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.

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  1. Shouldn’t Hainan at least count?

  2. I think it really must be pointed out here that while not nearly as rhetorically grandiose, Obama’s policy prescriptions for Georgia are certainly on a similar page, and would if enacted lead to a military conflict. I fear that without such mention we risk falling into perpetuating the misconception that the Republicans have the franchise on imperialist interventionism – and that Obama has no such designs bubbling in his head, however nascent. To call for sanctions against Sudan, China, and now most recently a hasty NATO alliance with Georgia on the heels of this conflict may not have the stink of Iraq, or the bluster of big stick rhetoric, but make no mistake, they are calls for war.

  3. Over the weekend one of my friends remarked that “We should never have been allied with Georgia in the first place!” I expressed surprise, not knowing that we were formally allied with Georgia. “Of course we are,” he said, “they applied for admittance to the NATO!”

    Just goes to prove that there’s nuttiness all over this issue.

  4. Munich! Appeasement! HITLER!

  5. Declaring something to be THE most dangerous, most serious crisis is a statement of priorities, like when McCain declared Iraq’s WMDs to be the most serious threat we faced. So much more serious than the ongoing war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, apparently, since he supported moving troops and material (especially the special forces and UAVs that in such demand) from Afghanistan to Iraq. While the merits of that judgement can be debated, there can be no question that he was making a judgement about priorities, and came to the same conclusion as the admdinistration. As Admiral Mullen said, “We do what we must in Iraq; we do what we can in Afghanistan.”

    It isn’t just that McCain is a hothead who gets his juices flowing about whichever baddie is in the news that day. If that were the case, he wouldln’t have been agitating for an Iraq invasion on 9/12. Whatever conflict or challenge is going to get the American public to support the global-scale cofrontations he’s long wanted, he defines as the most serious.

  6. The Jews provoked this crisis because they were mad about Putin wrestling power away from their oligarchs, just like they turned on Stalin when he was powerful enough to get rid of them.

    The world is run by Jews.

  7. Ohh, Russian nationalism AND anti-semitism! Never seen that combo before.

  8. Speaking of setting priorities…

    If you don’t see a difference, at least a quantitative difference, between the hawkishness of Obama and McCain, you’re not paying attention.

    Calling for an embargo on Sudan, calling for the invasion and open-ended occupation of Iraq; same-same, right?

    Even on Georgia, there is a considerable difference between “they should have been admitted to NATO years ago” and “NATO should develop a road map for Georgia’s inclusion.” If a country that wants NATO admission has an ongoing territorial dispute with a global power like Russia, there’s quite a bit of daylight between wishing we were already in a mutual-defense treaty with them, and setting criteria (such as the achievement of a settlement of the issue or at least a stablizing agreement) for their admission.

    I realize that both sets of beliefs violate the principles of the hard-core noninterventionists, but even they must be able to recognize that there are more questions worth answering than “Are you a hardcore noninterventionist?”

  9. Joe, lets say we intervene in Sudan.

    China is pissed because we ran around their veto on the security council. Ten years later, they invade Thailand (a pro-American country) on the accusation that ethnic Chinese in Thailand are being subjected to what they claim is a “genocide”. The neocons then use this as an excuse for war with China.

    Thus, well meaning liberal humanitarian interventionism gives militaristic nationalist neocons an excuse for world war.

  10. IOW Obama’s foreign policy can lead indirectly to the same thing McCain’s foreign policy leads us directly to.

  11. BDB,

    Let’s not. Let’s use some more specific language, language that provided a rough indication of what we’re actually talking about, because differences matter.

    For example, to the hardcore anti-interventionists, a mission that has the full backing of the Security Council is just as unacceptable as some unilateral cowboy gunboat diplomacy.

    I’m not arguing one way or the other about your example. I’m just saying, it’s probably worth putting in the effort to think about how putting sanctions on a third-world country in Africa with which a great power does business, and entering into a collective security agreement with a country on the border of, and in the middle of a territorial dispute with, a great power, are different.

  12. BDB | August 18, 2008, 3:52pm | #

    IOW Obama’s foreign policy can lead indirectly to the same thing McCain’s foreign policy leads us directly to.

    Even if one were to agree that a liberal foreign policy CAN lead to the same outcomes as a neoconservative on if taken to extremes and implemented in a differences to consider; modesty in one’s beliefs about the limits of military force, and a worldview which considers conflict with other powers to be a drawback, as opposed to the purpose, of a well-executed foreign policy, are going to work to restrain the scope of interventionism.

  13. “Ohh, Russian nationalism AND anti-semitism! Never seen that combo before.”

    Yeah, together they managed to kill, what 1/1000th of the people who died thanks to the Jewish creation Communism?

  14. Joe, if we got approval of all the permanent members of the Security Council to take action in Sudan, had a multi-national military force, and got the Japanese and Germans to fund it there would be no reason not to go. Doing it any other way, with a western coalition (NATO) or with hardly any coalition at all (Kosovo) sets a horrible precedent, regardless of the intent.

