McCain considers national values, and not strategic interests, to be the guiding force in foreign policy. America exists, in McCain’s view, not simply to safeguard the prosperity and safety of those who live in it but also to spread democratic values and human rights to other parts of the planet….
[A]s we talked, I tried to draw out of him some template for knowing when military intervention made sense — an answer, essentially, to the question that has plagued policy makers confronting international crises for the last 20 years. McCain has said that the invasion of Iraq was justified, even absent the weapons of mass destruction he believed were there, because of Hussein’s affront to basic human values. Why then, I asked McCain, shouldn’t we go into Zimbabwe, where, according to that morning’s paper, allies of the despotic president, Robert Mugabe, were rounding up his political opponents and preparing to subvert the results of the country’s recent national election? How about sending soldiers into Myanmar, formerly Burma, where Aung San Suu Kyi remained under house arrest by a military junta?
“I think in the case of Zimbabwe, it’s because of our history in Africa,” McCain said thoughtfully. “Not so much the United States but the Europeans, the colonialist history in Africa. The government of South Africa has obviously not been effective, to say the least, in trying to affect the situation in Zimbabwe, and one reason is that they don’t want to be tarred with the brush of modern colonialism. So that’s a problem I think we will continue to have on the continent of Africa. If you send in Western military forces, then you risk the backlash from the people, from the legacy that was left in Africa because of the era of colonialism.”
The United States faced a similar obstacle in Myanmar, McCain went on, shaking his head sadly. “First of all, you’d have to gauge the opinion of the people over time, whether you’d be greeted as liberators or as occupiers,” McCain said. “I would be concerned about the possibility that if it were mishandled, we might see an insurgent movement.” He talked a bit about Aung San Suu Kyi, whom he called “one of the great figures of the 20th century,” but then wondered aloud if the American public would support a military intervention.
“It goes back to the Vietnam thing,” McCain told me. “I’m just not sure the American people would support a military engagement in Burma, no matter how justified the cause. And I can’t tell you exactly when it would be over. And I can’t tell you exactly what the reaction of the people there would be.”
Most American politicians, of course, would immediately dismiss the idea of sending the military into Zimbabwe or Myanmar as tangential to American interests and therefore impossible to justify. McCain didn’t make this argument. He seemed to start from a default position that moral reasons alone could justify the use of American force, and from there he considered the reasons it might not be feasible to do so. In other words, to paraphrase Robert Kennedy, while most politicians looked at injustice in a foreign land and asked, “Why intervene?” McCain seemed to look at that same injustice and ask himself, “Why not?”