In the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, John McCain presents an essay about what he would do as president, with respect to foreign affairs (McCain, J. (2007). An Enduring Peace Built on Freedom: Securing America's Future. Foreign Affairs, 86 (6), Nov/Dec. www.foreignaffairs.org). The essay is one of a series by 2008 presidential hopefuls. I have previously reviewed essays by Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, John Edwards, Rudolph Guliani, and Hillary Clinton.
Unlike many of the other candidates’ essays, McCain’s is remarkably free of equivocation and vague hedging. He does sometimes use terms loaded with undocumented, implied meaning, which is a way to avoid saying directly what one means, but aside from those flaws, his message is simple: The U.S. should lead a consortium of democratic countries to isolate and bully those who do not see the need for democratic government and free market capitalism. In this regard, McCain’s message is similar to Guliani’s.
Like Clinton and Edwards, McCain is convinced of American exceptionalism. He quotes Alexander Hamilton: “We are a people of great destinies.” McCain states without qualification that the principles of the Declaration of Independence are “eternal and universal.” He quotes Truman: “God has created us and brought us to our present position of power and strength for some great purpose.” (I wonder how Truman would know that.) McCain swears that “We are a special nation, the closest thing to a ‘shining city on a hill’ ever to have existed.” He quotes Thomas Jefferson, saying that America is “the sole depository of the sacred fire of freedom and self-government, from hence it is to be lighted up in other regions of the earth…”
Some flag waving is to be expected from any presidential candidate, but I get the impression that McCain is not just gesturing here. He seems to believe deeply and without question that America is God’s chosen country; that it is our duty to proliferate the American Way across the world. That kind of talk gives me the creeps.
I have heard almost identical statements from Islamist extremists about their ideals. They also believe they are God’s chosen people. They also believe it is their duty to convert the world to their way of thinking and living. What is the difference, except we were born here and they were born there? McCain’s approach seems to be, “Well, it’s us or them, so let’s just make sure we prevail.”
This is such a primitive, absolutist world view that I think it qualifies McCain as “extremely dangerous.” I thought maybe Clinton’s flag waving could have been standard political gesturing to express sincere patriotism. Edwards’ flag waving was more disturbing because of its religious undertones. Romney’s was imbued with blind absolutism. In this respect, Guliani and Obama seem more rational to me than other candidates considered so far. Clinton, Edwards, and Romney worry me. McCain frightens me.
Basically, McCain would gather all the world’s democracies into a vast club to present a united front of values and economic and military force against terrorism. He is not perfectly clear who would be in this club, which he calls the League of Democracies. Members would have to be democracies, but he would exclude Venezuela because it does not embrace a free-market economy, and Russia because it isn’t “highly industrialized. ” In fact, McCain would kick Russia out of the G-8, but he would include relatively unindustrialized India. He would exclude the democratically elected Palestinian Hamas.
Like Guliani’s similar “International System,” membership in McCain’s club would be capricious, depending on who we like. It would include “all democratic allies or close partners of the United States,” he hopes. No consideration is given to whether others would care to join this exclusive Club of America. We found in the run up to the Iraq invasion that there were not as many volunteers as we had hoped.
The League of Democracies would, says McCain, be more flexible and ready to act “when the UN fails,” to fashion better policies and “take other measures unattainable by existing regional or universal-membership systems.” There is really no reason to believe that such a League would not bog down as the UN has. There is nothing special about the democratic form of government that assures peace and cooperation. Hitler was democratically elected, as was Salvador Allende, Hugo Chavez, Hamas, and nominally, even Putin. There is simply no evidence in history that democratic government is any more “peaceful” than any other form.
I think McCain’s proposal is a reaction of frustration to the UN’s impotence. Because of the UN’s structure, it is not easy to project American intentions through that body. Whether that is a defect or a virtue depends on your point of view. But if your goal is to have a united ideological, economic and military front against terrorists and political adversaries, it makes practical sense to do an end-run around the UN. Romney suggested NATO as the natural vehicle for that but McCain, like Guliani, would start fresh with a new organization.
McCain’s proposal for a League of Democracies sounds a little like a return to the ideological bloc structure of the Cold War. If you only talk to your friends and shut out your adversaries, you risk groupthink, and you lack the legitimacy and legality of a genuinely inclusive body like the UN. I’m not against a consortium of like-minded states to show solidarity against terrorist extremists, but it is dangerous to think it would be an alternative to the frustrating but legitimate machinations of the UN.
