Carney, McCain Engage in Epic Battle on CNN Over Obama's Handling of Iraq and ISIS

After President Obama’s speech to the nation on Wednesday night, CNN brought on its newly-minted senior political commenator and former Obama White House press secretary Jay Carney and Republican Senator John McCain (Ariz.) to comment on what the President’s speech regarding U.S policy in dealing withy the Islamic terrorist group ISIS. 

However, the next eight minutes instantly evolved into a heated debate between the two over the President’s actions of withdrawing troops from Iraq early in his administration and whether that allowed a threat like ISIS to proliferate.

With CNN’s Anderson Cooper only stepping in during a few occasions, the two went back and forth, frequently speaking overtop of one another, with McCain declaring at separate points that “[f]acts are stubborn things, Mr. Carney” and “[y]ou don't have all the facts, Mr. Carney. That is the problem.”

Immediately after he was introduced, McCain took immediate issue with the President’s speech and a point made by Carney before his appearance regarding the Free Syrian Army, who are aligned against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The senior Senator from Arizona also slammed the President for making “a very weak argument” and was “astounded that Mr. Carney should say that – that the Free Syrian Army is now stronger” than it was early in the past year.

When Carney attempted to clarify what he said earlier in the program and emphasized that “we know a great deal more now” than last year when the U.S. debated arming groups fighting Assad, the senior Senator from Arizona made it clear that he would not accept Carney's answer.

Early on, it was clear that Carney wanted to defuse the debate by informing McCain that the two needed to agree to disagree on the issue of the Obama administration’s actions toward Iraq, but McCain continued on even further.

Here was one of the more heated portions of the exchange (with the complete transcript available at the bottom of this post):

    JAY CARNEY: Senator, I can pause it with great respect for you that we can disagree on this. 

    SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: You can’t. You can’t. No, you can’t – 

    CARNEY: Sir, if I may – 

    MCCAIN: You don't have all the facts, Mr. Carney. That is the problem. 

    CARNEY: Senator, I understand that – that you present the facts that you believe are true based on the argument that you have made for a long –

    MCCAIN: No. No. Not that I believe are true. They are true.

    CARNEY: – long time, sir, that we should leave troops in Iraq in perpetuity and that’s just not what this President believes and that’s – you know, obviously, he was elected President to fulfill what he believed was right for the country and right for our national security.

    ANDERSON COOPER: Jay, Jay –

    MCCAIN: That didn’t mean it was a right decision. That means – it is a bad decision and wouldn’t be where we are today. 

    CARNEY: I certainly understand that you disagree. 

    COOPER: Jay, jay – 

    MCCAIN: It is not a matter of disagreement. It is a matter of facts and you have yours wrong and you have distorted them. 

Later, Carney hung his head for a few seconds while on camera at multiple points as McCain continually slammed he and his former boss for spreading falsehoods. All the while, as the argument went on, Carney appeared to be more and more uncomfortable and overmatched.

The complete transcript of the exchange between Jay Carney and Senator McCain on CNN after President Obama’s speech on September 10 is transcribed below.

CNN's Anderson Cooper 360
September 10, 2014
9:37 p.m. Eastern

ANDERSON COOPER: Arizona senator John McCain is joining us now. Senator, you and I spoke just last week, you said President Obama had no goal, no strategy when it came to destroying ISIS. What did you think of what you heard tonight? 

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: Well, I think it was a very weak argument. By the way, I'm astounded that Mr. Carney should say that – that the Free Syrian army is now stronger. In fact, they’ve been badly, badly damaged.

JAY CARNEY: Well, that’s not what I said, Senator. If I could – if I could, sir, what I said is that we know a great deal more now about the opposition. 

MCCAIN: Oh, come on, Jay, we knew all about them then. You just didn't choose to know. I was there in Syria. We knew them. Come on, you guys are the ones – it’s your boss was the one when the entire national security team wanted to arm and train them that he turned them down, Mr. Carney after a –  

CARNEY: Well, Senator – I’m not –

MCCAIN: The fact is that – the fact is that –

CARNEY: – I think we have to agree to disagree on this. 

MCCAIN: No, no – Facts are stubborn things, Mr. Carney and that is, the entire national security team, including the Secretary of State, said we want to arm and train and equip these people and he made the unilateral decision to turn them down and the fact that they didn't lead a residual force in Iraq, overruling all of his military advisers, is the reason why we're facing ISIS today. So the facts are stubborn things in history and people ought to know them and now the President is saying, basically, that we are going to take certain actions, which I would favor, but to say that America is safer, and that the situation is very much like Yemen and Somalia shows me that the President really doesn't have a grasp for how serious the threat of ISIS is. 

CARNEY: Well, again, Senator, we're going to have to agree to disagree and I think on the question of the residual force, there was another player in that which was the Iraqi government. A.B., It was the fulfillment of the previous administration's withdrawal plan C, and it was also the fulfillment of the President's promise to withdraw from Iraq and not maintain a true presence, in perpetuity, which, I think, is pretty consistent with what the American people wanted and believed was the right approach. 

MCCAIN: You know, Mr. Carney, you are again saying facts that are patently false. Fact is, because Lindsey Graham and I and Joe Lieberman, were in Baghdad. They wanted a residual force. The President has never made a statement during that or after that he wanted a residual force left behind. The Iraqis were ready to go. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the number cascaded down to 3,500. That was not sufficient to do anything but to defend themselves and you, in your role as a spokesperson, bragged about the fact that the last American combat troop had left Iraq. If we had left a residual force, the situation would not be what it is today and there would be a lot more –  

CARNEY: Senator, I can pause it with great respect for you that we can disagree on this. 

