McCain's Cheap Dates

Is his policy really less interventionist than George W. Bush's?


John McCain has two fundamental 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 #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 #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 last week in Los Angeles, which campaign staff busily telegraphed to a willing press corps as an important distancing-from-Bush moment. Judging by Davids Brooks and 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 "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 Larry King:

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 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 healthy ratio?

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, as has Jonathan Rauch, but regardless of whatever Rauch, 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 re-election 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 zero.

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 non-symbolic 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 reason science correspondent Ron 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 neo-conservative favorite against the too-humble foreign policy approach of governor 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 way:

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. 

Matt Welch is the editor in chief of reason and the author of McCain: The Myth of a Maverick