McCain's Georgian Hyperbole

Exaggerating threats is a feature, not a bug, of McCainite neoconservatism, and reveals much about what kind of president he'd make.


On Thursday of last week, Republican presidential nominee John McCain said that Russia's invasion of Georgia was "the first probably serious crisis internationally since the end of the Cold War." This is most certainly not true, at least according to the last two decades' worth of foreign policy assessments from one John McCain.

In December 1990, two months after Germany reunified and four months after Saddam Hussein did unto Kuwait far worse than what Vladimir Putin has so far done unto Georgia, the Arizona senator asserted that "the peace and security of the world for future generations [demand] that the world community act decisively to end the Gulf Crisis now." Pretty serious stuff.

In January 1994, he described North Korea's nuclear weapons program as "the most dangerous and immediate expression" of "the greatest challenge to U.S. security and world stability today," and warned that "there can be no serious doubt that our vital national interests are imperiled." Serious!

In an April 1999 speech that everyone considering voting for McCain should go read now, the rogue-state rollbacker said that "America's most important values—life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—are under vicious assault by the Milosevic regime," requiring "an immediate and manifold increase in the violence against Serbia proper and Serbian forces in Kosovo," including mobilization of "infantry and armored divisions for a possible ground war." Très sérieux!

And of course, during the current campaign, he has repeatedly reminded voters that he's running for president to confront "the transcendent issue of our time: the battle and struggle against radical Islamic extremism." Which, he argued at a Republican debate in June 2007, "is a force of evil that is within our shores…. My friends, this is a transcendent struggle between good and evil. Everything we stand for and believe in is at stake here." If that isn't a "probably serious crisis internationally," then the phrase truly has no meaning.

OK, so McCain misspoke with that whole Cold War bit. But did he really? Consider another line from last week: "I think it's very clear that Russian ambitions are to restore the old Russian Empire. Not the Soviet Union, but the Russian Empire."

Let's review what McCain is alleging here: Not only does Russia have malevolent designs on recently detached "Near Abroad" territories within nearby Georgia, Belarus, and Moldova—a critique, I hasten to add, that I share—McCain warns that the Bear is also working actively toward re-swallowing all or much of such Russian colonial holdings-turned sovereign states as, oh, Finland, Armenia, the Baltics, a pack of 'stans, and a big chunk of Poland.

It's one thing to look into Putin's eyes and (accurately) see three letters: K-G-B, quite another to base your foreign policy approach on the assumption that the second biggest nuclear arsenal in the world wants to go on the biggest nation-gobbling rampage the globe has seen in over 60 years, devouring a half-dozen NATO members in the process.

These aren't the exaggerations of a novice or a naif; quite the opposite, actually. McCain knows Georgia and the Near Abroad perhaps more intimately than any other senator. The taxpayer-financed International Republican Institute, which he has headed up for 15 years, has been deeply involved with democracy-building projects in the formerly Soviet republic. His chief foreign policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann, has performed extensive lobbying for the country (including directly to John McCain), and like all the best lobbying efforts, it appears to be a case of genuine shared interests.

The case against neoconservative foreign policy has never been about an insufficient store of knowledge. You couldn't, for example, accuse Paul Wolfowitz of inexperience with the Middle East. Neoconservatism's problem, and electoral advantage, is one and the same: By escalating international problems into monumental crises and impending threats, interventionists such as John McCain have been able to appear knowledgeable, "serious," and presidentially tough, all at once. Any competitor preaching policy restraint and rhetorical prudence looks like a wuss in comparison.

Like Democrats ready to re-intervene in the economy at the first sign of crisis, the neocons' continuing state of red-alert readiness—whether directed at China, Russia, or the Middle East—provides a go-to set of policy prescriptions, expertise, and action items whenever the latest "holiday from history" comes crashing to a halt. George W. Bush's "humble" foreign policy approach, however sincere it might have been, was no substitute on Sept. 12 for an offensive strategy backed by a well-worn worldview. By 2002, Bush's foreign policy was little different than what a President McCain's might have looked like and, not uncoincidentally, McCainite National Greatness Conservatives went from being prime candidates for defecting from the Republican Party to the in-flight ideological officers of Air Force One.

The problems with their approach should be evident by now, but are worth repeating. Perpetually exaggerating threats leads to, well, perpetual exaggerations, whether about a bad guy's wickedness or a good guy's virtue. On such faulty edifices are constructed unnecessary wars, those most murderous of foreign policy mistakes. In October 2001, McCain, a longtime Iraq hawk, told David Letterman that "some of this anthrax may—and I emphasize may—have come from Iraq." And the senator has long been a supporter of disgraced Iraqi National Congress schemer Ahmad Chalabi.

So take care when the would-be commander in chief says "we are all Georgians" (a rhetorical flourish made goofy by the fact that not all Georgians are even Georgians). McCain may indeed have a usable, just-add-water approach to Russia (consider that his calls to kick Russia out of the G8 went from being crazy-sounding to a distinct possibility within a few short months), but after nearly seven years of seeing a McCain-lite foreign policy in practice, our burden of proof should shift back to the boys who perpetually cry wolf.

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