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.