John McCain’s reputation as a maverick is no recent contrivance. The senator first captured the media spotlight in September 1983, not long after he’d been elected to his first term in the House, when he voted against President Reagan’s decision to put American troops in Lebanon as part of a multinational “peacekeeping” force. One of 27 Republicans to break with the White House, the freshman McCain made a floor speech that reads as if it might have been written yesterday—by Ron Paul:
The fundamental question is: What is the United States’ interest in Lebanon? It is said we are there to keep the peace. I ask, what peace? It is said we are there to aid the government. I ask, what government? It is said we are there to stabilize the region. I ask, how can the U.S. presence stabilize the region?… The longer we stay in Lebanon, the harder it will be for us to leave. We will be trapped by the case we make for having our troops there in the first place.
What can we expect if we withdraw from Lebanon? The same as will happen if we stay. I acknowledge that the level of fighting will increase if we leave. I regretfully acknowledge that many innocent civilians will be hurt. But I firmly believe this will happen in any event.
Now insert “Iraq” where McCain said “Lebanon.” It’s as if McCain the Younger foresaw our present predicament and taunted his future incarnation, showing that wisdom doesn’t necessarily come with age.
In sketching out McCain’s political career alongside a timeline of American interventions abroad, one comes, at last, to a turning point. But his course was set much earlier, in his first visible venture into the realm of national-security issues at the time of the Lebanese events: Reagan’s request for U.S. troops and the subsequent attack on the Beirut marine barracks, where 241 military personnel were killed. This vaulted McCain to national attention. His initial opposition to the administration’s resolution authorizing the sending of troops was picked up by the media, and he basked in the spotlight. As he put it in his memoir, Worth the Fighting For:
It [his vote against the resolution] caught the attention of the Washington press corps, who tend to notice acts of political independence from unexpected quarters. My press secretary, Torie Clarke, began receiving interview requests from national print and broadcast media. Because of my POW experience, I had always enjoyed a little more celebrity than is usually accorded freshmen, but not so much that my views were solicited or even taken seriously by the national media. Now I was debating Lebanon on programs like the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour and in the pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post. I was gratified by the attention and eager for more.
On the strength of his prescient skepticism of U.S. intervention in a Middle Eastern nation known for its fierce sectarian passions, McCain’s star burned bright. U.S. News & World Report lauded him as a “Republican on the rise,” while on the other side of the culture-chasm, Rolling Stone hailed the Arizonan for his dissenting voice on an important foreign policy issue. His reputation was made as that straight-talking, idiosyncratic, interesting Republican congressman from the Southwest, a version of Barry Goldwater the liberal media could like—and would come to love.
Not yet, however: there was a dark interregnum during which McCain and the media were at odds. There were shouting matches between the voluble senator and reporters over the “Keating Five” scandal and his wife’s struggle with drugs. But this adversarial relationship turned a corner, in 1991, when the first Gulf War erupted. McCain reflected in his memoir, “As self-interested as this sounds, I was relieved when Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August of that year gave reporters some other reason to talk to me and something else to report.”
His position on that war was not the reflexive interventionism we have come to expect from him but a more thoughtful approach, as cited in the New York Times of Aug. 19, 1990: “If you get involved in a major ground war in the Saudi desert, I think support will erode significantly. Nor should it be supported. We cannot even contemplate, in my view, trading American blood for Iraqi blood.”
McCain preferred to use air power to keep Saddam Hussein out of Saudi Arabia, rather than introducing ground troops, and opposed the call that went out from the more militant neoconservatives that U.S. troops, having freed Kuwait from Saddam’s clutches, should push on to Baghdad.
What changed his foreign-policy purview, however, was the Kosovo War. Again he played the maverick role for all it was worth, taking up the cudgels against many in his own party. But this time, he was on the side of intervention.
Monday, April 5, 1999, was a busy day for McCain: Larry King, Charlie Rose, Catherine Crier, two appearances on MSNBC, another two on CNBC, capped by an interview on ABC’s “Nightline.” The next morning, he was up early for Don Imus. “We’ve turned down far more than we’ve accepted,” McCain enthused. It was “all McCain, all the time,” as one Republican strategist put it to the Washington Post, and it sure wasn’t hurting his presidential campaign.
