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John McCain on Foreign Policy: Even Worse Than Bush

Over the years, John McCain has acquired a reputation as a maverick Republican. Independents and even some Democrats who loathe George W. Bush’s foreign-policy record seem to believe that McCain would be a significant improvement. In several GOP primaries earlier this year, most notably those in New Hampshire and Michigan, nearly one third of voters who stated that they oppose the Iraq war cast ballots for McCain. That seems to defy logic, since the Arizona senator has been the most vocal critic of Bush’s Iraq policy, arguing as far back as late 2003 that he should commit even more troops to the war.

But it is not merely McCain’s views on Iraq policy that mark him as an überhawk. He has also advocated hardline policies toward Iran, Syria, and North Korea, and has even staked out confrontational positions toward such major powers as China and Russia. The evidence suggests that a McCain administration would be even more reckless and aggressive than the current one.

McCain did not enter Congress as a militant hawk. During the 1980’s and early 90’s, his reputation as a Republican foreign-policy maverick was well deserved. He was one of the few Republicans to criticize Ronald Reagan’s decision to send U.S. troops to Lebanon in 1982. To McCain, such a murky and dangerous mission that lacked any connection to important U.S. security interests was all too reminiscent of the Vietnam debacle. To advocates of a more selective and cautious strategy, McCain’s skepticism about the Lebanon mission was understandable, given his horrific experience as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for five years. His opposition to the Lebanon venture was vindicated in October 1983 when 241 Marines perished in a truck-bombing of their barracks in Beirut.

In the initial post-Cold War period, McCain continued to advocate a policy that appealed to cautious realists. True, he supported the Gulf War, but only after an initial period of agonizing reluctance, and his response to the U.S. intervention in Somalia the next year was unrelentingly hostile, particularly when that mission expanded from the original goal of providing humanitarian relief to starving Somalis into an amorphous nation-building enterprise led by the United Nations. Once again, his skepticism appeared vindicated when 18 Army Rangers died in a firefight against the forces of one of the numerous feuding factions in Mogadishu.

Still, there were troubling signs that he might not be the cautious realist that his positions on the Lebanon and Somalia missions suggested. For example, as evidence mounted in 1993 and 1994 that North Korea was pursuing a nuclear-weapons program, McCain embraced an extremely hawkish position. He suggested that the United States consider air strikes against the Yongbyon reactor complex and other North Korean military targets if Pyongyang did not immediately abandon its nuclear activities. When the Clinton administration negotiated the 1994 Agreed Framework under which North Korea pledged to freeze its program in exchange for aid from the United States and its East Asian allies, McCain grumbled that the arrangement was “all carrots and no sticks.”

The following year, he endorsed U.S. air strikes against the Bosnian Serbs, albeit after another period of hesitation. The civil war convulsing Bosnia should have been precisely the kind of conflict that a cautious realist would have wanted us to avoid. America had no significant economic or strategic interests at stake in that internecine struggle, yet McCain advocated U.S. involvement, apparently for no better reasons than bloodshed was occurring and NATO’s credibility appeared to be at stake.

Senator McCain’s hawkish posture involving Balkan issues deepened when the Clinton administration pushed for U.S.-led military action to compel Serbia to relinquish control over Kosovo. Unlike many of his Republican colleagues in Congress who argued that America had no interests that justified intervention on behalf of the rebel Muslim “Kosovars,” McCain endorsed military action—even more vigorously than the Clinton administration did. During the 1999 war, NATO forces relied entirely on high-altitude bombing of Serbian targets, but Senator McCain wanted to send in ground forces. His criticism that Clinton’s policy was insufficiently bold foreshadowed his critique of the Bush administration’s strategy in Iraq.

Since the dawn of the 21st century, Senator McCain has been among the most hawkish Republican political figures. That became evident in 2002 when McCain proposed that the United States openly threaten to use military force unless Pyongyang capitulates on the nuclear issue. “After first responding appropriately to North Korean violations of the [1994] agreement and refusing even to discuss with North Korea its extortion demands,” wrote McCain in the January 20, 2003, issue of the Weekly Standard, “the administration now appears to have embraced, and in some respects exceeded, the style and substance of the Clinton administration’s diplomacy.” He was especially perturbed that President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell “publicly ruled out the use of force, although force could eventually prove to be the only means to prevent North Korea from acquiring a nuclear arsenal.”

It was also clear that he did not care much about the views of other countries in East Asia, sneering that they should “spare us the usual lectures about American unilateralism.” Noting that we would “prefer the company of North Korea’s neighbors” in a military campaign, he emphasized that “we will make do without it if we must.” The “neighbors” to which the senator referred include Japan and South Korea—Washington’s most prominent allies in East Asia for more than half a century.

