John McCain

It's Hard out Here for a Pre-Emptive Warrior

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There's a pretty good Atlantic cover story by Jeffrey Goldberg about John McCain's foreign policy. The article spends many words chewing on the experience of Vietnam (most interestingly, McCain's father's approach to that war), but the section I found most illuminating was the Arizona senator's sad conclusion that the American public is just not as interventionist as he'd like:

"While we don't go around launching preemptive strikes all the time, we can't afford to wait until a terrorist organization, or a nation which is an avowed enemy of the United States, has the capability to use weapons of mass destruction-or even uses them," McCain said. "If we knew with absolute certainty that the Iranians were going to support Hezbollah to make sure they got a weapon of mass destruction in southern Lebanon-would we just wait until Hezbollah attacks Israel with that weapon? Well, first of all, I don't think the Israelis would wait, but I'm not sure. The consequences, as we know, are catastrophic." (In May, when I asked McCain why the defense of Israel was an American national-security interest, he said, "The United States of America has committed itself to never allowing another Holocaust.")

But McCain, though stalwart in defense of preemption, is not obtuse about its unpopularity; he knows that the idea of preemption has taken on a negative cast.

"With preemption, the connotation is that the cowboy just wants to go out and attack people," he said. "The country is in one of our occasional periods of isolationism, a reaction to what [the public views] as failure, even when we are succeeding in Iraq-and we have succeeded in Iraq. There's still going to be a greater reluctance than there was" before the Iraq War to try to stop an adversary from gaining possession of weapons of mass destruction.

As he said this, he seemed depleted by the discussion of preemption. It's not the first unpopular cause he's adopted, but it might be the most difficult one to sell to the American public.

"It's very hard to run for president on this idea right now."

Recall that in a New York Times Magazine piece on the same subject this past May, McCain expressed similar regret that the American people just aren't ready to back interventions in Zimbabwe and Burma at this time. Perhaps under a McCain presidency they can be convinced.

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  1. Kerry would’ve been wo – wait. What year is it?

  2. Wait so opposing preemptive war is isolationist? The man is beyond dangerous.

  3. “Isolationism” means a reluctance to travel a long distance to kill foreigners at great expense.

  4. That’s the sort of foreign policy ideas you get when you’re the fifth worst student at the Naval Academy.

  5. Please Americans, don’t give my retrograde Canadian government anymore excuses to get our guys killed along with yours.

  6. Clarification. I mean to include dolls along with guys. We too have female soldiers out there dying.

  7. So how’s your mom holding up?

  8. “That’s the sort of foreign policy ideas you get when you’re the fifth worst student at the Naval Academy.”

    Please remind me, what univerity did drop-out Bill Gates attend?

  9. “”If we knew with absolute certainty that the Iranians were going to support Hezbollah to make sure they got a weapon of mass destruction in southern Lebanon-would we just wait until Hezbollah attacks Israel with that weapon?”

    Considering our initial foray into establishing certainties in regards to weapons of mass destruction & prememptive war proved to be 180 degrees the opposite of what McCain and his gang said it would be, you’d think that McCain might shift his foot from the gas to the break.
    He almost acts as if it’s up to the public to prove his assertions wrong.

    “With preemption, the connotation is that the cowboy just wants to go out and attack people,” he said.

    Yeah, stupid us for thinking that.

  10. Many military experts question the efficacy of a pre-emptive strike against Iran. The country is huge, and protected by large mountain ranges. Plus, it would lead to increased polarization in the Muslim world. Israel had trouble with a small rag tag bunch in Lebanon last time around, and they are unsure as well, for good reason. The principled dumbness of the Bush administration would continue under McCain

  11. Please remind me, what univerity did drop-out Bill Gates attend?

    Harvard, IIRC.

  12. Bad: interventionist foreign wars
    Worse: losing those wars

    I could quote Stephen Decatur.

  13. The American people never signed up to be the world’s police, or the “sole remaining superpower” with a global empire. Job #1 of the Federal Government is to secure our liberties, by repelling invaders when necessary, but also by scrupulously refraining from doing anything that the government is not specifically authorized to do by the Constitution — such as pursue an interventionist foreign policy or launch a pre-emptive war. When someone swears an oath to preserve, protect, and defend the constitution, he or she is actually swearing to understand where it draws the lines, to never step over those lines, and to keep others from stepping over them as well. Mr. McCain has flunked this test on numerous occasions. Not only does he not deserve to be President, he would actually preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution best by retiring from public life, having done enough damage already. Stand down, Senator.

