McCain Not Bush on Foreign Policy
Dan Drezner argues, persuasively, that John McCain’s foreign policy is not, as critics charge, simply a continuation of George W. Bush’s. Essentially, while McCain has strong neoconservative tendencies (i.e., he’s quite willing to intervene militarily based on morality alone even if there is no compelling U.S. security interest at stake) but that’s he’s much more aware than Bush that the need for the support of the American public.
He quotes extensively from a piece in the NYT Sunday Magazine from Matt Bai. The key ‘graphs:
It’s clear, though, that on the continuum that separates realists from idealists, McCain sits much closer to the idealist perspective. McCain has long been chairman of the International Republican Institute, run by Craner, which exists to promote democratic reforms in closed societies. He makes a point of meeting with dissidents when he visits countries like Georgia and Uzbekistan and has championed the cause of Aung San Suu Kyi, the imprisoned leader of the Burmese resistance. Most important, as he made clear in his preamble to our interview, McCain considers national values, and not strategic interests, to be the guiding force in foreign policy. America exists, in McCain’s view, not simply to safeguard the prosperity and safety of those who live in it but also to spread democratic values and human rights to other parts of the planet.
McCain argues that his brand of idealism is actually more pragmatic in a post-9/11 world than the hard realism of the cold war. He rejects as outdated, for instance, a basic proposition of cold-war realists like Kissinger and Baker: that stability is always found in the relationship between states. Realists have long presumed that the country’s security is defined by the stability of its alliances with the governments of other countries, even if those governments are odious; by this thinking, your interests can sometimes be served by befriending leaders who share none of your democratic values. McCain, by contrast, maintains that in a world where oppressive governments can produce fertile ground for rogue groups like Al Qaeda to recruit and prosper, forging bonds with tyrannical regimes is often more likely to harm American interests than to help them.
On this score, I think McCain is right. That he’s more aware of the limitations of American military power to shape the world than Bush, too, is a hopeful sign. I do wish, however, that he was more reluctant still.
The subplot of Bai’s feature is that McCain came away from his Vietnam experience with a somewhat different lesson than his comrades-in-arms.
Among his fellow combat veterans in the Senate, past and present, he is the only one who has continued to champion the war in Iraq; by contrast, Kerry, Webb and Hagel have emerged in the years since the invasion as unsparing critics of American involvement there.
There is a feeling among some of McCain’s fellow veterans that his break with them on Iraq can be traced, at least partly, to his markedly different experience in Vietnam. McCain’s comrades in the Senate will not talk about this publicly. They are wary of seeming to denigrate McCain’s service, marked by his legendary endurance in a Hanoi prison camp, when in fact they remain, to this day, in awe of it. And yet in private discussions with friends and colleagues, some of them have pointed out that McCain, who was shot down and captured in 1967, spent the worst and most costly years of the war sealed away, both from the rice paddies of Indochina and from the outside world. During those years, McCain did not share the disillusioning and morally jarring experiences of soldiers like Kerry, Webb and Hagel, who found themselves unable to recognize their enemy in the confusion of the jungle; he never underwent the conversion that caused Kerry, for one, to toss away some of his war decorations during a protest at the Capitol. Whatever anger McCain felt remained focused on his captors, not on his own superiors back in Washington.
It’s an interesting bit of pop psychology and those men are more qualified than me to assess the impact of that war, since I was barely walking in 1967. Still, it’s almost unfathomable how much more “costly” those five years could have been for McCain. It’s certainly true, though, that McCain never lost sight of who his enemy was.