Searching for John McCain

Last Tuesday at the University of Denver, John McCain outlined a more pragmatic foreign-policy vision. But how does that square with his campaign rhetoric, let alone his record in the Senate?

Sen. John McCain's campaign narrative appeared to have emerged at the University of Denver yesterday, concluding a lengthy, deliberative incubation period. A more restrained McCain professed yesterday to work toward a world most Americans could hardly take exception to: safer from terrorist and nuclear threats and making steady progress towards a nuclear-free future. McCain also said he was willing to work with Russia and China on nuclear nonproliferation, indicating he is narrowing the scope of his provocations.

The speech seems to unveil a new strategy and political persona for McCain. The narrative blends the more conciliatory tone towards Moscow and Beijing with sharpened hawkishness towards Pyongyang and Tehran. Importantly, McCain-who has repeatedly been described by Sen. Barack Obama as being determined to deliver a third Bush administration-sought to signal his distinctness from President Bush and mentioned repeatedly his willingness to work in concert with other nations. McCain also evoked the muscular deterrence of former President Ronald Reagan, in an apparent nod to the realists that figured much more prominently in that president's administration and the general Reagan nostalgia that has so strongly emerged in wake of President Bush's extravagant foreign-policy errors.

An article published yesterday in The New York Times' Web site broadly reflected the very the image that the McCain campaign introduced in Denver yesterday. Indeed, the article's critical analysis of the speech may have fallen short of the newspaper's standards. While McCain's speech does herald some more welcomed foreign-policy positions on multilateralism and more sensible treatment of Moscow and Beijing-as noted by Charles Kupchan, an expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, who is quoted in the article-it gives sparing coverage of the senator's failure to support during his congressional career some of the very measures he advocated in his speech; the seeming difficulty in reconciling some of the senator's conflicting proposals; and a notable lack of details in the senator's speech.

In addition, while the article notes in the lead that McCain's willingness to negotiate with Russia and China on nuclear disarmament would establish a more dovish approach than that employed by the Bush administration, it does not indicate that the senator's unwillingness to negotiate with North Korea on nuclear issues represents a more bellicose approach than that taken by Bush. And while the Bush administration has also held some talks with Iranian officials, McCain has rejected any discussions with Tehran.

The article's lead said: "Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, distanced himself from the Bush administration on Tuesday by vowing to work more closely with Russia on nuclear disarmament and by calling for a reduction in tactical nuclear weapons in Europe." It then when on to quote (in the article's last sentence) McCain's position, as stated in a recent editorial the senator coauthored with Sen. Joseph Lieberman, on Pyongyang, without similarly putting that statement within the context of traditional U.S. policy. "We must use the leverage available from the UN Security Council resolution passed after Pyongyang's 2006 nuclear test to ensure the full and complete declaration, disablement and irreversible dismantlement of its nuclear facilities, in a verifiable manner."

Importantly, the article is the second from The New York Times to strongly suggest (through the quotes and analysis it provides) that, unlike the current president, McCain favors an ecumenical approach to formulating policy and is receptive to various schools of thought-from a Reaganesque brand of realism to neoconservative toughness. Both articles were written or cowritten by the same reporter, Elisabeth Bumiller. (The first article was discussed at NIo here.) While a willingness by McCain to entertain the suggestions of realist and other advisers would surely broaden his appeal-and would therefore be eagerly advanced by the campaign-there is still ample indication that the senator is firmly in the sway of neoconservatives, even with his metamorphosing message.

The group of individuals that the article said "had a hand in the speech," according to McCain's advisers, includes: Randy Scheunemann, McCain's chief foreign-policy aide; former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger; former Navy secretary John Lehman; James Woolsey, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency; Richard Burt, former United States chief negotiator to the START talks; John Bolton, former United States ambassador to the United Nations; Robert Kagan, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; and Rich Williamson, former deputy United States ambassador to the United Nations. Interestingly, the group is heavily weighted with neoconservatives, raising the question of whether the senator is appealing to realists and reasonable voters in substance, or only in style and tone.

McCain and his campaign advisers may have wisely decided to more selectively pick their foreign-policy battles, thereby potentially sparing Moscow and Beijing of his more aggressive posturing. This change is a step in the right direction, but it still leaves McCain's Iraq policy intact, promising, thereby, to continue bleeding America of its human, military and financial resources and to bolster a global determination to challenge U.S. power-not to mention providing a battleground in which to do so. And since the senator is unwilling to negotiate with Tehran and Pyongyang, and has declared the nuclear programs of both to be unacceptable, it seems too probable that McCain, as president, would regard the use of military force with both or either of those regimes as a so-called "last resort."