Commentary

John McCain on Foreign Policy: Even Worse Than Bush

Over the years, John McCain has acquired a reputation as a maverick Republican. Independents and even some Democrats who loathe George W. Bush’s foreign-policy record seem to believe that McCain would be a significant improvement. In several GOP primaries earlier this year, most notably those in New Hampshire and Michigan, nearly one third of voters who stated that they oppose the Iraq war cast ballots for McCain. That seems to defy logic, since the Arizona senator has been the most vocal critic of Bush’s Iraq policy, arguing as far back as late 2003 that he should commit even more troops to the war.

But it is not merely McCain’s views on Iraq policy that mark him as an überhawk. He has also advocated hardline policies toward Iran, Syria, and North Korea, and has even staked out confrontational positions toward such major powers as China and Russia. The evidence suggests that a McCain administration would be even more reckless and aggressive than the current one.

McCain did not enter Congress as a militant hawk. During the 1980’s and early 90’s, his reputation as a Republican foreign-policy maverick was well deserved. He was one of the few Republicans to criticize Ronald Reagan’s decision to send U.S. troops to Lebanon in 1982. To McCain, such a murky and dangerous mission that lacked any connection to important U.S. security interests was all too reminiscent of the Vietnam debacle. To advocates of a more selective and cautious strategy, McCain’s skepticism about the Lebanon mission was understandable, given his horrific experience as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for five years. His opposition to the Lebanon venture was vindicated in October 1983 when 241 Marines perished in a truck-bombing of their barracks in Beirut.

In the initial post-Cold War period, McCain continued to advocate a policy that appealed to cautious realists. True, he supported the Gulf War, but only after an initial period of agonizing reluctance, and his response to the U.S. intervention in Somalia the next year was unrelentingly hostile, particularly when that mission expanded from the original goal of providing humanitarian relief to starving Somalis into an amorphous nation-building enterprise led by the United Nations. Once again, his skepticism appeared vindicated when 18 Army Rangers died in a firefight against the forces of one of the numerous feuding factions in Mogadishu.

Still, there were troubling signs that he might not be the cautious realist that his positions on the Lebanon and Somalia missions suggested. For example, as evidence mounted in 1993 and 1994 that North Korea was pursuing a nuclear-weapons program, McCain embraced an extremely hawkish position. He suggested that the United States consider air strikes against the Yongbyon reactor complex and other North Korean military targets if Pyongyang did not immediately abandon its nuclear activities. When the Clinton administration negotiated the 1994 Agreed Framework under which North Korea pledged to freeze its program in exchange for aid from the United States and its East Asian allies, McCain grumbled that the arrangement was “all carrots and no sticks.”

The following year, he endorsed U.S. air strikes against the Bosnian Serbs, albeit after another period of hesitation. The civil war convulsing Bosnia should have been precisely the kind of conflict that a cautious realist would have wanted us to avoid. America had no significant economic or strategic interests at stake in that internecine struggle, yet McCain advocated U.S. involvement, apparently for no better reasons than bloodshed was occurring and NATO’s credibility appeared to be at stake.

But it is not merely McCain’s views on Iraq policy that mark him as an überhawk.”

Senator McCain’s hawkish posture involving Balkan issues deepened when the Clinton administration pushed for U.S.-led military action to compel Serbia to relinquish control over Kosovo. Unlike many of his Republican colleagues in Congress who argued that America had no interests that justified intervention on behalf of the rebel Muslim “Kosovars,” McCain endorsed military action — even more vigorously than the Clinton administration did. During the 1999 war, NATO forces relied entirely on high-altitude bombing of Serbian targets, but Senator McCain wanted to send in ground forces. His criticism that Clinton’s policy was insufficiently bold foreshadowed his critique of the Bush administration’s strategy in Iraq.

Since the dawn of the 21st century, Senator McCain has been among the most hawkish Republican political figures. That became evident in 2002 when McCain proposed that the United States openly threaten to use military force unless Pyongyang capitulates on the nuclear issue. “After first responding appropriately to North Korean violations of the [1994] agreement and refusing even to discuss with North Korea its extortion demands,” wrote McCain in the January 20, 2003, issue of the Weekly Standard, “the administration now appears to have embraced, and in some respects exceeded, the style and substance of the Clinton administration’s diplomacy.” He was especially perturbed that President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell “publicly ruled out the use of force, although force could eventually prove to be the only means to prevent North Korea from acquiring a nuclear arsenal.”

