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McCain Evolved From Reluctant Warrior to Interventionist

Jonathan S. Landay

Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain (R-AZ) listens to Democratic presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) during the presidential debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee October 7, 2008. Although he's cultivated a maverick image, McCain's fixation with Iraq, and with regime change more generally, is squarely in step with his party's neoconservatives, many of whom now work for his campaign. (REUTERS/Jim Young)

WASHINGTON - Republican presidential hopeful John McCain fixed his
sights on Saddam Hussein long before President Bush sent the U.S.
military to oust the Iraqi dictator in March 2003.

Four years earlier, the Arizona senator told a Kansas State University audience
that Saddam was amassing illicit weapons, and that the U.S. should arm
opposition groups to overthrow him, along with North Korea's leaders
and other "odious regimes."

Saddam, however, no longer had any
chemical, biological or nuclear arms programs. Covert U.S. efforts to
oust him had all failed because the Iraqi opposition was riddled with
feuds and Iraqi spies, and because the exiles whom McCain favored - led
by Ahmad Chalabi, a purveyor of bogus intelligence on Iraq who also had
ties to Iran - had virtually no followers in Iraq.

years, McCain repeated the same assertions about Iraq's weapons
programs and ties to terrorism that the Bush administration later used
to make its case for invading Iraq. Today, he insists that the war was
right and that last year's surge of additional troops to Iraq has put
the U.S. "on the road to victory" there.

he's cultivated a maverick image, McCain's fixation with Iraq, and with
regime change more generally, is squarely in step with his party's
neoconservatives, many of whom now work for his campaign.
Neoconservatives believe that the U.S. must preserve its unchallenged
global dominance and military superiority, and reshape the world, by
force if necessary.

"There is no question that he (McCain)
reflects the hard-line neocon view," said retired Army Brig. Gen. John
Johns, a former supporter who's known McCain since his return from
Vietnam but is backing Democratic nominee Barack Obama. "With his
attitude, his finger on the trigger, the slightest thing will (cause
him to) execute that philosophy."

Not true, responded Max Boot, a McCain campaign foreign-policy adviser.

is not a warmonger, as the caricature has it, but someone who is very
prudent on the use of the American military," Boot said. "He takes
things on a case-by-case basis. He has no overarching ideological
vision that he would impose on the messy reality of the world."

McCain says that as a Vietnam veteran and a former prisoner of war, he "hates war" and believes that force should be the "last option."

He promises to employ "all instruments of national power"
- military, economic and diplomatic - and work with allies to deal with
adversaries, and with Democrats to forge bipartisan foreign policy.

McCain has always made his own calls based on his assessment of the
various situations we face in various parts of the world," Boot said.
"He is a very careful, prudent thinker who knows the military and how
it should be employed."

The words "diplomacy" and "State Department," however, don't appear on the McCain-Palin campaign Web page, which outlines a national security platform heavy with vows to pump up U.S. military muscle.

McCain has toned down many of his hard-line pronouncements in this
campaign, a McClatchy review of dozens of his speeches, interviews,
statements and writings over more than two decades traces an evolution
from reluctant warrior to advocate of U.S. military intervention on a
global scale.

In speeches and interviews McCain:

  • Has vowed, since at least 1999, to institute a "rogue state rollback"
    policy of arming rebel forces to replace regimes in Iraq, Iran, Libya,
    North Korea and other nations. He said such nations were developing
    weapons of mass destruction, supporting terrorism and threatening "our
    interests and values." (Background material here, here, here and here.)
  • Has advocated sending the U.S. military to "back up" those rebel forces "when they meet with reversals."
  • Has said that civilian casualties should be a secondary concern of military operations.
  • Has invoked a variety of justifications for using force,
    from defending the nation's security, allies, interests and "principles
    and values" to halting genocide in places such as Darfur and Kosovo and
    salvaging U.S. "credibility."
  • Has called for the creation of a "League of Democracies"
    to circumvent the U.N. Security Council when Russia and China oppose
    the use of force, tough sanctions or other actions sought by the U.S.

insist that there's much more to McCain. They cite his leadership in
restoring diplomatic relations with Vietnam, fighting global warming
and promoting human rights, democracy and religious freedom as a
long-time president of the International Republican Institute.

don't see much of an actual evolution here," Boot said. "I see someone
who has devoted his life" to studying military affairs, including "how
(military force) can be used effectively."

But a transformation in McCain's views can be traced through his words and stances.

first gained attention as a freshman congressman in 1983 by breaking
with the Reagan administration to oppose an extension of the U.S. troop
deployment in Lebanon.

McCain also resisted the use of ground troops to end the 1990-91 Iraqi occupation of Kuwait,
arguing that U.S. airpower could drive out Saddam's forces. He opposed
invading Iraq - which at that time had chemical, biological and nuclear
arms programs - because U.S. troops "couldn't tell a Shiite from a
Sunni" and Saddam would be turned "from the bum he is" into a "hero" of
the Arab world.

Two years later, McCain sponsored a resolution
demanding that the Clinton administration immediately withdraw U.S.
forces from Somalia after 18 U.S. troops died in a battle with al
Qaida-training fighters depicted in the film "Blackhawk Down."