“When I urged the president of the United States not to rule out the option of ground forces, then I also assumed responsibility for what may be the loss of young Americans’ lives,” averred McCain. “I don’t know how it affects my campaign. But I’ve basically put my campaign on hold to some degree.”
This was disingenuous, at best. Far from putting his campaign on hold, his newfound visibility gave it a shot in the arm, and political operatives in both parties saluted the pragmatism of his stance. “He looks presidential at a time when many Republicans don’t believe the current president does,” said Whit Ayres, an Atlanta-based GOP pollster. “He’s where the country is,” added Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster. “Americans certainly like to win and they don’t like politicians sniping in the corner when the question is whether we’re going to win it.”
“We’re in it, and we’ve gotta win it!” McCain repeated endlessly as he berated his “isolationist” fellow Republicans and demanded that they get behind the president and support the war. Yet his support was framed by a critique of the handling of the conflict that disdained Clinton’s alleged timidity in taking steps to ensure a victory.
Three weeks after hostilities began, McCain delivered a speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in which he declared that American intervention in the Balkans had been effectively stymied: “I think it is safe to assume that no one, including me, anticipated the speed with which Serbia would defeat our objectives in Kosovo, and the scope of that defeat.” While conceding, “yes, the war is only three weeks old, and yes, NATO can and probably will prevail in this conflict with what is, after all, a considerably inferior adversary,” he warned “victory will not be hastened by pretending that things have just gone swimmingly.”
According to McCain, there were two big problems with the conduct of the war: first, “an excessively restricted air campaign that sought the impossible goal of avoiding war while waging one. The second is the repeated declarations from the president, vice president, and other senior officials that NATO would refrain from using ground troops even if the air campaign failed. These two mistakes were made in what almost seemed willful ignorance of every lesson we learned in Vietnam.”
We were, he warned, in danger of “losing” to the Serbian army—with its outdated equipment and complete lack of an air force—if we failed to launch air strikes that were “massive, strategic and sustained.” Furthermore, “no infrastructure targets should have been off limits”—factories, water plants, hospitals, schools, markets, whatever. Yes, “we all grieve over civilian casualties as well as our own losses,” but “they are unavoidable.”
But all of this was eminently avoidable, as critics of the war—including many of McCain’s fellow Republicans in Congress—pointed out at the time. The war itself was unnecessary. The U.S. was never threatened by the Serbs, and the trumped-up charge of “genocide” was egregious overstatement. Aside from that, the conflict lasted little more than 11 weeks, and, contra McCain, the U.S. was never in danger of losing. A “massive” bombing campaign would have accomplished little aside from inflicting untold suffering on innocent civilians and incurring the everlasting enmity of the Serbian people—and of decent people everywhere.
Yet McCain was persistent in demanding that the situation called for American “boots on the ground”—a phrase that, if you Google it, you’ll discover what might be called the McCain Panacea. To hear McCain tell it, there is apparently no crisis anywhere in the world that cannot be resolved by the presence of U.S. armed forces. This full-throated, high-handed interventionism is a long way from the hard-headed realism of the young congressman who challenged the disastrous decision to send peacekeepers to Lebanon by asking, “What peace?”
It is impossible to know what is in McCain’s heart. There may be a purely ideological explanation for his changing viewpoint. But what seems to account for his evolution from realism to hopped-up interventionism is nothing more than sheer ambition. This was the case in 1983, when he defied the Reagan administration over sending U.S. soldiers to die at the hands of a Beirut suicide bomber, and in 1999, when the cry went up to take on Slobodan Milosevic. He was positioning himself against his own party, while staking out a distinctive stance independent of the Democrats. It was, in short, an instance of a presidential candidate maneuvering himself to increase his appeal to the electorate—and, most importantly, the media.