    My model for a successful international intervention is the 1991 Gulf War. No world power of any consequence opposed that, and it had clearly stated and limited objectives.

    But I’m more a realist than a non-interventionist, so YMMV.

  15. er, “…as a neoconservative one if taken to extremems and implemented aggressively, there are still important differences to consider;…”

  16. why do I have the feeling that the anti-interventionists are never gonna get their way? Our real policy choices seem to be Democratic multilateral NATO Balkan type actions (during these we will see a few repubs join with Ron Paul in anti-intervention rhetoric. Then they forget it when its their parties turn to lead.) or Republican Dead or Alive Iraq type actions. Theres gotta be some sort of America first coalition who’d respond to A “Fuck it, its not our problem!” campaign slogan

    BTW I dont think its crazy at all to kick Russia out of the G8.

  17. Er, I meant to say “a western only coalition (Kosovo) or hardly any coalition at all (2003-2008 Iraq War)

  18. BDB,

    Kosovo was “done” with the active support of all of the members of NATO. I think the distinction you wished to draw was between Kosovo (NATO) and Iraq (hardly any coalition at all, ie, a Coalition of the Billing).

    I don’t want to jack this thread into a discussion about the wisdom of going into Sudan. I’m saying, someone with a liberal foreign policy philosophy is going to be dissuaded from, for example, acting against the wishes of the Security Council a lot more than someone with a neoconservative foreign policy philosophy.

    RC Dean used to say that I opposed the Iraq War because I only supported humanitarian missions that were easy. You know what? Guilty. Guilty as charged. Modesty restrains liberal “internationalists,” as Pat Buchanan might call them, in a way that it does not constrain neoconservative internationalists. I think this is a point worthy of consideration by non-interventionists.

  19. Joe, NATO only is not enough. You have to have AT LEAST neutrality from Russia and China as well.

    We would expect them to ask us and the EU ahead of time if we would have issues with them taking military action in a given country, yes? So if you want that, you have to give them (thuggish as their governments are) the same deal. Otherwise international peace begins to break down.

  20. The war mongers are losing the propaganda war. Much like a burned-out, has-been rock band, they are rerecording and remaking old hits hoping to regain popularity.

    Russia was a huge hit for them, and it worked for over 40 years. It suckered a trillion dollars out of the American people.

    Usually these attempts to regain popularity by recycling old hits just show the public how desperate and pathetic they are. Grace Slick was right when she said that “old people look pathetic on stage.”

  21. Matt–

    Sure, its totally sane if you don’t mind the idea of pushing Russia away from the west and into the arms of China.

    We’re going to need a friendly Russia in 30 years when China starts giving us naval trouble in the Pacific. Thats why being unfriendly isn’t a good idea. If instead we see a Russia-China alliance we’re fucked.

  22. zzzzzzzz boring. Like any of these two are going to do anything what so ever that increase the quantum of individual liberty. Every time one of these jerkoffs opens his mouth, I think of this dialogue.

    Dole Office Clerk: Occupation?

    Comicus: Stand-up philosopher.

    Dole Office Clerk: What?

    Comicus: Stand-up philosopher. I coalesce the vapors of human existence into a viable and meaningful comprehension.

    Dole Office Clerk: Oh, a *bullshit* artist!
    Comicus: Hmmmmmm…

    Dole Office Clerk: Did you bullshit last week?

    Comicus: No.

    Dole Office Clerk: Did you try to bullshit last week?

    Comicus: Yes!

    Dole Office Clerk:Try harder or we’ll have to cut-off you payments. Next please!”

  23. The last sentence was by far the most important point of the article. The burden of proof should be on he who wants to go to war (or rhetorically build up a conflict such that war seems necessary). I’ll be using that line.

  24. BDB @ 4:14,

    I hear you, and there’s a lot of wisdom in what you say. There really is a lot worth listening to in the “realist” and “non-interventionist” foreign policy arguments, sez this liberal humanitarian do-gooder. My only rejoinder is that what you say isn’t an absolute.

  25. That was a pretty piss-poor link from “Moldova” you got there.

    1. There is no Russian minority (or, at least, any sizable one) within Georgia. The author probably mistook the Russian passport-holders of South Ossetia for actual Russians.
    2. There is no oil, gas, oil pipeline, nor gas pipeline running through Moldova. Hence, Russia has no reason to want to scare away Western energy investors in Moldova. Hence, no reason to make a fake crisis over Transnistria.

  26. The Jews provoked this crisis because they were mad about Putin wrestling power away from their oligarchs, just like they turned on Stalin when he was powerful enough to get rid of them.

    The world is run by Jews.

    RON PAUL 2008!

  27. Yes, you all are so smart. 60% of mass media journalists and 40% of political contributions coming from the most ethno-centric group in the history of the world has NO effect on American policy.

