McCain's Iranian Game of Chicken

The Arizona senator's comments are a tired reminder of foreign policy as bellicose bluffing.

It's during foreign crises like these that I'm glad Barack Obama's biggest critic this week, John Sidney McCain III, never became commander in chief of the United States military. Not because of the Arizona senator's obvious sympathies with Iranian protesters, and distaste for their misrulers—both of which I share. But rather because we might not be talking about Iranian protesters at all this month had the author of "rogue-state rollback" been allowed to test out his doctrine from the Oval Office.

Go back to even before McCain's infamous "Bomb Bomb Bomb, Bomb Bomb Iran" performance on the 2007 campaign trail. The year is 2000, the month is February, and the media's favorite Republican is asked by Larry King at a presidential debate: "What area of American international policy would you change immediately as president?" McCain's answer, after a bit of stammering:

Revise our policies concerning these rogue states...those countries that continue to try to acquire weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them....I'd institute a policy that I call "rogue state rollback." I would arm, train, equip, both from without and from within, forces that would eventually overthrow the governments and install free and democratically-elected governments.

McCain had spelled this policy out in a major foreign policy speech a year earlier, adding what amounted to a game of international chicken: The U.S. should back such insurgents not just with weapons and money, but with the full force of American arms should dictators call their bluff:

The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is the clearest danger we currently confront. Nowhere is the threat more worrisome than in rogue states...I offer one caution, however. If you commit to supporting these forces, accept the seriousness of the obligation. Don't abandon them to the mercies of tyrants whenever they meet with reversals as the administration did in the north of Iraq....The world's only superpower should never give its word insincerely. We should never make idle threats.

The first three targets on McCain's hit list were Iraq, Libya, and North Korea. Had he bested George W. Bush in 2000, the maverick would have had opportunities aplenty to carry out non-idle threats against this Axis of Evil even before the attacks of September 11, 2001. As the Iraq War would amply illustrate, using the U.S. military to replace even one rogue-state tyrant can stretch American capabilities near the breaking point, even when you fall short of the "free and democratically elected" ideal. And among the festival of unintended consequences may be included hemorrhaging support from precisely those pro-democracy forces you initially aim to assist.

Iran met McCain's definition of a rogue state, was actively supporting terrorist organizations abroad, and, as of 2005, had launched a new series of crackdowns on what had been a comparatively vibrant civil society. And the Iranian government's nuclear ambitions alone—which, unhelpfully, continue to enjoy broad support across Iranian society—would have run afoul of a President McCain. As he said in 2007:

The military option is always the ultimate last option, but I don't believe that it's "off the table." I would remind you that enrichment is a longer process. Weaponization can be done rather rapidly. Iran remains a nation dedicated to the extinction of the state of Israel. Iran continues to export the most lethal explosive devices into Iraq, killing Americans. They continue to be a state sponsor of terror in the case of Hamas and Hezbollah. And they continue to seek to exert influence throughout the entire region and the age-old ambition of Persian hegemony, including their increasing influence in the Basra area in southern Iraq. So I think they remain a significant threat and challenge, and so, no, I wouldn't take the option "off the table."

The reaction to Obama's performance these past 10 remarkable days by John McCain and his fellow foreign policy travelers is a fresh reminder that chicken is a game best played with your brother in the back yard, not with unhinged regimes in the Middle East. In what Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan aptly characterized as "Aggressive Political Solipsism," the McCain crowd, amidst its otherwise stirring testimonials about freedom over tyranny, has continually refocused the debate onto Washington. All while deploying that with-us-or-against-us rhetoric that was played out years ago.

On Fox's Neil Cavuto Show, for example, McCain accused Obama of "giving a green light to oppressive governments," "walking on the other side of the street" from the protesters, and engaging in a "betrayal" of American ideals. McCain's old pals at The Weekly Standard predictably concurred with the hyperbole, with the tag team of William Kristol and Stephen Hayes characterizing Obama as being "a de facto ally of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei," and Executive Editor Fred Barnes chiming in that the president "actually helps the regime." And in what reads like a bid to out-crazy the field, National Review writer Andy McCarthy claimed: "The fact is that, as a man of the hard Left, Obama is more comfortable with a totalitarian Islamic regime than he would be with a free Iranian society."

