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McCain’s Anti-Trump Broadside a Half-Baked Brief For Empire

Senator John McCain, never one to play it close to the vest, has amped up his criticism of the Trump administration’s foreign policy, calling it a “half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems.”

Quoted fully:

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.

It is almost impossible to comprehend this speech, delivered by McCain while receiving the National Constitution Center’s Liberty Medal for bipartisanship on Monday, without understanding his party and its neoconservative vision of American global hegemony.

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Those who aren’t of the same persuasion as McCain, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and Bill Kristol’s Weekly Standard might be puzzled as to how the senator can get away with attacking American nationalism while at the same time calling for an American imperial mission. Exhorting one’s country to advance its ideals and leadership across the globe, even against the wishes of those who don’t want this guidance, sounds very much like vintage Western imperialism. French and British imperialists in the late nineteenth century were always justifying their imperial rule as a transmission belt for bringing their higher morality to unenlightened peoples and races.

Radical Republicans during the French Third Republic defended their country’s territorial penetration of Africa and Asia as efforts to carry their revolutionary principles across the seas. How does McCain’s vision differ from this imperialist mission proclaimed by Europeans before the First World War? By the late nineteenth century all European nationalists pursued empire in the name of universal egalitarian or progressive ideals—even the Italian fascist press invoked such concepts when Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1936.

The difference between them and us, at least as understood by McCain and his neoconservative friends, derives from their claim of moral superiority. They didn’t have it, McCain thinks, whereas we do. Unlike those morally defective empire builders of centuries past, McCain wants us to believe that we really do raise up the lowly and confused wherever we exert influence. Besides, we’re only practicing true imperialism, argues Stanley Kurtz of the Hoover Institution, if we directly rule a territory that we intend to control. No other form of control counts as imperialism, according to this fastidious definition. Finally, according to neoconservative teachings, it is only America haters who despise our universal values and propositional nationhood, and who therefore question our duty to civilize the entire planet. All this reminds me of a riddle that we used to pose jokingly when the neocons rose to prominence in the 1980s. “When is an empire not an empire?” The answer: “When neocons say it’s not.”

As a virtuous nation, according to the same authorities, we are not allowed to “refuse the obligation of global leadership,” for if we do, the world becomes a messier place. Supposedly, when we invaded Iraq in 2003, we were helping to make the globe less tumultuous. Moreover, whenever we engage in war, we are always fighting the bad guys because “democracies don’t fight each other.” Of course some liberty must be taken when we depict every country we’ve fought as “anti-democratic.” Was Finland in World War II an enemy of democracy? Or was that country a republican casualty of Soviet expansion that ended up in the Axis camp when we became allies of Stalin? World War I may offer another exception to the neocon rule, since the two sides didn’t look very different politically or culturally. And contrary to what I read in the Weekly Standard and other neoconservative publications, the Germans were not about to invade us when Wilson got Congress to declare war on them. I’m still trying to figure out how that intervention in 1917 and the very one-sided peace that followed made the world less messy.

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For the sake of clarification, let me underline that there are situations in which a global power like the U.S. may have to intervene militarily to forestall a preventable catastrophe, two examples of which were the overthrow of the Nazi government and keeping the Soviets from imposing their brutal regime on more Europeans than they were able to occupy by the end of World War II. But even here the interventions did not have to turn into global “crusades for democracy,” and in the case of Germany, it could have ended without a demand for unconditional surrender.

McCain’s remarks are mingled with verbal sloppiness, which either he or his speechwriter should have noticed and addressed. The senator decries “spurious nationalism,” which makes one wonder whether he’s saying that he likes real nationalism but rejects the fake kind. Of course, it’s more likely that he’s saying something else, namely that the current administration is practicing isolationism and therefore we’re shirking our duties by not playing a more interventionist role in world affairs.

Possibly, McCain is also taking revenge on the president, whom he’s been after since Trump insulted him, quite gratuitously, during the Republican presidential primaries. Not surprisingly, the media have interpreted the speech as an unmistakable broadside against Trumpism. But even this is not entirely clear. There is no evidence that Trump has withdrawn his country from world affairs or is about to take that step. In fact, Trump now seems steeped in imbroglios in Asia, Afghanistan, and throughout the Middle East. McCain’s attack also could have been leveled at Steve Bannon, who has warned the U.S. against becoming entangled in conflicts with Putin’s Russia or Russia’s clients. In any case it would have been nice if McCain had named names in his diatribe against nationalists who balk at his vision of American empire. And it might have been even better if he’d never given his speech.

