John McCain and the Limits of American Military Power

Sen. John McCain (right) visit Nawa, Afghanistan, with Sen. Lindsey Graham (at left) in 2010. (Sergeant Mark Fayloga/USMC)
The late senator’s career revealed that America’s ability to impose its best ideals abroad is not boundless.

I come neither to praise John McCain nor to bury him. The senator’s passing has led many to do the latter and many others to do the former. Instead, I’d like to take the passing of this leading figure in American politics — and, specifically, in American foreign policy — as an opportunity to reflect on his worldview, which championed the best of American ideals while demonstrating the limits of American power in pursuing them.

The tributes to and condemnations of Senator McCain have touched on a number of common themes. They share an admiration for McCain’s strength and perseverance in enduring more than five years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, and they praise his belief in duty and commitment to public service. But while the tributes to the senator have emphasized his championing of American values such as democratic political institutions and open trade, the condemnations have focused on his instinctively quick resort to the use of military power.

As Matt Welch noted for Reason, McCain was a bigger skeptic of the use of military force early in his career. It was only later that he acquired an abiding faith in America’s ability to wield its military power to right moral wrongs throughout the world. An anecdote that Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic shared in his remembrance of the senator is telling in this regard. Goldberg and McCain both supported the invasion of Iraq, and both cited Saddam Hussein’s brutal treatment of the Kurds as a reason for it. When Goldberg challenged McCain about the ability of the United States to install a democratic regime in the Middle East through the use of military force, the senator’s response was as striking as it was simple: “But genocide!”

Of course, few episodes demonstrate the limits of American military power as strikingly as the Iraq War, which Senator McCain was hardly alone in championing among America’s foreign-policy elites. The war was supposed to remove a brutal dictator who tormented the Iraqi people, and it did. But in doing so, it ultimately took them from the frying pan into the fire. In the 15 years since, their country has remained unstable, plagued by various forms of retributive violence, terrorist attacks, and sectarian warfare.

Even the troop surge of 2007 had only a limited effect on the situation. Senator McCain was a leading champion of the strategy, and in its aftermath insisted it had succeeded. He famously badgered his former colleague Chuck Hagel — a critic of the Iraq war and a Surge skeptic — about it at the hearings that confirmed Hagel as secretary of defense. But scholars who study counterinsurgency closely disagree about the strategy’s success in reducing violence in Iraq. At best, it seems, the increased number of troops and change in U.S. military doctrine in Iraq was necessary but insufficient. At the same time, the reduction in violence itself was a means to a political reconciliation that remained elusive. As a result, the Iraqi army, built and funded by the United States yet riven with sectarian divisions, withered in the face of an ISIS onslaught in 2014.

It is easy to blame the postwar debacle on a minimal invasion force and insufficient pre-war planning by then–secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld. Senator McCain certainly did. But democratic institutions are difficult to implant without the proper preconditions. Even if American goals in Iraq were merely to install a more friendly and compliant government, scholars have found that regime change imposed from abroad rarely works, because newly installed leaders must still answer to domestic audiences whose desires might not be congruent with the interests of their foreign patrons. Similar examples can be found in the recent histories of both Afghanistan and Libya.

VIEW SLIDESHOW: Remembering John McCain

While moral imperatives can seem to compel action, there are always prosaic issues that place limits on what military power can achieve. In some cases, logistical constraints make it difficult to alleviate the suffering of a people facing political violence and repression. There are also forms of military power inappropriate for a given political aim. Post-conflict stabilizing or counterinsurgency operations are not the same as traditional force-on-force engagements. Military personnel trained and equipped for the one might struggle with the other. Moreover, the size of a military force needs to be appropriate to the task, and stabilizing countries and defeating insurgencies are labor-intensive activities.

The impulse to right moral wrongs through the use of military force may be desirable — even laudable — but if we do so by ignoring the limits of military power in a given situation, we are likely to make things worse for those we aim to help. There is little doubt that Senator McCain sincerely believed in the ideals on whose behalf he too frequently wished to wield U.S. military power. Critics of U.S. foreign policy might suggest that jettisoning those ideals would make the use of American military force abroad less likely. Some may even suggest that doing so would insulate the United States from charges that it has failed to live up to its professed values, or that it never held such values in the first place.

Yet as my colleague Jacob Levy has written, nihilism is worse than hypocrisy, because the latter at least suggests ideals to which a nation aspires. America’s professed ideals are a big part of what has made it an attractive partner for so many foreign powers in the postwar era. Moreover, if the Trump administration is any indication, there is little reason to suggest that a foreign policy that tosses aside American values will be any less violent or reckless.

With the Trump administration posing a threat to those ideals John McCain cherished both at home and abroad, American internationalists are scrambling to synthesize a post-Trump foreign policy in which American values can still play a role. In doing so, they would do well to maintain a keen appreciation for the limits of U.S. military power that Senator McCain and many others have too often ignored.


Matthew Fay is the director of defense and foreign-policy studies at the Niskanen Center, a Ph.D student in the political-science program at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, and a fellow at George Mason’s Center for Security Policy Studies.


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