The Militarist

The collapse of the George W. Bush-era Republican Party is a multifaceted story, but no chapter stands out as clearly as the war in Iraq. As the occupation has dragged on and the U.S. casualties have mounted, Bush has watched his public approval ratings spiral downward. By the time the contested GOP primaries came around, even a healthy proportion of Republican voters were saying that they strongly or somewhat disapproved of the war in Iraq.

Under the circumstances, it's not surprising that the GOP is poised to nominate a presidential candidate who will appeal to its anti-war base. What is surprising is that the candidate is Sen. John McCain.

Things were looking bleak for Republicans in February, and it was clear that only a candidate with crossover appeal to war opponents stood any chance of going toe-to-toe with a Democrat. Thus, though it may have angered the conservative base, the Republicans got lucky as McCain emerged as the front-runner over Mitt Romney, the preferred choice of Bush-lovers. But there is a problem. Despite neoconservatism's close association in the public imagination with the Bush administration, and despite McCain's image as a moderate, a look at the record makes clear that McCain, not Bush, is the real neocon in the Republican Party. McCain was the neocons' candidate in 2000, McCain adhered to a truer version of the faith during the early years of hubris that followed September 11, and as president McCain would likely pursue policies that will make what we've seen from Bush look like a pale imitation of the real thing. McCain, after all, is the candidate of perpetual war in Iraq. The candidate who, despite his protestations in a March speech that he "hates war," not only stridently backed the 2003 invasion of Iraq but has spent years calling on the United States to depose every dictator in the world. He's the candidate of ratcheting-up action against North Korea and Iran, of new efforts to undermine the United Nations, and of new cold wars with Russia and China. Rather than hating war, he sees it as integral to the greatness of the nation, and military service as the highest calling imaginable. It is, in short, not Bush but McCain, who among practical politicians holds truest to the vision of a foreign policy dominated by militaristic unilateralism.


It wasn't ever thus. When McCain entered the House of Representatives in 1983, one of the first noteworthy things he did was oppose the Reagan administration's deployment of U.S. Marines to Lebanon. Throughout the 1980s, McCain was a fairly conventional Cold War hawk, a supporter of Reagan's defense buildup and Central America policy who distinguished himself from the average Republican by being somewhat less gung-ho about deploying troops abroad. Some liberals, like John Judis, author of an excellent study of McCain's shifting thinking, see in this 1980s version of McCain a realist who may re-emerge in the future. It could happen, but this was a long time ago, and even during this dovish phase McCain was hardly averse to demagogic nationalism, lashing out at Germany and Japan for alleged inadequate support for Operation Desert Shield. He fervently backed the first Gulf War, arguing that absent U.S. action "there will be inevitably a succession of dictators" who will pose "a threat to the stability of this entire globe."

After the Cold War, McCain's views entered a period of drift. He criticized humanitarian troop deployments to Somalia and to Haiti and opposed the idea of military intervention in the war over Bosnia -- opposed it, that is, until for somewhat murky reasons he changed his mind and decided to support President Bill Clinton's decision to act. Once this Rubicon was crossed, McCain would never look back, and for over 10 years now he has consistently positioned himself as the most hawkish major figure in American electoral politics -- the proud exponent of an ambitious and dangerous conception of America's role in the world.

The origins of the neo-McCain are bound up with the trajectory of a magazine, The Weekly Standard, whose first issue was published on September 18, 1995, not long after McCain's change of heart. Under the editorship of William Kristol, the magazine swiftly emerged as part of a revived school of neoconservative thinking about foreign policy. These intellectuals and McCain would come to form a symbiotic relationship, with the war-hero senator providing an electoral standard-bearer for their somewhat odd ideas, and the intellectuals providing a man with little interest in policy a rationale for his presidential ambitions.

In the summer of 1996, Kristol, along with frequent collaborator Robert Kagan, published a Foreign Affairs essay calling on the Republican Party to adopt what they called a "neo-Reaganite" foreign policy featuring a large increase in defense expenditures, more American involvement in matters around the world, and less U.S. reliance on multilateral institutions. The aim of this was to create a world of "benevolent hegemony" in which unilateral military force would undergird a stable world order. This was partly a theory of foreign policy and partly a theory of electoral politics, with Kristol and Kagan arguing that "Reagan's earlier successes rested as much on foreign as on domestic policy" and that neo-Reaganite militarism "would be good for conservatives, good for America, and good for the world." The following year, Kristol and David Brooks also penned an influential Wall Street Journal op-ed calling for a national greatness conservatism. "Wishing to be left alone is not a governing doctrine," they wrote, rejecting the libertarian strand on the American right. But instead of a turn toward liberalism, they wanted to center conservatism on "the appeal to American greatness," a notion libertarians Virginia Postrel and James Glassman memorably lampooned as "a kind of wistful nationalism in search of a big project."

