McCain’s War Thing


mccain glasses twn.jpg
Joseph Loconte offers a spirited defense of John McCain’s foreign policy and national security positioning in a piece that ran today in the Weekly Standard.
I liked his essay because Loconte articulates the fault line that runs through conservative circles on foreign policy. It happens to be a fault line that runs through a significant segment of the liberal/progressive establishment as well, and that is that there are those like McCain who are committed to the militant export of American-style democracy and those who are motivated by other objectives that depend less on the Pentagon.
I sometimes wonder whether those who aspire to be President of the United States — and then once achieving that post becoming a “great” President — are drawn to crises and to wars as a way of defining their presidencies. I realize that FDR was more than a war-time president, and Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and even Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton had key domestic policy goals and occasional achievements that could stand on their own independently from from the cold or hot conflicts stirring in the international arena. But wars and conflicts are remembered more on average than the domestic challenges.
When John McCain lost the Republican primary in 2000 to George W. Bush, he planned a 2004 comeback — and his attack line was going to follow the course of Bush’s closeness to Enron and the many Enron-related and similar-type corporate cronies in Bush’s government. McCain’s team saw Bush’s closest allies as “crooks” who had no real concern for the public interest. They had hoped to dig up what scandals they could on Bush and his team and feed it to Senator Joseph Lieberman who could help highlight this material in his role as Chairman of the then-titled Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs.

But then the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred, and McCain’s hopes for a rematch against Bush collapsed. War and conflict trumped domestic ethics.
That is one of the reasons why I think that John McCain has sculpted his political profile so starkly in military terms because he doesn’t want to be trumped again.
But from my vantage point, McCain seems to be stalking more wars not because they are ones that need to be fought but because he needs them politically.
Loconte somewhat disagrees and gives McCain a pass. He suggests that by acknowledging the costs of war, McCain is not war-mongering in his assertions that wars must be fought today to avoid paying higher costs tomorrow.
If McCain actually believes what he is saying, it is mind-blowingly frustrating to imagine a president who would commit to a further collapse of the American military machine by adding more security obligations in the next term and not take stock and then mend and repair the miserable condition of America’s national security portfolio.
Loconte writes:

On the subject of war, McCain’s voice is indeed distinct. If many conservatives cling to naive beliefs about the role of military power in securing peace, he does not appear to share their faith.
His speech at the World Affairs Council offered one of the most sober, poignant, and morally mature perspectives on war by any politician in a generation. It was reminiscent of Winston Churchill, a statesman he clearly admires. “I detest war. It might not be the worst thing to befall human beings, but it is wretched beyond all description,” he said. “When nations seek to resolve their differences by force of arms, a million tragedies ensue.” Even so, McCain abhors the appeasing reflex of many political and religious liberals: As detestable as war is, the consequences of inaction may be far worse. Americans must sometimes pay the wages of war, he said, “to avoid paying even higher ones later.”
How might the McCain doctrine play itself out on the world stage? Democratic ideals always collide with undemocratic realities abroad and imperfect realities closer to home. Like Churchill, McCain’s weaknesses–his reputed stubbornness, self-righteousness, arrogance–seem nearly as large as his strengths. “When Winston’s right, he’s right,” Lord Birkenhead once said of him. “When he’s wrong, well, my God.”
Still, McCain’s family history and life experiences, so unlike those of Clinton or Obama, will likely count for something. He remembers the day when a Navy officer arrived at his house, shouting to his father that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor–and of his father quickly packing to return to the submarine base where he was stationed.
“Whatever gains are secured, it is loss the veteran remembers most keenly,” he said. “Only a fool or a fraud sentimentalizes the merciless reality of war.” Unlike his Democratic rivals, McCain projects a balance of idealism and realism, of tenacity and prudence–forged in part from his own experience in Vietnam–which seems especially relevant for a nation at war. “For it is one thing to see the Land of Peace from a wooded ridge,” wrote Augustine, “and another to tread the road that leads to it.”

