I agree with and want to build on what Yuval writes about Senator McCain’s speech. One of the things that struck me is that there is a fanciful quality to it. Some of the things McCain says are certainly within reach if he is elected president; for example, significantly increasing the size of the Army and Marine Corps and exercising his veto of appropriations bills containing earmarks. But others, like his claim that public education in the United States is “much improved,” are less realistic. And less realistic still is when McCain says
Concerted action by the great democracies of the world has persuaded a reluctant Russia and China to cooperate in pressuring Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions, and North Korea to discontinue its own. The single greatest threat facing the West — the prospect of nuclear materials in the hands of terrorists — has been vastly diminished… After efforts to pressure the Government in Sudan over Darfur failed again in the U.N. Security Council, the United States, acting in concert with a newly formed League of Democracies, applied stiff diplomatic and economic pressure that caused the government of Sudan to agree to a multinational peacekeeping force, with NATO countries providing logistical and air support, to stop the genocide that had made a mockery of the world’s repeated declaration that we would “never again” tolerate such inhumanity.
These goals are certainly laudable, but what evidence is there that Russia and China will pressure Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions and North Korea to discontinue its own? The answer is: hardly any at all. It is not as if these things have not been tried; they have been tried, but there are some obstacles that not even diplomacy can overcome — especially when countries like Iran and North Korea have a deep self-interest in acquiring nuclear weapons.
Of course Senator McCain should strive to reach his goals. But there is a surprising lack of realism to this speech — particularly given that if elected, McCain will likely confront a Congress that is more Democratic and more liberal than even the one now, and which will fight McCain on almost every front. A League of Democracies would take time to form, especially since many Europeans will (at least initially) oppose the idea — and even more time to make such an organization effective. And of course life is too complex, with too many variables and contingencies, to declare with any degree of confidence what America will look like in January 2013. Consider that if George W. Bush had given such a speech in May 2000, sketching out what the world would look like four years later, no mention would have been made of al-Qaeda, Afghanistan, or probably Iraq. Most of the focus would have been on domestic issues.
For all I know, the conceit of the speech might work. The approach is certainly intriguing, and even original. And it’ll probably get attention, which may be among its chief selling point. But my initial reaction is it doesn’t work, at least for me — perhaps because the speech seemed to cut against one of McCain’s more impressive qualities, which is that he is a grounded, clear-eyed, realistic man, not given to wishful thinking.