  14. Isolationism is great, just like the idea of letting market regulate everything is great, until you realize the vast capacity for stupidity and malice in your fellow humans. (The only reason people deny this is that they fear it exists in themselves.)

    The reason we protect Israel is that the Jewish people have many historical enemies, and they outnumber them, and if we just allow open conflict, they will get Holocausted again. No more Holocausts… that’s not unreasonable, is it?

    Theodor Herzl was correct in that he diagnosed the reason for anti-Semitism as resentment of Jewish nationlessness by those who are the majority in other nations. Either you try to destroy the majority (liberalism) so there’s no common standard, or you behave responsibly and set up an Israeli state.

    Israel may not be perfect, but at least it’s something we build upon.

  15. Could we just drag Woodrow Wilson out of the grave and kick his ass?

  16. “No more Holocausts… that’s not unreasonable, is it?”

    Darfur for a hundred thousand, Wink?

  17. “Bad: interventionist foreign wars
    Worse: losing those wars”

    What’s wrong with just saying “We Won!!”, then leaving? It seems that trying to reach some type of reasonable settlement with people of a psychotic nature hell-bent on killing themselves is just bad strategy.
    Can a country ever reach a point, in terms of time, money or lives lost, where “losing” an ill-begotten war is better than just repeatedly trying to weather previous decisions that were extremely unwise?

  18. I meant Alex. Sorry

  19. “Can a country ever reach a point, in terms of time, money or lives lost, where “losing” an ill-begotten war is better than just repeatedly trying to weather previous decisions that were extremely unwise?”

    FUCK YEAH!

  20. Anti-Globalism, how does regulating the market take stupidity and malice out of the equation?

  21. “The reason we protect Israel is that the Jewish people have many historical enemies”

    So that’s why McCain was talking about adding the Caananites to the Axis of Evil.

  22. *This* is the biggest single factor in why I am going to vote for a Democrat for president for the first time in my life. There will be a dozen posters who will say, “Obama will be just as bad!!!” All I can say to that is bull-mother-fucking-shit. Obama may be a former “community organizer,” but his national security and foreign policy writings demonstrate that he understands the bad shape the US military is in. It will be in no condition to undertake any major new deployments for years even with massive spending on refitting it. Spending hundreds of billions of dollars on re-equipping the military will run contrary to Obama’s domestic agenda and with the economy probably doing no better in 2009 (and possibly worse), that is where his attention will be focused. Furthermore, once a Democratic president takes office the Congressional Republicans will all suddenly rediscover their innate opposition to foreign adventurism.

    Mcain, notwithstanding the lessons of the past five years, clearly still believes that the US military is sufficiently powerful to undertake any new mission it is given. And, as has been demonstrated for years, Congressional Democrats have no ability to check military action by a Republican president. John McCain is literally too dangerous a human being to be allowed to have his finger on The Button.

    Finally, for those of you stupid enough to vote for McCain because OBAMA IS A ZOMG!!111!~!`11!1! SOCIALIST!1!1! (which is the biggest piece of bullshit pushed out the anus of American politics this election cycle — during the primaries Edwards and Clinton supporters were freaking out that Obama was too conservative), all I can say is that the blood is on your hands. Vote Barr or another third-party candidate if you must, but a vote for John McCain is literally a vote for not just continuations of the current Iraq and Afghanistan fiascos, but new attacks on Iran and quite likely on Syria and North Korea, along with a dangerous possibility of a direct military confrontation with Russia and China.

  23. What’s wrong with just saying “We Won!!”, then leaving?

    That is an acceptable exit strategy today.
    It wasn’t in 1991.

    I would prefer we avoid interventionist wars
    but losing them (or not winning) only compounds the problem. Counter-intuitively it seems to encourage the error in the near future
    while actually winning doesn’t.

  24. While we don’t go around launching preemptive strikes all the time…

    All the time? Ever take a look at the list of U.S. military history events? Maybe all the time, means more frequently than every year? Maybe if they happened as frequently as Reason blog posts McCain might be satisfied.

  25. “Jack”

    That you joe?

  26. Offense is the best Defense (and Vice Versa)

  27. And they went on to become? Had we but known that Al-Queda’s plan was to insert John McCain into our presidency…

  28. Israel is NOT our problem.

    They need to sink or swim on their own.