I like Loconte’s provocative style, but this piece gives McCain a pass on matters of war and peace that he doesn’t deserve, at least not yet.
McCain’s comments on the Iraq War and the inevitability of more wars in the region has been reckless.
And the notion that McCain can maintain these wars and the huge military expenditures that we have today without raising taxes is also folly. Nixon Center President Dimitri Simes makes this point today in an interesting piece by Eli Lake about Republicans turning towards Obama.
We should all worry about future presidents who have forgotten John Quincy Adams’ admonition that America should not go out to “seek monsters to destroy.”
The sick reality is that there are too many presidents who seek such monsters as ways to define themselves and their tenures — and as a way to generate “legacy.”
Despite Loconte’s effort to suggest that McCain has some realism in him, McCain appears like a dragon-chaser. Hillary Clinton too frequently comes off as someone who might define her presidency through conflict. Her commitment to “coercive diplomacy” has the ring of a dragon-chasing president.
And Barack Obama, while less committed to this path than the other presidential options, may take it anyway as he “reacts” to a world testing his resolve and kicking the tires of hope rather than realism in international affairs.
— Steve Clemons


24 comments on “McCain’s War Thing

  1. söve says:

    Roosevelt did not söve exactly seek war. It would be more söve accurate to say that the söve war sought him, although he söve did believe it had to be söve fought before the United States was actually in it, and söve fixed U.S. policy in opposition söve to the Axis. That, however, is a long way from pre-emption.


  2. jon says:

    i am glad he has maui jim glasses on our new prez needs to take care of his eyes


  3. Don Bacon says:

    “They’ll get him over my dead body.”
    The Government declares war. To say helplessly: As individuals we have nothing to do with it, can’t prevent it. But WHO ARE WE? Well, “WE” right now are the mothers and fathers of every able-bodied boy of military age in the United States. “WE” are also you young men of voting age and over, that they’ll use for cannon
    fodder. And “WE” can prevent it. Now–you MOTHERS, particularly. The only way you can resist all this war hysteria and beating tomtoms is by hanging onto the love you bear your boys. When you listen to some well-worded, well-delivered speech, just remember that it’s nothing but Sound. It’s your boy that matters. And no amount of sound can make up to you for the loss of your boy.–MajGen Smedley D. Butler, USMC, 1935


  4. Jeffrey W. Baker says:

    I don’t think McCain cares at all about Enron. If he did, why would he have Phil Gramm, major Enron enabler, among his closest advisors?


  5. karenk says:

    It’s not just McCains war thing-it’s our whole society. We have come to define our whole US history by the wars we fight. Nowhere else do regular civilians glorify war and love their soldiers as much as Americans do. The military industrial complex is just fine with this. We spend so much time and money on weapons of war in order to protect our freedoms, that we seem not to have noticed how badly our American standard of living has become. ie Defending what home? Who can afford one??
    Like Dan, I too have a son who just turned 18 last week-2 days later came the selective service information. They’ll get him over my dead body.


  6. via says:

    “According to Herskowitz, George W. Bush’s beliefs on Iraq were based in part on a notion dating back to the Reagan White House – ascribed in part to now-vice president Dick Cheney, Chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee under Reagan. “Start a small war. Pick a country where there is justification you can jump on, go ahead and invade.””
    Great article about Herskowitz, who was chosen by 43 to be his biographer. Too much truth was being revealed, however, and the handlers confiscated everything and gave the job to Karen Hughes, I believe. Not sure how to link, but here is the address:


  7. Edward Furey says:

    Actually, George Washington as President fought no wars.
    Woodrow Wilson’s reputation was pretty much destroyed by war. Many scholars regard his first term as one of the most successful of any American president, but in the second term he wound up in the war he tried to avoid and then managed the peace settlement very badly. Even winning a war doesn’t make one’s presidential reputation.
    James Madison’s reputation was not enhanced by the many disasters of the War of 1812.
    Lincoln pretty explicitly said he sought no monsters to detroy, even though he regarded slavery as monstrous. He would have regarded the war as forced upon him.
    Roosevelt did not exactly seek war. It would be more accurate to say that the war sought him, although he did believe it had to be fought before the United States was actually in it, and fixed U.S. policy in opposition to the Axis. That, however, is a long way from pre-emption.