The brace of arguments McCain made in his CSIS speech in support of the Kosovo War didn’t hold together at the time—and fares even worse in retrospect. According to McCain, the Serbs threatened “our global credibility and the long-term viability of the Atlantic Alliance”—the former because two successive presidents had warned Milosevic against committing “aggression” against Kosovo, and failure to act would embolden other “rogue states” to defy American edicts. Yet McCain’s reasoning is circular: according to him, our government’s edicts must be obeyed because they are, by definition, non-negotiable—even by Americans. A certain course, once taken, must be pursued to the bitter end, even if it acts against our long-term interests. McCain’s worldview, which admits no possibility of error, is undiluted hubris.
The illogic of McCain’s interventionism is further underscored by his appeal to “the long-term viability of the NATO alliance.” With the implosion of the Communist empire a decade earlier, the original rationale for the creation of the alliance vanished. Was the unnatural perpetuation of an outmoded alliance really worth the lives of 5,000 Serbs, mostly civilians?
McCain’s arguments are so facile that one can hardly believe they are held with any degree of sincerity. There has to be something else involved, and a hint of this was revealed in the opening of his CSIS address, thanking his sponsors “for so graciously providing me a forum to share a few thoughts on the crisis in the Balkans. I’ve been having a terrible time finding media opportunities to get my views out, so I appreciate your help.”
One can well imagine the appreciative laughter, albeit tinged with an undertone of nervous uncertainty at the sight of someone who gets far too much pleasure out of being in the spotlight. Such narcissism, unseemly in anyone, is especially unbefitting in a president, yet it is key to understanding McCain’s evolution from conventional Republican realist to relentless interventionist.
During the 1990s, he earned the attention and adulation of the media by supporting a war most journalists approved of and doing so more consistently and vociferously than even the Clinton administration. He’s pursuing the same strategy now that we’re in Iraq. While the media has largely turned against this particular war, McCain’s criticism of Donald Rumsfeld and the Bush administration’s handling of the war has won him plaudits and given him credit as the “real” author of the surge.
If opportunism married to an inflated ego birthed his persona as the Ares of America’s political pantheon, then this psycho-political pathology soon found expression as a full-blown delusional system. By 1999, in defense of Clinton’s war, McCain was declaring, “I think the United States should inaugurate a 21st-century policy interpretation of the Reagan Doctrine, call it rogue state rollback, in which we politically and materially support indigenous forces within and outside of rogue states to overthrow regimes that threaten our interests and values.”
In 2006, McCain traveled to Tskhimvali, in the disputed region South Ossetia, where pro-Russian citizens want to secede from the former Soviet republic of Georgia and seek union with Russia. After his visit, he concluded:
I think that the attitude there is best described by what you see by driving in [to Tskhinvali]: a very large billboard with a picture of Vladimir Putin on it, which says ‘Vladimir Putin Our President.’ I do not believe that Vladimir Putin is now, or ever should be, the president of sovereign Georgian soil.
Imagine if the British, annoyed by American encroachments in Texas, had sent a member of Parliament to denounce the defenders of the Alamo. That, at any rate, is how the South Ossetians think of it. And what American interests or values are at stake in that dirt-poor, war-torn corner of the Caucasus? What American values are reflected in the Mafia-like “democratic” government of today’s Kosovo, where Orthodox churches are burnt-out ruins and the few remaining Serbs are under siege?
In the warmonger sweepstakes now taking place among the major GOP presidential contenders, John McCain out-demagogued even Rudy Giuliani, whose studied belligerence seems narrowly centered on the Middle East. McCain’s enmity is universal: if he were president, in addition to taking on the Arabs and the Persians, we’d soon be at loggerheads with the Russians. The G-8, he says, should be “a club of leading market democracies: It should include Brazil and India but exclude Russia.” Putin’s Russia, he claims, is “revanchist” and surely qualifies as one of those “rogue states” that “threaten our values.” If we take him at his word, President McCain would launch a campaign for “regime change” in Moscow, just as we did in Iraq.