Given the possibility of a McCain administration confronting the still-unresolved North Korean nuclear issue, these allies have ample reason to be apprehensive, for McCain’s views regarding North Korea have not become noticeably less belligerent since early 2003. He has remained a staunch critic of the six-party talks—the diplomatic process involving North Korea, the United States, Japan, China, Russia, and South Korea that is attempting to resolve the nuclear problem through negotiations. Policy toward North Korea is one area in which a McCain administration would almost certainly be more confrontational than what we have witnessed during the Bush years.

The same is true regarding Iran’s nuclear program. McCain has received widespread criticism for a “joke” at an April 2007 campaign stop in which he sang “bomb bomb bomb, bomb-bomb Iran” to the tune of the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann.” But his nonjoking comments are only marginally less troubling. He has stated repeatedly that an Iran with nuclear weapons poses an “unacceptable risk” to regional and global stability. “There is only one thing worse than military action, and that is a nuclear armed Iran.”

Perhaps most ominously, McCain has long been an advocate of preemptive war against “rogue regimes.” A story in USA Today (March 26) featured the following comment: “Standing by while an odious regime with a history of support to terrorism develops weapons whose use by terrorists could literally kill millions of Americans is not a choice. It is an abdication.”

McCain was strongly supportive of the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq and depose Saddam Hussein. When it became evident that U.S. expectations of a rapid success in creating a stable, democratic Iraq were unrealistic, though, he did not join a majority of Americans in turning against the war. Already in November 2003, he was calling for the deployment of at least another division, “giving us the necessary manpower to conduct a focused counterinsurgency campaign across the Sunni triangle.”

As U.S. military fortunes in Iraq deteriorated, he became more strident in his advocacy of escalation. And he never shrank from the probable costs in treasure and blood. In a speech to the American Enterprise Institute in November 2005, he stated:

Securing ever-increasing parts of Iraq and preventing the emergence of new terrorist safe havens will require more troops and money. It will take time, probably years, and mean more American casualties. Those are terrible prices to pay. But with the stakes so high, I believe we must choose the strategy with the best chance of success.

McCain regarded President Bush’s decision a little more than a year later to implement the “Surge” as a vindication of his own strategy. He then went to extraordinary lengths to portray the Surge as a success. On a visit to Iraq in mid-2007, for example, he announced that the security environment was vastly improved, citing his ability to stroll down several streets near a Baghdad market in safety. What McCain failed to mention was that he was accompanied by more than 100 heavily armed U.S. troops while several missile-laden helicopters hovered overhead.

Iraq’s ongoing instability raises concerns about McCain’s proposal for a long-term U.S. troop presence. He gave his political opponents ammunition earlier this year when he encountered a question at a political rally about the possibility that U.S. troops might have to stay in Iraq for 50 years. McCain’s flippant response was “make it a century.”

Republicans vehemently argue that critics have taken his comment out of context. The senator made it clear in subsequent remarks that he was not proposing turning the Iraq conflict into the 21st century’s version of the Hundred Years War. Rather, he was suggesting a reduced, long-term U.S. military presence once Iraq became stable and peaceful. His model for that strategy is the U.S. troop presence in South Korea, which is now in its 55th year following the armistice that ended the Korean War.

But that is not exactly reassuring. Iraq is nothing like South Korea—a cohesive society that welcomed U.S. military protection from communist North Korea, which had already created a bloodbath on the Korean peninsula in a failed attempt to compel reunification.

American forces in South Korea have never had to confront an armed insurgency or the ever-present prospect of civil war between ethno-religious factions. The situation in Iraq is obviously not comparable. When one thinks of a long-term occupation of Iraq (even with reduced forces), a closer analogy is the dangerous and frustrating British mission in Northern Ireland from the late 1960’s through the 90’s.

Although McCain insists that Iraq is the “central front” in the War on Terror, he seems somewhat hazy about the specifics of the threat of radical Islam. As a member of a senatorial delegation visiting Iraq earlier this year, he erroneously accused Iran of aiding Al Qaeda and suffered the embarrassment of an on-camera correction by his friend and fellow überhawk, Sen. Joe Lieberman, that Tehran was aiding “Shiite extremists,” not the Sunni zealots of Al Qaeda. Yet, during a Senate hearing a few weeks later, he committed a similar gaffe, describing Al Qaeda as a Shiite group, and then adding “Sunni, Shiite, whatever.”