  8. David says:

    Well said, Liz Williams. I love the way you phrased this stark reality.
    Regarding war as a way presidents make their mark, I think we are still too often trapped in a primitive, tribal warrior-as-best-leader mindset. I mean the idea that a terrorist attack would insure a Republican victory reflects a pretty uniformed, simplistic geopolitical perspective, especially since it would give us a president no better suited to lead the US and the world than the man whose policies he so fervently supports. Thinkers win modern wars, especially against non-state adversaries. Old warriors with a constricted militaristic mindset don’t.


  9. Spunkmeyer says:

    John McCain is still determined, whoever the adversary is, to fight
    the Vietnam War. This is why I think he is wholly unsuited to be
    President at this time, no matter how decent of a human being
    one may consider him to be.


  10. rollingmyeyes says:

    The trouble with having a public story line that is false like the US has had since the time of Ike, is that sometimes it is hard to remember what the changing story line is currently. MacCain did that recently. He must be tired. The idea of puting a man like that into the office of the Presidency is mind numbing. Can you remember a candidate for the Presidency being so aggresive toward other countries? Even Nixon never told us about all those other countries he wanted to bomb.


  11. Tony Foresta says:

    “…those like McCain who are committed to the militant export of American-style democracy,” are bruting and prosecuting TYRANNY, and IMPERIALISM, not democracy. This kind of mangling and shapeshifting of language enables the fascists in the Bush government to sell wars based on lies, to pimp privitization as a means to mask wanton profiteering, to proselytize free market parables, while ruthlessly entrenching and insidiously practicing cronie capitalist markets machinantions.
    All the fascist babel and quaint terms such as American exceptionalism, cloak the perfidious industries of Supremist America.
    Real journalists Steve Clemmons could not in good conscience parrots these naked lies, and partisan parables, intentinoally decieving the American people by painting lipstick on pigs like the Iraq war, the neverendingwaronterror, the credit crisis, the pending trillon dollar write down, the overtly onesided tax policies of the fascists in the Bush government, the ruthless robbing and pillaging of the American poor and middle class to feed the superrich and such pathetic jibberish and NAKED LIES bruting and pimping “…the militant export of American-style democracy.”
    Shame! Shame! Shame! Providing cover, and granting partisan legitimacy, and false credibility to this kind of naked deception and lying is conduct unbecoming in a ethical journalist, and a rank betrayal of the best interests of the American.
    A vote for McCain is a vote for the fascists, and the unabated perpetuation of the exact same pernicious, tyrannical, crony capitalists, supremist domestic and foriegn policies pimped and prosectuted by fascists in the Bush government.


  12. JohnH says:

    And now McCain is surprised. “He said he had not expected Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to try to oust Shiite militias from Basra without consulting the Americans.” Apparently Darth, who was in Bagdad at the same time as McCain, didn’t bother to tell him either.
    In one scenario, Darth told al-Maliki to hold elections in October to show progress to the US electorate. And then al-Maliki decided by himself that he needed to take over the polling places in Basra and elsewhere to avoid being tossed out on his ear.
    In an alternative scenario, Darth simply told al-Maliki that Bush wanted to get control of Basra, where KBR is building giant mess facilities at the British-held airport. And it had to be done ASAP before Bush leaves office.
    Either way, it makes McCain look extremely foolish. Al-Maliki just looks stupid, which is what happens when you follow Darth’s advice. Fortunately for all sides, the Iranians were there to negotiate a cease fire with al-Sadr, thereby saving al-Maliki’s a** just as he was getting in over his head! Remains to be seen if al-Maliki, unlike Bush, can stop digging before he disappears down that hole he’s digging for himself.


  13. Liz Williams says:

    The intellectualization of preemptive war as a valuable chess piece in the orchestration of a nation’s stated or unstated foreign policy and security goals is a crock of crap. Preemptive war is nothing more than an abhorent method of forced redistribution of power with the intent of foiling future rivals’ access to and control of valuable resources.
    The Iraq war is nothing more than a move to preempt the potential of China and Russia’s control of the region and its oil resources. The view amongst the “pasty white frat-boy” war mongers in the neo-conservative think tanks has been that the United States has no choice but to gain control of the Middle East in order to protect its future interests.
    Add to this a considerable mixture of Christian style Armageddon beliefs and philosophies, and you have a war of both preemption and Christian redemption.
    Perhaps it is true that non-U.S. intervention in the region could have and would have destabilized the U.S. economy, however there was, and remains, another path involving investments in energy independence from oil which could have generated a new era of American leadership and prosperity.
    Instead, our nation’s war debt has been sold to China to pay for a war to minimize China and Russia’s influence in the Middle East. This is yet another example of short-term policies, which are endemic to the Bush Administration which has demonstrated repeatedly its inability to see the forest through the short-term lumber profits of individual trees.