Paul Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for twenty-five years. He is a Guggenheim recipient and a Yale PhD. He writes for many websites and scholarly journals and is the author of thirteen books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents. His books have been translated into multiple languages and seem to enjoy special success in Eastern Europe.

19 Comments (Open | Close)

19 Comments To "McCain’s Anti-Trump Broadside a Half-Baked Brief For Empire"

#1 Comment By Reece Milner On October 20, 2017 @ 1:34 am

McCain has with a lot of help from both the Bush’s brought America to it’s knees; by stupid wars that did no good, wasted trillions and lead people in numerous countries to hate the US. McCain is actually what people see when they think about america. A country crazed by empire and killing who are indifferent to the suffering and horror they impose.

#2 Comment By Rombald On October 20, 2017 @ 6:07 am

Are you familiar with the diatribes against the “Little Englanders” by imperialists in Victorian Britain? It struck me that there were various parallels.

#3 Comment By Bcz On October 20, 2017 @ 9:04 am

Oh for the love of…

That speech could
Have just as easily been given by any Postwar President.

Maybe you can only
Understand it through the lens of Neoconservativism but that says more
About you than the speech.

#4 Comment By straight talk On October 20, 2017 @ 9:48 am

McCain: “half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems.”

You’d think that as a nominal conservative, McCain would be all in favor of punishing people who make bad decisions that lead to needless death and disaster for America.

After all, personal responsibility is a cornerstone of the conservative sensibility. At least that’s always been my understanding.

Instead, we find McCain nervously worrying about American patriots who want to hold people like him responsible for their bad decisions. McCain doesn’t want to feel guilt or responsibility. He wants to get off scot free, despite having pushed us into multiple catastrophic messes around the world. After all, he did it with the best of intentions.

Your good intentions don’t count, Senator. Any more that the good intentions of liberals who screw up. You screwed up, and in the process of screwing up you screwed your country. There are lots of dead Americans because of you and your bad decisions, and tens of thousands of perfectly innocent dead foreigners. And if people calling that to your attention makes you feel like a “scapegoat”, tough s###. That’s a good thing. You ought to feel like a scapegoat.

Because it’s your fault. And before we can “move on” and “solve problems”, we’ve got to hose people like you out of our government.

#5 Comment By Will Harrington On October 20, 2017 @ 10:42 am

So what strikes me is that the Neo-cons, like McCain, are Jingoists. There really is no functional difference, is there? Maybe they would say America’s burden in stead of white man’s burden and will be more than happy to intervene regardless of race, but that’s about it.

#6 Comment By StephenKMackSD On October 20, 2017 @ 11:23 am

From the ‘Straight Talk Express’ to Bomb,Bomb,Bomb Iran This Neo-Conservative War monger, now presents himself as ‘The Voice of Reason’ or one of the fabled ‘Adults in the Room’ of 2006-2007. The whole of the American Political Class, the Neo-Confederate/Neo-Conservative Republicans and their evil twin the New Democrats, Hillary and her minions, just call them both Trump’s midwives, will be this Republic’s official undertakers! The imperatives of the American National Security State swallowed what was left of that Republic long ago!

#7 Comment By Howlvis On October 20, 2017 @ 2:48 pm

Take-Away Quote: “I’m still trying to figure out how that intervention in 1917 and the very one-sided peace that followed made the world less messy.”

#8 Comment By Fayez Abedaziz On October 21, 2017 @ 2:47 am

Yeah, well, if the British were so smart then why didn’t they calm the others across the way on the Euro continent?
Yeah, that’s the failure of Imperialism, big mouths like the leaders of Britain and France that should have stopped the weird movements to WW1 back in ’13 and ’14.
They knew everything eh…just like the crooks like McCain and war makers do ha ha and what did that get us and the world?
Continuing suffering and mayhem.
Just think if we didn’t have the first world war, then that treaty that way overburdened Germany, that so-called peace treaty.
We would not have had what I call the 2nd chapter of of that horror, ww1 which became…ww2.
All the British, French, Jewish, Russian, American, and yes, German lives that would not have died, not to mention the terrible suffering.
Damn, the people who have no passion for people’s suffering, don’t they have a conscience or any kind of heart?
And these creeps like McCain are lecturing us?
What did this bum with money and his Admiral father do for America? Nothing, we just paid them and they didn’t protect an American anything. Face facts… that’s right!

