John McCain

U.S. Foreign Policy Can't Be a Choice Between McCain and Trump

The ailing senator is right that "half-baked, spurious nationalism" is wrong. But so is his brand of hawkish intervention.


Official Senate Photo

Suffering from cancer and in his 80s, Sen. John McCain is closing out a long, storied career in military service and politics. True to his reputation as a free-talking "maverick," he is not going gentle into that good night, but blasting his own party's leader, Donald Trump. At yesterday's Liberty Medal ceremony, McCain let it rip when it came to attacking the president's vision of America in the world today:

To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain "the last best hope of earth" for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.

McCain is surely correct that Trump's iteration of America First is not only "half-baked" but disastrous to Americans, especially when it comes to issues such as free trade and immigration, where the United States has long been a shining city on a hill, opening our markets to imports (and hence exports) and especially to people born elsewhere. "We live in a land made of ideals," said McCain, historically though not consistently a defender of immigrants, "not blood and soil." Yes to all this: The United States is not so exceptional that it will continue to flourish if it walls itself off from the world via isolationism when it comes to commerce and people from other countries.

But McCain was not simply—or even primarily—talking about trade and immigration policy. Over the span of his career, he has been one of the most consistently bellicose members of the House and the Senate, rarely if ever finding a reason not to go to war with one country or another. In 2013, he denounced Sen. Rand Paul and other non-interventionists as "wacko birds" because the Kentuckian raised clear and serious concerns about drone strikes on American citizens and the surveillance state. McCain pushed mightily not only to arm supposedly moderate rebels in Syria, but to put boots on the ground there too. As much as any single person in power other than Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump, he is responsible for the rolling disaster that has been U.S. foreign policy in the 21st century. For all the blood we have spilled so far in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere since 2001, we have accomplished virtually nothing positive and the end of our involvement is nowhere in sight. Yet McCain's answer to virtually all global conflicts is to escalate and, if possible, send troops along with bombs, missiles, and other forms of military support.

"We have done great good in the world," McCain said in his speech,

That leadership has had its costs, but we have become incomparably powerful and wealthy as we did. We have a moral obligation to continue in our just cause, and we would bring more than shame on ourselves if we don't.

The senator is certainly right that Donald Trump's foreign policy (to the extent he has anything resembling one) is incoherent—half-baked and spurious to a fault. Yet Trump so far is from isolationist (remember his humanitarian bombing in Syria?) or a peacenik president (as some libertarians once hoped). Like McCain throughout his career, Trump is calling for massive and perpetual military spending and it's clear that he sees diplomacy as secondary to the flexing of American might as the best way to keep order around the globe. In fact, McCain shares with Trump (who dodged the Vietnam draft via college and medical deferments) the belief that the United States is the indispensable nation and the center of the known universe. They are both firm believers in "national greatness," even as their definitions differ somewhat.

Which is to say that neither McCain nor Trump should define the limits of what America should be in the 21st century, especially when it comes to foreign policy, which has been too "militarized" since the Cold War. Rather than foreign policy built on confrontation, occupation, and conflict, we need a radically different approach, one that puts economic and cultural trade front and center, and one that opens us up to the world in way that will predictably enrich Americans even as it makes us safer from terrorism and war. This could take the form laid out by Rand Paul in his 2013 speech, "Containment and Radical Islam." In his opening remarks, Paul defined himself as "a realist, not a neoconservative, nor an isolationist" and declared, "When candidate John McCain argued in 2007 that we should remain in Iraq for 100 years, I blanched and wondered what the unintended consequences of prolonged occupation would be." "Libertarian realism" when it comes to foreign policy is an idea whose time has come. "American defense policy should be characterized by strategic restraint," says political scientist and veteran Will Ruger. "Its economic policy must be one of free trade, and its diplomacy ought to be focused on articulating—but not aggressively imposing—liberal values and the benefits of free markets."

Trump is a loud-mouthed bully when he talks about his vision for the country he leads. He demeans and diminishes people born elsewhere (especially those from Mexico) and his grasp of even basic facts seems weaker than a child's. Yet simply because Trump is wrong doesn't make McCain right.

