John McCain's Neocon Manifesto

August 29, 2012 Topic: The Presidency Region: United States Blog Brand: Jacob Heilbrunn

John McCain's Neocon Manifesto

The senator's advice would hasten the very American decline he seeks to avert.


It's no secret that John McCain, once a prominent realist, has steadily converted to neoconservatism over the past two decades. He is now the movement's most visible champion, which is to say that McCain has been at the forefront of championing almost every bad idea of the past decade, including serving as a cheerleader for the war in Iraq. Now McCain has issued a neocon manifesto for Mitt Romney in Foreign Policy. Whether Romney would agree with it in practice—as opposed to in his truculent rhetoric—is an open question. But McCain's article, which is measured in tone, demonstrates that he would like to see a reversion to the George W. Bush era, with Romney as the new Dubya—and perhaps himself as its Cheney, serving as defense secretary? If McCain's prescriptions were adopted, however, he would accelerate the very American decline he seeks to avert. In fact, the neocon approach to foreign affairs is what first began the erosion of American power and influence.

McCain, of course, does not see it that way. His argument can be boiled down to a simple argument: President Obama is personally culpable for everything that has gone wrong with America in recent years. In mismanaging the economy, he is sapping the ability of America to lead around the world. Add to that the projected cuts to defense spending, his failure to cater to allies, his eagerness to truckle to Vladimir Putin and—well, you get the idea.


It would be difficult to argue with McCain's assertion that American leadership is a good thing (though if you live in one of the countries that America periodically bombards you may have a slightly different view). McCain says,

We are now engaged in a great debate over whether America's core challenge is how to manage our own decline as a great power—or how to renew our capacity to carry on our proud tradition of world leadership. Ultimately, this is what's at stake in this election, and the stakes could not be higher.

This is not entirely persuasive. McCain is positing a false dichotomy. Instead of managing decline, as McCain puts it, the task may be put in a more positive light—how best to husband America's resources, to direct them where they should be directed rather than to squander them frivolously, as occurred in Vietnam and Iraq. America has never had limitless resources, and it is silly to pretend that it has been otherwise. It's also the case that simply throwing more money at the Pentagon, whose budget has soared precipitously, is not necessarily a recipe for winning influence.

There is a also difference between leading and hectoring. McCain's vision of American power and influence around the globe is so open-ended that it constitutes an invitation for hegemony, something that China is bound to reject. One thing that is missing in McCain's essay is that the Iraq War forms the origins of much of the current mess. The Bush administration expended trillions of dollars—with more to come in the form of payments to veterans over the next decades—trying to use Iraq as a demonstration shot for freedom in the rest of the Middle East.

Another flaw in McCain's analysis is that he exaggerates the Obama administration's passivity abroad. McCain suggests that Obama has alienated allies such as Israel. He writes,

This is the feeling in Israel and the Gulf, where the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran is existential, but trust in America's willingness to address the problem has never been lower.

Really? Israel itself is experiencing a vigorous debate over whether it makes sense to bomb Iran—something that McCain does not demand that Obama accomplish, saying rather that there needs to be a realistic national-security threat. But it's difficult to discern how Obama could be much more accommodating to Israel, short of giving it carte blanche, which, I guess, is what would amount to a realistic threat for McCain. At the same time, McCain says that Obama is cozying up to America's adversaries:

This is the feeling across Central and Eastern Europe, where Vladimir Putin's Russia still casts a long shadow, but where many of our allies believe their national interests are being sacrificed by the administration's repeated, and largely unrequited, attempts to reset relations with Moscow.

This, too, is less than fully convincing. What "national interests" have been willfully cast aside by Obama? If McCain is referring to a missile-defense system, which is purportedly supposed to be aimed at Iran, then he is defending an expensive boondoggle.

But all of this is, more or less, window dressing for McCain's real cause, which is to urge American intervention in Syria. Once again, McCain paints a black-and-white picture of freedom versus tyranny, a contest in which American firepower can quickly and easily help the good guys win, as though it didn't have enough experience in the past with so-called freedom fighters such as Ahmad Chalabi, who turned out to be dubious figures at best. Here is McCain's cri de coeur:

In past struggles like Syria, when brave peoples fought for their liberation from enemies of the United States, we were fortunate to have presidents, both Republicans and Democrats, who recognized that it was in keeping with both our interests and our values to help the forces of freedom prevail. And they acted on that conviction. A Republican foreign policy would reclaim this proud tradition of U.S. leadership. It would, of course, accept that our interests require us to make tradeoffs at times, but wherever people struggle for human rights, no one should have any doubt whose side America is ultimately on. When people risk everything for their freedom, as they are doing in the Arab world today, our president should take their side—not just when it is safe and convenient for him, when they are on the verge of success, but when it really matters, when the fate of their cause hangs in the balance. And if Russia, China, or any other nation wishes to use the U.N. Security Council as moral cover for tyrants and war criminals, the United States should lead the effort to create multilateral action that is both principled and effective.

McCain, in short, has, to borrow from Talleyrand, learned nothing and forgotten nothing.