For the moment, those who have consistently advocated military intervention into Iran are limiting their wish-list to the speed, content, and temperature of the president's language (and no, they were not sated by Obama's more sternly worded press conference Tuesday afternoon, as it did not resolve the pressing issue of invitations to July 4 embassy parties). But it's striking how the adherents of rogue-state rollback are much more concerned with minor symbolism than they are about what kind of Iranian state we'd even be talking about this month had they had full run of U.S. policy this past decade.

Obama's rhetoric on Iran so far has been far from bulletproof. For my admittedly internationalist taste, the president appeared more distant and tepid than I would have liked the first few days. And Stephen Hayes makes an interesting point when he compares that early response to Obama's more soaring rhetoric (about Iranian bloggers, no less) during his over-hyped speech in Berlin last year. But by refusing the bait to make an Iranian story a referendum about America, even while stressing international norms that the Iranian regime has clearly violated, the president has disarmed one of the mullahs' favorite talking points in a way that no neo-conservative could ever do with words alone:

The Iranian people are trying to have a debate about their future. Some in Iran—some in the Iranian government, in particular, are trying to avoid that debate by accusing the United States and others in the West of instigating protests over the elections.

These accusations are patently false. They're an obvious attempt to distract people from what is truly taking place within Iran's borders.

This tired strategy of using old tensions to scapegoat other countries won't work anymore in Iran. This is not about the United States or the West; this is about the people of Iran and the future that they—and only they—will choose.

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  • ed||

    That McCain cookie looks like a James Brady cookie.

  • Cabeza de Vaca||

    As horrible as Obama is, I'm glad McCain isn't President. His uber-imperialism & war mongering scares the hell out of me. It should scare the hell out of everyone. A man with this bad of judgement on foreign policy should not get the nomination of either party.

  • Gimpy||

    "Former campaign rival John McCain has been President Barack Obama's biggest critic during the remarkable protests in Iran."

    [citation needed]

  • nj||

    Good article, Welch

    Thank God McCain isn't in the white house

  • Douglas Gray||

    One good bombing run on Iran could easily kill a larger number of innocent people than those slain thus far by the Iranian Security Forces.

    Many of those killed would end up being the same ones we are currently cheering on as they battle for their freedom on the streets of Tehran. Protesting martyrs inspire international sympathy and outrage; those slain in "collateral damage" are largely ignored. That's the way it is with international political theatre.

  • Metal Messiah||

    I would think that the last thing the Iranian protesters on the streets would want is to have the Americans shooting their mouths off and starting up even more trouble.

    If the US government begins offering too much support the anti-government demonstrators, then that gives the Iranian government all the more license to crack down even harder and turn public sentiment against them.

  • Gimpy||

    "[citation needed]"

    Iirc, Welch has deluded himself into believing that McCain raped his mom or something. That's why he's so disappropriately and unnaturally obsessed with McCain. I think McCain has a restraining order, but is constitutionally prohibited from quelling Welch's writings, no matter how childish and vile.

  • Gimpy||

    Hey Matt,

    rather than ball-gagging MaCain for the ten thousandth time, maybe you could look a t Obama:

    Internet User Stumps Obama

    At his press conference today, President Obama, in a pre-arranged move, invited a reporter from the Huffington Post to ask a question submitted by one of the Iranians with whom that reporter has been communicating via the internet. The reporter, Nico Pitney, transmitted this question:

    "Under which conditions would you accept the election of Ahmadinejad? And if you do accept it without any significant changes in the conditions there, isn't that a betrayal of -- of what the demonstrators there are working to achieve?"

    What a terrific question -- a query that not one in a thousand American journalists could be expected to match -- and kudos to Pitney for selecting it. The question elegantly but pointedly (1) refutes the suggestion of Obama's apologists that the president helps the protesters by remaining above the fray while (2) reminding Obama that he cannot really remain above the fray in any event because he must eventually accept the election of Ahmadinejad by dealing with him as planned or reject that fraudulently reached outcome by changing his course.

    The president could only bob and weave. He responded that the U.S. did not have observers on the ground and therefore could not know whether the election was legitimate. But the U.S. knows that the candidates were pre-screened by the regime, making the election inherently illegitimate.