Mistakes about such basic facts are both surprising and troubling coming from someone who repeatedly touts his foreign-policy experience and credentials. Unfortunately, those verbal blunders may reflect more than rhetorical sloppiness. They are indicative of McCain’s tendency to conflate disparate movements, regimes, and problems. Troublesome regimes such as those in Iran, Syria, and North Korea pose challenges for U.S. foreign policy, but lumping them together as rogue states obscures more than it illuminates.

John McCain harbors a barely disguised hostility toward China, arguing that her growing economy and military modernization pose a great threat to the United States. On several occasions, he has cited China’s rise as a justification for even greater U.S. military spending. Most independent experts estimate Beijing’s military budget to be between $50 and $75 billion, and the Pentagon contends it is between $84 and $125 billion. At any rate, McCain considers the amount excessive for China’s legitimate defense needs. Yet he does not view the U.S. military budget (including supplementals for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) of nearly $800 billion to be excessive.

He also advocates provocative symbolic snubs of the Chinese government. For example, he criticized President Bush’s decision to attend the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, because of human-rights abuses.

Cato Institute foreign-policy analyst Malou Innocent concedes that Beijing’s authoritarianism is troubling, but she notes that “Senator McCain appears to preclude the possibility of building a constructive relationship with China unless it becomes fully democratic.” That attitude puts at risk America’s extensive economic relationship with China as well as ignores the numerous issues on which we need China’s help—most notably in trying to defuse the North Korean and Iranian crises. This is yet another area in which a McCain presidency would likely be more confrontational and destabilizing than the Bush presidency.

McCain seems friendly to China, though, compared to his attitude toward Russia. He advocates NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia, over Moscow’s strident objections. “Western nations should make clear that the solidarity of NATO, from the Baltic to the Black Sea, is indivisible and that the organization’s doors remain open to all democracies committed to the defense of freedom.” McCain strongly supports the Georgian government’s feud with Russia over the status of two secessionist regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, even though there are no discernible American interests at stake in that dispute.

Combined with McCain’s penchant for needlessly provocative policies toward both small adversarial states and major powers is his unwillingness to reconsider long-standing U.S. security commitments around the world. He has enthusiastically promoted the continuation of NATO, even though the original mission of that alliance disappeared with the demise of the Soviet empire. Indeed, McCain has been a vocal proponent of NATO’s eastward expansion, a process that entails increasingly murky and dangerous U.S. security commitments to small client states that add little or nothing to America’s own military capabilities.

McCain seems to harbor a preference for initiating or maintaining U.S. obligations to parasitic security clients. A prime example is his willingness to continue the American alliance with and troop presence in South Korea—the model for his long-term designs on Iraq. His invocation of South Korea highlights the fallacy of his overall approach to security strategy. Washington has provided a lucrative defense subsidy to South Korean taxpayers for more than half a century. Today, South Korea has twice the population and an economy 40 times larger than North Korea, its only plausible enemy. Yet South Korea remains heavily dependent on the United States for her security. That is a wonderful deal for South Korean taxpayers, but not so much for their American counterparts. For a self-proclaimed conservative to embrace such a needless, expensive burden is both surprising and maddening.

[amazonify]1933995165[/amazonify]The foreign policy that John McCain now advocates is reckless and promiscuously interventionist. If he were a university student majoring in international relations or security studies, he would deserve a resounding F for his analysis of the crucial issues that the United States has confronted over the past 14 or 15 years. After a promising start, his performance has steadily deteriorated. The last thing that America needs is an even more aggressive and incompetent steward of foreign policy than George W. Bush has been.

Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of eight books on international affairs, including Smart Power: Toward a Prudent Foreign Policy for America.

This article first appeared in the July 2008 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.


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12 Responses »

  1. A welcome and sobering account.

    Unfortunately, Obama is a liberal interventionist who happens to be an Iraq-skeptic. He may not be as reflexively militaristic as McCain, but the differences are in detail, nothing more.

  2. Interesting. Any thoughts on McCain -Fiengold which seems to be a real assault on the Constitution?

  3. How does he view Kosovo in his league of democracies?

    Seeing how the US has to borrow money from Russia and China to fight there "wars for democracy" and against a mythical Al Queda threat that doesn't exist it would be logical to stay on favourable terms.

    Nobody seems to notice or critically evaluate that NATO has Russia completely surrounded its on all of its borders Baltics and Central Asia and now we have missles pointed at it. If Ukraine joins NATO and naval ships are based in the Black Sea NATO would have have total supremacy over Russia.

