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 He rejects as outdated, for instance, a basic proposition of cold-war realists like Kissinger and Baker: that stability is always found in the relationship between states.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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Hal says:

    that McCain never lost sight of who his enemy was.

    I’m still wondering who that actually is. Is it Iran – that would be the “Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran” McCain that seems to contradict this hagiography. Or is it the “appeasers” who aren’t actually – you know – appeasers, but saying “appeasers” resonates so well with the mouth breathers of his base? Or is it the various ruthless dictators, thugs and assorted nasties from the black bottom of hell that all his Lobbyist Advisors and such had as clients? Yes, he so focussed on the enemy he has all their lobbyists working for him. Canny strategy.

    Seriously, though, James, who was the enemy? Surely one can hate *both* the N. Vietnamese *and* the completely insane policies that drove the disaster known as the Vietnam war. Surely one can be far more outraged at the people on our own side because they should be held to higher standards than the enemies we’re fighting.

    And as for Drezner, himself, I’ll only note that I’m pretty sure he had wonderful things to say about Bush’s foreign policy and such when he was working as an unpaid advisor to Bush’s 2000 campaign. And we all know how well his judgement of a candidate worked out in that regard.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Seriously, though, James, who was the enemy?

    I’m not being apocryphal, just discussing the notion that McCain was cloistered away during the period when Vietnam became fuzzy for others. The argument is that Hegel, Kerry, Webb, et. al. didn’t know who they were fighting by the end of the war; clearly, McCain didn’t have that issue.

  3. vnjagvet says:

    Even Hal must admit that McCain has not been a Bush toady. I suspect the Senator was one of the main reasons W finally shelved Rumsfeld and his strategy for the far more successful Gates/Petraeus approach.

    Kerry’s four months in country do not seem objectively to equate to McCain’s combination of four months combat experience and an heroic 51/2 years as a POW. The latter experience clearly informed his well-known separation from the Bush administration on the issues torture and excessive use of force in interrogation.

    McCain has paid the price for these departures from what some are calling neocon orthodoxy. The cost has been lack of support from the more conservative wing of the Republican Party. Whether this will be fatal to him in the general election remains to be seen. But if the Democrats continue to tack left, it probably will not damage him that much.

  4. Hal says:

    The argument is that Hegel, Kerry, Webb, et. al. didn’t know who they were fighting by the end of the war; clearly, McCain didn’t have that issue.

    Well, sure. He was deprived of the essential experiences that would have taught him – perhaps – other things. He was literally and figuratively isolated from these formative experiences of that generation. I’m not sure why this would be a big plus, seeing as he literally missed out on what many consider to be essential learning experiences (again, as you, bowing to those who have better insight into the psychology of a POW under conditions such as McCain). But you go into the election with the candidate you have…

    But bringing this back to Drezner’s thesis, his point is that McCain is more aware of the need of the support by the American people. Okay, fine. But all that seems to mean, in practice, is that he’s more concerned about getting support of the American people for his mad ideas than Bush was. He still has the same mad ideas. His campaign is, after all, advised on foreign policy by “Bombing” Bill Kristol. He is, after all, pretty much the Neocon’s Neocon. Drezner’s “paradox” of McCain isn’t a paradox at all. All it means is that he’s a very, very poor candidate and won’t be elected. It’s only a “paradox” if you think that somehow McCain should be president but is cruelly hamstrung by American opinions which he cares deeply about. The simpler explanation is that he’s simply a warmonger who is sadly handicapped by what passes for a conscience on the right – unlike the current crew who demonstrated quite clearly they have none.

    And then there’s the whole lobbyists for the devil thing McCain has going on. Not really choices that show the kind of thought that Drezner is trying to imply.

  5. Hal says:

    The latter experience clearly informed his well-known separation from the Bush administration on the issues torture and excessive use of force in interrogation.

    Yes, he’s certainly earned his maverick status on torture and excessive use of force by voting against a ban on water boarding. Quite the separation from Bush’s position there. Rather, it seems much more like he’s compromised on these very principles to satisfy the pro-torture base of the republican party.

    Even Hal must admit that McCain has not been a Bush toady

    Sure. But that isn’t the same thing as being different from Bush on foreign policy in any material significance. McCain is the Neocon’s Neocon and while he may have some idea that support of the American people is required to wage wars, he still wants to wage them. Lot’s of them. And the rather sad (for McCain and y’alls “War all the Time” platform is that war isn’t a recreational activity that has a a lot of support.

    But if the Democrats continue to tack left, it probably will not damage him that much.

    Yes, keep saying that. Believe it in your heart of hearts. Click your heels three times and wish, wish, wish. Meanwhile, the rest of us will be starting the long work of repairing the tremendous damage y’all did over the last 8 years.

  6. anjin-san says:

    Someone who sings about bombing other countries is simply not fit to be commander in chief.

