Running for War President at Any Cost

Just great! Nuclear-armed Pakistan is falling apart, Iran's nuclear program is unchecked and congressional legislation on cooperation with the Russians on controlling nuclear proliferation is now dead in the water. Horrid news except for Sen. John McCain, who thrills to a repeat of the danger lines of the Cold War, and now stands a good chance of being our next president.

A very good chance, if the Russian recognition of the independence of two breakaway Georgia provinces can be elevated to the status of a major challenge to the security of the United States. It is an absurd claim: How can one justify uncritical support for the independence of Kosovo from Serbia earlier this year while denouncing a similar claim by a Georgian ethnic minority? It is also difficult to ignore that it was Georgia's president and close McCain friend, Mikheil Saakashvili, who upset the status quo by invading first.

Saakashvili's attempt to compare the Russian response with that of the "Stalinist Soviet Union" is a nutty reference to a Georgian-born tyrant who ruled Russia and who is still revered in much of his native Georgia. But when you need a new Stalin to get a Cold War going, President Dmitry Medvedev and the elected members of a unanimous Russian parliament will have to do. And McCain is very happy to have this card to play.

McCain can win only as a war president. He neither knows nor cares much about the economic meltdown, which is the consequence of the deregulation mania that he has supported at every turn during his career in the Senate. If McCain had to run on his economic policy record in the Senate, he might be a loser even in his home state of Arizona, whose residents are suffering mightily from economic disarray presided over by the Republicans. Better to dwell on the dubious success of the surge in Iraq than on the surge in home mortgage foreclosures and the price of gasoline that has crippled Arizona's and the nation's economy. Still better to change the subject to the Russians and Georgia rather than dwell overly long on the disaster of Iraq, which has cost our nation trillions of dollars and where the prime minister now is far more zealous than Barack Obama in calling for an early withdrawal of U.S. troops. But whatever McCain's problems from cheerleading for Bush's war, they pale in comparison to his vulnerability on the most pressing domestic issues.

Instead of learning the hard lessons of the need for stern government oversight of the financial sector from his own compromised involvement as a member of the Keating Five in the 1980s savings-and-loan scandal, he voted to have more of the same. McCain became a booster for all of the banking deregulation legislation advanced by the Senate Banking Committee's then-chairman, Phil Gramm, who, more than any other legislator in the past decade, should be held responsible for the current mess.

Instead of recognizing that Gramm had pursued a disastrous course as the subprime mortgage scandal was exposed, McCain appointed the former-senator-turned-banker to be his campaign chair. McCain fired Gramm over a verbal gaffe but has not retracted any of his key votes liberating the financial community to fleece those desperate to become homeowners, and, were that the subject of the presidential campaign, he would lag way behind in the polls. This is not the season for laissez-faire corporate capitalism.

That's why he needs a new Cold War, but it's a bad fit for the world we face. The danger from Russia is not that it has imperial ambitions driven by the remnants of an expansionist communist ideology. Even China, which is still a communist-run state, knows that old-fashioned imperialism doesn't pay. What drives nations to madness these days is not ideology - communist, Muslim or any other flavor of the month - but rather an assortment of nationalist and religion-fueled grievances. In the case of Russia, the evolution of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin from the man Bush so admired to the one McCain despises was driven by hostile U.S. policies-from NATO expansion to placing anti-missile rockets near Russia's borders.

The first step in adjusting U.S. foreign policy to a multipolar world is to recognize that other nations, as well as the United States, have causes and concerns that may be legitimate, even when they differ from our view. The hope of the Obama campaign was that a less U.S.-centric view might be in the offing, but that might be too great an expectation in the midst of a presidential campaign.

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