March 16, 2008


McCain's mixed signals on foreign policy: The presumed Republican presidential nominee has taken diverse positions over his 25 years in Congress, from pragmatic to hawkish. Supporters wonder what he'd do in office (Paul Richter, 3/16/08, Los Angeles Times)

From his father, an admiral who served in World War II, he inherited the view that the United States must take care to preserve its image of strength and greatness, not backing down in the face of lesser opponents.

At the same time, McCain's beliefs have been colored by his time as a Navy aviator, when he and his buddies became convinced that civilian leaders in Washington were dangerously mishandling the Vietnam War. Even while he wants to extend American authority, McCain as a lawmaker has regularly bucked the Republican establishment.

The Lebanon vote was an example. In 1983, McCain voted against a bill to extend Reagan's deployment of U.S. troops there. Reagan wanted more time to strengthen the fragile Lebanese government, but McCain worried that the American force was too small and that U.S. interests did not justify the risk.

In a similar vein, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, McCain initially wanted to limit the response to an air war.

"To start putting American troops into that kind of meat grinder I just don't think is a viable option," McCain said in a televised interview at the time. But he quickly changed his view, voting five months later to join an international effort to push Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.

Three years later, after 18 U.S. servicemen were killed in an ambush in Mogadishu, Somalia, McCain decided that it was time to force a withdrawal of the troops, and he introduced an amendment to cut off funds. He wrote later that he regretted the step as an encroachment on the president's power and "as a retreat in the face of aggression from an inferior foe."

In 1993, McCain opposed the U.S. military intervention in Haiti. Like then- President Clinton, he initially was reluctant to intervene in Bosnia in 1993 and 1994. After the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995, McCain supported the administration's plan to send U.S. peacekeepers into the region, with some reservations.

Growing bolder in his advocacy of U.S. deployments, McCain in 1999 favored American use of force -- even ground troops -- to halt the "ethnic cleansing" of ethnic Albanians in the Yugoslavian province of Kosovo.

McCain was moving closer to the muscular interventionism advanced by analysts like William Kristol and Robert Kagan, friends and advisors who are generally considered neoconservatives. McCain began giving greater emphasis to the idea that the United States needed to assert itself abroad to promote its values, not just narrower national interests.

"He clearly was moving closer to the neocons," said Simes of the Nixon Center. By the time the 2000 election campaign got underway "they were already quite enthusiastic about him."

Yet throughout, McCain continued to keep close ties among old-school realists, including former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, and former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. They thought he was on their side too.

In 2002, when debate erupted over war with Iraq, McCain seemed to strengthen his identity as a neoconservative. He agreed with administration officials that Saddam Hussein was trying to restart his nuclear weapons program, and he urged the United States to give more money to controversial financier Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress and other Iraqi exiles. He predicted that regime change in Iraq could catalyze sweeping democratic change in the region.

McCain has staked out a more hawkish position on Iran than the Bush administration, saying that "the only thing worse than military action against Iran is a nuclear-armed Iran." opposing a deployment of American forces but then thinking it has to succeed once it occurs.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 16, 2008 8:06 AM
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