John McCain’s promises to shift away from the past eight years
just empty rhetoric?
By Matt Welch
McCain has two funda mental and conflicting challenges in
the national election: (1) Rally disaffected Republicans to
his side, particularly libertarians, social cons, war-skeptics,
immigration restrictionists, and those who he has personally
pissed off over the years; and (2) maintain his attractiveness
to independents, moderate Democrats, and loyalists to whichever
of the two Dem candidates gets croaked in the primaries.
Problem No. 1 will largely take care of itself. Merely by
pointing out the Democrats’ leftward drift on economics, McCain
will win back many disgruntled fiscal conservatives. I’m sure
he’ll nominate as veep someone sufficiently young and conservative
in a way McCain is not. And most importantly, the dwindling
ranks of true-blue Republicans don’t require that loud of
a dog whistle (Supreme Court! George McGovern!) to get back
on the bus. To watch that process unfold in real time, keep
reading former lead McCain-basher Hugh Hewitt now that his
Mormon isn’t headed for the White House.
That leaves Door No. 2 as the main focus of McCain’s attention.
Here, he has two huge vulnerabilities: (1) Much of his likeability
stems from that enduring image as straight-talker, which gives
indie-leaning voters seven long months of flip-floppery and
absolutist statements to learn that this image is a lie and
(2) he wrapped up the Republican nomination largely through
by winning with 2-1 ratios among voters who hate the war and
hate George W. Bush. Eventually, the majority of Americans
who are weary of the Global Cop act are going to realize that
McCain is a more enthusiastic interventionist and committed
benevolent-imperialist than his predecessor, whose miserable
unpopularity is due in no small part to his activist foreign
policy. Thus it becomes crucial for McCain to distance himself
from Bush on foreign affairs, preferably in a way that changes
the subject from his own interventionism.
That was the political backdrop to McCain’s major address
on foreign policy recently in Los Angeles, which campaign
staff busily telegraphed to a willing press corps as an important
distancing-from-Bush moment. Judging by David Brooks and David
Broder, not to mention this remarkably biased news story in
the Washington Post . . . mission accomplished! So
how did McCain, in the words of establishmentarian-in-chief
Broder, signal “a vastly different approach from President
Bush’s [. . .] that might heal the wounds left here at home
and abroad by the past seven years”? It’s a thin reed, but
here ya go:
(1) He mouthed the magical three- syllable phrase: “I hate
war.” Uttered, needless to say, “as only a man who has experienced
its horrors can do,” according to Broder.
It was due to such pious and pithy protestations—as opposed
to, say, McCain’s long, specific and never- withdrawn doctrine
of “rogue-state rollback”—that the Des Moines Register
concluded McCain would be “reluctant to start” war. Unless
you are the cheapest of cheap dates, or just so predisposed
toward the guy that you can’t see straight, it should take
more than three words to disprove a totally consistent decade-plus
record of hawkish interventionism and dependable boots-on-the-groundism.
(2) He said that “the United States cannot lead by virtue
of its power alone,” and that “when we believe international
action is necessary, whether military, economic, or diplomatic,
we will try to persuade our friends that we are right. But
we, in return, must be willing to be persuaded by them.” Cries
a relieved Broder, “an implicit rebuke to the mind-set of
the current White House”!
Another cheap date. If you really believe that President McCain
will be talked out of a decision to go to war by a democratic
ally, I invite you to read his comments about the Japanese
in the run-up to the Gulf War, or what he said about the French
and Kosovo in 1999, or this Sept. 24, 2002, interview with
KING: Senator, when Vice President Gore said, after September
11, we had enormous sympathy, goodwill and support. We squandered
it, and in one year we’ve replaced that with fear, anxiety
and uncertainty, not at what the terrorists are going to do,
but at what we’re going to do. In other words, he’s saying,
in essence, countries now don’t like us, that were supporting
us a year ago. You create a lot of ill will by doing this.
You’re going to need the support of everybody to go in. What’s
wrong with that?
MCCAIN: Well, I think we have the goodwill of most countries
in the world, with the notable exception of Germany, which—their
candidate for chancellor chose to, in a really obscene fashion,
in my view, chose to use Iraq as a way to get reelected.
What about the Uni-power thing? Here’s an exchange I had with
him last July:
Q: Senator, on the defense budget: We now spend about roughly
the same amount on defense as the rest of the world combined.