  4. This article was an excellent analysis, but still I wonder if it's all a moot point given that it sure looks to me like McCain is trying to lose the general election on purpose.

    First he goes to the struggling white working class in the key industrial swing states and talks about how great Free Trade and NAFTA have been to the very people who've been most directly hurt by that philosophy and that agreement.

    Then he goes on "Ellen" to congratulate host Ellen DeGeneres on her gay marriage to another woman, thereby proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that his half-hearted opposition to gay marriage is an insincere pretense that he can't even be bothered to keep up when on national television.

    Then he goes to Canada to attack Obama for being such a bold strong foe of NAFTA, thereby helping Obama in key swing states by sending the message that the Democratic Nominee actually is a threat to the agreement.

    Then he secretly meets with Hispanics in Chicago, telling them he's still committed to "immigration reform" (aka amnesty).

    Then he secretly meets with the "Log Cabin Republicans", noted fans of gay marriage (and some other things).

    Then after Obama releases his debut General Election ad, McCain decides to travel around Latin America, where he campaigns for the votes of people who can't vote in the American election with far more vigor then he's ever shown in his American campaigning. (Even Dick Morris, who is too much of a kiss up to McCain for my taste, mocked him by noting that Mexico doesn’t have any Electoral Votes.)

    Maybe someone should tell McCain that his traitorous kind haven't yet managed to force through the North American Union (then again, don’t).

    And just today, he hired Giuliani’s 2008 Campaign Manager as Political Director.

    I guess for McCain, it’s not what you know, or how much money you idiotically squandered in your last job, but rather which well connected corpse of a political big shot you happen to know.

    If McCain somehow won and does half as bad as President as he has running his campaign, it won’t just be the end of America, but the end of the entire Human Race.

  5. After Obama's two terms, who's next?

  6. Huckabee looks to have a bright future at this point.

    Partly this is because the very thing which hurt him in 2008, being the new guy in a Party which is averse to actually nominating the new guy, will help him in 2012 because his only real competition is likely to come from “new guys” like Sarah Palin and Bobby Jindal.

    Another advantage Huckabee will have is that he has smart and (at least relatively) independent minded advisors, and I can’t really think where his competition will find anyone in their league (especially in terms of someone with national experience like Rollins).

    Though one thing that comes to mind is that it would certainly be interesting if Palin ran in 2012 and decided to hire her old boss Pat Buchanan in some kind of senior advisory role.

  7. Iraq has turned into a huge victory and positive for the USA, paticularly given the alternative.

  8. @7jp

    How, what alternative?

  9. Bob Johnson said:This article was an excellent analysis, but still I wonder if it’s all a moot point given that it sure looks to me like McCain is trying to lose the general election on purpose.

    I have noticed that in the last three elections with Kerry, Gore, and Dole. You can even tell by the look on their faces. Since we know that each president is decided long before the "elections" take place, the lackadaisical campaigning of one of the two candidates means that he has been told that he was not picked.

    "Elections" are the same as pro-wrestling entertainment, where the two wrestlers know during rehearsals who is going to win and they are choreographed to enact an entertaining story. The difference between elections and pro-wrestling is that a wrestling lasts only several minutes, but elections several months. So, no one who knows he is going to lose can keep up the exhausting pace for something he knows is a sham. Thus, "it sure looks to me like McCain is trying to lose the general election on purpose."

    But we are now in a new phase. Since it is now the practice to program election results into the Diebold e-voting machines, it makes no difference what the loser or what the winner does.

    So I predict that as time wears on, no later than 2012 when Obama runs for re-election, there will be a whole lot less electioneering going on. There will be no longer any point for candidates to carry out the same exhausting schedule, and they will balk against their handlers. That means compared to today, much fewer cities will be visited, more money will be kept by candidates, and less spent on campaigns. The mime show will continue nevertheless, and the winner to be will always appear exultant whereas the loser to be will appear diffident, just as today.

  10. "Since we know that each president is decided long before the “elections” take place, the lackadaisical campaigning of one of the two candidates means that he has been told that he was not picked."

    Guess I missed the memo. How do we know this?

  11. Stats-

    Google up "diebold", "electronic voting". Go to YouTube. There was even a CNN broadcast. "Elections" have been rigged to yield pre-determined results for years; Diebold just makes rigging easier. These machines have been used in several precincts to yield 95% results for a candidate where no one voted for them at all -- and these are just the publicized test-cases. It does not matter if Diebold changes its name (it has) or if another company were used; with e-voting, there is no paper trail, nothing to audit, and no proof of any kind of what the actual votes may have been.

    This has been well-publicized.

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