It's taken me a while to figure it out, but last night, during an interview with mcjoan for my Virtually Speaking program, I finally understood what's going on with McCain wrt to Iraq, al qaeda and Iran. What's going on is he is having trouble getting on message. The messaging on Iraq is very tricky, because what the message is supposed to convey is something false, but you're not supposed to actually lie while delivering the message.
So when Bush uttered the 16 words about yellowcake acquired by Iraq, he didn't say that Iraq had acquired yellowcake. He said that British intelligence had reported that Iraq may have acquired yellowcake. This way, the audience took away the yellowcake acquistion, but he could still say that he hadn't lied. Likewise, he didn't say that Iraq had a nuclear weapon, he said that we didn't the first proof to be a mushroom cloud.
When talking about Iraq, al qaeda and Iran, you're supposed to say something like this:
"Waving the white flag of surrender would leave Iraq in a perilous position, with an operational, aggressive enemy of America, al qaeda growing in strength. Likewise, we must remain in place to stop Iran from training extremists in their country, and then sending them across the border to kill American troops. Al qaeda is an existential threat the we must defeat, and we will defeat. This is not the time to give up."
His problem is he keeps forgetting that he's not supposed to put "Iran" and "al qaeda" in the same sentence. It's important to convey, especially to media superstars like Kyra Phillips, that al qaeda and Iran are linked. The Sunni al qaeda is much too fundamentalist to make common cause with the heretic Shi-ites. And Iran, despite its membership in the the "axis of evil" club, doesn't pose any threat to the US. The country does threaten Israel, but given Israel's nuclear capability, even that threat is hyperbolically overstated.
None of the reality of any threat enters into this political manipulation of language. The idea is simple: Say al qaeda, Iran, al qaeda in consecutive sentences. Lieberman understands it; he stepped up during the press conference in Jerusalem and audibly gave him the "extremist" talking point. (Leave aside as well the idea that any Iraqi fighting against an occupying force is an "extremist.")
McCain is either too dumb, or too unused to robotically repeating talking points, to keep straight this very simple strategy of misleading the media, and the voters into believing that Iran, too, in its support of al qaeda, was somehow involved in the 9/11 attacks.