    He responded further that it is up to the Iranian people, not the U.S., to view the election as legitimate or not. But a portion, and probably very large portion, of the Iranian people has already decided that the election is not legitimate; yet the "result" will stand and Ahmadinejad will serve another term. Thus, the ball is now in the Obama administration's court to treat the election as legitimate, by dealing with Ahmadinejad even as he represses his own people, or to demur.

    The question thus stands unanswered by Obama, though it answers itself: if Obama treats Ahmadinejad as the legitimate leader of Iran in the absence of significant changes in conditions there, that would indeed constitute a betrayal of what the demonstrators are working to achieve.

  • Johnny McCain||

    Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran...
    Ahem...was that outloud?
    I jest. You know I was kidding, right?
    Work with me here, people...

  • beth||

    Johnny McCain

    Phantom link?

  • Johnny McCain||

    Phantom link?

    You know it, babe.
    Might I interest you in a used presidential run?
    Four on the floor and an 8-track ready to rock.

  • ||

    Really enjoyed this, but prefer it when Andrew Sullivan writes under his own name rather than using his "Matt Welch" pen-name.

  • Nooge||

    Ouch.

  • Gimpy||

    "Really enjoyed this, but prefer it when Andrew Sullivan writes under his own name rather than using his "Matt Welch" pen-name."

    No. It's Matt. He's gotta million of 'em.

  • ||

    The question elegantly but pointedly (1) refutes the suggestion of Obama's apologists that the president helps the protesters by remaining above the fray while...

    It does no such thing. What a gimpy argument.

    Did Obama promise Mousavi the election? Did Obama promise the demonstrators a new pony? No? Then it's hardly a "betrayal". It most certainly is an acceptance of real politic, of the fact that American intervention isn't going to make the current situation better. Obama doesn't have to treat Ahmadinejad as any more legitimate than he currently treats him.

    ...the candidates were pre-screened by the regime, making the election inherently illegitimate.

    Just like how McCain and Obama were screened by our regime?

    Look, Ahmadinejad's a nut job, but that doesn't mean we should, or can, fix Iran's problem. America's choices are patient diplomacy, or screwing things up big time. Diplomacy may not change anything, but that's a lot better than the alternative.

  • Gimpy||

    New at Reason: Matt Welch on John McCain's Prolapsed Rectum and What this Means for the Ice Cream Industry

  • Matt Welch||

    Really enjoyed this, but prefer it when Andrew Sullivan writes under his own name rather than using his "Matt Welch" pen-name.

    That is one of the better insults in recent memory!

  • Gimpy||

    "It does no such thing. What a gimpy argument."

    We want ice cream!

  • Gimpy||

    "That is one of the better insults in recent memory!"

    So You're the one sporting a ball gag. My bad.

  • ||

    We want ice cream!

    We? Is that a mouse in your pocket, gimpy, or are you a bit too excited about McCain's prolapse?

  • MJ||

    "Did Obama promise Mousavi the election? Did Obama promise the demonstrators a new pony? No? Then it's hardly a "betrayal". It most certainly is an acceptance of real politic, of the fact that American intervention isn't going to make the current situation better."

    So Obama's realpolitik will result in no blowback?

  • BakedPenguin||

    I would think that the last thing the Iranian protesters on the streets would want is to have the Americans shooting their mouths off and starting up even more trouble.



    No, no, no! If Obama condemned the Iranian government action, it would magically stop! The mullahs would realize their days were limited, and cede power immediately. There would be no negative consequences whatsoever. None whatsoever!!!

    It's funny that's it's usually Obama's supporters who think he shits unicorns and rainbows, and casts spells of wondrous power. Now his detractors are making the case for his ability to use a few magic words and change reality.

  • Robert||

    Someone please explain why I should have sympathy for the Iran opposition. I have a little just because they're brave, but I'd have that same sympathy for an outrageous criminal or a daredevil. Any more reasons?

  • Hey All||

    This thread is about McCain.

    Stop wasting your time discussing the President and his Iran policy.

    It's about MCCAIN!!!

    Best,
    One Trick Pony

  • hmm||

    You could more than likely make a similar argument for the other side. Did the revolutionaries start this fight because they saw other Muslim nations voting in free elections. Free elections supported by the US. Most of the Middle East is very capable of delineating between social events like an invasion by a foreign nation and subsequent events. Damning one while praising the other. Just a thought. I can see the other side of the argument playing out just as you presented your argument.

