Opinion: John McCain, Mr. Civility, blames Orlando on Obama

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 28, 2016.
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

Last week Sen. John McCain accepted an award – also bestowed on Vice President Joe Biden – for “civility in public life.” I wondered earlier today if Allegheny College, which honored McCain for arguing “passionately but respectfully” for his beliefs, might be having second thoughts.

Speaking to reporters at the Capitol, McCain said that President Obama was “directly responsible” for the murder of 49 people at an Orlando nightclub.

The full quote:

“Barack Obama is directly responsible for it, because when he pulled everybody out of Iraq, Al Qaeda went to Syria, became ISIS, and ISIS is what it is today thanks to Barack Obama’s failures, utter failures, by pulling everybody out of Iraq. So the responsibility for it lies with President Barack Obama and his failed policies.”


Perhaps realizing that he sounded a bit like Donald Trump, the presidential candidate he has endorsed, McCain backtracked.

“I misspoke,” McCain said in a press release. “I did not mean to imply that the president was personally responsible. I was referring to President Obama’s national security decisions, not the president himself.”

In other words: “Never mind.”

But even the revised version of McCain’s indictment isn’t very persuasive.


In that do-over, the Arizona senator said: “President Obama’s decision to completely withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011 led to the rise of ISIL. I and others have long warned that the failure of the president’s policy to deny ISIL safe haven would allow the terrorist organization to inspire, plan, direct or conduct attacks on the United States and Europe as they have done in Paris, Brussels, San Bernardino and now Orlando.”

Several problems with this: U.S. troops were withdrawn from Iraq pursuant to a deal reached with the Iraqi government by the George W. Bush administration (though Obama arguably could have tried harder to persuade the Iraqis to allow a residual U.S. force).

But even if the U.S. withdrawal is the cause of the rise of Islamic State, it doesn’t follow that Obama’s decision “directly” caused the shooting rampage in Orlando.


At most Obama can be faulted for what lawyers call “but-for causality”: But for the decision to withdraw (according to McCain), Al Qaeda in Iraq wouldn’t have mutated into Islamic State and that group wouldn’t have been in a position to seduce Omar Mateen into pledging allegiance to the group by committing a massacre.

But McCain is on the defensive not because of dodgy causality but because he accused the president of being “directly” responsible for an atrocity against Americans. That’s a slur of Trumpian dimensions — and McCain didn’t even bother hedging by saying, Trump-style, that “some people think Obama is directly responsible.”

So McCain can keep his civility award, but it’s looking a little tarnished.

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