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.
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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."

McCain has unique insights into certain subjects. As a former POW who was tortured in Vietnam, for example, he brought a perspective to the torture debate that few Americans could offer. It also made sense to publish McCain op-eds when he was a presidential candidate setting forth a platform that citizens had to understand and evaluate, and when he's written on other subjects over the course of his long career, some of his best efforts were reasonable pieces to publish.

But McCain is not a prescient foreign-policy analyst, and newspapers should stop giving him a platform to confidently assert what will happen next in geopolitics. He thinks he knows his stuff. But his track record shows that he's emphatic in his pronouncements even when he is utterly, catastrophically wrong.

If, despite all this, newspapers insist on continuing to publish McCain, they ought to edit him carefully. Looking back, it's easy to see how a lack of rigor in his op-eds misled every reader who trusted him to write with precision and accuracy. Consider a passage from Beinart's critique of McCain's latest:

There’s an onion-like quality to the arguments GOP politicians often deploy against Obama’s policies in the Middle East. Peel away the layers of grave-sounding but vacuous rhetoric, and you’re left with almost nothing intellectually nourishing at all. Take Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham’s op-ed on Saturday in The New York Times. It starts with a lie: that Obama said “we don’t have a strategy yet” to deal with ISIS. In fact, Obama was speaking solely about ISIS in Syria. (“Do you need Congress’s approval to go into Syria?” asked a reporter last Thursday. “We don’t have a strategy yet .… We need to make sure that we’ve got clear plans, that we’re developing them. At that point, I will consult with Congress,” Obama replied.)

When it comes to Iraq, by contrast, the Obama administration does have something of a strategy: It is launching air strikes to protect imperiled religious groups, bolstering the Kurdish Peshmerga even though that may embolden Kurdish leaders to seek independence, and using the prospect of further air strikes to encourage Iraq to form a government that includes Sunnis in the hope this will convince them to abandon ISIS. Later in their op-ed, McCain and Graham call for Obama to “strengthen partners who are already resisting ISIS: the Kurdish pesh merga, Sunni tribes” and push for “an inclusive government in Baghdad that shares power and wealth with Iraqi Sunnis.” In other words, they call on Obama to pursue the same strategy in Iraq that he’s already pursuing, while simultaneously twisting his words to claim that he’s admitted to having no strategy at all.

What Obama was really saying in response to the reporter was that he doesn’t want to intervene militarily in Syria—where, as opposed to Iraq, the government is hostile and our allies are weaker—without a well-thought-out plan deserving of public support. McCain and Graham endorse that caution: “The president clearly wants to move deliberately and consult with allies and Congress as he considers what to do about ISIS. No one disputes that goal.” Then, two sentences later, they dispute that goal, slamming Obama for not displaying a “far greater sense of urgency.” It’s a wonderful illustration of the emptiness of much Beltway foreign-policy-speak. McCain and Graham want Obama to act both “deliberately” and “urgently” because they’re both happy words. (As opposed to “lethargically” and “rashly,” which are nastier synonyms for the same thing.) But when you translate these uplifting abstractions into plain English, you see how contradictory McCain and Graham’s demands actually are. You can either demand that Obama not bomb Syria until he’s ensured he has a plan likely to win international and congressional support, or you can demand that he bomb as soon as possible. You can’t demand both.

Beinart's critique continues here. America's op-ed editors ought to read the whole thing and take this lesson: When you inevitably give McCain column inches in the future, you ought to at least ensure that he's accurately characterizing whoever or whatever it is that he's ostensibly arguing against; that readers don't come away fundamentally misled about unfolding events or existing policy; and that McCain's affirmative arguments are specific and internally consistent.

Is that so much to ask?

When a politician takes to the op-ed pages of a newspaper, readers shouldn't get an intellectually inferior product. If there is some insurmountable obstacle to demanding more rigor from powerful actors, newspapers should stop publishing them.

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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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