American people did not support the goals of nation building,
peacemaking, law and order, and certainly not warlord hunting," McCain
said in an Oct. 14, 1993, Senate speech on Somalia.

In the same
speech, he decried as "baloney" the notion that a withdrawal would
diminish U.S. prestige and insisted that Congress had the
constitutional power to pull U.S. forces out of unpopular foreign
conflicts if the president wouldn't.

The following year, he demanded that U.S. troops leave Haiti. "In Haiti, there is a military government we don't like," The New York Times quoted him as saying
in July 1994. "But there are other governments around the world that
aren't democratic that we don't like. Are we supposed to invade those
countries, too?"

Yet when it came to Iraq, a far more formidable challenge than Somalia or Haiti,
McCain embraced the neoconservative belief that a U.S. occupation would
foster peace and democracy throughout the Middle East. He also backed
the U.S. military's lead role in Iraqi reconstruction, argued that a
withdrawal would weaken U.S. stature and, contradicting his statement
on Somalia, asserted that only Bush - not Congress - had the authority
to order a pullout. (More here and here.)

apparently ideological shift began after Haiti. His conversion
coincided with his becoming president of the New Citizenship Project, a
neoconservative advocacy group that was founded in 1994 by columnist
Bill Kristol.

The group initiated the Project for A New American Century, led by Kristol and Robert Kagan, a former State Department official who now advises McCain's campaign.

was a leading voice of neoconservative security policy and an advocate
of using force to topple Saddam's and other anti-U.S. regimes. Its
founding members included Vice President Cheney, former Defense
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul
Wolfowitz and other key Bush administration officials who pushed the
Iraq invasion.

The committee, whose directors included Randy
Scheunemann, now McCain's top foreign-policy adviser, was a key
advocate for the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act, which McCain co-sponsored.
The act funneled millions of dollars in U.S. aid to Chalabi's Iraqi
National Congress and other opposition groups, and made "regime change"
the U.S. policy. (More here and here.)

an opponent, McCain became a strong supporter of the 1996 U.S.-led
intervention in Bosnia, although some conservatives and U.S. military
commanders questioned the country's importance to U.S. security. He
also backed NATO's 1999 intervention in Kosovo, lambasting the Clinton
administration for a restrained bombing campaign against Serbia, and
urging NATO to mount a ground invasion, as well.

Air strikes "needed to be, from the beginning, massive, strategic and sustained," McCain said in an April 1999 speech.
"No infrastructure targets should have been off limits. And while we
all grieve over civilian casualties as well as our own losses, they are

Responding to the 9/11 attacks, McCain called for
unleashing the "full fury of American power" against al Qaida and other
radical Islamic groups and urged the Bush administration to make
civilian casualties a secondary consideration.

"We cannot allow the Taliban safe refuge among the civilian population," McCain wrote in The Wall Street Journal on Oct. 26, 2001, of the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan. "We must destroy them wherever they hide."

His willingness to tolerate civilian casualties has proven to be off the mark.

of civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Pakistan over the past seven
years are now recognized as a key reason for the Taliban's resurgence,
as popular outrage has brought the insurgents fresh support, recruits
and propaganda windfalls.

McCain also argued against fighting
terrorism with "half measures," even at the cost of destabilizing
pro-U.S. regimes in the Middle East. He insisted that using massive
force would convince Islamic extremists and ordinary Muslims that
resistance was futile.

"We must change permanently the mindset of
terrorists and those parts of Islamic populations" who did not believe
that the United States was prepared to "wage a relentless, long term,
and, at times, ruthless war," he wrote in the October 2001 Wall Street
Journal column.

McCain also used the 9/11 attacks to justify the ouster of Saddam. On Oct. 29, 2001, he said on CNN
that there was "very clear" evidence that Saddam had played a role in
the 9/11 attacks. There was no such evidence. As soon as there's a
government of "some kind of minimal viability" in Kabul, "the next step
is Iraq," he said.

In January 2003, as U.S. forces were fighting
in Afghanistan and massing to invade Iraq, McCain proposed a unilateral
U.S. attack on North Korea if other nations failed to join the
"aggressive, multilateral isolation of" the isolated Communist regime.

"Spare us the usual lectures about American unilateralism," McCain wrote in Kristol's magazine, the Weekly Standard. "We would prefer the company of North Korea's neighbors, but we would make do without it if we must."

McCain has since shifted his posture, and he now backs negotiations to end North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

also shifted his position on Iran's defiance of U.N. demands to suspend
its uranium enrichment program, which many experts believe is intended
to make nuclear weapons.

After rejecting direct talks with
Tehran, he now says that he'd hold them at the secretary of state
level. He also advocates tougher international sanctions, including
limiting sales of gasoline and other refined petroleum products to
Tehran, a step that Bush and the European allies have ruled out as too
harsh for ordinary Iranians.

McCain also wants to slap financial
sanctions on Iran's central bank, which Bush and the European Union
have resisted, and he's refused to rule out the use of force.

"There is only one thing worse than a military solution," he said in a December 2006 speech, "and that ... is a nuclear-armed Iran."


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