Towards A Good Samaritan World

Monday, October 09, 2006


Historian John B. Judis writes a very interesting account of the evolution of John McCain's foreign policy philosophy over at TNR. Judis praises McCain's centrism:

McCain is also another rarity in Washington: a centrist by conviction rather than by design. His political philosophy places him closer to Theodore Roosevelt than to his other idols, Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan: more noblesse oblige than libertarian populism or business conservatism. He says he favors "a minimum of government regulation in our lives," but what really matters is whether a policy or business practice is in the national interest. If it isn't, he'll use the power of the government to change it. Goldwater would not have voted for a bill tightening controls over the tobacco industry, and Reagan would have balked at curbing pollution. McCain has backed both. Liberals have recently chided him for wooing his party's evangelical base, but these have been nominal efforts. McCain pronounced himself in favor of teaching creationism as a theory; but he also devotes a chapter of his latest book to the genius of Charles Darwin. He gave a commencement speech at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University; but, in a subtle rebuke to Christian conservatives, he spoke entirely about foreign policy. Earlier this year, he voted to block a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

And bipartisanship:

McCain's idiosyncratic approach to party politics also makes him an outlier. His commitment to bipartisanship is real--he worked with Russ Feingold on campaign finance reform, Ted Kennedy on immigration reform, and Joe Lieberman on global warming--as is his relish for battling his own party's leaders. Last month, when Bush and his congressional allies were using a bill flouting the Geneva Conventions to paint Democrats as soft on terrorism, McCain, along with John Warner and Lindsey Graham, blocked the measure and insisted on a compromise. True, the compromise was flawed. Still, it undermined the administration's efforts to exploit the war on terrorism for political purposes.

But this is unexpected:

McCain has one other attribute that separates him from many of his peers in Washington: He is willing to change his mind.

Case in point: foreign policy.

Nowhere has McCain's willingness to question his own previous assumptions been more dramatic than on foreign policy. When he first arrived in Washington, he was essentially a realist, arguing that U.S. military power should only be used to protect vital national interests. Since the late '90s, however, he has joined forces with neoconservatives to support a crusade aimed at overthrowing hostile and undemocratic regimes--by force, if necessary--and installing in their place democratic, pro-American governments. Unlike many Republicans, he enthusiastically backed Bill Clinton's intervention in Kosovo. Moreover, he was pushing for Saddam Hussein's forcible overthrow years before September 11--at a time when George W. Bush was still warning against the arrogant use of American might.

Judis then explores McCain's intellectual history in more depth:

McCain comes from a long line of military men... By his own admission, he was brash, sometimes insubordinate--a maverick within a profession grounded in hierarchy. He longed to prove himself by going to war. Having absorbed his father and grandfather's stories about World War II, he had no doubt that the United States would triumph. "I believed that militarily we could prevail in whatever conflict we were involved in," he told me.

McCain also acquired from his father a particular view of American power. The elder McCain admired the British Empire and conceived of the United States playing an analogous role in world affairs...

McCain's faith in this approach would be tested in Vietnam. He began bombing runs over North Vietnam in mid-1967, at a time when the Johnson administration was restricting the targets American pilots could hit. McCain soon became disillusioned with this strategy. He and his fellow pilots regarded their civilian leaders as "complete idiots" who "didn't have the least notion of what it took to win the war." In October 1967, McCain was shot down over Hanoi. He was imprisoned and tortured for five and a half years, and he emerged thoroughly chastened in his views on war and American might.

A note on changing one's mind: It takes courage, and it is also in some cases a result of courage. A hypocrite has little reason to change his mind: not bothering to live by his beliefs, he has no occasion to discover that his beliefs are mistaken. An honest man who lives by his beliefs may discover through experience that he is, in some respects, mistaken; the same honesty will enable, will compel him to admit this when he discovers it. Back to Judis:

The McCain who arrived in Washington in 1983, after winning a House seat from Arizona, was still a hawk, but a very cautious one. He had abandoned the gung-ho idealism of the early cold war for a more tempered realism. And the U.S. defeat in Vietnam was still very much on his mind.

McCain's first application of his newfound realism came in September 1983, when he had to vote on a bill to extend the U.S. military presence in Lebanon. A year earlier, in the wake of Israel's invasion of Lebanon, the Reagan administration had sent Marines to Beirut to help oversee the evacuation of the Palestine Liberation Organization. But the Marines had lingered in Lebanon to aid the new government, which was fighting local militias as well as Syrian forces. Republican and Democratic leaders lined up in favor of extending the U.S. stay there... McCain called for a gradual U.S. withdrawal from Lebanon... McCain's concerns, of course, proved prescient--a month later, suicide bombers blew up Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 Americans and forcing a U.S. withdrawal [writes Judis]...