    I don't want my government to have anything to do with it. I can support citizens and even citizen or private organizations funding and helping. But Uncle Sam has no stake in the ME and needs to keep his sorry ass at home.

  • Mike||

    McCain isn't arguing for bombing Iran right now. He is merely asking that Obama use more forceful language in siding with the protesters and denouncing the Iranian government. Sometimes words matter: remember "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"? Even the Europeans are ahead of him on this. Obama, leftist as he is, could never bring himself to something like "evil regime". He is too busy trying to be "nuanced".

  • ||

    Te Worst thing that could happen to John McCain was to win the Republica Nomination to be president, because he it opened the floodgates for the Republicans to say he's a RINO and he has to constantly prove his bona fides to the party lest he get knocked out in the primaries.

  • anon||

    matt welch!

  • ||

    Shorter Welch: Obama sucks. Hey, to be contrary I'll write an article about how McCain would have sucked worse!

  • Les||

    He is merely asking that Obama use more forceful language in siding with the protesters and denouncing the Iranian government.

    Today, Obama said, "The United States and the international community have been appalled and outraged by the threats, beatings, and imprisonments of the last few days. I strongly condemn these unjust actions, and I join with the American people in mourning each and every innocent life that is lost."

    Considering we've killed many more civilians in Afghanistan alone, I think Obama's full of shit. But what more is he supposed to say? Is he supposed to threaten Iran?

    Sometimes words matter: remember "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"?

    When Reagan that, he was actively supporting terrorism in Central America and mass-murdering dictators all over the globe. So, no, in that case, words don't really matter.

  • ||

    When Reagan that, he was actively supporting terrorism in Central America and mass-murdering dictators all over the globe. So, no, in that case, words don't really matter.

    Mass murdering dictators? You are an imbecile.

  • ||

    Neda getting shot in the chest by a Basij is a tragedy. Neda getting blown to smithereens by an American bomb is a statistic.

  • ||

    Because there is no difference, none whatsoever, to collateral damage during warfighting, and a regime gunning down its own citizens during protests.

  • ||

    Mass murdering dictators? You are an imbecile.

    HA!

  • gmatts||

    "Because there is no difference, none whatsoever, to collateral damage during warfighting, and a regime gunning down its own citizens during protests."

    Well the difference lies in where the blame for the deaths will be directed. And as an American, I'd rather it not be directed at us.

  • Les||

    Mass murdering dictators? You are an imbecile.

    Suharto in Indonesia. Ramos in El Salvador. Pinochet in Chile. Garcia in Guatemala. Hussein in Iraq.

    You are ignorant. Willfully so, it would seem.

    Because there is no difference, none whatsoever, to collateral damage during warfighting, and a regime gunning down its own citizens during protests.

    It depends on the war and the tactics being used to fight it, along with the degree of one's statist beliefs that if the government kills civilians during a military operation, it must have been for a good reason. Because, hey, we're America. And our government only kills foreign civilians for the best of reasons.

  • ||

    There are lots of reasons to be grateful that McCain isn't President, if you were to compare him to, say, Reagan or Eisenhower. But compared with Obama? Sorry, that's a bit more problematic.

    But to stay within the article - is :

    1) Practical considerations - is the US _capable_ of supporting the enemies of its enemies?

    "As the Iraq War would amply illustrate, using the U.S. military to replace even one rogue-state tyrant can stretch American capabilities near the breaking point." Huh?

    World War II stretched American capabilities (although not likely to the breaking point), but _Iraq?_ Iraq was a frigging cakewalk, as I recall. Yeah, yeah, I'm sure some twit can point to some such or other factoid justifying this hyperbole, but come on now, really. Iraq was, in historical terms, easy.

    So the answer to (1) is yes.


    2) Is this a strategy, or is it just like playing Chicken in your back yard?

    If your intent is to weaken those who threaten you, and you actually _do_ weaken those who threaten you, then it's not chicken. And given the events of the past week, it's not at all clear that Bush, who I imagine Matt Welch would say had played this game too, did not weaken the Mullarchy with it.

    So the answer to (2) is no, it's not like playing Chicken with your brother in the back yard. It can work. It does work.


    But - and here I partially agree with Matt Welch - it is only _one_ tactic. The long-term strategy should be to subvert these regimes in any way possible through a variety of tactics - propaganda, economic pressure, military pressure, whatever works.

