The other night in Philadelphia, Senator John McCain delivered one heckuva speech. Uplifting and inspirational, it was also unsparing and at times almost savage. One passage in particular garnered favorable attention from our Trump-obsessed media. This occurred when the senator, obliquely going after the president, uncorked this monster of a sentence:
To fear the world we have organized and led for three quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain “the last best hope of earth” for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.
On the one hand: ideals, obligations, and duty. On the other hand: half-baked, spurious, and unpatriotic. Get the sense that McCain is more than slightly affronted by the ongoing circus-cum-soap opera that is the Trump administration? Think maybe he’d like to see Donald Trump himself tossed onto the ash heap of history?
Well, if McCain is outraged, he has every right to be. Long may he rail. Long may this octogenarian senator persevere in discomfiting the current occupant of the White House.
That said, McCain’s remarks reflect an abiding commitment to a “tired dogma” of his own. By no means is that dogma his own invention. Indeed, it’s one that he shares with legions of other politicians and pundits predisposed to see the last “three quarters of a century” as a good news story in which America delivers the world from evil and brings it within sight of the Promised Land. Take that claim at face value and America’s present-day duty is plain to see: It’s to finish the job so that all will enjoy the fruits of freedom and democracy.
True, in his remarks McCain did make passing reference to America’s flaws, mistakes, and frailties. We’re not perfect. But all in all, he insists, “we have been a blessing to humanity.”
Now, made by a Russian about Russia, a German about Germany, or a Chinese about China, such a broad judgment would invite mockery and derision. Uttered by a respected American statesman about his own country, it becomes a sure-fire applause line.
Has America been a blessing to humanity? The correct answer to that question ought to be “Yes, but….” It’s that “but” that requires thoughtful reflection, particularly in our present circumstance.
More to the point, whatever blessings the United States may have conferred on “the world we have organized” over the less-than-a-century that for McCain encompasses all the past that matters, that period of history has now ended. It’s finished. Over. Gone, just like TWA, Oldsmobile, and the downtown five-and-dime. And like those defunct emblems of American civilization, it’s not coming back.
The senator seems not to have noticed, but we live today in an altogether different age. To keep insisting upon America’s supposed indispensability—a loaded term that McCain pointedly inserted into his speech—is to become willfully blind to reality.
What makes the present age different? For starters, it’s a multipolar world. The whole post-Cold War conceit of America presiding over the planet as the sole superpower has turned out to be a cruel illusion. So too with the conviction, taken for granted in the wake of Operation Desert Storm back in 1991, that unassailable armed might constitutes America’s trump card.
The grotesque misuse of U.S. military power since then, and especially in the wake of 9/11, finds the United States today mired in multiple conflicts that with the passing of time have become ever more disconnected from any identifiable U.S. interests. Tell me again what those Green Berets were doing in Niger when they were recently ambushed and killed? What exactly is the rationale for the Pentagon conducting air strikes in tiny, pathetic Yemen? How is it that U.S. trained and equipped Iraqi forces are skirmishing with the U.S. trained and equipped Kurdish Peshmerga? By what measure, if any, can it be argued that U.S. military activities in the Persian Gulf for lo these many years have contributed to regional peace and stability? And in which decade of which century can we expect U.S. forces to complete their mission in Afghanistan?
Number McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, among those preferring to dodge such questions.
Meanwhile, as the national security apparatus revs itself up for a showdown on the Korean peninsula against a country with a GDP less than one one-thousandth that of our own, far larger threats to American security get treated as afterthoughts. Maybe I’m wrong, but when it comes to the wellbeing of my grandchildren, I worry less about Kim Jong-un than I do about climate change, the opioid crisis, cyber vulnerabilities, and the implications of spending a trillion dollars of taxpayer money to modernize a nuclear arsenal already larger than North Korea’s by several orders of magnitude.
I’m all for Senator McCain laying into President Trump. But let’s be honest about what’s going on here. On the one side, there’s the guy who manifestly knows nothing. On the other, there’s the guy who quite clearly has learned nothing.
Of the two, McCain makes the more favorable impression, especially when he deploys high-minded terms like ideals, obligations, and duty. It’s all vaguely Churchillian and that plays well in sophisticated quarters, especially when contrasted with Trump’s crude blustering.
Yet strip away the rhetoric and what we have are dueling forms of ignorance, with each party imprisoned by his own illusions. Trump thinks that having run the Trump Organization he can run the world. McCain thinks that running the world is what God or Providence summons the mystical enterprise known as America to do.
That pretty much describes the present-day debate over basic national security policy: It’s egomania pitted against platitudes, individual vainglory versus vainglory on a national scale. Neither side has much regard for evidence.
Trump blasphemes. McCain hews to the Old Time Religion. Is there no third way?
Andrew J. Bacevich is TAC’s writer-at-large.