McCain Mirage
The senator is not ready-for-prime-time commander-in-chief.


Andrew C. McCarthy

Senator John McCain’s ascendancy in the Republican presidential race has been truly remarkable. Yet, it’s no groundswell.

To this point, about two out of every three primary and caucus participants have voted against him. If the Democrats and independents some states permit to crash the Grand Old Party were factored out, his standing in the Republican base would be even less impressive. Still, you have to hand it to his admirers: They have parlayed his thin support into an aura of inevitability. The glow could intensify this week, when McCain is likely, finally, to rack up some more impressive numbers … in delegate-heavy blue states that rarely vote Republican when it counts, in November. (Full disclosure: I support Governor Mitt Romney.)

As it happens, the received wisdom about McCain’s suddenly broad support mirrors the regnant narrative about his chief qualification for the job: It’s a mirage.

The senator is portrayed as the GOP field’s only ready-for-prime-time commander-in-chief. Surely, we are told, this is what matters most in an era of national-security peril. For McCain’s conservative supporters, it is the tirelessly restated rationale for overlooking that, apart from a convenient flip on the Bush tax cuts, the senator’s major contribution to debates on economic policy is class-warfare rhetoric — liberally spiced with the same demagoguery (this time, against “the rich”) by which his politics consistently turns issues from Iraq to interrogation to filibusters to immigration to campaign-finance to global warming into morality plays, John the Virtuous pitted against hordes of unfeeling, self-indulgent, partisan rogues.

The sales job is a myth. In reality, a McCain presidency would promise an entirely conventional, center-left, multilateralism.

If you liked the second Bush term, if you liked Clintonian foreign policy, you will find much to admire in a Commander-in-Chief McCain. There would be the same agonizing over European and Islamic perceptions of America; the same doctrinaire commitment to the alchemy of democracy promotion; and the same fondness for heaping more unaccountable bureaucratic sprawl atop the already counter-productive agencies and multinational institutions that frustrate the United States at every turn.

Don’t take my word for it. Read McCain’s own Foreign Affairs essay, published late last year, in which the senator dilates on his philosophy. The leitmotif of “An Enduring Peace Built on Freedom” is that America’s tattered standing in the world must be restored. Typical is this:

We cannot build an enduring peace based on freedom by ourselves. We must be willing to listen to our democratic allies. Being a great power does not mean that we can do whatever we want whenever we want, nor should we assume that we have all the wisdom, knowledge, and resources necessary to succeed. When we believe international action — whether military, economic, or diplomatic — is necessary, we must work to persuade our friends and allies that we are right. And we must also be willing to be persuaded by them. To be a good leader, America must be a good ally.

Much scorn deservedly came Governor Mike Huckabee’s way when, in his own Foreign Affairs piece, he scalded the “Bush administration’s arrogant bunker mentality,” so “counterproductive at home and abroad.” Yet McCain’s very similar (if less-bracing) riffs have drawn little attention. The Bush years, he says, have left us in desperate need “to restore and replenish the world’s faith in our nation and our principles.” “America” thus “needs a president who can revitalize the country’s purpose and standing in the world.” Even as such important European governments as France and Germany have become more conservative and drawn closer to American leadership, McCain laments that President Bush has “frayed” the “bonds we share with Europe” — thanks, no doubt, to “the kind of abusive tactics properly prohibited by the Geneva Conventions” that he intimates have been standard fare.

Close your eyes, and you can hear these same lines regurgitated by any conventional Democrat, whether it’s Sen. Clinton, Sen. Barack Obama, or even Sen. John Kerry — the Democrats’ last standard-bearer who, you may recall, entreated McCain to be his running mate, the extent of their common ground being patent. Contrary to the assurances of McCain’s admirers, his own essay tells us the senator is still the same guy who in 2000, upon being asked what he would do immediately upon being elected president, said he would turn, among others, to Sen. Kerry, Sen. Joe Biden, and Zbigniew Brzezinski (President Jimmy Carter’s national-security adviser) to “to get foreign policy, national security issues back on track.”

We must, of course, give Sen. McCain the obligatory nod for supporting the “surge.” Admittedly, it is disquieting to hear McCain on the campaign trail battering former Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld (whom, as Salon reminds us, he was praising for having “done a fine job” more than a year after the Iraq invasion). And his periodic reliance on General Eric Shinseki — a Clinton favorite who famously urged that “several hundred thousand troops” would be needed for Iraq — raises many questions that have gone unexplored, such as: why McCain told the Hartford Courant right before the Iraq invasion that he had “no qualms about our strategic plans,” rationalizing that lean force levels “were very successful in Afghanistan”; and whether McCain is now saying Shinseki was right to call for two or three times the force level envisioned by General David Petraeus’s strategy, which McCain has vigorously supported.

Still, the senator must be given his due. To have appeared to be driven from Iraq by al-Qaeda would have been a disaster of incalculable proportions for the United States. When many around him, Left and Right, seemed ready to abandon ship, the sheer force of McCain’s will and the immensity of his stature staved off defeat. With the increased troop levels he fought for, we have routed al-Qaeda in Baghdad. Of the four credible candidates of both parties remaining in the race, none has an accomplishment such as this to tout. The senator’s advocates argue that he deserves enormous credit, and they’re right.


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