    But that does _not_ mean that I would dignify the current President's obvious befuddlement, inaction, and persitence with what has now clearly been repudiated as a viable approach - trying to be pals with everybody - with the name 'tactic.' His approach is simply wishful thinking writ large.

  • Barry Loberfeld||

  • ||

    Mass murdering dictators? You are an imbecile.

    Suharto in Indonesia. Ramos in El Salvador. Pinochet in Chile. Garcia in Guatemala. Hussein in Iraq.

    You are ignorant. Willfully so, it would seem.


    Did Reagan "mass-murder those dictators?

    You did not write "supporting terrorists and dictators who are mass-murderers". You wrote "supporting terrorists and mass-murdering dictators."

    Don't blame me for reading your post as you wrote it instead of how it was apparently intended.

  • Zeb||

    Why is it the US president's place to accept or not accept the results of a foreign election that everyone knows is not really legitimate in the first place, even if every vote was properly counted? No one thinks that the Iranian regime is good or democratic. But they are still in charge of Iran. If you want to deal with Iran, you have to deal with them, whatever the results of the fake election for the not-very-powerful president. This whole controversy about Obama's reaction seems rather trumped up and irrelevant.

  • Zeb||

    "You did not write "supporting terrorists and dictators who are mass-murderers". You wrote "supporting terrorists and mass-murdering dictators."

    Don't blame me for reading your post as you wrote it instead of how it was apparently intended."

    Don't be a dick. Language contains ambiguities and that could legitimately be read either way. You just happened to pick the unintended interpretation. Either would be valid.

  • Les||

    You did not write "supporting terrorists and dictators who are mass-murderers". You wrote "supporting terrorists and mass-murdering dictators."

    Here's a grammatically correct (if hastily structured) sentence:

    "She enjoyed dating singing truckers and farming football players."

    Why would you think the subject of that sentence farmed football players?

    The sentence I wrote is grammatically correct, but could be read either way. You decided I meant that Reagan mass-murdered dictators.

    And then you called me an imbecile.

    That's kind of funny.

  • Les||

    I'll just add that I know it's a poorly structured sentence, as it was written too hastily.

    But there are ways of pointing out things like that without being, as Zeb so accurately put it, a dick.

  • ||

    The sentence I wrote is grammatically correct....I know it's a poorly structured sentence

  • ||

    I thought the same things when I heard McCain rants. There is no doubt in my mind that Obama's election changed the way our country is viewed in Iran. Now, if we can only get the President to stop spending our money like a drunkard sailer. Everytime I read about Obama's domestic policies, I grap my wallet.

  • Les||

    Good luck with that "dick" thing, Marshall.

  • jtuf||

    Good article Matt. Our government should not be in the habit of supporting insurgencies however rightous the cause may be. On the other hand, there are things we as private citizens can do. We can write to officals within the Iranian government to express our disgust over their attacks on protestors. We can also rally in our cities in solidarity with the Iranian people. Both of these actions are within the norms of international dialogue.

  • Seth Grodofsky||

    Barack Obama has mirrored a long line of presidents who didnt who talked softly and didnt carry a big stick.
    Eisenhower refused airlifts of arms to the hungarians fighting the Russian Red Army.
    Kennedy was labasted for not ordering air support in the bay of pigs fiasco. Bush Sr. Mumbled some semi harsh words for the Chinese in the Aftermath of the Tiannenmen Square massacre. McCain's loudmouth antics have no weight. A long line of presidents Republican and Democrats have done exactly what Barack Obama has or has not said concerning the upheaval in Iran. They all hedged their bets and waited for the clampdown and ruffled as few feathers as possible.

  • abercrombie milano||

    My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I'm sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won't get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there's more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I'm not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It's just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight...the Bible's books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on...the Bible's books were written by people with very different mindsets...in order to really get the Books of the Bible, you have to cultivate such a mindset, it's literally a labyrinth, that's no jokeI thought the same things when I heard McCain rants. There is no doubt in my mind that Obama's election changed the way our country is viewed in Iran. Now, if we can only get the President to stop spending our money like a drunkard sailer. Everytime I read about Obama's domestic policies, I grap my wallet.

  • Scarpe Nike Italia||

    is good

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