President Trump’s testy telephone conversation with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull quickly produced a reaction from one ubiquitous U.S. player on foreign policy issues, Arizona Senator John McCain. He contacted Australia’s ambassador in Washington to assure him of Washington’s undying devotion to the U.S. alliance with Australia and to that country’s security and well-being. The implicit message was that Canberra should not take Trump or his actions seriously. In so doing, McCain basically anointed himself as America’s shadow president, with the right and obligation to bypass the elected president and conduct relations with foreign governments and other parties.
His actions were entirely inappropriate. Granted, Trump’s conduct toward Turnbull deserves no praise. During the telephone call, a dispute arose over refugee policy, and an angry Trump reportedly berated the Australian leader and abruptly cut the scheduled one-hour session short after 25 minutes. Such behavior was that of a petulant adolescent rather than the expected behavior of a president of the United States.
Nevertheless, the Constitution empowers the president and his appointees to conduct America’s foreign policy. Even senators are not authorized to undercut their authority by engaging in direct, free-lance diplomacy with foreign leaders. Yet that is what McCain did.
Unfortunately, this was hardly the first time that he has engaged in such disruptive behavior. His record is that of an annoying, and sometimes dangerous, loose cannon. For example, during Ukraine’s political crisis in late 2013 and early 2014, McCain showed up in Kiev to urge on anti-government demonstrators in their bid to unseat President Victor Yanukovych’s elected government before the expiration of its term in 2016. America was on their side, he assured them.
McCain engaged in similar meddling in Syria’s civil war. In May 2013, he met with so-called moderate rebels who were trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, and as in Kiev, conveyed America’s alleged solidarity with their cause. This intrusive action occurred at a time when the Obama administration remained wary of the United States becoming entangled in the bloody, complex conflict, and was at least trying to limit the extent of U.S. involvement. Not only were McCain’s actions complicating official U.S. policy, but they should have been embarrassing to the Arizona senator. The reality is that there were (and are) very few truly moderate Syrian rebels. Most of them are Islamists masquerading as moderates to gain support from gullible Westerners. Even McCain seemed unclear about the specific identities or the nature of his interlocutors in Syria.
Especially in light of his dreadful track record, McCain should tend to his senatorial duties and stop trying to be a shadow president or secretary of state. In fact, given his dreadful, ultra-hawkish views and his advocacy of, and often feverish lobbying efforts for, a lengthy series of ill-advised foreign policy ventures (ranging from the calamitous Iraq War to a new cold war with Russia), it might be better for all concerned if he just concentrated on domestic issues.