  14. Don Bacon says:

    The Concert (Slaughter) or League (McCain) of Democracies would be the new international vehicle because, to answer Dan’s question, China and Russia are the bad guys. They have veto power in the UN so the UN can’t be used to promote American Exceptionalism. That was so. . .fifties.
    McCain: “We have to strengthen our global alliances as the core of a new global compact — a League of Democracies — that can harness the vast influence of the more than one hundred democratic nations around the world to advance our values and defend our shared interests.”
    “Democracy” is fine internationally because US economic clout and threats of force can be used to coerce some other nations. At home, however, democracy is a dead dog and we will depend upon a new Decider. McCain in Oct 2002: “The Constitution of the United States designates the President of the United States as Commander-in-Chief. The Congress of the United States plays a role, and I believe that this process we are about to embark on is the appropriate role that Congress should carry out its responsibilities. But at the end of the day, the final, most serious responsibility of sending young American men and women into harm’s way rests with the President of the United States.”
    RIP, US Constitution


  15. Dan Kervick says:

    The McCain speech is full of lofty and inspiring rhetoric, but the there is a real lack of conceptual coherence and theoretical unity beneath the rhetoric, and McCain’s threat-and-fear based vision is an uncomfortable fusion of three very different analyses of the current global scene, and the chief “threats” or “challenges” facing us.
    The first theme is the global holy war narrative which has become the beloved article of faith of the substantial conservative movement that is still devoted to George Bush and his apocalyptic global vision. While this article of faith is expressed in different ways by different people, the basic idea is that the “transcendant challenge of our time” is the global struggle against Islamic something-or-other. Right-wing Christians conceive of the war on terror as just the most recent of the Western crusades to defeat the evil Muslims and recapture the Holy Land. Christian and Jewish Zionists who are just devoted to defending Israel see filthy Arabs and Muslims as the source of all evil in the world. And some are just motivated by old-fashioned xenophobic panic and racist hatred of the dark-skinned desert folk. The Islamophobic orientation in right wing thought is obsessed with nightmares of rapidly reproducing Muslims swarming the world, pressing into every corner, and displacing decadent Europeans, weak and brutal barbarian tribes and rulers, and good Christian Americans and their friends.
    The second analytical theme is that the big threat or challenge facing the world is the presence of failed states and outlaw rogue states, who are collectively the enemies of global law and order. Although there is much room for overlap here between the first and second theme, the second theme looks beyond the problems with Islamist movements, and identifies the problem as one of a broader collection of disaffected “enemies of civilization” who either refuse to get with the global economic program, or else are too incompetent and barbaric to do so. It’s usually a part of this theme that these enemies of civilization hate us, simply because we are so awesome.
    The third analytical theme is that the great threat or challenge is the existence of undemocratic states – or at least not sufficiently democratic states. Thus the calls for a Concert of Democracies or its like to fight the good fight against the enemies of freedom, voting, short skirts and fast food. On this outlook many stable and mature players, who don’t hate order and civilization, are bad guys nonetheless.
    There is a certain amount of tension among these outlooks. Consider the role of China and Russia. On the one hand, China and Russia are large, powerful countries that are heavily invested in the stability of the global economy, and with whom we share a common interest in combating the anarchic disruptions posed by rogues, failed states, violent non-state actors and other global malcontents. Both states are just as eager as Americans, for example, to crush jihadist movements that are in their backyards or that threaten their interests.
    On the other hand, China is not a democracy in any clear sense, and Russia is only a somewhat superficial democracy. And they both play by confusing, mixed economic rules that don’t strictly follow the European and American models. So are they the good guys or the bad guys?


