John McCain and the Lessons of History

What happens when you conflate our values and our interests?

Senator John McCain delivered a major foreign-policy address yesterday to the Center for a New American Security, and it bears notice because the Arizona Republican remains one of his party’s most influential politicians, particularly on matters of defense and foreign policy. The speech is notable for two things: the extent to which the senator placed himself among those calling for a new foreign-policy framework for a new era; and the extent to which his views ultimately sounded like the same old call for widespread American interventionism.

We may be in a new era, but it isn’t a new John McCain.

The senator summed up his underlying national-security philosophy by saying that "our interests are our values, and our values are our interests." This lays bare the essence of McCain’s foreign policy. What does it mean to conflate values with interests? Where does it lead?

It leads to a messianic foreign policy. Our values are how we live—how we live. They really don’t have much to do with the rest of the world—unless how we choose to live, our values, become threatened by some outside force. More likely, of course, our values—like the values of any nation—will face their most serious threat from within rather than from without. But any nation must be vigilant to protect its way of life from any outside threat, whatever the source. Fortunately, America’s way of life isn’t threatened in any serious way by foreign entities.

Our interests are another matter altogether. We have an interest in protecting our homeland, of course, which raises a question about why our leaders have failed to protect our sovereign borders from massive illegal immigration over the past quarter century. But we also have interests related to our place in the world. We have an interest in preserving, as much as possible, stability in key strategic locations of the globe. We have an interest in protecting crucial sea lanes. We have an interest in preserving our Western heritage by offering military support to Europe when it is threatened, as it was during the early years of the Cold War (but isn’t today). To protect these interests, we have also an interest in being able to project power on a global scale.

This is a tall order for any nation, and the biggest danger facing a global power such as the United States is in getting embroiled in military conflicts unrelated to its true interests. And nothing leads more directly to that danger than conflating values with interests.

McCain’s formulation may be more subtle than George W. Bush’s formulation when, in his second inaugural address, he declared it to be U.S. policy"to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world." But McCain’s conflation of values and interests amounts to the same thing. It leads in the same direction.

Bush’s missionary zeal led him to undertake the job of fashioning a democratic future for the peoples of Mesopotamia, and the failure of his Iraq mission has contributed to a national mood today that disturbs McCain. It is a mood of war-weariness that has spawned a corollary wariness when it comes to foreign adventurism. This is seen in the widespread national feeling, manifest in polls, that the Iraq War was a mistake. In one recent CNN-ORC survey, 59 percent labeled the war "dumb," while only 38 said it was "smart."

McCain doesn’t agree. While acknowledging certain lessons of humility and power limitation posed by that U.S. adventure, he joins the lingering neoconservative chorus of Bush’s war defenders when he says: "We must also acknowledge the fact that we won the war and are losing the peace." In other words, the war decision itself wasn’t a mistake but rather America’s unwillingness to stay long enough and devote sufficient resources to the cause. While McCain may have learned some lessons from the Iraq failure, the big one, which also is the most obvious, still eludes him.

Thus, it isn’t surprising that McCain advocates limited U.S. military intervention into the chaotic mess of Syria—a large-scale program to train and equip opposition forces, air attacks against President Bashar Assad’s aircraft, SCUD missile launchers and artillery, Patriot missile batteries to create "safe zones" inside Syria. The aim, he explains, would be to nurture the trust of the Syrian people, bolster opposition moderates while marginalizing radical Islamists, and enhance prospects for stability in the post-Assad period.

These are all worthy goals. But, like George W. Bush when he contemplated his Iraq invasion, McCain doesn’t seem to be fully aware of the complications that attend any effort on the part of the United States to involve itself in the powerful internal conflicts of Islam. The actions advocated by McCain would place America in the middle of such a conflict and, once in, the country would be hard pressed to control events in the country or shape its own role in the ongoing conflagration, both before and after Assad’s inevitable fall.

McCain sums up his views thus:

America will not be able to lend our voice to every struggle on behalf of human rights and democracy in the world. But that cannot be an argument for not lending it at all. That is not what I believe the brave souls across this world who still long for freedom and dignity want from America.

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