A Scary Thought: President John McCain

January 10, 2014 Topic: Domestic Politics Region: United States

A Scary Thought: President John McCain

"The fact that we avoided such a trigger-happy commander-in-chief is the one silver lining behind the 2008 presidential election."

As disastrous as Barack Obama’s presidency has generally been, count this conservative as happy John McCain was never elected president. Even amidst an Obamacare meltdown that is only the most prominent example of this administration’s ineptitude, McCain continues to find ways to demonstrate why his fingers must never be near the button.

Surveying the wreckage of the last five years, it would not be difficult to enumerate Obama’s failures. But McCain and his South Carolina sidekick Lindsey Graham wish to pin on the president a failure that is not his alone: the ongoing violence in Iraq, which has culminated in reports that al-Qaeda has taken Fallujah.

“While many Iraqis are responsible for this strategic disaster, the Administration cannot escape its share of the blame,” McCain and Graham thunder in a joint statement. “When President Obama withdrew all U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011, over the objections of our military leaders and commanders on the ground, many of us predicted that the vacuum would be filled by America's enemies and would emerge as a threat to U.S. national security interests.”

McCain and Graham dispute that the Iraqi government decided against concluding a new status of forces agreement that would have kept U.S. troops in Iraq past the deadline originally negotiated by the Bush administration. The senators describe this as “patently false,” claiming to “know firsthand that Iraq's main political blocs were supportive.”

Leaving aside the question of whether they had better sources for this information than Curveball and Ahmed Chalabi, the plain fact was that the American people had no appetite for an indefinite military presence in Iraq. McCain claimed to have gotten a bad rap for his remark that it would be “fine” to stay in Iraq for “maybe 100 years.” But it is clear he did not want the troops to leave for the foreseeable future.

According to that McCain-Graham statement, remaining at war in Iraq would not have sufficed. The United States should be at war in Syria too. “The Administration's failure in Iraq has been compounded by its failed policy in Syria,” said the senators. “It has sat by and refused to take any meaningful action, while the conflict has claimed more than 130,000 lives, driven a quarter of the Syrian population from their homes, fueled the resurgence of Al-Qaeda, and devolved into a regional conflict that now threatens our national security interests and the stability of Syria's neighbors, especially Iraq.”

The Obama administration actually did flirt with “meaningful action” in Syria. But few Americans shared McCain and Graham’s enthusiasm for getting enmeshed in a civil war in which many of the rebel fighters are themselves Islamic extremists. Even the Republican leadership in the Senate opposed the potential Syria war resolution floated by the White House.

McCain doesn’t want to get out of Afghanistan either. “We must apply the painful lessons of Iraq in Afghanistan,” he and Graham said. That means staying past this year, the current timetable for withdrawal from a war that has lasted for over 12 years.

And of course McCain is one of the Senate’s leading hawks on Iran. He favors the sanctions legislation that many experts fear will undermine negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program. That diplomacy may be the last chance to avoid yet another military intervention. McCain’s friend Graham is already championing an authorization of force resolution. McCain is on board.

McCain did at least want to avoid “boots on the ground” in Libya, another recent intervention he supported. But the senator chastised Obama for not committing to regime change quickly enough.

To McCain, “the painful lessons of Iraq” do not include the fact that Islamic militants within the country are stronger and Iran more powerful than before the United States invaded in the first place. The failed 2008 presidential candidate believes that if a nation-building experiment doesn’t work, the solution is to double down and try harder.

Most conservatives would reject this logic when it comes to the war on poverty. So would most libertarians concerning the war on drugs. But McCain is “fine” with the United States fighting at least three wars simultaneously and indefinitely.

“Today, too many ideologues call for U.S. force as the first option rather than a last resort,” writes former Defense Secretary Robert Gates in his eye-opening new book. “On the left, we hear about the ‘responsibility to protect’ civilians to justify military intervention in Libya, Syria, Sudan and elsewhere. On the right, the failure to strike Syria or Iran is deemed an abdication of U.S. leadership.”

From McCain, we hear about both of those things. As Gates goes on to observe “not every outrage, act of aggression, oppression or crisis should elicit a U.S. military response.” This kind of thinking is anathema to the Theodore Roosevelt impersonator from Arizona. The fact that we avoided such a trigger-happy commander-in-chief is the one silver lining behind the 2008 presidential election. At least Obamacare can theoretically be repealed. (It can also apparently be waived or changed, subject to presidential whim.) The consequences of wars of choice are everlasting.

Image:Flickr/Gage Skidmore.