  29. I hate when liberals say “McCain is the same as Bush” because I think it’s pretty obvious that McCain would be way fucking worse.

  30. As I posted on another blog, anymore I can’t buy the argument that Obama will be better than McCain.

    I’m a little isolationist and protested the Iraq war myself. I recognize the horrible foreign policy of John McCain for what it is. But the fact of the matter is that McCain supports free trade while Obama does not, and free trade has proven to be the best preventer of wars in the long run.

    Even if McCain is able to convince the likely Democratic-controlled Congress to fund his wars, wars can be ended. Entitlements and government programs usually aren’t, and turn out to be far more expensive because of their bad economics. McCain has at least shown with his record that he’ll make a worthy attempt to control government spending.

    I fear the long term consequences of a Democratic controlled presidency with a Democratic controlled congress more than I do a Republican controlled presidency with a Democratic controlled congress. Bush has been pretty tame the past two years, although – unlike McCain will likely be – he has been lax to pull out the veto pen very often.

    If in doubt, remember the last time Dems controlled both (1992-1994) they passed loads of bad crap like the Brady Bill, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and almost got socialized healthcare (only stopped by a Republican takeover), and questionable legislation like NAFTA (not really a free trade agreement so much as a “let’s exempt corporations from each others’ laws” policy) and the Earned Income Tax Credit. The time before that, they passed the Great Society, most of which is still ingrained in our welfare state. “In 1965 the first session of the Eighty-ninth Congress created the core of the Great Society. The Johnson Administration submitted eighty-seven bills to Congress, and Johnson signed eighty-four, or 96%, arguably the most successful legislative agenda in American history.” (Wikipedia)

    History is why I’m more frightened of an Obama presidency than McCain, and I’d be interested in if other Reasonoids, including Matt Welch, come to the same conclusion. Of course this assumption is on the likelihood of a Democratic congress. If the Republicans were most likely to be controlling Congress, I’d say the opposite.

  31. The Dems also voted overwhelmingly for the war, so I would guess they also supported it. They could have stopped funding it at any time, but were afraid to face the political consequences of doing so.

    War is much, much cooler than free trade. How many movies have they made about free trade?

  32. Please remind me, what univerity did drop-out Bill Gates attend?

    Umm, I’m pretty sure Bill gates didn’t drop out of Harvard because he stood 894th out of a class of 899.

  33. Some other questions it might be nice if some enterprising journalist asked of McCain:

    “You say we have succeeded in Iraq. Generally an enterprise is a success if the benefits it conveys outweigh the costs you have incurred. Could you please list what you think the costs of Iraq have been, and what the tangible benefits to the United States have been?”

    “Do you have any concrete evidence that Iran has developed or is developing a nuclear weapon? If not, which nation do you think has made the better effort to comply with its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty – Iran, or the United States?”

    Until he answers these questions, his fondness for preemptive war is, in fact, rooted in an atavistic desire to go out and attack people, and nothing else.

  34. That’s the sort of foreign policy ideas you get when you’re the fifth worst student at the Naval Academy.

    Please remind me, what univerity did drop-out Bill Gates attend?

    Colin Powell was a C student at CCNY. I’m neither impressed nor dismayed by somebody’s GPA in college.

  35. Our government is the most powerful entity on this earth, and possibly the most powerful entity that has ever existed on this earth. It cannot resist fucking with other countries, no matter who is in charge. Obama might be slightly better than McCain about fucking with other countries but he will also be unable to resist doing so. Anyone who thinks otherwise is a fool. Now, that might mean for you to vote for Obama because he’d at least be a little better, but when he starts mucking about in Darfur or elsewhere, you’ll still be pissed.

    There is no winning choice here, sadly.

  36. “The only winning move is not to play.”

  37. Oooh, good one, NutraSweet. How about a nice game of chess?

  38. Can a country ever reach a point, in terms of time, money or lives lost, where “losing” an ill-begotten war is better than just repeatedly trying to weather previous decisions that were extremely unwise?

    Yes, certainly.

  39. History is why I’m more frightened of an Obama presidency than McCain, and I’d be interested in if other Reasonoids, including Matt Welch, come to the same conclusion.

    On the subject of unified government, we have a great piece in the forthcoming November issue by Veronique de Rugy that studies the phenomenon in some detail. The results may surprise you!

  40. The Dems also voted overwhelmingly for the war, so I would guess they also supported it.

    The Democrats in Congress voted against the AUMF by a 58-42% margin. In the political atsmosphere of 2002. When the Bush administration and the bill’s sponsors were saying that the bill was not a vote for war.