Prefiguring the revolutionary Jacobinism of Bush’s second inaugural address, which proclaimed the goal of U.S. foreign policy to be “ending tyranny in our world,” McCain was straining at the bit to launch a global crusade while George W. Bush was still touting the virtues of a more “humble foreign policy.” Neither time nor bitter experience has mitigated his militancy.
Other politicians were transformed by 9/11. McCain was unleashed. His strategy of “rogue state rollback” was exactly what the neoconservatives in the Bush administration had in mind, and yet, ever mindful to somehow stand out from the pack while still going along with the program, the senator took umbrage at Rumsfeld’s apparent unwillingness to chew up the U.S. military in an endless occupation. He publicly dissented from the “light footprint” strategy championed by the Department of Defense. More troops, more force, more of everything—that is McCain’s solution to every problem in our newly conquered province.
Rumsfeld became increasingly un-popular not only with the American people—the abrasive defense secretary saw his poll numbers dropping to 34 percent from 39 percent in May 2004, as McCain and Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf took aim—but also with the media, which had grown tired of him. In the bitter winter of 2001, when the War Party was riding high, the Philadelphia Inquirer had enthused, “No doubt about it, Donald Rumsfeld is a stud muffin.” As Rumsfeld’s cachet faded, McCain felt safe in attacking him, and, after Rumsfeld had resigned, declaring him “one of the worst secretaries of defense in history.” As the war itself became more unpopular, McCain managed a feat of triangulation of Clintonian proportions, posing simultaneously as a war critic and a super hawk.
He was unrelenting in his criticism of the Bush administration, even as he pledged to carry its foreign policy forward: he continued to denounce the “tragic mismanagement” of the war, while hailing the surge—and strongly implying that the Bush White House had plagiarized his views. With the war enjoying the support of about a quarter of the American people, however, it was necessary to frame a narrative that would deflect the disadvantages of a pro-war position, while enhancing his image as a straight-shooter who doesn’t care about polls and just tells it like it is.
But “straight talk” has increasingly turned to reckless talk: on the campaign trail, he was caught on video singing “Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” to the tune of “Barbara Ann”—not one of his better moments. With his presidential campaign in the doldrums, and Giuliani and the rest of the Republican pack stealing much of his thunder, a new extremism seemed to possess him: in answer to repeated questions from one antiwar voter, McCain told a town-hall meeting in Derry, New Hampshire that the United States could stay in Iraq for “maybe a hundred years” and that “would be fine with me… as long as Americans aren’t being killed or injured” in any great numbers, as in Korea.
Yet the longer we stay in Iraq, the more hostility is directed at American soldiers. The majority of Iraqis now believe attacks on our troops are justified, a far cry from McCain’s prewar prediction that it is “more likely that antipathy toward the United States in the Islamic world might diminish amid the demonstrations of jubilant Iraqis celebrating the end of a regime that has few equals in its ruthlessness.”
McCain isn’t bothered by the failure of his prediction, just as the absence of WMD in Iraq didn’t phase him in the least. He is an actor following a script that was written years ago and cannot be altered because of mere facts: he is McCain the Conqueror, the fearless war hero, the commander in chief who will lead us to victory and stay in Iraq, as he told Mother Jones magazine, for “a thousand years, a million years” because American grit will tame those obstreperous Iraqis, just as we tamed the Koreans, the Bosnians, the Japanese, and the rest.
With the extreme rhetoric appearing to work, an emboldened McCain recently told a crowd of supporters in Florida: “It’s a tough war we’re in. It’s not going to be over right away. There’s going to be other wars. I’m sorry to tell you, there’s going to be other wars. We will never surrender, but there will be other wars.”
If McCain finally makes it to the White House, the U.S. will surely start new wars, and not just in the Middle East. With the world as his stage, the persona McCain has created—given visible expression by what Camille Paglia trenchantly described as “the over-intense eyes of Howard Hughes and the clenched, humorless jaw line of Nurse Diesel (from Mel Brooks’ Hitchcock parody, High Anxiety)”—will have every opportunity to act out his fantasies of soldierly greatness.
Justin Raimondo is editorial director of Antiwar.com.