  7. vnjagvet says:

    Hal:

    You have made up your mind. So have I. One of us will be disappointed come November 5.

    I know how it feels to be disappointed. I voted for Carter in 1980. And for GHW Bush in 1992.

    I will be prepared. Will you?

  8. narciso says:

    Let’s look at the sum total of those five years; Kerry used his four months in Vietnam, as a platform to justify his opposition to the war.
    He joined the VVAW, and more importantly, the
    Winter Soldiers, who passed off fabrications as legitimate war crimes. As such he painted almost
    all participants in the war; including McCain as
    de jure or de facto war criminals. One meeting of
    the VVAW Winter Soldiers contingent in Kansas City
    featured discussions of assassinations, Phoenix style, of various political figures that supported the war. by one Scott Camil (Kerry’s recollection of those events are somewhat cloudy)
    He along with other eminent persons like Anthony
    Lewis, and Sydney Schamberg to cite two examples; were oblivious of the dangers of retreating from
    South East Asia. Webb’s turnabout on American interventions, including against targets against Iran & Syria; who he must have remembered were issues in his seemingly all too brief stint as Navy Secretary; but they are well intentioned. Hagel seems to think that his stint as cell phone (and voting machine impresario) seems to give him some special insight on Iran.

    That point about lobbyists strikes me a little odd; aren’t Powers, McPeak, Malley, et al lobbying
    effect for various Saudi and emirate interests
    (Hamas, abandoning Iraq to the Sunni Wahhabi & Salafi militants, freeing jihadists from Gitmo) I know we are only supposed to be speaking of commercial interests, but aren’t the former a more significant issue, in the current day.

  9. Hal says:

    I will be prepared. Will you?

    Geebus. What is it with y’all that everything has to be delivered like it was the death scene from Camellia?

    Dude, I’ve already lived through the last 8 years. I’m prepared. I also know we’re going to kick McCain’s 72 year old butt off the political scene.

    Buck up, me boy. Courage.

  10. davod says:

    “I’m not being apocryphal, just discussing the notion that McCain was cloistered away during the period when Vietnam became fuzzy for others.”

    It is my understanding that McCain’s North Vietnamese hosts went to great lengths to ensure McCain and his fellow guests were kept fully informed of events in the anti-war movement.

    As far as Kerry is concerned. Let us not forget he went and visited with the North Vietnamese in Paris, not once but twice, all the while being a member of the Navy Reserve. Oh, and when he came back, there was no neutral commentary, he parroted the North Vietnamese line.

    And, as for the monumental changes occurring during the time McCain was a POW, maybe we need to look further afield than the tripe handed out at the local university, or in many contemporary texts. Ion Pacepa, in The Vietnam-era antiwar movement got its spin from the Kremlin. writes “KGB priority number one at that time was to damage American power, judgment, and credibility. One of its favorite tools was the fabrication of such evidence as photographs and “news reports” about invented American war atrocities. These tales were purveyed in KGB-operated magazines that would then flack them to reputable news organizations. Often enough, they would be picked up. News organizations are notoriously sloppy about verifying their sources. All in all, it was amazingly easy for Soviet-bloc spy organizations to fake many such reports and spread them around the free world.”

  11. capital L says:

    “It is my understanding that McCain’s North Vietnamese hosts went to great lengths to ensure McCain and his fellow guests were kept fully informed of events in the anti-war movement.”

    Indeed.

    It all strikes me as a terribly interesting way to retailor the “chickenhawk” argument for use against someone quite clearly defies such a label: “Well he was in the war, sure, but he was a POW and missed the anti-war movement, and is therefore disqualified.” Odious.

  12. Dave Schuler says:

    I am not a neo-con, in fact, I don’t have a Wilsonian bone in my body but I think that we need to remember that much of what people in the rest of the world despise about us, particularly in the Middle East, was put in place as a consequence of a realist foreign policy. Unfortunately, realism doesn’t seem to be realistic enough to recognize that people might be upset at having their social arrangements overthrown.

    I think we need to give the devil his due and recognize that American Wilsonians have a grand strategy which, if it could be brought to fruition would be simultaneously good for the United States and good for most of the people in the world. That’s more than realism has to offer.

    Worse yet, the present crop of realists are realistic enough to despise our intervention in Iraq but not realistic enough to warn against intervention in Somalia, Darfur, or Burma.

  13. Hal says:

    I think we need to give the devil his due and recognize that American Wilsonians have a grand strategy which, if it could be brought to fruition would be simultaneously good for the United States and good for most of the people in the world

    I believe this is precisely the sentiment which spawned And A Pony. Sure, if it could be brought to fruition, it’d be great.

    And if wishes were fishes then beggars would ride.

