More Bellicose Than Bush?

In May of 2006, as Iraq spiraled down into an orgy of sectarian bloodletting, John McCain had a solution. "One of the things I would do if I were president," McCain told a group of wealthy contributors, "would be to sit the Shiites and the Sunnis down and say, 'Stop the bullshit.'"

If only someone had thought of that before. This is the man Brian Williams of NBC News recently referred to as having "vast foreign-policy expertise and credibility on national security."

McCain's insightful plan to end the Iraqi sectarian conflict was just one comment, of course. But given how often we are told these days that McCain has "credibility" and "experience" on matters of foreign policy and national security, it's worth asking what effect all that alleged experience has had on him. Because when McCain actually opens his mouth to discuss these issues, his ideas and beliefs often sound so simple-minded they make George W. Bush look like Otto von Bismarck. And the one consistent theme in McCain's thinking is his support for the application of military force as the best way to deal with foreign-policy challenges. Because it's been working out so well for the last five years.

You might have thought the neoconservative idea that the way to ensure America's security is by invading any country that looks at us cross-eyed (or as McCain likes to call it, "rogue state rollback") would have been thoroughly discredited by now. Yet in McCain the lust for a new age of American hegemony, purchased at the cost of yet more activation of our enviable war machine, lives on. "There's gonna be other wars," he said in January. "I'm sorry to tell you, there's gonna be other wars."

But is McCain really "sorry" about the prospect? "He's the true neocon," Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institution told The Nation's Robert Dreyfus. "He does believe, in a way that George W. Bush never really did, in the use of power, military power above all, to change the world in America's image. If you thought George Bush was bad when it comes to the use of military force, wait till you see John McCain."

McCain's brand of unflagging hawkery is ideologically akin to that of the neocon armchair generals -- the Wolfowitzes, Perles, and Kristols -- who avoided military service in their youth but feel a tingly rush of blood flooding to their loins at the thought of sending other people's children to war. It's no accident that his most enthusiastic booster among the conservative-opinion elite is neocon team captain Bill Kristol, whose Weekly Standard was practically a part of the McCain campaign communication apparatus in McCain's first presidential run in 2000. Or that his chief foreign-affairs adviser is Randy Scheunemann of Kristol's Project for a New American Century, a kind of chicken-hawk boy's club devoted to "a Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity."

McCain, of course, is no chicken hawk, which is what makes his lust for war all the more curious. Contrary to the Jack D. Ripper image of the gung-ho general demanding that the bombs fly, the generation of military leaders who started their careers in Vietnam tend to be rather reluctant to use force and wary about the unintended consequences of military actions waged without a clearly defined endpoint. This doesn't apply to all of them, of course, but the pattern is unmistakable. Yet for whatever reason, the memory of McCain's own time of suffering in Southeast Asia does nothing to stay his hand when it comes to future potential quagmires.

It certainly didn't in Iraq. These days, McCain insists that he was an early critic of the administration's bungling, and that, as he said in 2007, "when I voted to support this war, I knew it was probably going to be long and hard and tough." But the truth is that few were as enthusiastic or as dismissive of the doubters as McCain. "We will win this conflict," he said in January of 2003. "We will win it easily." When asked if the Iraqi people were really going to greet American troops as liberators, he said, "Absolutely. Absolutely."

So all of that supposed experience and knowledge didn't serve him very well. And today, McCain displays no greater understanding of the situation in the Middle East. He's apt to say we have to stay in Iraq because if we don't, the terrorists will "follow us home," an argument that may make sense to a third-grader but displays no more grasp of the nature of terrorism than that held by the collection of simpletons he outlasted to become the Republican nominee.

Or take his famous statement that we could have troops on the ground in Iraq for 100 years. When objections are raised, McCain's tone inevitably changes to one of exasperation as he explains that we've had troops in Germany and Japan since World War II, and so long as our troops aren't being killed in Iraq, it should be no problem with the American people or anyone else. McCain doesn't seem to have considered that the very presence of American bases in a Muslim country stokes anti-Americanism. After all, that's why even George Bush realized it was a good idea to remove our troops from Saudi Arabia, as he did in 2003 (and note that an administration always yelping about how leaving Iraq would just give al-Qaeda what they're asking for didn't mind acceding to Osama bin Laden's oft-repeated demand that infidel troops depart the Muslim holy land). But I guess that hearts-and-minds stuff is for wimps.

McCain likes to say he's been "involved in every national-security issue this country has faced in the last twenty-five years." Of course, he's now saying the same thing about the economy: "I've been involved in economic issues affecting this country for the last twenty-five years," he said last week. "Of course I am probably better-versed on national security issues, certainly far more than any of my potential two opponents." If that's true, McCain has yet to display this wealth of knowledge and understanding. Ask, say, Joe Biden a question about foreign affairs, and he'll blabber on for hours about all the different forces at work affecting a particular region of the world. You may nod off midway through, but there's little doubt the guy knows what he's talking about. Ask McCain, on the other hand, and he'll do little more than repeat some shopworn clichés. If he has a wealth of knowledge and understanding, he's certainly doing a good job keeping it hidden.

We can't always predict what presidents will do from what they say on the campaign trail -- after all, when George W. Bush was asked in 2000 how other nations should view us, he replied, "If we're an arrogant nation, they'll resent us. If we're a humble nation, but strong, they'll welcome us. And it's -- our nation stands alone right now in the world in terms of power, and that's why we have to be humble." Yet what's so troublesome about McCain isn't the possibility that he's hiding his true intentions but that he might actually follow through on what he says and that his understanding of the world is really as simplistic as it appears.

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