  41. The reason we protect Israel is…

    … because we have a defense treaty with them? No?

  42. “The country is in one of our occasional periods of isolationism, a reaction to what [the public views] as failure, even when we are succeeding in Iraq-and we have succeeded in Iraq.”

    McCain’s wrong. He’s misreading the public. Even as a majority of Americans have come to believe “the Surge” has worked, for example, it hasn’t budged the 35-40 point margin by which the American public thinks it was a mistake to invade Iraq. Support for the war dropped off the table when the WMDs didn’t turn up. Public support for the war, outside of a fringe about the same size as those who give George W. Bush “Exellent” or “Good” approval ratings, was always predicated on the belief that it was necessary to head of an attack on us.

    In other words, the large majority of the American public doesn’t define “success in Iraq” the way McCain does. Success would mean eliminating a threat that actually exists, not just bringing Iraq to heel.

  43. Success would mean eliminating a threat that actually exists, not just bringing Iraq to heel.

    I think, post-9/11, the consensus was that Islamic terrorism was a threat that actually exists, and the (largely sub rosa) debate was about how to eliminate it.

    The Bush administration did a spectacularly bad job of making their case that Islamic terrorism could not be eliminated without addressing its root cause – the dysfunctional societies of the Middle East from which it springs.

    Once you buy into these two premises (Islamic terrorism is a real threat, and it cannot be addressed superficially by picking off a high-profile leader here and there), you have started down the road where eliminating state support for it is job one, and Iraq is the best place to start doing so.

    “Bringing Iraq to heel” is a pejorative way to characterize the elimination of a major state supporter of Islamic terrorism, the elimination of a major source of instability in the Mid-east, and the conversion of the strategic lynchpin of the region into a functional state that could be the start for draining the swamp in the Mid-east.

    Was this too ambitious a project? Maybe. But lets at least be honest about what the goal and the stakes are. And lets also be honest that a functional, legitimate state in Iraq will represent a terrible blow to out Islamist enemies, and represents at least a start on solving the real problem here, which isn’t one guy in a cave, but a whole sub-culture that cannot be tolerated and has to be discredited and rooted out.

  44. Peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations; entangling alliances with none.

    Thomas Jefferson

    Truer today than ever.

  45. “The Bush administration did a spectacularly bad job of making their case that Islamic terrorism could not be eliminated without addressing its root cause – the dysfunctional societies of the Middle East from which it springs.

    “. . . a whole sub-culture that cannot be tolerated and has to be discredited and rooted out.”

    It’s one thing to articulate a grand, idealistic goal. Reform the Middle East and make it less disfunctional! End world hunger! No child left behind! I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony!

    The problem comes when a warmonger or reformer lays out a specific plan to get to the desired goal – even if the proposed method seems dubious or unduly costly. Anyone who opposed the plan must oppose the goal. “You mean you’re in *favor* of children being left behind? You’re in *favor* of the disfunctional culture of the Islamic world? You’re *against* every little girl having her own pony?”

  46. The problem comes when a warmonger or reformer lays out a specific plan to get to the desired goal – even if the proposed method seems dubious or unduly costly.

    Sure.

    Not everyone agrees even with this goal, but once you do sign to dealing with the root causes of Islamist terrorism, there are no cheap or easy ways to do it.

    Anyone who opposed the plan must oppose the goal.

    That’s the standard rhetorical dodge. The legitimate questions to someone opposing the plan are two-fold – “Do you support the goal” and “If so, what’s your plan”. At the time, it was pretty clear that the old plan – diplomacy and treating terrorism as a crime – had comprehensively failed, and were pretty much equivalent to doing nothing. Now, that doesn’t automatically mean that the “forward defense” strategy was the way to go. The alternative strategy, oft-voiced here, was to completely disengage from the Middle East, in the apparent belief that, without an immediate American presence, the Islamist movement would simply wither. I think the dynamics driving the Islamist movement go much deeper than that, myself.

    So, realistically, I think the only way we could make hope to make any difference in the bad dynamics of the region, on a timescale that could meet the obviously imminent threat of more mass terrorist attacks, was to go in.

    There was and is a valid argument that the Middle East is just too fucked up to be fixed by any means, of course. But this runs into the concern that the Middle East is just too important (what with the oil) and dangerous (what with all the dead people in Manhattan) to just leave be. Reasonable people can come down on either side of this one; I just think its unfortunate that about 99% of the conversation in this issue is taken up with irrelevant tangents.