And, indeed, the national greatness essay was notably vague as to what the next big project was supposed to be, or why. One plausible candidate was, however, the neo-Reaganite foreign policy, a protracted quest for world domination being about the biggest project under the sun. All that was needed was a practical political leader, and McCain, a longtime admirer of Teddy Roosevelt, became the vessel for the Kristol/Kagan/Brooks fusion of reform and imperial adventurism. In the fall of 1997, McCain went on Fox News and lamented that the U.S. hadn't overthrown Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War, thus newly embracing a key neocon talking point in the battle against the realist GOP establishment that dominated the George H.W. Bush administration. A year later McCain sponsored the Iraq Liberation Act, one of the first pieces of legislation pushed by Kristol's "neo-Reaganite" advocacy shop, the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), which committed the United States to a policy of "regime change" and support for the Iraqi opposition, and pressured the Clinton administration to provide funds to Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress. During this same period, McCain went to members of Kristol's circle such as Randy Scheunemann (currently a foreign-policy aide in McCain's campaign), Daniel McKivergan (now back working for McCain after stints at PNAC and the Standard), and Marshall Wittmann (currently communication director for McCain pal Joe Lieberman) for advice on substantive and framing aspects of foreign policy.

McCain explained his new approach in a March 15, 1999 speech at Kansas State University. The cornerstone of his thinking was a sweeping doctrine, "call it rogue-state rollback if you will" of "supporting indigenous and outside forces that desire to overthrow the odious regimes that rule these states." All decent people, of course, greatly admire the work of dissidents laboring under autocratic rule. But actually making support for such dissident movements the centerpiece of our approach to these countries carries significant dangers. In particular, most observers in and out of government thought it was likely to prompt a new fiasco along the lines of the Bay of Pigs. But at a time when a full-scale invasion was unthinkable, this was the leading hawkish alternative to the Clinton administration's containment policy, backed by the same group of pundits and analysts, from Paul Wolfowitz to William Safire to Charles Krauthammer to Christopher Hitchens, who would later beat the drums of war in 2003. McCain sought to associate himself with this alternative, arguing in Kansas that the flaws of the Clinton administration's overall strategic approach to Iraq have "been on full display."

But one important factor separated McCain from the rest. Wolfowitz had argued in congressional testimony that regime change could be effectuated easily in Baghdad, saying the United States need only "muster the necessary strength of purpose." Speaking in March, however, McCain seemed perfectly aware that counting on the opposition might not work. "If you commit to supporting these forces," he cautioned, we must be willing to "accept the seriousness of the obligation" and not "abandon them to the mercies of tyrants whenever they meet with reversals." In other words, McCain believes that supporting opposition elements, financially or logistically, implies an obligation to come in and bail them out with direct military intervention if they get into trouble. To McCain, however, this was not a reason to reconsider the wisdom of the rollback strategy. Rather, he cryptically remarked that "character counts, my friends, at home and abroad" and left rollback as the centerpiece of his approach.

McCain repeated this trope throughout the speech, drawing on his personal history and adopting the rhetoric of moral seriousness about the consequences of committing American forces. But awareness of the consequences was, for McCain, no reason to avoid starting a war. Indeed, McCain almost seemed disappointed that the Clinton administration managed to peacefully resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis with the "agreed framework" of 1994. He remarked in Kansas that "a firmer response to North Korea might have triggered a war, a war we would win, but not without paying a terrible price." McCain was sophisticated enough to recognize that other policy options such as refusing aid to the North might nonetheless have resulted in conflict "as the North's last desperate measure."

This analysis, in the hands of a normal person, becomes a defense of the Clinton administration's policy?though a bit distasteful, the agreed framework was the only way to avoid a destructive war. Not, however, to McCain. In his view, efforts at conflict prevention are fundamentally misguided. He told the Kansas State audience that notwithstanding the Clinton administration's efforts, Korea's leaders "remain quite capable of launching in their country's death throes one final, glorious war. But now, they are much, much better armed." In short?war is inevitable, so better to get it over with as soon as possible. McCain, unlike most neocons, is no chicken hawk, but while his rhetorical points of emphasis are different from typical neocon fare, his strategic ideas are the very essence of the neocon notion that threats of unilateral preventive war should play the primary role in America's approach to nonproliferation. It was, in short, the essence of the "Bush doctrine" several years before Bush ever articulated it.


