Misreading McCain

Since an April 10 New York Times article appeared, depicting a fierce battle between neocons and realists for John McCain’s foreign-policy soul, there’s been a flurry of speculation over who will finish on top. But pragmatists like Henry Ki

The Iraqi War may not have shook up the Mideast chessboard quite the way neoconservatives predicted, but in regards to the probable policies of a potential President John McCain, this particular group is thinking several moves ahead.

Last Thursday, The New York Times published a front-page story about a presumed battle within Republican ranks over McCain's foreign-policy vision. While such a battle would certainly make a worthy spectacle, there is insufficient evidence that it is being aggressively waged.

On foreign policy, McCain appears to be so firmly entrenched in neoconservativism, it hardly seems worth the pragmatists' fight to sway him. While it certainly benefits McCain politically to project an image of listening to different camps and having factions vie for his favor, McCain has consistently aligned with neoconservative priorities through his congressional votes and public statements. And neoconservatives are correct in maintaining that McCain has long advanced their interests.


The New York Times Article

The April 10, 2008 article titled: "2 Camps Trying to Influence McCain on Foreign Policy," by Elisabeth Bumiller and Larry Rohter, hinges largely on comments by Lawrence Eagleburger, a secretary of state under the first President George Bush. But Eagleburger's statements are open to interpretation, and the article does not further clarify them. "It [sic] maybe too strong a term to say a fight is going on over John McCain's soul,'' the article quotes Eagleburger as saying. He added, "But if it's not a fight, I am convinced there is at least going to be an attempt. I can't prove it, but I'm worried that it's taking place." Eagleburger also said, "there is no question that a lot of my far right friends have now decided that since you can't beat him, let's persuade him to slide over as best we can on these critical issues." Eagleburger's statements do not seem to describe a pitched battle over McCain's worldview. And in referring to "far right friends," it is not clear if he is referring to his fellow "pragmatists" or to neoconservatives.

The article also quotes Henry Kissinger, but those statements also do not seem to illustrate an ideological contest for McCain: "In his speeches and daily pronouncements, I generally have no input," Kissinger is quoted as saying. "When we meet for lunch or dinner, or on the one or two occasions he has come to my home, we have had philosophical discussions. When he calls me now, it will be mostly 'this event has happened and what do you think?' "

When Kissinger was asked about McCain's hard-line stance on Russia, he declined to comment, adding. "You have to take my judgment from what I have written. But I am a strong supporter of the senator."

The article then provides questionable evidence of McCain's supposed versatility on foreign-policy matters, pointing to a statement the senator made in a March 26 speech delivered in Los Angeles: ". . . Mr. McCain's positions on many other issues appeal to the pragmatists. In the Los Angeles speech, he rejected the unilateralism that has been the hallmark of the Bush administration's foreign policy in favor of what he called 'being a good and reliable ally to our fellow democracies.' " Interestingly, that specific statement actually seems to highlight an aspect of McCain's aggressive foreign-policy posturing that has been at odds with that of many realists. For McCain, being a good ally to other democracies involves adopting a confrontational stance with Russia. Yesterday, for example, after Russia initiated legal links with breakaway regions of Georgia, McCain accused Moscow of "furthering its policy of de facto annexation" of those areas and called on other nations to also condemn Russia. And in his March 26 speech, McCain followed up his "reliable ally" comment by calling for a "League of Democracies" that would be at "the core of a new global compact"-one that would apparently provide a counterweight to the United Nations, in line with neoconservative principles.


Selling the Senator

While it is true that McCain in a number of areas, including some foreign-policy issues, has broken ranks with traditional Republicans, those positions do not appear to have put him in conflict with neoconservatives. McCain has clearly demonstrated partisan independence on climate change, stem-cell research, immigration, campaign finance reform and the legislation on same-sex marriage, but those are not catalyzing issues for neoconservatives. The senator's opposition to torture has put him at odds with many neoconservatives, but on that issue McCain has accommodated the Bush administration to some degree.

In the aforementioned New York Times article, Robert Kagan appears to have most accurately described the senator: "I would say his world view is so established that there is not a real battle going on," said Mr. Kagan, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "A struggle over individual policies I could imagine, but the broad view, no. People would agree on what McCain thinks. This is not one of those situations like Bush all over again, with some titanic struggle going on between different factions."

Indeed, McCain has numerous neoconservative advisers. The article puts advisers Robert Kagan, Max Boot, John R. Bolton and Randy Scheunemann all in that ideological grouping. But those advisers, and many of the individuals endorsing McCain, may be more a reflection of McCain's long-held views, rather than the architects of his belief system.