Barack Obama

McCain's Iranian Game of Chicken

The Arizona senator's comments are a tired reminder of foreign policy as bellicose bluffing.


It's during foreign crises like these that I'm glad Barack Obama's biggest critic this week, John Sidney McCain III, never became commander in chief of the United States military. Not because of the Arizona senator's obvious sympathies with Iranian protesters, and distaste for their misrulers—both of which I share. But rather because we might not be talking about Iranian protesters at all this month had the author of "rogue-state rollback" been allowed to test out his doctrine from the Oval Office.

Go back to even before McCain's infamous "Bomb Bomb Bomb, Bomb Bomb Iran" performance on the 2007 campaign trail. The year is 2000, the month is February, and the media's favorite Republican is asked by Larry King at a presidential debate: "What area of American international policy would you change immediately as president?" McCain's answer, after a bit of stammering:

Revise our policies concerning these rogue states…those countries that continue to try to acquire weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them….I'd institute a policy that I call "rogue state rollback." I would arm, train, equip, both from without and from within, forces that would eventually overthrow the governments and install free and democratically-elected governments.

McCain had spelled this policy out in a major foreign policy speech a year earlier, adding what amounted to a game of international chicken: The U.S. should back such insurgents not just with weapons and money, but with the full force of American arms should dictators call their bluff:

The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is the clearest danger we currently confront. Nowhere is the threat more worrisome than in rogue states…I offer one caution, however. If you commit to supporting these forces, accept the seriousness of the obligation. Don't abandon them to the mercies of tyrants whenever they meet with reversals as the administration did in the north of Iraq….The world's only superpower should never give its word insincerely. We should never make idle threats.

The first three targets on McCain's hit list were Iraq, Libya, and North Korea. Had he bested George W. Bush in 2000, the maverick would have had opportunities aplenty to carry out non-idle threats against this Axis of Evil even before the attacks of September 11, 2001. As the Iraq War would amply illustrate, using the U.S. military to replace even one rogue-state tyrant can stretch American capabilities near the breaking point, even when you fall short of the "free and democratically elected" ideal. And among the festival of unintended consequences may be included hemorrhaging support from precisely those pro-democracy forces you initially aim to assist.

Iran met McCain's definition of a rogue state, was actively supporting terrorist organizations abroad, and, as of 2005, had launched a new series of crackdowns on what had been a comparatively vibrant civil society. And the Iranian government's nuclear ambitions alone—which, unhelpfully, continue to enjoy broad support across Iranian society—would have run afoul of a President McCain. As he said in 2007:

The military option is always the ultimate last option, but I don't believe that it's "off the table." I would remind you that enrichment is a longer process. Weaponization can be done rather rapidly. Iran remains a nation dedicated to the extinction of the state of Israel. Iran continues to export the most lethal explosive devices into Iraq, killing Americans. They continue to be a state sponsor of terror in the case of Hamas and Hezbollah. And they continue to seek to exert influence throughout the entire region and the age-old ambition of Persian hegemony, including their increasing influence in the Basra area in southern Iraq. So I think they remain a significant threat and challenge, and so, no, I wouldn't take the option "off the table."

The reaction to Obama's performance these past 10 remarkable days by John McCain and his fellow foreign policy travelers is a fresh reminder that chicken is a game best played with your brother in the back yard, not with unhinged regimes in the Middle East. In what Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan aptly characterized as "Aggressive Political Solipsism," the McCain crowd, amidst its otherwise stirring testimonials about freedom over tyranny, has continually refocused the debate onto Washington. All while deploying that with-us-or-against-us rhetoric that was played out years ago.

On Fox's Neil Cavuto Show, for example, McCain accused Obama of "giving a green light to oppressive governments," "walking on the other side of the street" from the protesters, and engaging in a "betrayal" of American ideals. McCain's old pals at The Weekly Standard predictably concurred with the hyperbole, with the tag team of William Kristol and Stephen Hayes characterizing Obama as being "a de facto ally of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei," and Executive Editor Fred Barnes chiming in that the president "actually helps the regime." And in what reads like a bid to out-crazy the field, National Review writer Andy McCarthy claimed: "The fact is that, as a man of the hard Left, Obama is more comfortable with a totalitarian Islamic regime than he would be with a free Iranian society."

For the moment, those who have consistently advocated military intervention into Iran are limiting their wish-list to the speed, content, and temperature of the president's language (and no, they were not sated by Obama's more sternly worded press conference Tuesday afternoon, as it did not resolve the pressing issue of invitations to July 4 embassy parties). But it's striking how the adherents of rogue-state rollback are much more concerned with minor symbolism than they are about what kind of Iranian state we'd even be talking about this month had they had full run of U.S. policy this past decade.

Obama's rhetoric on Iran so far has been far from bulletproof. For my admittedly internationalist taste, the president appeared more distant and tepid than I would have liked the first few days. And Stephen Hayes makes an interesting point when he compares that early response to Obama's more soaring rhetoric (about Iranian bloggers, no less) during his over-hyped speech in Berlin last year. But by refusing the bait to make an Iranian story a referendum about America, even while stressing international norms that the Iranian regime has clearly violated, the president has disarmed one of the mullahs' favorite talking points in a way that no neo-conservative could ever do with words alone:

The Iranian people are trying to have a debate about their future. Some in Iran—some in the Iranian government, in particular, are trying to avoid that debate by accusing the United States and others in the West of instigating protests over the elections.

These accusations are patently false. They're an obvious attempt to distract people from what is truly taking place within Iran's borders.

This tired strategy of using old tensions to scapegoat other countries won't work anymore in Iran. This is not about the United States or the West; this is about the people of Iran and the future that they—and only they—will choose.

If the people of Iran somehow navigate that choice successfully, and without significant bloodshed, the accomplishment will be all the more meaningful for having truly been an indigenous process. On the flip side, the mullahs may yet try to maintain power through Tiananmen-style force. That's a game of chicken that will have all of us anxious for weeks to come.

But it's one that no words or even deeds from Washington can ultimately resolve. Recognizing that fact may be the first step in acknowledging the limitations of U.S. power, and rehabilitating the world's responsibility for its own affairs. John McCain may be an effective sympathizer with far-flung dissidents, but that doesn't mean he's right about U.S. primacy, or about war. Whoever it's with.

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