John McCain knows a lot less about foreign policy than he'd have us believe. This, anyway, is the impression that's been growing in recent weeks, not least because of a much-discussed New York Times story published recently that painted a growing divide in his campaign between "pragmatists" and "neoconservatives." The candidate reportedly lacks firm ideological convictions, so a battle for "McCain's soul" may be in the offing.
And it's true: Despite his decades of supposed national security experience, it's difficult to stick an "-ism" on the tail of McCain's approach to world affairs. He's been one of the president's most fervent backers on Iraq, and yet he has also criticized the unilateralist tendencies that led the United States to war without key allies. During the 1990s, he opposed U.S. intervention in Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia, but he knocked President Clinton for his unwillingness to commit ground troops to Kosovo. Even on Vietnam -- the intervention about which one suspects he has thought the most -- McCain has both asserted that the war was winnable and also questioned whether we could have succeeded.
But in truth, McCain's foreign policy is far more consistent than it seems. Much like George W. Bush, McCain sees the world in oppositional terms -- us versus them, and good versus evil. McCain speaks often of taking the lead "in fighting this transcendent issue of our time: the battle and struggle against radical Islamic extremism." To him, it is a "transcendent struggle between good and evil." This alone tells us much of what we need to know.
A Manichaean or dualistic approach to foreign policy has a long pedigree in American history, stretching back to the 1600s, when early settlers proclaimed their adopted home a New Israel, a God-ordained refuge from the sins of the Old World. This distinction between the United States and everywhere else eventually became more secular, but it also became more tangible. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the U.S. saw itself in opposition to the rest of the world in no small part because it was. Enemies ranging from hostile native tribes to competing French, British and Spanish colonists surrounded the new country on all sides. Presidents Washington and Jefferson cemented this antagonistic attitude with their famous warnings against entangling alliances. They believed neutrality was the only policy that would prevent the great powers from toying with a vulnerable America.
This worldview persisted well after the United States became a great power itself -- particularly on the right. During the Cold War, a central tenet of conservatism was that the U.S. was locked in a battle with evil. That was not wrong exactly -- the Soviet Union was indeed evil -- but it was a hazardous way of framing the conflict. The advent of nuclear weapons in the 1940s had made a more cooperative foreign policy a matter of survival. For the first time, our continued existence depended on stabilizing relations with an enemy; national security was no longer a zero-sum game, no longer a matter merely of us versus them. Which is why both Democratic and Republican presidents concluded that, whatever its sins, they had to reach a modus vivendi with Moscow.
Conservatives like Barry Goldwater, who nevertheless insisted on defining the Cold War as a literal battle between good and evil, came to dangerous conclusions.
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They saw the bipartisan policy of containment as apostasy because it implied long-term coexistence with communism -- that is, with evil. They rejected negotiations with Moscow because one did not strike deals with the devil, and they derided international organizations because they required some degree of diplomatic deference to states that remained neutral in the face of communism. They even attacked the concept of mutual assured destruction, preferring a war-fighting strategy that would enable us to "win" a nuclear exchange.
President Bush's foreign policy -- his refusal to negotiate with evil, his dismissal of the United Nations, even his move toward a more aggressive nuclear posture -- is a function of this worldview. And so is John McCain's.
Weaned by a military family on the lessons of that most classically Manichaean of modern conflicts, World War II, and psychologically defined by his own maverick streak, McCain's worldview may be more instinctual than intellectual. But it doesn't matter. Like Cold War conservatives, McCain has taken a moral observation that the United States is a force for good battling the forces of evil and turned it into a strategic guide.
Thus, he rejects negotiation with our enemies in favor of "rogue state rollback," repeatedly deriding as "appeasement" the 1994 deal that froze North Korea's plutonium program and mocking calls for unconditional talks with Iran. He conflates our enemies -- perhaps one reason he has confused Sunni Al Qaeda in Iraq with Shiite extremists -- because evil is monolithic. Much like the right wing in the early 1990s, which first sought to prolong the notion of Russia as an enemy and then turned to China as the next great threat, McCain has turned on Moscow and Beijing as adversaries in a time of peace. Even his proposed new international body, the League of Democracies, can be seen less as a rejection of Bush's unilateralism than as an exalted "coalition of the willing," in which America can avoid the hard work of cajoling and coercing countries with different interests and values, as it must in the United Nations. McCain may nitpick Bush's foreign policy, but the foundation is the same.
The problem is that, in a world of transnational threats such as terrorism, nuclear proliferation and global warming, such a nationalistic approach is bound to fail. And so it has. Today, the nuclear nonproliferation regime is weaker than it was in 2001, the number of terrorist attacks has increased markedly and the threat of climate change remains unaddressed. McCain may know what he believes about the world, but the world bears little resemblance to his beliefs.
J. Peter Scoblic, executive editor of the New Republic, is the author of the newly released "U.S. vs. Them: How a Half Century of Conservatism Has Undermined America's Security."
Copyright 2008 Los Angeles Times