Now wait a minute. That withdrawal from Lebanon was a fateful moment, when we showed the rising Islamist movement that terrorism paid off. When "Ron Ran" from Lebanon, he sowed trouble for his successors. Judis should at least acknowledge the case that the retreat from Lebanon was part of the path to 9/11. Anyway, McCain was still a semi-dove in 1990, and Judis digs up a great quote:

[McCain] was initially skeptical of the need to use U.S. ground forces [in Gulf War I]. "I think that we have got to make use of the advantages that we have, and that is through the air," he told Judy Woodruff in early August. Later that month, he warned in a Los Angeles Times interview, "If you get involved in a major ground war in the Saudi desert, I think support will erode significantly. Nor should it be supported. We cannot even contemplate, in my view, trading American blood for Iraqi blood."

Obviously he's come a long way since then. Why? Three main reasons. First,

the senator's outlook had begun to shift in the early '90s, when he started o take an interest in democracy promotion and human rights.


Haunted by the American defeat in Vietnam, McCain had been reluctant to see troops deployed abroad. But his brother Joe says that the American victory in the first Gulf war restored the senator's confidence in U.S. power, allowing him to again contemplate military interventions.


And then there was the shock of Srebrenica, where Serb forces murdered thousands of Bosnians in July 1995. Its full impact on his worldview may not have been immediate, but, today, McCain recalls the massacre as a key moment in his evolution on foreign policy. "My reluctance was eradicated by Srebrenica," he says. "I was belatedly aware of the terrible things going on there and that the only way we were going to solve it was militarily."

This led directly to McCain the "uberhawk," who co-sponsored the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, who welcomed Ahmed Chalabi, who said on Fox News that leaving Saddam Hussein in power after Gulf War I was a mistake-- before 9/11-- who ran on a platform of "rogue-state rollback" in 2000, who expected Iraqis to welcome Americans as liberators, who expected the Iraq War to liberalize the Middle East. This is where he loses John B. Judis:

In short, McCain's record on Iraq does not inspire confidence. He was wrong about Chalabi, he was wrong about Iraq's ties to Al Qaeda and WMD, he was wrong about the reaction of Iraqis to the invasion, and he was wrong about the effects on the wider Muslim world. As McCain prepares to run for president, it's worth asking: Does he understand that he made mistakes? Does he draw any lessons from these mistakes?

The fact-checkers at TNR are asleep on the job. Judis's claims here are stated as if they were fact, when really they range from the controversial to the untenable. Iraqis did welcome the Americans as liberators. We all saw this on TV, and it shows up in the polls. In the wider Muslim world, the Iraq War has helped to trigger Libya's stand-down from its former anti-Western militancy, and the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon; there have also been elections in Palestine; in short, the liberalization of the Middle East has begun. That Judis is peddling the canard that Iraqis didn't welcome us as liberators doesn't mean he's a liar, it just shows that he is not willing to assimilate new facts:

McCain wasn't willing to concede that there was any flaw in the basic strategy of taking over and attempting to transform an Arab country highly sensitive to Western domination. I told McCain I thought that he failed to appreciate the power of nationalism, either in Vietnam or Iraq.

Judis seems to think that the power of nationalism is such that Iraqis would prefer to be governed by any Iraqi, even Saddam, than to be liberated/occupied by Americans. This is an empirical claim, and it is a false one. Sometimes people prefer at least an interlude of foreign rule to a particularly vicious fellow-national.

Hegel thought that history proceeds through thesis and antithesis to a new synthesis which then becomes the new thesis. The Iraq War (which underlined the lessons of Kosovo) was the antithesis to the aloof and somewhat amoral foreign policy of the Bush I/early Clinton years, which achieved international peace by writing a blank check to sovereignty, and treated American life as, in effect, infinitely more valuable than foreign life. There is no going back: we know now that we can overthrow murderous, genocidal states; and so we incur a new responsibility for those who still live under them. We need a new synthesis, less cynical than the Clinton formula, but which recognizes the limitations of our power, and the limitations of liberal democracy as a political ideology, that the Iraq War is exposing. McCain's habit of learning suggests that he is a good man to lead us to it.


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