen. David Petraeus, when he implied that Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia was a Shiite group before correcting himself (they are Sunni).

Senator John McCain has long made his decades of experience in foreign policy and national security the centerpiece of his political identity, and suggests he would bring to the White House a fully formed view of the world.

But now one component of the fractious Republican Party foreign policy establishment - the so-called pragmatists, some of whom have come to view the Iraq war or its execution as a mistake - is expressing concern that Mr. McCain might be coming under increased influence from a competing camp, the neoconservatives, whose thinking dominated President Bush's first term and played a pivotal role in building the case for war.

The concerns have emerged in the weeks since Mr. McCain became his party's presumptive nominee and began more formally assembling a list of foreign policy advisers. Among those on the list are several prominent neoconservatives, including Robert Kagan, an author who helped write much of the foreign policy speech that Mr. McCain delivered in Los Angeles on March 26, in which he described himself as "a realistic idealist." Others include the security analyst Max Boot and a former United Nations ambassador, John R. Bolton.

Prominent members of the pragmatist group, often called realists, say they are also wary of the McCain campaign's chief foreign policy aide, Randy Scheunemann, who was a foreign policy adviser to former Senators Trent Lott and Bob Dole and who has longtime ties to neoconservatives. In 2002, Mr. Scheunemann was a founder of the hawkish Committee for the Liberation of Iraq and was an enthusiastic supporter of the Iraqi exile and Pentagon favorite, Ahmad Chalabi.


Mr. McCain has always promoted his reputation for departing from ideological orthodoxy in both foreign and domestic policy. As an unwavering supporter of the Iraq war, he is closely associated with the issue that is most clearly identified with the neoconservatives, even though he often criticized Mr. Bush's execution of the war.

He has been sympathetic to neoconservative views on some other issues, like taking a hard line with Russia and a proposal to establish a new international body made up solely of democracies as a counterweight to the United Nations. In other aspects of foreign and national security policy, he tilts toward the pragmatist camp, as in his promise to work more closely with allies.

"I don't think that Senator McCain splits the difference so much as he bridges the difference" between the two factions, Mr. Scheunemann said. "You've got well-known realist figures as well as neo-cons," but "they are signing up to John McCain's campaign; he's not necessarily signing up to their views on how best to lead."

Still, as prominent pragmatists and neoconservatives have started to part company over the war, they appear to be jockeying for influence in Mr. McCain's campaign and, should he be elected, in his administration.

One of the chief concerns of the pragmatists is that Mr. McCain is susceptible to influence from the neoconservatives because he is not as fully formed on foreign policy as his campaign advisers say he is, and that while he speaks authoritatively, he operates too much off the cuff and has not done the deeper homework required of a presidential candidate.

In a trip to the Middle East last month, Mr. McCain made an embarrassing mistake when he said several times that he was concerned that Iran was training Al Qaeda in Iraq. (The United States believes that Iran, a Shiite country, has been training Shiite extremists in Iraq, but not Al Qaeda, a Sunni insurgent group.) He repeated the mistake on Tuesday at hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

There's no mention that McCain corrected his slip immediately.