The McCain-neocon synthesis reached its apogee in 1999 and 2000, under the dual pressures of war against Serbia and the Republican presidential primary. It became difficult during this period to say where McCain's legislative and electoral strategies began and the Standard's editorial agenda ended. After the bombing of Serbia had been underway for about a month, Kristol and Kagan wrote an editorial crediting "McCain's leadership" for the fact that "according to the polls, a majority of the American people support sending U.S. and NATO ground troops into Yugoslavia." They looked to McCain to redefine the goals of the war such that "the only thing to discuss with Milosevic is his unconditional surrender." During a May 1999 Hardball appearance, McCain was doing his best to lead the country in such a direction, calling on Clinton to "do everything necessary to gain victory," and defining victory as "not to go to the negotiating table with some guy and beg him for a deal, but to tell him what to do."

At the time, McCain was backing an amendment on the Senate floor that was designed to force Clinton to initiate a land invasion of Serbia. "Ground forces," Kristol and Kagan explained, "will be needed to accomplish what the air war is not now accomplishing?that is, to deal Slobodan Milosevic the decisive military defeat that is the only acceptable outcome of the war." To that end, they called for the passage of McCain's resolution.

Transforming the Kosovo conflict from a war fought with limited means for limited objectives to a ground invasion of Yugoslavia aimed at producing unconditional surrender in Belgrade would have divided the United States from our NATO allies, stripped the war of any legitimacy under international law, and risked creating the sort of deeply problematic post-war occupation the country has been enjoying in Iraq. Hence the Clinton administration's hesitancy. Eventually, the war was brought to a successful negotiated compromise that avoided a quagmire while securing Kosovo's autonomy. McCain characterized this outcome in a March 2000 floor speech as "unacceptable circumstances" (i.e., diplomacy) leading to a "weak and endangered peace" (i.e., compromise). Thus, having previously positioned himself on the extreme hawk side of debates over the Korean peninsula and Iraq, he secured the trifecta by assuming the same position on the Balkan situation. In all three cases, McCain rejected as inadequate outcomes that avoided open-ended warfare by settling for something short of regime change. At a time when the conservative rank and file's interest in foreign affairs was limited, McCain lost the 2000 primary, winning the support of the Standard and the bulk of the neocons but alienating every other significant element of the conservative establishment, which backed the more restrained George W. Bush who, of course, went on to become president of the United States.

But despite McCain's loss in 2000, the strategic concepts he outlined back in 1999 came to be at the core of what we today term the Bush doctrine. Most significant is the emphasis on preventive war as a tool of policy. As outlined in McCain's disquisition on North Korea, the fact that some state does not, in fact, pose an imminent threat to the United States is no reason to refrain from attacking it. On the contrary, the fact that a state is nonthreatening is a reason to attack it as soon as possible, lest it become more powerful over time. In Bush's hands, this concept has led not only to the fiasco in Iraq but also to North Korea's acquisition of nuclear weapons and to several missed opportunities to secure the verifiable disarmament of Iran.

McCain has pushed this doctrine longer, harder, and more consistently than has Bush. In the spring of 2002, when the Bush administration was still formally committed to reinvigorating the inspections process in Iraq, McCain was planted firmly on the administration's right flank, offering a strident call for regime change in Baghdad. In a speech to the American Jewish Committee, McCain explicitly drew the links between his 1999 rollback vision and the disastrous course on which Bush was about to embark the nation, saying proudly that "several years ago, I and many others argued that the United States, in concert with willing allies, should work to undermine from within and without outlaw regimes." Now, he said, the president had articulated a policy wherein "dictators that support and harbor terrorists and build [nuclear, chemical, or biological] weapons are now on notice that such behavior is, in itself, a casus belli. Nowhere is such an ultimatum more applicable than in Saddam Hussein's Iraq."