MCCAIN: You can’t. You can’t. No, you can’t – 

CARNEY: Sir, if I may – 

MCCAIN: You don't have all the facts, Mr. Carney. That is the problem. 

CARNEY: Senator, I understand that – that you present the facts that you believe are true based on the argument that you have made for a long –

MCCAIN: No. No. Not that I believe are true. They are true.

CARNEY: – long time, sir, that we should leave troops in Iraq in perpetuity and that’s just not what this President believes and that’s – you know, obviously, he was elected President to fulfill what he believed was right for the country and right for our national security.

COOPER: Jay, Jay –

MCCAIN: That didn’t mean it was a right decision. That means – it is a bad decision and wouldn’t be where we are today. 

CARNEY: I certainly understand that you disagree. 

COOPER: Jay, Jay – 

MCCAIN: It is not a matter of disagreement. It is a matter of facts and you have yours wrong and you have distorted them. 

COOPER: Jay, do you believe, does the President believe at all, if a residual force had been left on the ground in Iraq that we would not be in this situation now? 

CARNEY: Anderson, I think it is a mis –  basically a whitewash of history to suggest that there wasn’t – there weren’t periods of enormous chaos and fighting and bloodshed in Iraq when there were tens of thousands of troops – of American troops fighting on the ground. That is a fact and that was true in 2004. It was true in 2007 and it was true even when we had the highest number of U.S. troops on the ground. We cannot – the United States of America ask our military to be a permanent occupying force in a country like Iraq. We have to get to a situation where we can help build up and assist an Iraqi security force, where we can put pressure on Iraqi political leaders to form an inclusive government, which they have taken steps to do as was noted earlier and then we can provide the kind of military support that we're providing, an action that we're taking against a threat like ISIS as appropriate, but the alternative of leaving a permanent, massive U.S. force on the ground in Iraq, not for ten years, not for 20 years, but in perpetuity, is simply not sustainable financially and not consistent with what the American people think we should do. 

COOPER: Senator McCain –

MCCAIN: Again, Mr. Carney misstates the facts. We had it won, thanks to the surge. It was won. The victory was there. All we needed was a force behind to provide the support, not to engaging combat, but to provide supply, support, logistics, intelligence and, by the way, the Korean War, we left troops behind. Bosnia, we left troops behind. Not to fight but for a stabilizing force and Mr. Carney neglects the fact that, thanks to David Petraeus, and to Ryan Crocker who, by the way, are very strong on this issue, we won the conflict, and then by pulling the rug out and setting a date for withdrawal and bragging about it –  

CARNEY: Excuse me, sir, but I think you have forgotten that –

MCCAIN: – this whole thing has resulted the way that it has.

CARNEY: – the date for withdrawal. [HANGS HEAD]

MCCAIN: No, the date for withdrawal – they’ve always contemplated an additional date behind it and you can ask Condoleeza Rice or George W. Bush, so that’s – 

CARNEY: Absolutely and so we – [HANGS HEAD]

MCCAIN: – that’s absolutely false too and we didn’t need to go through the Iraqi parliament. All you had to do was have an agreement. 

COOPER: Senator McCain --

MCCAIN: because we were there on the ground.

COOPER: Senator McCain, let me ask you about, in terms of what you heard tonight, do you believe the U.S. can fight an effective terrorism strategy, which is what the President is calling this with ISIS, without U.S. military personnel on the ground, in harms way?

MCCAIN: We’re gonna – we’ve already got – this is another falsehood the President is pervaying. We already have boots on the ground, well over a thousand. We need more, but we don't need them like the 82nd airborne sent in to direct combat. We need to have additional support there and we need to help the – the Iraqi army rebuild its capabilities, but we don't have to have a ground combat invasion of the type we had before, but, the fact that at the didn't leave – that we weren’t there before is a direct result we are paying a very heavy price for and it doesn't mean in perpituity, but it does mean to keeping the situation stable, which we could have done. 

COOPER: Senator McCain, the President also said that we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland. Americans who hear those words may wonder if that is really the case, then why do we need to take action against ISIS, to that you say what? 

MCCAIN: I say that today we had a hearing and there was testimony from the counterterrorism people and the Department of Homeland Security. There is Twitter traffic right now and Facebook traffic where they are urging attacks on the United States of America and there is a great concern that our southern border and northern border is porous and that they will be coming across. So is there a specific direct threat? No, but is there any doubt as to what their goal is? Mr. Baghdadi, the day he left prison in Iraq, Camp Bucca, said “see you in New York.” 

COOPER: And in terms of, I mean, as you said, you have been in Syria, you met with – with Syrian moderate opposition a while back, do you believe there are enough on the ground right now in Iraq who actually have military capabilities that can actually stand up and fight against ISIS, against the Assad regime? 

MCCAIN: I do, but it is going to be very tough and it’s going to be a heck of a lot tougher despite what Mr. Carney said than it would have been two years ago when it was recommended by his entire national security team. 

COOPER: Senator McCain, I – 

MCCAIN: Thank you.

COOPER: – appreciate you being on tonight. Thank you very much.

Foreign Policy Iraq Middle East Syria Military Missile Defense Islam CNN Anderson Cooper 360 Government & Press ISIS Anderson Cooper John McCain Barack Obama Jay Carney
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