It was also clear that he did not care much about the views of other countries in East Asia, sneering that they should “spare us the usual lectures about American unilateralism.” Noting that we would “prefer the company of North Korea’s neighbors” in a military campaign, he emphasized that “we will make do without it if we must.” The “neighbors” to which the senator referred include Japan and South Korea — Washington’s most prominent allies in East Asia for more than half a century.

Given the possibility of a McCain administration confronting the still-unresolved North Korean nuclear issue, these allies have ample reason to be apprehensive, for McCain’s views regarding North Korea have not become noticeably less belligerent since early 2003. He has remained a staunch critic of the six-party talks — the diplomatic process involving North Korea, the United States, Japan, China, Russia, and South Korea that is attempting to resolve the nuclear problem through negotiations. Policy toward North Korea is one area in which a McCain administration would almost certainly be more confrontational than what we have witnessed during the Bush years.

The same is true regarding Iran’s nuclear program. McCain has received widespread criticism for a “joke” at an April 2007 campaign stop in which he sang “bomb bomb bomb, bomb-bomb Iran” to the tune of the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann.” But his nonjoking comments are only marginally less troubling. He has stated repeatedly that an Iran with nuclear weapons poses an “unacceptable risk” to regional and global stability. “There is only one thing worse than military action, and that is a nuclear armed Iran.”

Perhaps most ominously, McCain has long been an advocate of preemptive war against “rogue regimes.” A story in USA Today (March 26) featured the following comment: “Standing by while an odious regime with a history of support to terrorism develops weapons whose use by terrorists could literally kill millions of Americans is not a choice. It is an abdication.”

McCain was strongly supportive of the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq and depose Saddam Hussein. When it became evident that U.S. expectations of a rapid success in creating a stable, democratic Iraq were unrealistic, though, he did not join a majority of Americans in turning against the war. Already in November 2003, he was calling for the deployment of at least another division, “giving us the necessary manpower to conduct a focused counterinsurgency campaign across the Sunni triangle.”

As U.S. military fortunes in Iraq deteriorated, he became more strident in his advocacy of escalation. And he never shrank from the probable costs in treasure and blood. In a speech to the American Enterprise Institute in November 2005, he stated:

Securing ever-increasing parts of Iraq and preventing the emergence of new terrorist safe havens will require more troops and money. It will take time, probably years, and mean more American casualties. Those are terrible prices to pay. But with the stakes so high, I believe we must choose the strategy with the best chance of success.

McCain regarded President Bush’s decision a little more than a year later to implement the “Surge” as a vindication of his own strategy. He then went to extraordinary lengths to portray the Surge as a success. On a visit to Iraq in mid-2007, for example, he announced that the security environment was vastly improved, citing his ability to stroll down several streets near a Baghdad market in safety. What McCain failed to mention was that he was accompanied by more than 100 heavily armed U.S. troops while several missile-laden helicopters hovered overhead.

Iraq’s ongoing instability raises concerns about McCain’s proposal for a long-term U.S. troop presence. He gave his political opponents ammunition earlier this year when he encountered a question at a political rally about the possibility that U.S. troops might have to stay in Iraq for 50 years. McCain’s flippant response was “make it a century.”

Republicans vehemently argue that critics have taken his comment out of context. The senator made it clear in subsequent remarks that he was not proposing turning the Iraq conflict into the 21st century’s version of the Hundred Years War. Rather, he was suggesting a reduced, long-term U.S. military presence once Iraq became stable and peaceful. His model for that strategy is the U.S. troop presence in South Korea, which is now in its 55th year following the armistice that ended the Korean War.

But that is not exactly reassuring. Iraq is nothing like South Korea — a cohesive society that welcomed U.S. military protection from communist North Korea, which had already created a bloodbath on the Korean peninsula in a failed attempt to compel reunification.

American forces in South Korea have never had to confront an armed insurgency or the ever-present prospect of civil war between ethno-religious factions. The situation in Iraq is obviously not comparable. When one thinks of a long-term occupation of Iraq (even with reduced forces), a closer analogy is the dangerous and frustrating British mission in Northern Ireland from the late 1960’s through the 90’s.