The War on Terror
McCain uses the administration’s militaristic slogan. Iraq is the war’s central front in the War on Terror, he says, neglecting to recall that there was not a single terrorist in Iraq before we invaded. Now that we have sufficient troop levels there, he says, we have “a realistic chance of success.” He does not define success, or “sufficient troop levels,” nor does he note that a troop draw-down is imminent. He also does not say that he would do anything different than “stay the course” to succeed in Iraq, not a promising strategy.
He does however explicitly list the horrors that would ensue if we pulled out of Iraq “preemptively.” (I puzzled over “preemptive withdrawal.” Does it mean that early withdrawal would preempt later success?) The horrors include, above all, allowing the Islamist extremists to believe they have been successful. Republican candidates in particular seem obsessed with what other people will think of them, more even than pragmatic results.
A “failed state” will provide “sanctuary” for terrorists, a civil war could develop (presumably worse than the one already ongoing), regional conflict could develop, and possibly genocide. Finally, withdrawal would mean an end to the prospect of democracy in Iraq. Some of these predicted consequences of imminent withdrawal are more plausible than others.
McCain complains that Democratic candidates who would withdraw troops right away are “courting disaster” by exploiting “the political winds at home, rather than the realities in the theater.” He overlooks the fact that the “political winds” represent the will of the people, a democratic principle he apparently disdains when convenient.
I agree with McCain though, that the Democrats have not revealed any “Plan B” for dealing with any post-withdrawal fallout, such as genocide. That is a serious criticism.
McCain claims there has been “progress” in Afghanistan although he doesn’t describe it, and says we need to significantly beef up the NATO forces and the Afghan National Army with more troops and weapons.
He would continue to work with Musharraf to fight the Taliban and al Qaeda in Pakistan, even though that effort has not yielded much success to date, and Musharraf is on the ropes anyway. McCain’s proposal is to make a “long-term commitment to the country” to enhance its “ability to act against insurgent safe havens.” That sounds like code for arms sales. Given the current political instability in Pakistan, adding more weapons to it might not be smart in the long run.
With nuclear weapons, says McCain, Iran would be “even more” willing and able to sponsor terrorism, which is to all but declare that they now do sponsor terrorism an alleged fact that has not been publicly documented. He suggests that Iran might even pass nuclear weapons to “one of its allied terrorist networks.” This is a pretty far-fetched, unsubstantiated suggestion. To me it sounds like gratuitous saber-rattling and fear mongering.
While military action against Iran remains “on the table,” McCain would implement unspecified tougher political and economic sanctions against the country in conjunction with unspecified allies, outside any UN framework. That does not sound like a well thought-out plan. What if, outside the aegis of the UN, we embargo Iran and then the Russians want to build a nuclear reactor there? Will we threaten them at gunpoint? Would that really work? The reason we work through the UN is to avoid that kind of eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation.
Maybe a better plan would be to make it very expensive for the Russians to do that, and then just plan now for dealing with a nuclear Iran in the future. At this point, I’d be more worried about Pakistani and North Korean nukes than non-existent Iranian ones. But McCain seems more concerned with “face” than pragmatics. “Tehran must understand that it cannot win a showdown with the world.”
Hamas must be isolated, McCain says as part of finding an enduring peace settlement. How would that happen? More arms sales! We must continue provide “needed military equipment and technology” so that Israel can maintain its “qualitative military edge.” That does not sound like a recipe for peace to me.
One good idea is to put significant effort into building up moderate, rational Muslim populations. McCain would “employ every economic, diplomatic, political, legal, and ideological tool at our disposal to aid moderate Muslims – women’s rights campaigners, labor leaders, lawyers, journalists, teachers, tolerant imams, and many others…” That’s a smart strategy that could actually be useful, as Clinton and Edwards have also pointed out less emphatically. I would worry that such an effort would become merely an exercise in propaganda, because it is not clear how, exactly, one would “aid” moderate Muslims other than try to convert them to the American Way. At least Clinton and Edwards had specific proposals about education and public health. McCain suggests his strategy would to “nurture a culture of hope and economic opportunity by establishing a free-trade area from Morocco to Afghanistan.” Is free-trade actually the issue here? Would it include opium?
As would all other candidates, McCain would upgrade the size and equipment of the military, but he would also create whole new branches, such as an Army Advisory Corps and a sinister-sounding “new OSS” that would “deploy infiltrating agents without diplomatic cover in terrorist states and organizations.” He would increase the scope of Special Forces operations, language experts, interrogation experts, and set up a vague, post-conflict reconstruction ‘civilian surge’, and restore the defunct US Information Agency.” McCain claims that “we can afford to spend more on national defense” than we do. Maybe so, but every dollar must come from somewhere. Is he hinting at higher taxes? That seems unlikely, but he says no more.
I like some of these ideas, although I would be wary. My concern is that if you give a man a hammer, everything looks like a nail. A vast expansion of DoD can only lead to trouble. Obviously, the military is understaffed and equipment and ordnance must be replaced and maintained. But adding whole new DoD agencies and functions sounds pretty scary.
McCain may be on the right track in trying to describe how DoD needs to re-orient itself for the challenges of fighting terrorism. We do need explicit post-conflict capacity. We do need more, and different kinds of intelligence. But the old OSS eventually morphed into the virtually uncontrollable, hydra-headed intelligence behemoth we have today. We should learn from that.
McCain’s proposals here are attention-getting but he should have talked about what specific needs would be addressed instead of jumping right in with a new org chart. Notably lacking in the proposed re-vamp is any attention to law enforcement and judicial roles.
McCain says that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is based on a mistaken assumption, that nuclear technology can spread without nuclear weapons eventually following. That needs to be “revisited,” he says. Non-nuclear weapons states do not have a “right” to nuclear technology. Clearly he has Iran on his mind, but it is a startling proposal. Who has the authority to grant or withhold such rights? It’s “close the door behind me” thinking. McCain also says that the IAEA should automatically suspend nuclear assistance to states that cannot guarantee they are in compliance with NPT agreements. There is a move worldwide to nuclear power and there would probably be few countries to sign up for such restrictions. I think Clinton’s proposal of building a monitored international fuel bank is a more practical idea.
Slipping into his domestic agenda for a moment, McCain says he will unveil a “declaration of independence” from our reliance on foreign oil. To that I say, “hallelujah!” It could never happen with an oil president in office. The next president simply must show some awareness of the death grip around the country’s throat. McCain would promote conservation, new technology, alternative fuels, renewables, and so on. Nothing is mentioned about changing the very concept of the user-owned automobile, mass transit, or putting pressure on the auto industry. Clean coal is not mentioned specifically even though the US is rich in coal.
McCain would “greatly increase the use of nuclear power, a zero-emission energy source.” Nuclear has zero carbon emissions, but most people would also consider radioactivity a type of emission. Until there is a safe, economically viable technology for dealing with nuclear waste, the nuclear solution flawed and short-sighted. It is worth noting that the price of uranium has tripled in the last few years, foreshadowing a boom in uranium mining in Arizona, McCain’s home state (Arizona Republic, Jan. 2, 2006 ). Would we want to trade an oil president for a uranium president?
Democracy on the March
McCain waxes rhapsodic about democracy around the world, in Latin America and especially in Asia. And as emphasized by his proposed League of Democracies, democracy seems to be, for him, the key to a prosperous and peaceful world. But it is a mistake to equate “democracy” with economic freedom and prosperity, as a brief survey of world economies will reveal. If McCain’s main issue were that people must have the right to choose their own leaders, then his emphasis on democracy around the world would be appropriate. But I think his main concern is not a point about governance, but rather, to defeat terrorism and promote peace and prosperity.
Prosperity comes from capitalism, as China, India, and Russia have amply demonstrated. What about peace? That does not arise naturally from either democracy or capitalism, as Islamic extremists have repeatedly declared. Peace comes from a multitude of factors that McCain has not addressed, such as according people the dignity and recognition they crave; from an agreed-upon definition of justice; from freedom of expression; from ongoing dialog, and from other sources. I think McCain’s, and Guliani’s (and the present administration’s) emphasis on promulgating “democracy” arises more from self-aggrandizement than from an analysis of what it actually takes to find and maintain peace and prosperity.
McCain has ideas and a clear vision, and I appreciate that. Other candidates would do well to observe his ethic of calling it as he sees it, and should also sniff around his ideas. On the down side, McCain strikes me as a Cold Warrior, with a new uniform perhaps, but still ready to divide the world into us and them, and beat the other side down. That could be life-threatening for all of us. Maybe his “carry a big stick” philosophy is practical, but I would rather try for a more nuanced approach to international issues.