We can thank Sen. McCain for his service to his country, but we follow his foreign policy advice at the cost of America's future.

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  1. I assume that since it was awarded to a National Greatness? Warmonger like McCain, the Liberty Medal is an ironic award like the Nobel Peace Prize?

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  2. Previous recipients of the National Constitution Center’s Liberty Medal include Hillary Clinton and the Dalai Llama.

    1. Hamid Karzai, Bono and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates…

      1. Bill Clinton, George HW Bush…

        That’s some real paragons of liberty there.

        1. Who does SIV look up to as a paragon of liberty?

  3. So is McCain calling for a fully-baked spurious nationalism, or is he more of a raw, doughy spurious nationalism guy?

    1. He is calling for a nationalism donut with a meth glaze.

      1. Do you mean deep-fried spurious nationalism, or the kind of spurious nationalism you sit on after ass surgery?

    2. McCain likes his spurious nationalism dried on the north rim under the Arizona sun. Tough and salty, like elk jerky

  4. Libertarianism can’t be a choice between Nick Gillespie and Robby Soave.

    1. That’s the Progressitarian choice.

  5. I don’t want to seem to be too harsh on our very own war hero, but fuck Mc

    1. Damn, I love MC Cain. Fratriciding the floor with his beats.

  6. So in other words we lost, get over it?

    Not really a huge surprise there. The only ‘true’ non-interventionists were blasted out of the Republican and Democrat primary relatively quickly. America has spoken, more security theater and more foreign wars because terrorism.

    It is simply a fact, and not a pleasant one, that the terrorists more or less won. What we are seeing are the death throes of individual rights, but needless to say like a phoenix they will rise from the grave one of these days. I’d suppose it’s possible that it’s just the currents of history, and respect for individual rights waxes and wanes, but I’m a pessimist so I’m not holding my breath.

    1. I always wonder if our bellicose nature is directly related to lack of extended conflict on our mainland.

      1. It’s because the American people no longer need to watch their bothers, sisters, fathers, daughters, etc. die during foreign adventures. We’re on the George Lucas path of warfare. Because we have computers, and money, and computers, and tanks, and computers, and big ‘honken missiles, and computers.

        In other words, we are waging a new type of economic warfare with robots that don’t count as ‘your bother-in-law was shot in the face’. It makes waging war a lot easier. Especially if you don’t have any Press in the United States that seems very interested in travelling to our war zones to put camera’s on our victims. After all, you can’t have press on the ground when your ‘soldiers’ are glorified R/C toys with missiles attached firing at god knows what.

        Without casualties no one is at all interested in stopping the war machine. If there is one thing you can count on, it’s American NIMBYism and since this isn’t happening in our back yard, fuck it.

        1. And, I should add, that NIMBYism is why the American people want secretive and unaccountable ‘cops’ here in the United States such as Homeland Security or the TSA and courts like the FISA. Terrorism leads to fear, fear leads to bad policies, bad policies restrict our rights, but violating our rights doesn’t actually make us safer.

          It’s all a vast illusion that people tell themselves that just a few more Government agents will make the difference between being shot, or not. Empirically that is clearly false, but people are sadly not swayed by facts when it comes to ‘safety’.

          1. During my glory days I ended up in the V Corps TAC in April of 2003. The lawyer who was assigned there dropped of heat exhaustion or freaked out or God knows and I was in a different unit nearby and subbed for him for two days. The TAC had all these video screens and UAV feeds. We called it Collecovision war. They would see something on a UAV feed and the DCG for maneuver would say “kill that shit” and each staff section would make sure it didn’t conflict or in my case hit an unlawful target and boom, that was it. I okayed dozens of drones tricks and air strikes. It was totally impersonal and detached. It was surreal. That is modern war.

            1. It is indeed, but at the same time that power only works on targets or nations that are not of the 1st world. UAV and their ilk all have the same weakness, and countries like Russia and China are well aware of what it takes to ‘kill’ them without firing a round.