Is that a healthy ratio, and if it’s not, what would be a
A: Oh, it’s healthy. We need a bigger Army, we need a bigger
Marine Corps. You look around the world—Iran, North Korea,
uh, Afghanistan—it’s not going to be over for a long time.
Or let’s just roll more tape from the speech itself, to see
messianic American exceptionalism—and analogical illiteracy—at
its finest: President Harry Truman once said of America, “God
has created us and brought us to our present position of power
and strength for some great purpose.” In his time, that purpose
was to contain Communism and build the structures of peace
and prosperity that could provide safe passage through the
Cold War. Now it is our turn.
(3) He hyped a “League of Democracies.”
Now, there have been times that I have been intrigued by a
League of Democracies, but regardless of whatever Welch or
McCain might think about a 21st century League of Nations,
the main point is that there is no way in hell anything remotely
like this is happening any time in the next decade. After
eight years of a cranky, go-it-alone White House that won
reelection in part by bashing limp-wristed Euro-weenies, the
chances of another interventionist Republican winning enough
good faith among grumbly allies to create a brand spanking
new America-defined Club of Winners are something approaching
(4) He wants to close Guantanamo.
That is indeed terrific news, and promises to be one of the
virtues of a McCain presidency (along with pro-trade policies,
earmark reform and serial uses of the veto pen). But remember—McCain
was against torture, too, and that led to . . . the eradication
of habeas corpus. His reforms tend to break down upon negotiation
(when not plain lousy to begin with). But even if President
McCain is successful in shutting down Gitmo—as I think he
would be—we are talking about an issue that’s close to purely
symbolic. Meanwhile, in the nonsymbolic world, McCain wants
to increase troop levels by 150,000, maintain a much more
aggressive posture toward Russia, Iran, China, North Korea
and Burma (at minimum), and launch a brand-new O.S.S. to help
destabilize foreign despots.
(5) He wants a “successor to the Kyoto Treaty, a cap-and-trade
system that delivers the necessary environmental impact in
an economically responsible manner.”
Here the cheap dates will be those Europeans who believe that
the demon-spawn George W. Bush invented Kyoto opposition in
the U.S. (as well as the death penalty). Here, too, a perennial
McCain question must be asked—will his “reform” actually,
you know, work?
As science writer Ronald Bailey has shown, existing cap-and-trade
markets are “not working,” because “governments have every
incentive to cheat” due to the fact that “the process is inherently
political.” Aside from any other bad (or good) policy that
might result from a Kyoto II, what McCain’s cap-and-trade
gesture amounts to a rhetorical signal that—if you believe
Global Warming is a threat—his Heart Is in the Right Place.
Which might be enough. My former colleagues on the L.A.
Times editorial board, for example, endorsed McCain during
the primaries in part because “he supported cap-and-trade
systems that could reduce greenhouse gases, and he has stayed
that course despite criticism from fellow Republicans.” Even
though, a half-year previous, that same board concluded that
cap-and-trade has too many “drawbacks” to be workable. I guess
it’s the thought that counts!
So in summation: McCain says he hates the wars he’ll inevitably
launch. He says the U.S. cannot act alone with all the unipolar
power he’ll continue to amass and flex. He advocates a League
of Democracies that will never happen, and an environmental
treaty that probably won’t work.
As David Brooks noted, “Anybody who thinks McCain is merely
continuing the Bush agenda is not paying attention.” He’s
right—McCain will close Gitmo, make a couple of cheap rhetorical
promises to play nice with the world, then increase this administration’s
interventionism in a way befitting a candidate who ran as
the neoconservative favorite against the too-humble foreign-policy
approach of Gov. George W. Bush.
The only question is whether his deep reserves of credibility
in the Bank of Media is enough to maintain the fiction that
he’s less an interventionist than his predecessor. Judging
by the Washington Post’s news pages, he’s well on his
McCain is often portrayed in the news media as a global John
Wayne who would tread on the world stage with a Navy veteran’s
swagger and talk tough toward unfriendly governments in Iran
and North Korea.
But his record on foreign policy during two decades in the
Senate is more nuanced.
Welch, an assistant editor of the Los Angeles Times
editorial page, is the author of McCain: The Myth of a
Maverick. This article first appeared at Reason.com. Source: