“We need to be honest about one central fact,” Senator John McCain intoned, explaining his opposition to the use of American military force. “We have no way to predict the size, length and casualties” that might result. The Arizonan elaborated:
If we find ourselves involved in a conflict in which American casualties mount, in which there is no end in sight, in which we take sides in a foreign civil war, in which American fighting men and women have great difficulty distinguishing between friend and foe, then I suggest that American support for military involvement would rapidly evaporate.
It was April 21, 1993, when McCain addressed his colleagues with those words. He was warning against American military intervention in Bosnia. As he later told the New York Times, he worried about an open-ended commitment of troops and aircraft. We seemed to be “flailing around,” he said, “looking for a way to do this on the cheap. And there is no way to do this on the cheap.”
Read today, the senator’s admonitions echo the rabid debate, a decade later, over the American invasion of Iraq and the wisdom of maintaining U.S. troops as an occupying presence. They caught my attention for two related reasons.
First, we’ve been having an interesting conversation on “The Corner” about whether, given Senator McCain’s stalwart support of President Bush’s decision to oust Saddam Hussein, Americans should assume a President John McCain would have made the same decision. The senator’s stock appears to be rising in the 2008 GOP nomination stakes, so the question is not an idle one. (Full disclosure: I support Mayor Rudy Giuliani for president but speak here only for myself.)
Second, on Bosnia, McCain changed his mind. A fierce opponent of administration strategy for over two years, the senator reversed himself in 1996, co-sponsoring with Bob Dole a key Senate resolution in support of the peacekeeping mission to which President Clinton had promised American troops. Indeed, these days McCain prefers to be remembered, as he put it in a 2006 oped (co-authored with Dole), as an “advocate of military action in Bosnia.”
His rationale for the shift is instructive for present purposes. As he told the International Herald Tribune at the time, “[W]hen the president made his commitment, committing not just Bill Clinton but the United States of America, the entire situation changed.” For Senator McCain, this meant our nation had dispatched its troops and America’s credibility as leader of the free world was at stake. He had also become convinced that, without U.S. troops, ancient hatreds would reignite the internecine conflict, causing massive loss of life. In fact, by 1999, McCain had so come around that he took to the Senate floor to chastise Clinton and the vast majority of his colleagues for ruling out the introduction of ground forces in Kosovo.
In short, a President McCain may not have made the same decision as President Clinton, but Senator McCain considered it a point of honor, a matter of urgency, to support the decision once it was made.
To be sure, while there are obvious parallels, there are also salient differences between Bosnia and Iraq, the most salient being that Senator McCain never voiced opposition to the Iraq invasion. That does not necessarily mean, of course, that he would have ordered the invasion. But there is other evidence that he might well have. On Wednesday afternoon, Patrick Hynes of the McCain 2008 presidential campaign team pointed us to the senator’s 2003 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations. (I’m now supplying the link, here.) The speech is very much worth considering — on the thought experiment before the house as well as on McCain’s overall foreign-policy approach (a topic for another day).
Hynes is right: The speech tends to suggest that, had he been commander-in-chief armed with a congressional authorization, McCain would have invaded Iraq.