Media ignore McCain's inconsistency on Iraq troop increase

Likely 2008 presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has offered several widely varying and often vague estimates of how many additional troops are needed in Iraq, ranging from four to 10 brigades, and from fewer than 21,000 troops up to 35,000. The media, however, have failed to point out these discrepancies while distinguishing McCain's Iraq proposals from President Bush's reported intention of sending 20,000 additional troops to the region, and reporting that McCain views Bush's reported proposal as insufficient.

Many media figures and outlets have simply ignored McCain's shift in numbers without questioning why he has changed his estimates, or even recognizing that McCain's suggested number has shifted repeatedly. On the January 5 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, CNN congressional correspondent Dana Bash reported that McCain “warned reported plans of a temporary surge of about 20,000 troops won't work because it's not enough,” adding: “McCain favors committing 35,000 additional troops.” Bash made no mention of the fact that McCain had recently recommended 20,000 troops be sent.

On October 26, 2006, during a speech in New Hampshire, McCain called for the United States to send “another 20,000 troops” into Iraq, acknowledging that his plan would require “expanding the Army and Marine Corps by as much as 100,000 people.” One month earlier, however, on the September 24, 2006, broadcast of CBS' Face the Nation, when asked how many troops the United States should send, McCain answered: “I would say 20 or 30,000.”

As Media Matters for America noted following McCain's October 26 proposal, several media figures ignored the possible political motives behind McCain's position, which National Public Radio senior news analyst Cokie Roberts described as “a somewhat convenient position, because he can always say, 'No one tried to win the war the way that I suggested to win it.' ” The New York Times reported on December 29 that the White House is considering “an increase in troop levels in Iraq of 17,000 to 20,000,” and that “it has emerged as a likely course as he [Bush] considers a strategy shift in Iraq.”

The weblog Think Progress documented several of McCain's “muddled” positions on troop increases, including his January 5 claim that he is “not specific on numbers.” McCain has offered other estimates for troop levels, recommending either a number of brigades to be sent, a specific number of troops, or both:

  • The New York Times reported on December 15 that “Senator John McCain said Thursday that American military commanders were discussing the possibility of adding as many as 10 more combat brigades -- a maximum of about 35,000 troops -- to 'bring the situation under control' while Iraq's divided political leaders seek solutions to the worsening bloodshed here.”
  • On the January 4 broadcast of NBC's Today, co-host Matt Lauer noted that President Bush “seems to be settling on the 20,000 numbers,” and asked McCain if 20,000 additional troops would “do the job,” to which McCain responded: “I'm not sure. I would advocate two additional combat brigades in the Anbar province, four in Baghdad, with one in reserve -- that's around 30.”
  • Bloomberg News reported on January 5 that, during an appearance that day at the American Enterprise Institute with Sen. Joe Lieberman (CT), McCain “outlined what he viewed as the minimum levels necessary to make a surge work: three to five additional brigades in Baghdad and one brigade in Anbar Province in western Iraq, a Sunni insurgent stronghold.” Bloomberg noted: “That would amount to between 18,000 and 27,000 soldiers, because an Army brigade consists of about 4,500 soldiers.”
  • In a January 7 Washington Post op-ed, McCain claimed that “the minimum we should consider” for Iraq is “as many as” five additional brigades in Baghdad and “one or two in Anbar province,” which, according to the figures McCain provided, would be anywhere from 21,000 to 35,000 troops.

From the January 5 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:

BASH: The Democrats told Mr. Bush his urgent focus should be on troop withdrawal, starting in four to six months, a clear reminder the White House war strategy will now face heightened scrutiny in Congress.

Not just from Democrats. Republican senator and likely presidential candidate John McCain warned reported plans of a temporary surge of about 20,000 troops won't work because it's not enough.

McCAIN: It has to be significant and sustained, otherwise, do not do it. Otherwise, there will be more needless loss of American lives.

BASH: McCain favors committing 35,000 additional troops, and even then ...

McCAIN: There is no guarantee for success in Iraq. From everything I witnessed on my most recent visit, I believe that success is still possible, but it will be very difficult.

On the January 7 broadcast of NBC's Meet the Press, Wall Street Journal national political editor John Harwood and journalist Judy Woodruff inflated by several thousand the number of troops McCain has recommended, and Harwood suggested that McCain would view Bush's troop increase as insufficient. From the January 7 broadcast of Meet the Press:

RUSSERT: You said in The Wall Street Journal on Friday, John, that John McCain said these words to you: “There are still people around [Bush] who think things aren't that bad.” Well, give us the context. What was McCain trying to point out?

HARWOOD: Well, John McCain has been an advocate for a troop surge for some time, and his concern right now is that Bush is going to rhetorically adopt his policy but not do it all the way, not commit enough troops. McCain says if Bush sends 20,000, you know, we might need 30, 35, or 40. And John McCain, as he gets ready to run for president in 2008, knows that the longer this debate about a surge goes on, the more controversy there is, the more the president sticks with it. And if it doesn't work, it's going to be hung around John McCain's neck.



WOODRUFF: Tim, I was going to say, you know, I think a lot of us -- all of us -- and the administration, talking about this have gotten hung up on this term “surge.” What we're really looking at here are two difficult choices, and that's why it's taken the administration so long. Number one, it's either a major escalation along the lines of what we saw back in Vietnam 40 years ago, where you send in -- the numbers are different, but a major escalation, 30, 50,000 troops like what John McCain wants, open-ended commitment, two to five years. Or you do something much smaller, 10, 15, maybe 20,000, but they're only there for six months or a year. Very few people think that's going to work. So the challenge for the administration is to prove how -- somebody said to me, it's like putting a fist in a sink full of water, leaving it there for a few minutes and taking it out. How do you -- how do you guarantee that things are going to be different when you take your fist out of the water?