Although McCain insists that Iraq is the “central front” in the War on Terror, he seems somewhat hazy about the specifics of the threat of radical Islam. As a member of a senatorial delegation visiting Iraq earlier this year, he erroneously accused Iran of aiding Al Qaeda and suffered the embarrassment of an on-camera correction by his friend and fellow überhawk, Sen. Joe Lieberman, that Tehran was aiding “Shiite extremists,” not the Sunni zealots of Al Qaeda. Yet, during a Senate hearing a few weeks later, he committed a similar gaffe, describing Al Qaeda as a Shiite group, and then adding “Sunni, Shiite, whatever.”

Mistakes about such basic facts are both surprising and troubling coming from someone who repeatedly touts his foreign-policy experience and credentials. Unfortunately, those verbal blunders may reflect more than rhetorical sloppiness. They are indicative of McCain’s tendency to conflate disparate movements, regimes, and problems. Troublesome regimes such as those in Iran, Syria, and North Korea pose challenges for U.S. foreign policy, but lumping them together as rogue states obscures more than it illuminates.

John McCain harbors a barely disguised hostility toward China, arguing that her growing economy and military modernization pose a great threat to the United States. On several occasions, he has cited China’s rise as a justification for even greater U.S. military spending. Most independent experts estimate Beijing’s military budget to be between $50 and $75 billion, and the Pentagon contends it is between $84 and $125 billion. At any rate, McCain considers the amount excessive for China’s legitimate defense needs. Yet he does not view the U.S. military budget (including supplementals for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) of nearly $800 billion to be excessive.

He also advocates provocative symbolic snubs of the Chinese government. For example, he criticized President Bush’s decision to attend the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, because of human-rights abuses.

Cato Institute foreign-policy analyst Malou Innocent concedes that Beijing’s authoritarianism is troubling, but she notes that “Senator McCain appears to preclude the possibility of building a constructive relationship with China unless it becomes fully democratic.” That attitude puts at risk America’s extensive economic relationship with China as well as ignores the numerous issues on which we need China’s help — most notably in trying to defuse the North Korean and Iranian crises. This is yet another area in which a McCain presidency would likely be more confrontational and destabilizing than the Bush presidency.

McCain seems friendly to China, though, compared to his attitude toward Russia. He advocates NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia, over Moscow’s strident objections. “Western nations should make clear that the solidarity of NATO, from the Baltic to the Black Sea, is indivisible and that the organization’s doors remain open to all democracies committed to the defense of freedom.” McCain strongly supports the Georgian government’s feud with Russia over the status of two secessionist regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, even though there are no discernible American interests at stake in that dispute.

Combined with McCain’s penchant for needlessly provocative policies toward both small adversarial states and major powers is his unwillingness to reconsider long-standing U.S. security commitments around the world. He has enthusiastically promoted the continuation of NATO, even though the original mission of that alliance disappeared with the demise of the Soviet empire. Indeed, McCain has been a vocal proponent of NATO’s eastward expansion, a process that entails increasingly murky and dangerous U.S. security commitments to small client states that add little or nothing to America’s own military capabilities.

McCain seems to harbor a preference for initiating or maintaining U.S. obligations to parasitic security clients. A prime example is his willingness to continue the American alliance with and troop presence in South Korea — the model for his long-term designs on Iraq. His invocation of South Korea highlights the fallacy of his overall approach to security strategy. Washington has provided a lucrative defense subsidy to South Korean taxpayers for more than half a century. Today, South Korea has twice the population and an economy 40 times larger than North Korea, its only plausible enemy. Yet South Korea remains heavily dependent on the United States for her security. That is a wonderful deal for South Korean taxpayers, but not so much for their American counterparts. For a self-proclaimed conservative to embrace such a needless, expensive burden is both surprising and maddening.

The foreign policy that John McCain now advocates is reckless and promiscuously interventionist. If he were a university student majoring in international relations or security studies, he would deserve a resounding F for his analysis of the crucial issues that the United States has confronted over the past 14 or 15 years. After a promising start, his performance has steadily deteriorated. The last thing that America needs is an even more aggressive and incompetent steward of foreign policy than George W. Bush has been.

Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of eight books on international affairs, including Smart Power: Toward a Prudent Foreign Policy for America.