At a time when politicians were bowing to the pressure to support the war but also offering careful caveats, McCain did the reverse. He went further than even Bush in predicting that the liberation of Baghdad "will serve as a counterpoint to the state-directed Arab media's distortion of the Palestinian conflict," embracing the view, then popular on the neoconservative fringe, that the road to Jerusalem ran through Baghdad. Likewise, McCain advanced the idea that remaking Iraq as a democracy "cannot be the end" of an American effort to re-order political conditions throughout the Middle East. This commitment is precisely the blunder that led the United States to compound the error of invading Iraq by later spurning peace offerings from Iran and rejecting all entreaties to make a serious effort at stabilizing the regional situation through engagement with Iraq's neighbors. And of course it's the same commitment that has led to repeated outbursts of anti-Iranian saber-rattling from the Bush administration, as the hawk faction with which McCain has consistently aligned himself threatens to seize control of the policy agenda and plunge the country into a new conflict.


Optimistic liberals note that McCain has shown some capacity to change his mind, and that he has expanded his circle of advisers beyond the core group of neoconservative fanatics. But despite the disaster of Iraq, McCain remains as committed to a far-right vision of American foreign policy as ever. Well-known campaign "gaffes," like when he sang "bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran" to the tune of The Beach Boys' "Barbara Ann," are more than verbal fumbles on the part of a 71-year-old man?they are expressions of views McCain articulates with regularity.

While Bush has been criticized for advancing an unduly broad conception of the terrorism problem, allowing Iraq, Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah to all be swept together with al-Qaeda, McCain sees a need to go even bigger. In a May 2007 speech to the Hoover Institution, McCain explained that the so-called war on terror is merely part of a "worldwide political, economic, and philosophical struggle between the future and the past, between progress and reaction, and between liberty and despotism." The despotism problem, in McCain's view, goes beyond the traditional axis of evil and requires us to not only "not put pressure on dictators in Iran, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Burma, and other pariah states" but also to fret that Russia and China have joined forces to block such pressure. At a time when the Bush administration has to some extent backed away from rogue-state rollback, McCain has decided to double down, concluding that the rogue-state problem can't be resolved until all autocratic powers are brought down. "Iran is able to aggressively pursue nuclear weapons and hegemony in the Persian Gulf," he said in the Hoover speech, "in part, because it has been shielded by the world's powerful autocracies."

To combat this alleged conspiracy of dictatorships, McCain has proposed creating a "worldwide League of Democracies," whose role would be to create an alternative mechanism to the United Nations that could facilitate coercive action "with or without Moscow's and Beijing's approval." His campaign Web site further ups the ante for conflict with Russia and China by going beyond the standard missile defense mumbo jumbo to describe his planned shield as intended to "hedge against potential threats from possible strategic competitors like Russia and China," in contrast to a Bush administration which has limited its shield rhetoric to rogue states. McCain would take an impractical and somewhat provocative idea and then make it worse by injecting additional provocation for no real reason.

At Hoover, McCain referred to his foreign-policy agenda as a "vision of a new era of enduring peace based on freedom," but it's clear that his policies will lead to more conflict than peace. Some of McCain's ideas are so unrealistic that it's hard to know what they would amount to in practice -- for example, there's no indication that any countries are eager to sign up for his League of Democracies. But a policy of rogue-state rollback would be a recipe for a new cold war (or two) with a few proxy conflicts thrown in for good measure. If we take McCain at his word, his administration will be prepared to back up our proxies with direct military intervention if necessary. What's more, McCain has made it clear over the years that he holds an unusually expansive view of what military action entails?namely a willingness to press through to the end and hold out for total victory irrespective of the cost.

McCain correctly observes in a November/December 2007 Foreign Affairs article that it should be possible to get the existing nuclear powers to push for revisions aimed at closing some of the loopholes in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and thus greatly enhance American security. Unfortunately, the rest of his agenda pushes in the direction of much more nuclear proliferation. An avowed American policy of undermining Russia's and China's nuclear deterrent would force Russia and China to engage in new nuclear buildups to re-establish it, prompting a cascade of proliferation in India, Pakistan, and possibly beyond, and likely wreck all effort at reviving the multilateral arms-control regime. Meanwhile, the rollback policy will prevent any sort of diplomatic arrangement with potential proliferators like Iran and North Korea.

McCain has said that in his opinion, "there's only one thing worse than the United States exercising the military option; that is a nuclear-armed Iran." If he means those words seriously, then a policy that takes meaningful diplomacy off the table will mean war with Tehran?just as McCain's "joke" about The Beach Boys song indicated. If he doesn't, it'll mean Iran moving closer to nuclear weapons capabilities. Similarly with North Korea, McCain's approach will either mean a disastrous military confrontation or a collapse of the diplomatic arrangement that is keeping North Korea's arsenal in check.