  16. Bartolo says:

    We should avoid being in the position of having wait until McCain takes office in order to learn once again to watch what a man does, not what he says prior to an election. This mistake was made in the 2000 election when Bush was sold as a “uniter, not a divider” and one who would conduct a “humble” foreign policy.
    McCain’s history in war is one of frustration, and I fear that he wants to prove himself as a successful warrior to his ancestors and descendants.


  17. DonS says:

    Dan Kevrick, at 3:47 (yesterday) wrote:
    “I’m fed up posturing, Steve. I have a son who is seventeen, and will be eighteen in June. He has to live in this shitty, conflict-ridden world that you and your banquet-hopping, parasitical, thinkerati friends chatter on about when you get together and pretend you really understand anything important . . . we will be in Iran and Syria, and maybe beyond, before her first year is up. And given the fact that our military is already overextended and broken, that probably means a draft. . . . “
    The emotion behind Dan’s whole comment captures a lot of what many feel, and what get’s lost when the functionaries and elected zombies continue to treat the situation in our nation as business as usual. Dan was talking about Hillary, of course, but McCain is the chief exemplar.
    Many of us are part of the Vietnam era, and recall that emotional time of another useless war, one fought for the imaginary “domino theory”. We get constantly ridiculed for invoking Vietnam comparisons. Why is that?
    We feel much of the same stupidity with the current war, being fought for the collective ego of the governing class, of both parties, which doesn’t have the sense to recognize one death, much less 4000 Americans (and countless others) is too much to pay to prop up the pseudo-rationale that there are serious considerations that prevent cessation of this stupid war.
    There was a draft in Vietnam. Therefore, the policy issues got attention, got debated and contradicted. Maybe it caused the serious egos of that period to dig in. Maybe the emotional confrontation didn’t save one life. I don’t know. But I do know that the political classes don’t seem to have learned one iota from going through the experience of a useless and ill conceived war that most of them should be able to remember.
    This post gives me the opportunity to rag on McCain for a minute. He is dangerous beyond belief, I think, from the pent up anger that [his great political asset] of being imprisoned must have wrought. It’s seen in his temper. It’s seen in his aggressive ideas of foreign policy. He sure as hell seems ready to go nuclear on any real or imagined foe he can, in good part because of what the V-C did to him.
    I don’t see at as just political calculus that makes McCain the threat he is. He appears a man without normal emotional range, tolerance and control.


  18. Don Bacon says:

    But from my vantage point, McCain seems to be stalking more wars not because they are ones that need to be fought but because he needs them politically.
    “The moment war is declared, however, the mass of the people, through some spiritual alchemy, become convinced that they have willed and executed the deed themselves. They then, with the exception of a few malcontents, proceed to allow themselves to be regimented, coerced, deranged in all the environments of their lives, and turned into a solid manufactory of destruction toward whatever other people may have, in the appointed scheme of things, come within the range of the Government’s disapprobation. The citizen throws off his contempt and indifference to Government, identifies himself with its purposes, revives all his military memories and symbols, and the State once more walks, an august presence, through the imaginations of men.”–Randolph Bourne, War Is the Health of the State


  19. Mr.Murder says:

    “When John McCain lost the Republican primary in 2000 to George W. Bush, he planned a 2004 comeback — and his attack line was going to follow the course of Bush’s closeness to Enron and the many Enron-related and similar-type corporate cronies in Bush’s government.”
    That’s why his ghost writer and former staffer worked for Arthur Andersen, the Enron accounting firm?
    You realized AZ was Enron’s middle ground, swapping the power with CA and TX on many deals? See also John Ashcroft’s move there from Missouri.


  20. Chicagoan says:

    Terrific post, Steve—this sort of clear-eyed, unsentimental analysis
    is what keeps your readers coming back even when you
    occasionally go dotty on us.


  21. Steve Clemons says:

    Thanks Adam and DG Mar — i fixed the John Adams reference to reflect John Quincy Adams, which I knew — but was rushing and think I had the HBO special on Adams on my mind. Thanks for the notes.
    Steve Clemons


  22. DG says:

    The “seek monsters to destroy” speech was actually J.Q. Adams.
    Regardless, some excellent insights. Every “great president” — Washington, Lincoln, FDR — gained his reputation defined primarily through a war. And each of those wars came along every four generations or 80 years. I suspect Bush, McCain, and Hillary are all keenly aware of that.


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