              That’s why we only go to war with podunk little shitbird countries. They have no way to counter our robotics and unmanned weapons, as far as I know. Invasions like the one in Iraq will likely continue to need actual personnel but notably we’re not doing a lot of that lately, and one of those reasons is clearly because war sentiment seems proportional to how much life is being lost on our side.

              No losses, no problem military. You keep doin’ what you’re doin’, we don’t really care so long as American’s aren’t dying by the thousands.

        2. There is some truth to what you are saying. In many ways Jihadists are bugs and drones the bug spray. War is much less human and easier today.

          1. One of the problems is, in your analogy we’re turning the ‘bug spray’ on ourselves and sucking on the nozzle.

            From Google:

            According to 2011 data, the chances of you being attacked by a terrorist are roughly 1 in 20 million. Compared to the likelihood of you drowning in a bathtub (1 in 800,000), losing your life in a car crash (1 in 19,000), dying in a building fire (1 in 99,000), or being struck by lightning (1 in 5,500,000).

            Not sure how accurate that is, but it feels about right. Either way, these are the rough odd’s that justify agencies like the TSA, Homeland Security, and FISA courts that are a real threat to our rights on a daily basis. The ‘medicine’ in this case is poison. I don’t think the odd’s justify the response, even while I would readily admit that there is some doubt as the how much those same agencies have lowered the odd’s by deterring terrorists.

            Frankly, though, I think the Atlantic and Pacific oceans have more to do with that than any alphabet soup agency.

            1. Why do you idiots never get that the tub isn’t attacking you?

              That the thing that makes terrorism more frightening is that someone is deliberately doing it?

              That the reason that number is so low is because there are people out there making sure that it doesn’t get done to you?

              It’s in a whole different class of threat than getting hit by lightening.

              1. So I don’t understand it even though I make a direct mention of the stats likely being influenced by law enforcement efforts, interesting.

                Tell me this, would you agree that you’re far more likely to be shot by an American in commission of a crime than a terrorist with a political agenda? Why were we able to survive that particular phenomena for two centuries without Homeland Security, TSA, FISA courts, and indeed even cops for a portion of that time.

                Is your contention that the odd’s of being killed by a terrorist would surpass the odd’s of being murdered for your wallet on the street if not for the Alphabet Soup? That would appear to be the next logical argument in that chain of reasoning.

              2. Why do you idiots never get that the tub isn’t attacking you?

                That the thing that makes terrorism more frightening is that someone is deliberately doing it?

                So what. Lots of people within the US are doing all sorts of deliberate and non-deliberate things that harm other people every day, things that are exponentially a higher risk statistically to the average citizen. But, say, texting and driving doesn’t have the feels that scary terrorism has. And that’s the point. A sizable group of the population barks and rolls over when the paternal state says they should. Others just care about reality.

                That the reason that number is so low is because there are people out there making sure that it doesn’t get done to you?

                “So low” as opposed to what number? If there are all sorts of risks in our everyday lives that lack safeguards and are far more likely to happen, it sounds pretty absurd to believe something that is statistically insignificant comparably – even without safeguards – should be a driving factor of ones worldview. It’s all about reason vs. the feelies.

              3. That the reason that number is so low is because there are people out there making sure that it doesn’t get done to you?

                If that’s what these “people” are supposed to be doing, they’re doing a shitty job of it.

            2. It’s one of the great successes of terrorism. They have used relatively little force to enact great change upon us as a nation. They won the fight.

              1. ^ Essentially this. Freedom is reduced, ergo terrorism has won.

                There is a type of American who will never see it for what it is. That attitude is directly responsible for their victory. It is the supreme American irony.

            3. According to 2011 data, the chances of you being attacked by a terrorist are roughly 1 in 20 million.

              Nassim Taleb refuted this kind of ignorant probabilistic analysis of the terror threat multiple times. Here’s one:
              Another Pinker statistical fallacy

              Barbie on Math

  7. Trump is a lot less interventionist than McCain. More importantly, he is at least willing to question it. Moreover, the biggest driver of intervention is internationalism and the commitment to collective security. Trump has questioned both of those things and gotten nothing but abuse from Gillespie and his ilk. The bottom line is that aPresident who only intervenes for the National interest and renounces Wilsonian internationalism is much less likely to intervene than one that doesn’t.