Perhaps most disturbingly of all, McCain appears to be grounded not only in dangerous ideas about international relations but also in an active hostility to prudence. In David Brooks' 1999 McCain-lauding essay, "Politics and Patriotism: From Teddy Roosevelt to John McCain," Brooks writes that McCain and others worry "that we have become a nation obsessed with risk avoidance and safety." The cure? To follow Roosevelt who "saw foreign-policy activism and patriotism as remedies for cultural threats he perceived at home." De-euphemized, Roosevelt saw war as a positive good; in his years as New York City Police Commissioner he yearned for a now-obscure 1895 border dispute between Venezuela and the British colony of Guiana to turn into a great power conflict. "Let the fight come if it must," Roosevelt wrote to Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge. "I don't care whether our sea-coast cities are bombarded or not; we would take Canada ... the clamor of the peace faction has convinced me that this country needs a war." Only three months later Roosevelt mused that "it is very difficult for me not to wish a war with Spain, for such a war would result at once in getting a proper Navy." The indifference to questions of national strategy here is a bit frightening, but to Brooks' way of thinking, it's a small price to pay to combat cultural threats at home.

McCain's strident advocacy of the "surge" in Iraq is sometimes seen as political opportunism, an effort to move right in time for the Republican primaries. This interpretation both sells him short and gives him too much credit. McCain has, obviously, used his early and unequivocal enthusiasm for the surge to build bridges with the right, just as he's eager to use the surge's alleged success as a bludgeon with which to beat the Democratic Party. But while your typical partisan Republican member of Congress has simply backed Bush's Iraq policy through all its twists and turns, McCain has always stayed fixed on a policy of maximum force even as the political valence of that policy has shifted. The idea that more U.S. forces should be sent to Iraq began as a line of attack on Bush popular among the hawkish wing of the Democratic Party in 2003 and early 2004, and McCain was happy to break with his party to support it. Eventually, Democrats abandoned this concept and McCain was content to stand alone as an advocate of more troops. And then Bush came around to something resembling McCain's way of thinking. No doubt this was convenient for McCain politically, but to see it as driven by political expediency is to ignore both McCain's record on Iraq and the fact that he espoused a very similar line on Serbia in the late-1990s.

The military, and an expansive view of the extent to which it should be deployed around the world, is at the very core of McCain's personal and political identity. His father and grandfather were both admirals, the former led Pacific Command during the Vietnam War, and the latter sailed in Teddy Roosevelt's Great White Fleet and helped put down the Philippine Insurrection. McCain got his introduction to politics as a kind of bloody-shirt prop of the Nixon administration, which liked using the returned POW as a political club against anti-war activists. He became a frequent guest at Ronald and Nancy Reagan's dinner table, and his first political job was as the U.S. Navy's liaison to the Senate, where he helped spike a Carter administration effort to kill plans for a new "supercarrier." There's cynicism and opportunism aplenty in McCain's record, but it's the vision of leading America in a neo-Rooseveltian, neo-imperial direction that forms the part of the agenda that McCain is least willing to deviate from.

According to Matt Welch, author of McCain: The Myth of a Maverick, while McCain was imprisoned in Vietnam, "submerging and channeling his individuality into the ?greater cause' of American patriotism became McCain's reason for living" and has been the guiding star of his political career. In McCain's view, politics should be understood as an ongoing battle between selfishness and the search for a higher cause. This is the vision that has driven his more admirable domestic-reform efforts (as well as his more bizarre ones like his quest to ban mixed-martial arts fighting), but when applied to foreign policy the results are frightening. McCain's Rooseveltian vision is not of a willingness -- even an excessive willingness -- to use force to advance the national interests or important dearly held moral principles. Rather, he sees the nation as having an interest in fighting wars. The combat itself constitutes the advance of important moral values, elevating the country from such banal national security concerns as "safety" and creating the opportunity for heroic displays of courage of the sort McCain himself made in Vietnam. In the context of the 1990s, and McCain's 2000 presidential bid, this sort of nationalistic fervor struck some as a useful tonic for a nation whose politics seemed dominated by quibbling over the meaning of the word "is."

The neocons' first choice may have lost the primary in 2000, but through Bush we've had the opportunity to observe seven years of neoconservative high drama and higher causes, and most people don't like it very much. Most, that is, except for McCain, who gives every indication of wanting to shift neoconservatism into higher gear. He is the foremost proponent of an imperial conception of America's role in the world since Teddy Roosevelt, the most persuasive advocate of "national greatness" in practical politics, and the most loyal adherent of neoconservative ideas in Congress. And possibly the next president of the United States.

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