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.