Why Do Newspapers Keep Publishing Op-Eds by John McCain?

Looking back at the Arizona senator's track record, it's hard to see why anyone still treats him as a source of insight into what will happen next in geopolitics.
Jim Young/Reuters

America's most prestigious op-ed pages are run by highly accomplished editors who know a tight argument when they see one. They reject so many pieces each day that even a minor factual error or logical inconsistency is enough to doom a submission—at least a submission from someone who isn't part of the ruling class.

But a much less rigorous standard governs articles written by well-known politicians. Take John McCain, the Republican senator from Arizona. I assume the op-eds he submits to The New York Times or Washington Post or Wall Street Journal are ghostwritten for him. But so long as McCain's byline is attached, the usual standards for subject-matter expertise, internally consistent argument, and factual accuracy are abandoned. In their place, newspaper readers get the ostensible benefit of knowing what a powerful person wants to be seen as thinking. The approach is widely accepted but journalistically indefensible.

For a thorough evisceration of McCain's most recent Times op-ed, co-bylined with Senator Lindsey Graham, see my colleague Peter Beinart's recent article. His critique of the authors' factual inaccuracies and misrepresentations is so persuasive I began to marvel that a reputable newspaper published the piece. Then I looked back at McCain's past contributions to prestigious newspapers. That he's still treated as a foreign-policy expert is not to opinion journalism's credit.

Begin with his uncorrected Times op-ed from March 12, 2003, "The Right War for the Right Reasons." He writes, "Saddam Hussein still refuses to give up his weapons of mass destruction. Only an obdurate refusal to face unpleasant facts—in this case, that a tyrant who survives only by the constant use of violence is not going to be coerced into good behavior by nonviolent means—could allow one to believe that we have rushed to war." As it turned out, of course, there were no weapons of mass destruction, and the argument about having "rushed to war" was premised on the subsequently proven notion that weapons inspectors were given insufficient time to accurately assess what was and wasn't in Hussein's arsenal.

But those aren't the only discredited claims McCain offered in that op-ed. He also assured readers that once the invasion began, "Far fewer will perish than are killed every year by an Iraqi regime that keeps power through the constant use of lethal violence."

And he wrote, "no one can plausibly argue that ridding the world of Saddam Hussein will not significantly improve the stability of the region and the security of American interests and values." Look closely as that assertion. His argument wasn't merely that the Iraq War would improve stability in the region—McCain asserted it was such a foregone conclusion that no one could plausibly argue otherwise!

"Isn't it more likely," he continued, "that antipathy toward the United States in the Islamic world might diminish amid the demonstrations of jubilant Iraqis celebrating the end of a regime that has few equals in its ruthlessness?" He is hardly the only commentator whose confident pronouncements about Iraq were proved wrong. His errors in judgment shouldn't discredit every word he utters. But when the most valuable op-ed real estate in America seeks someone to render a judgment about what to do in Iraq now, why tap him?

It isn't that every column he writes is later disproved by events. Every so often, he gets something right (though not, I would argue, the surge, which ultimately didn't win the Iraq War), and typically, his newspaper pronouncements are so vague, platitudinous, or nonspecific in nature that they're effectively unfalsifiable. If there are striking or valuable insights in his oeuvre I haven't found them. What benefits offset the costs of when he is supremely confident and dead wrong?

Here he is in The Wall Street Journal on July 13, 2012, making confident pronouncements about Libya's path to a stable, democratic future; insisting an election there discredited naysayers of American intervention; and arguing that postwar Libya demonstrated that the United States would be wise to intervene in Syria too. In other words, he didn't just fail to anticipate that Libya would soon descend into chaos—he was eager to prematurely use its "success" to justify another war.

In August 2010, he declared that "though most Democrats still cannot bear to admit it, the war in Iraq is ending successfully because the surge worked. In 2007, President George W. Bush finally adopted a strategy and a team in Iraq that could win. He worked constantly to build public support for the policy. Just as important, the surge worked because it was clear that success was the only exit strategy: U.S. troops would meet their objectives, and then they would withdraw."

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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