    1. I’m not sure there is anyone more interventionist than McCain, so I’m not sure I really care for that metric. I’m not saying Trump is particularly bad or good on the subject, but I can definitively say that examined on his own he is definitely not a non-interventionist even while I wouldn’t call him a hawk either.

      Considering that America’s ‘National Interest’ at this point is ephemeral when it comes to the Middle East, I think this ends up as war mostly as a justification for domestic policy.

      There are no ‘good guys’ over there, and regime change isn’t going to do us any favors. It’s an eternal shell game where there’s a dictator under every cup, but if we keep moving them fast enough it keeps them off-balance so none of them can unify to be a threat to us in particular. That is a strategy, but not a long term one. I’d say it’s a questionable one, too, considering that we have never figured out how to deal with straight up insurgency of civilians.

      1. There are plenty of bad guys. The question is when do you want the US to go after them; when it is in it’s interests or in the name of some long dead ideal of collective security ? I will take the former and I think Trump would to

        1. I think you would need to define ‘American Interests’ since that is such a large piece of pie that it basically contains the entire planet, which has been part of the problem for a long, long time.

          There are situations where war is justified in my view, but we have become allies with the nation most likely to be responsible for the 9/11 attacks and used the AUMF to bomb people who had nothing to do with it. Needless to say, my trust in our government to pursue any ‘American Interests’ is greatly diminished to the point where it’s probably not measurable.

      2. Our current Middle Eastern policy is an attempt to mask the fact that our previous Middle Eastern policy was a failure. It leaves us never able to break free because it has to somehow be “better” for a while after we leave so we can claim “victory” and “success”.

    2. Trump has questioned both of those things and gotten nothing but abuse from Gillespie and his ilk.

      Cocktail party invites come before policy.

  8. “”””where the United States has long been a shining city on a hill,””””

    Take your shining city on a hill and shove it where the sun don’t shine

    I want to live in a regular non shinny city without some crazy McCain’s or Libertarians trying to push ideas that get the US into wars or pretends that Communist China is not Communist

    1. I want a government that acts in it’s citizens’ best interests not one that slays windmills in pursuit of some Utopian ideal be that world government and peace or Libertarianism

      1. Agreed.

  9. Nick needs to realize internationalism and collective security are the problem but they are not going to be replaced by the system of collective surrender he dreams of. So he better figure out a third way.

    1. I feel like the third was is just any reasonable restraint in our action.. As of right now, we go out and fight people with barely any connection to us, and with little to any meaningful threat. The recent stories about Niger show that.

  10. Peace is good, but we can’t be strict absolutists. Sometimes war is necessary, and that’s why we have government, dictated by democracy, and that’s why the Vietnam War was awesome.

  11. Ah yes, John McCain,

    A bellicose warmonger with an entire career built on a reputation a “hero” as a POW.

    A failure in high school who got in the Navel Academy based on pull from his father and grandfather both Admirals.
    A failure at the Naval Academy who graduated at the bottom of his class even with pull from his father and grandfather.
    A failure as a pilot who got shot down almost instantly upon seeing combat.
    Appears to have behaved well as a POW, making him a “hero”.
    A failure as an officer placed in a training squadron where he could do no damage.
    Then an entire remaining life entirely based on behaving well as a POW, making him a “hero”.

    An entire life of fraud.

    1. It doesn’t seem right to say that he fought in war and could have died, therefore he has insight into when it is appropriate to make others do the same.

      1. I’ve always heard that a lot of rank-and-file in the military absolutely despise him, because of both what he did in Congress with respect to POWs who may have been stuck after the war, and the conspiracy theory that he completely cracked as a POW and betrayed everyone. Perhaps they hated him during his service too because of the perception that he never earned his place, and perhaps his love of sending people to die is a petty form of revenge. Remember, he is the pettiest person in Congress

        Of course that’s just a theory. I think he’s mostly just an awful person to his very core, and a little bit insane. That more than explains why he’s so shitty. And people in the military also get tired of endless war so that would explain their hatred of him too. But it’s fun to try to figure out why someone is pure evil

        1. I hear McCain was always a goof-ball screw-up in the military, he never took anything seriously until he was imprisoned and he was called ‘songbird’ by his fellow pow’s as McCain was reputed to tell the enemy secrets.

          as said earlier, “Grow Tumor Grow”

      2. It doesn’t seem right to say that he fought in war and could have died, therefore he has insight into when it is appropriate to make others do the same.