#9 Comment By GaryH On October 21, 2017 @ 7:24 am

Isn’t Empire inherent in the Republican Party, from its inception?

#10 Comment By Joe Porreca On October 21, 2017 @ 8:20 am

In reference to World War I, Professor Gottfried writes, “I’m still trying to figure out how that intervention in 1917 and the very one-sided peace that followed made the world less messy.” Indeed. As Winston Churchill wrote on April 8, 1945, “This war [World War II] would never have come unless, under American and modernizing pressure, we had driven the Habsburgs out of Austria and Hungary and the Hohenzollerns out of Germany. By making these vacuums we gave the opening for the Hitlerite monster to crawl out of the sewer on to the vacant thrones.”

#11 Comment By Tim On October 21, 2017 @ 8:35 am

“…there are situations in which a global power like the U.S. may have to intervene militarily to forestall a preventable catastrophe, two examples of which were the overthrow of the Nazi government and keeping the Soviets from imposing their brutal regime on more Europeans than they were able to occupy by the end of World War II.”

We must not forget that to the extent the Third Reich posed any threat to the United States or the world order aka The British Empire it was a direct result of the Anglosphere fomenting the Great War and intriguing the United States into that conflict. If not for Wilson’s folly in 1917 the Nazis would have never come to power in Germany. Apologists for US interventionism never cease mentioning Hitler as if history began in 1938 or 1941. As for the Red Menace in Europe in 1945, that situation was a direct result of Allied policy of the unconditional surrender of Germany. The Cold War was largely engineered and stage managed as pretext for empire. “War is a racket” said Smedley Butler.

#12 Comment By L Garou On October 21, 2017 @ 9:19 am

John McCIA..

#13 Comment By Joe On October 21, 2017 @ 12:23 pm

After all these years McCain is trying to get his fathers approval. The privileged, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, screwed up in Viet Nam and he is still trying to change the outcome.
What Trump said about him was harsh but in reality there are a lot of veterans that stood up and applauded what he said. He should marry Jane Fonda and see who comes out ahead.

#14 Comment By helen daniels On October 21, 2017 @ 12:37 pm

I agree wholeheartedly with all the foregoing comments. Thank God there are still good, intellectually discriminating people left in the Republic. Old “songbird” mccain is wrong every time (
WEFT) and he forgets that it was HE who gave the nation Sarah Palin and then it was HE who deliberately gave the election to obama. And look where that has left us!

#15 Comment By Ed B On October 21, 2017 @ 1:43 pm

Hmm. Instructive on his pal Flimsey G?

#16 Comment By Bolopunch On October 21, 2017 @ 5:10 pm

And this coming from a man too dumb to know he wasn’t as popular on the campaign trail as Sarah Palin.

#17 Comment By Mine Too On October 21, 2017 @ 8:28 pm

McCain can’t leave the Senate fast enough for me.

His soulmate Graham too.

I just heard Graham babbling that the “next 9/11 attack will come from Niger”. This in response to the eminently sensible question “why are we in Niger, Senator?”

Reckless, violent jackasses like McCain and Graham have brought us staggering deficits and flushed our international reputation down the toilet with their cycle of threats, bombings, and attacks that only make the “threat” spread to new places and never make America safer. It’s gone on for SIXTEEN YEARS now.

#18 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 22, 2017 @ 7:43 am

“Trump insulted him, quite gratuitously, during the Republican presidential primaries. Not surprisingly, the media have interpreted the speech as an unmistakable broadside against Trumpism.”

Sen McCain started that game of insults. I think our vet deserve some space of unique respect. But if they are going to hurl insults in the political arena of a personal nature, it’ a might shrift defense that a similar response isn’t fair game.

Mr. Kahn, cannot hurl insults and then claim, as defense my son was a veteran, o you shouldn’t criticize me. Then don’t hurl insults as political fair.

It’s a safe bet that the U is not going to become isolationist merely by allowing other states to to play a larger role in their defense.

#19 Comment By Mike Schilling On October 23, 2017 @ 4:01 pm

This isn’t hard.

“Spurious nationalism” means white nationalism and “scapegoats” means non-whites and immigrants.