    You know why Japan has no foreign policy and minds its own business? Because it has no Jews.

  28. “You know why Japan has no foreign policy and minds its own business?”

    Because it ended up getting firebomed, then nuked the last time it didn’t?

  29. You have to have AT LEAST neutrality from Russia and China as well.

    And seeing as China seems to be behind the present nastiness in Darfur in violation of UN arms embargos on Sudan, as a way to gain access to (wait for it) . . . oil, that ain’t gonna happen.

    Instead, you would well see a nasty little proxy war developing, and (as proxy wars have a way of doing) expanding beyond its present scope.

    RC Dean used to say that I opposed the Iraq War because I only supported humanitarian missions that were easy. You know what? Guilty. Guilty as charged.

    Thank you for that, joe. Does picking a proxy war with China count as an easy one?

  30. Which is why, RC Dean, its a good reason to just let it alone. The cure would be worse than the disease.

  31. Matt —

    “There’s gotta be some sort of America first coalition who’d respond to A “Fuck it, its not our problem!” campaign slogan”

    If it weren’t so fraught with the association to a few antisemitic bad apples of yesteryear, I think “America First” would be a powerful and confounding movement to behold for mainstream Republicans and Democrats.

    I think the former point’s the only one preventing Buchanan from printing out new AFC buttons and t-shirts.

  32. You know why Japan has no foreign policy and minds its own business? Because it has no Jews.

    How do you explain the common Jewish surname “Shapiro”, then? Huh? You don’t get it. The Japs are Jews who were fooled by Satan to become Shintoists!

  33. So, McCain is using the underpants gnome foreign policy.

    Step 1 – Constant War
    Step 2 – . . .
    Step 3 – World Peace

  34. You’re out of your gourd if you think China would pick a proxy war over a peacekeeping mission in Darfur.

    It’s not Burma. The Chinese have never identified any sphere of influence in Africa.

  35. What’s the big deal? Russia is no threat. It’s not like they threatened to nuke Poland right after they invaded Georgia.

  36. Ummm, Joe? They’re very interested in East Africa. They’re giving a hell of a lot of economic and military aid to that area of the world. Do a google search.

  37. BDB,

    There’s a big difference between being “interested in” and the term of art “sphere of influence.” I’m pretty familiar with the subject, thanks.

  38. Perhaps “interested in” wasn’t strong enough a term. China is actively making East Africa their sphere of influence. It is a “neutral” area of the world currently leaning towards them. It won’t be in 2012.

    Even if we did intervene in Sudan before it was fully in their orbit, it would push the rest of East Africa closer to them.

  39. …closer to them more quickly.

  40. Also, one of the reasons East Africa is moving closer to China is because our international reputation went down the shitter after Iraq. Even though we have “won” there.

  41. John McCain described Russia’s invasion of Georgia as “the first probably serious crisis internationally since the end of the Cold War.”

    So our government’s needless, shameful, and tragic war on Iraq, whose chief motivators included those who had what they thought was the best interest of the Israeli government, not our country, in mind, was what? A little annoyance?

  42. My God. I have never seen such mindless drivel as these posts….

    Are all of you people fools?

  43. BDB,

    “The Chinese wouldn’t like it” is a reasonable point. It was the “proxy war with China” nonsense RC wrote that’s absurd.

    Yes, sending a peacekeeping mission to Darfur would piss off the Chinese. They’d probably become noticeably cooler to us on trade deals and other diplomatic issues.

    But then, there’s also the question of what we would actually do there. Different actions would elicit different responses. A regime change war against Khartoum, for example, would pretty much crank the Chinese up to 11. A defensive posture out way out west, particularly one in which American troops were relatively quickly replaced by blue helmets, not as much. (Personally, I think just the threat of such a thing would be enough to get the Chinese on board with a more robust mandate and a larger force for the peacekeepers who are already there). But there would be a price to pay in terms of relations with China. The question is whether it’s worth it.

  44. The plate of scrambled eggs that magically appears before McCain’s tired eyes every morning represents the greatest crisis since the end of the Cold War. Accordingly, McCain responds by devouring the eggs and then passing them through his steady and decisive digestive system, coming out on the other end as the piece of shit that the eggs truly are.
    Problem solved, vote McCain.

  45. I just read that the Russian soldiers bagged a good number of Humvees. That’s a serious threat to the foundations of Western civilization.

  46. Georgia: The nation state equivalent of Timothy Treadwell.

  47. Whatever real threat Russia represents to its neighbors or, improbably, the US is really a moot point.

    Given our present military commitments and deployments in neutralizing other even more improbable threats throughout the world, we’re in no position to intervene in Eastern Europe or anyplace else where US interests and those of our allies are threatened.

  48. Apparently, you morons don’t remember how ww2 started.

    There are people in this world that want to enslave us or kill us. Face it.

  49. Hey, let’s not forget Alaska, which was Bear country until 1867. Does McCain think the Russians have designs on it as well?

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