  47. “So, realistically, I think the only way we could make hope to make any difference in the bad dynamics of the region, on a timescale that could meet the obviously imminent threat of more mass terrorist attacks, was to go in.”

    Go in where? Do what? To whom? With what resources? These are the detail-oriented questions which – historically – the promoters of wars don’t always think through.

    It’s not just the U.S., of course. Take many wars – say the Boer War, or World War One, and you see governments with grand ideas of solving some festering problem (Serbian irredentism in the case of Austria in WWI, for instance), but these things have a habit of not confining themselves to the plans of the grand schemers. Then the schemers scratch their heads and say – “we *meant* well, so what went wrong? Someone else must have botched the execution,” etc.

  48. # Anti-Globalism | September 10, 2008, 11:53pm | #

    # Isolationism is great, just like the idea
    # of letting market regulate everything is
    # great, until you realize the vast capacity for
    # stupidity and malice in your fellow humans.

    And in that case, is the answer then to intervene, knowing that the interveners will likewise have a vast capacity for stupidity and malice??? Or to regulate, knowing that the legislators have that same vast capacity (demonstrated on numerous occasions, I might add)??? I grant you that it often seems that way, but really, where is the sense in it?

    And by the way, can we quit using the slave-word “isolationism”? To refuse to intervene military or with aggressive economic maneuvers is not at all to become isolated. China was at one time truly isolated, its rulers deliberately choosing the path of all-but-sealing its borders, reducing trade and cultural exchange outside those borders to a bare minimum, and calling a halt to foreign military adventures. You call someone an “isolationist” when you want to marginalize him as a harmful extremist. But the word doesn’t fit many who today find that label pressed upon them. The simple thing that someone quoted Jefferson as saying above, “Peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations; entangling alliances with none,” is NOT “isolationism,” though wrongly smeared as such. A better, more-accurate term is “non-interventionism.” That’s what libertarians want.

  49. Go in where?

    Iraq – strategic lynchpin, major supporter of state terror, source of regional instability, strategic access assured.

    Do what? To whom?

    Get rid of Saddam’s regime, try to get a legitimate, functioning government in place that would influence the region toward something less barbaric. You’ve heard all this.

    With what resources?

    Primarily our own. I don’t think the “Coalition” was ever intended to be anything more than a fig leaf.

    These are the detail-oriented questions which – historically – the promoters of wars don’t always think through.

    Sure. Although, in retrospect, we overthought the first phase (get rid of Saddam), and underthought the second, more important (but also much more difficult to plan) stage (getting Iraq to function). Still, it looks like we may well get what we set out to get, albeit at a much higher cost.

    Was the cost worth it (assuming it doesn’t go off the rails, again)? Way too early to tell, and to some extent, impossible to say, as the success of the war will be measured mostly in what doesn’t happen – more Islamist attacks on the US. You never know if what doesn’t happen, didn’t happen because of what you did, or would have not happened all by itself.

  50. “”””At the time, it was pretty clear that the old plan – diplomacy and treating terrorism as a crime – had comprehensively failed, and were pretty much equivalent to doing nothing.”””

    That’s only if you assume diplomacy and crime are 100% preventable. Sometimes shit happens against the odds. That alone doesn’t mean failure.

    Terrorism a crime?

    “(c) “International terrorism” means activities that-
    (1) involve violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State, or that would be a criminal violation if committed within the jurisdiction of the United States or any State;
    (2) appear to be intended-
    (A) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;
    (B) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or
    (C) to affect the conduct of a government by assassination or kidnapping; and
    (3) occur totally outside the United States, or transcend national boundaries in terms of the means by which they are accomplished, the persons they appear intended to coerce or intimidate, or the locale in which their perpetrators operate or seek asylum.”
    http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/html/uscode50/usc_sec_50_00001801—-000-.html

    If terrorism is not a crime, people killed by terrorist are not murdered, murder is a crime. If it’s an act of war, which I didn’t know targeting civilians would be, then those killed by terrorist are nothing but casualities of war.

  51. “”””At the time, it was pretty clear that the old plan – diplomacy and treating terrorism as a crime – had comprehensively failed, and were pretty much equivalent to doing nothing.”””

    Another point, if a few terrorist acts equates to failure, what does that say about our LEO abilities to crime control in the US?

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