        It’s typical cognitive dissonance: “The military made me into a cripple but I chose that for myself, so in order to convince myself that my choice was a good one, I need to get as many other people as possible to make the same choice.”

        McCain is a war monger not out of stupidity or ignorance, but because he suffers from cognitive dissonance, combined with being a narcissistic prick and a borderline psychopath.

  12. Will this guy just die already.

    1. What’s sad is people voted him in office. A buffoon that openly reveals his distaste for Trump not based off of merit but based off of spite. McCain was in Australia comparing the Russia collusion fairy tale with that of Watergate. That’s hilarious, but not one mention of the unmasking of Americans and the wiretapping that seemed to have happened for political means. The guy is a hack and he knows he is on his way out thus his ridiculous behavior and his constant grandstanding. He’s a clown and always will be a clown.

  13. Grow tumor, grow!

  14. McCain is owned by george soros, just like many of the other rinos & democrats in Our gov’t
    President Trump enrages & frightens the greedy politicians, they are afraid he’ll turn off their gravy train

  15. I can’t parse this sentence: “Yet Trump so far is from isolationist (remember his humanitarian bombing in Syria?) or a peacenik president (as some libertarians once hoped).”

    It seems like every time I see a Reason story in my Facebook feed, I start reading it and think, “This is great stuff! I really need to share this so all of my friends can be a bit more enlightened about this weird “libertarianism” concept I keep talking about. Then I get about halfway through and stumble over some error that should’ve been caught by an editor or proofreader, and i have to weigh the benefit of disseminating good info against spreading sloppy writing that makes look bad.

    Seriously, this happens more often than not. Take a bit more care, please?

  16. It’s the difference between someone who has principles (McCain) and someone who doesn’t (he who must not be named).

    1. Principles? McCain? You must be joking.

      1. He has principles they just don’t coincide with the best interests of our country.

  17. “We can thank Sen. McCain for his service to his country, but we follow his foreign policy advice at the cost of America’s future.”
    No! No! No! He did not serve his country by his time in the military, and he deserves no thanks whatsoever from any body. He flew bombing missions over Vietnam, killing innocent Vietnamese below.

    The killings by McCain and every other US pilot were murder, and constitute war crimes. He should be condemned and prosecuted. He is no hero at all. He is a despicable human being.

    1. Despicable human being? And what are you? Please the sanctimonious tripe from keyboard cowards means nothing. Crawl back into your commie comfort zone. Revisionist history of an event you know little about is not appreciated. What exactly do you think the NVA and VC were doing to the innocent Vietnamese? How about brutality practically unmatched in the 20th Century. It was war waged by motivated and determined communist aggressor. Again I doubt your lack of historical context will allow the ability to understand. i don’t care for McCain but not because of his service.

  18. Nick, making sure he fulfills his Hate Trump quota while commenting on a speech by McCain.


  19. Well, McCain won’t be “a choice” for much longer.

  20. Fortunately John McCain was diagnosed with a term limit.

  21. So unbridled illegal immigration in the face of a growing nanny state is a libertarian ideal? Sorry Nick it is a recipe for economic suicide. Legal immigration is a wonderful thing but it is something that must have some controls or else we have no country but rather an open buffet for all those who wish to take advantage of free money. Likewise free trade is something that should be allowed to work in our favor. So on these issues I don’t disagree with those that support Trump. I don’t care for McCain and firmly believe he is one of the worst Senators on the hill. He along with the usual suspects have done their darnedest to lead this country into bankruptcy and have contributed greatly to its demise. I am not sure how Trump’s foreign policy is any worse than the last 4 presidents.

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