    I’m not a realist and I have a heck of a lot of problems with the way foreign policy has been handled under democrats and republicans. But…

    Worse yet, the present crop of realists are realistic enough to despise our intervention in Iraq but not realistic enough to warn against intervention in Somalia, Darfur, or Burma.

    At least the realists didn’t produce the single most disastrous foreign policy mistake in the history of this planet. When they had their way – literally had their way, seeing as how no one stood them down and they could do whatever they wanted – the NeoCons showed that their “grand strategy” was really nothing more than lipstick on a pig. Window dressing.

    One might even call this “grand strategy” merely a mechanism to win support for otherwise unsupportable actions.

  14. Anderson says:

    I think that more relevant than McCain’s POW experience is that he was a Navy pilot, who dropped bombs but wasn’t down in the jungle.

    War looks different from the air. [Insert rant on pernicious strategic-bombing mythos of the 20th Century.]

    Neocons and air power are made for each other: push some buttons, drop some bombs, and poof! regime change, democracy, liberty for everyone!

    The guys whose boots are stuck on the ground are likely to have a different perspective.

  15. Bob says:

    Hal, might I suggest the following is a rather gross overstatement.

    “At least the realists didn’t produce the single most disastrous foreign policy mistake in the history of this planet.”

    Could not Japanese deciding to attack the US in WWII, or US involvement in Viet Nam perhaps be larger foreign policy mistakes? Our involvement in Viet Nam cost us 54,000 more KIA than has Iraq even though I am told Iraq has lasted longer. Japan’s foreign policy decision resulted in millions dead and the military occupation of its homeland. Both of these are patently bigger mistakes than Iraq. But I accept that BDS does cloud one’s capability for rational thought.

  16. Hal says:

    Hal, might I suggest the following is a rather gross overstatement.

    Um, no. I’m not sure how you define “mistake”, but the Japanese deciding to attack the USA was their decision, not the USAs. And WRT Vietnam, I suppose on the number of Americans killed the numbers are worse for Vietnam. But then, considering that we have far better armor and consequently those who would have died are now merely sitting in a disastrous state in a hospital, perhaps this isn’t the best metric. Consider also the vast number who are suffering severe psychological trauma as a result of this war. But I forgot! Y’all think people who’s lives are wrecked by PTSD are bunch of pussies.

    But I think the correct metric isn’t just bodies, as horrific and gut wrenching as those statistics are. The correct metric for a foreign policy disaster, imho, is in terms of “unintended consequences”. We attacked a country that didn’t threaten us, violating international law we helped write. We made a complete disaster out of the occupation phase due to complete and utter incompetence combined with astoundingly naive ideologically driven programs coupled with ideological qualification for those in charge as the only determining factor of who was in charge of what. Finally, we’re ending up strengthening our other worst enemy, Iran, far more than any of those in Iran would have hoped in their wildest wet dream. Simultaneously, we’ve completely dropped the ball on Afghanistan, letting our other worst enemy, Bin Laden, run around on a holiday picnic while Pakistan – a country with actual, not fantasy, nuclear capability – lies close to chaos while we coddled a military dictator. Oh, and then there’s the Poppies – they have the heroin market pretty much completely sewn up thanks to our tender care.

    Seriously, say what you want about Vietnam, but losing Vietnam didn’t have nearly the same order of magnitude of unintended consequences, nor were any of them even in the same league of importance and criticality. As I recall, there wasn’t any domino effect that swept across the world as a result of our stupidity there – as was predicted by much the same crowd that’s predicting untold chaos and Al Qaeda strongholds if we left Iraq today.

    Sorry, Bob, but Vietnam doesn’t even seem to come close. And WWII wasn’t a war of choice, so you’re comparing apples and pieces of coal, as far as I’m concerned.

  17. capital L says:

    “At least the realists didn’t produce the single most disastrous foreign policy mistake in the history of this planet.”

    I honestly don’t know if you are purposefully obtuse or just blaringly ignorant of history. Consider the following foreign policy disasters (some of which I assume you’ve heard of):

    -Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait
    -The Argentinian Junta’s invasion of the Falklands
    -The Six Day War
    -The Suez Crisis’ effect on US/British/French relations
    -The French response to the Algerian Independance movement
    -The French attempt to defeat the Viet Cong at Dien Bien Phu
    -The US/British instigated coup in Iran
    -The 1948 Arab attack on the nascent state of Israel
    -Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor
    -Hitler’s campaign agaist Russia
    -Mussolini allying with Nazi Germany
    -The Schlieffen Plan
    -Russia’s campaign against Japan in 1904-1905
    -Napoleon’s campaign against Russia
    -Ludovico Sforza’s attempt to use the French to his advantage in Italy
    -Roman Emperor Valens bringing the Goths across the Danube
    -The Athenian Sicilian Expedition

    And these are just the ones that spring quickly to my mind.