Sunday, May 18, 2008

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How John McCain is not George W. Bush

Matt Bai's lead essay on John McCain's foreign policy vision in the New York Times Magazine is worthwhile reading. In contrast to the Times story of a few weeks ago that inaccurately painted McCain as dealing with a tug-of-war between foreign policy advisors, Bai actually gets some face time with the senator.

The two passages I found revealing:

McCain has never been confused for an isolationist, but neither can he be confined to either of the other factions [realism and neoconservatism--DD]. One reason is temperamental; McCain just doesn’t like labels, and he isn’t very good at sticking to orthodoxies — a personality quirk he has tried hard to control during the campaign. “He’s not a guy who drinks Kool-Aid easily,” says Gary Hart, the former Democratic senator who was once close enough to McCain to have been a groomsman in his wedding. “He’s suspicious of any group who sees the world that simply.” Lorne Craner, a foreign-policy thinker who worked for McCain in the House and Senate in the 1980s, told me that McCain had a standing rule in his office then. All meetings were to be limited to half an hour, unless they were with either of two advisers: Jeane Kirkpatrick, the Reaganite idealist, or Brent Scowcroft, the former general who was a leader in the realist wing. McCain loved to hear from both of them at length.

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 He rejects as outdated, for instance, a basic proposition of cold-war realists like Kissinger and Baker: that stability is always found in the relationship between states.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

This strikes me as a spot-on assessment of McCain's foreign policy instincts -- a little less postmodern, "we create reality" than George W. Bush's, but nevertheless leaning quite heavily in the neocon direction.

It's this passage, however, where McCain mentions something I haven't heard from him before on foreign policy:

Most American politicians, of course, would immediately dismiss the idea of sending the military into Zimbabwe or Myanmar as tangential to American interests and therefore impossible to justify. McCain didn’t make this argument. He seemed to start from a default position that moral reasons alone could justify the use of American force, and from there he considered the reasons it might not be feasible to do so. In other words, to paraphrase Robert Kennedy, while most politicians looked at injustice in a foreign land and asked, “Why intervene?” McCain seemed to look at that same injustice and ask himself, “Why not?”

“I think we’ve learned some lessons,” McCain told me. “One is that the American people have to be willing to support it. But two, we need to work more in an international way to try to beneficially affect the situation. And you have to convince America and the world that every single avenue has been exhausted before we go in militarily. And we better think not a day later or a week later, but a year and 5 years and 10 years later. Because the attention span, unfortunately, of the American people, although pretty remarkable in some ways, is not inexhaustible.”....

McCain is relying on the same strategy to achieve success both in Iraq and in the November election. In each endeavor, McCain is staking everything on the notion that the public, having seen the success of a new military strategy, can be convinced that the war is, in fact, winnable and worth the continued sacrifice. Absent that national retrenching, McCain admits that this war, like the one in Vietnam, is probably doomed. Near the end of our conversation in Tampa, I asked him if he would be willing to change course on Iraq if the violence there started to rise again. “Oh, we’d have to,” he replied. “It’s not so much what McCain would do. American public opinion will not tolerate such a thing.”

The Bush administration's fundamental mistake was to believe that a generation-long project could somehow be pursued without the need for consensus by anyone outside the executive branch. McCain seems to get that.

After researching what the American people think about foreign military interventions, I'm pretty sure that the American people don't want us in Iraq regardless of how well the surge works (Bai makes this point later on in the article). I'm not sure, however, whether this will be the deciding factor in how they vote in November.

The paradox: for McCain to be a more prudent foreign policy president, he needs to have a hostile public constraining him. Of course, if that's the case, then it's entirely possible he won't be elected president in the first place.

posted by Dan on 05.18.08 at 09:40 AM


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