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McCain Could Not Have Been a Peace Candidate

Walter Russell Mead continues his discussion of Bush’s legacy, and makes a very far-fetched suggestion:

Without declaring war on the Bush legacy or insulting the leader of his party, Senator McCain could have developed a message that was more clearly distinct from his predecessor’s. One possible example: Senator McCain could have run as a peace candidate [bold mine-DL]. He could have said to the American people that nobody was more committed to their security than he was, but also that he had learned the importance of peace the hard way. Senator McCain had some serious peace-making credentials to which he could point: his role in helping the United States and Vietnam rebuild relations was outstanding.

I agree that it would have been wise for the GOP to endorse a much less bellicose foreign policy in the last two presidential elections, and I think that would be the right thing for them to do in the future, but this scenario with McCain could never have happened. If Republicans needed a peace candidate as their nominee in 2008 (or 2012), they needed to avoid nominating McCain or anyone like him. If they wanted to nominate someone to break with Bush, Republicans needed to avoid nominating someone who supported most of Bush’s worst policies. McCain could no more have run as a “peace candidate” than Romney could have run as an economic populist. It would have come across as entirely phony, because that is what it would have been. McCain’s role in helping to normalize relations with Vietnam was valuable, but the McCain responsible for that disappeared a long time ago. Normalizing relations with Vietnam was a good thing to do, but it came twenty years after the end of the war. McCain’s far more recent and relevant record has obviously not been one of making peace, but of agitating for war on a regular basis and of attacking anyone expressing interest in engagement with authoritarian pariah states as would-be appeasers.

Mead continues:

There was a serious case to be made in 2008 that a McCain presidency was the country’s surest road to lasting peace.

No. No, no, no. A thousand times, no. I know that Republican hard-liners like to abuse the phrase “peace through strength.” McCain is one of them. Maybe some of them genuinely believe that an aggressive and overly militarized foreign policy ensures “lasting peace.” Either way, they’re wrong, and McCain’s foreign policy record since around 1995 is evidence that securing lasting peace matters far less to him than exercising “leadership” and showing “resolve” through frequent uses of force and increased spending on the military. Not only could McCain not have been a peace candidate in 2008, but for most of the last two decades he has actively opposed every advocate for peace regardless of party. If McCain had won in 2008, no withdrawal from Iraq would have happened, and American soldiers would probably still be fighting and dying there today. Given McCain’s dismissive attitude towards the war in Afghanistan during that campaign, he might have allowed the unacceptable status quo there to continue indefinitely, or he might have ordered an escalation. I cannot imagine McCain committing to a date for withdrawal from Afghanistan. I’m sure McCain would take that as a compliment, but that’s the point. We can’t know for sure whether a President McCain would have been reckless enough to start wars with Iran or Syria, but he very well might have done just that. McCain was the candidate of perpetual war, and the years since his defeat have reconfirmed that.

Mead is headed in the right direction, but still gets things a bit wrong:

The nominee needs to explain how voting Republican will reduce the risk of war and of terror attacks. The message can (and should) be peace through strength as opposed to peace through retreat and appeasement [bold mine-DL], but absent the equivalent of another Pearl Harbor or 9/11 event, peace is and must be the goal of someone who wants to be elected President of the United States.

This sums up the GOP’s predicament in a way that Mead does not intend. The message of “peace through strength” could be a good one if Republican hard-liners had not spent a decade making a mockery of the party’s interest in peace. Republican hawks are very good at rejecting “retreat and appeasement,” but they define both of these so broadly that these include almost everything except coercive and confrontational policies. When they say they are against “retreat,” many people take that to mean that they favor open-ended occupations and attacking more countries. Given the record of the last administration, that is not an unreasonable reaction.

As far as the hawks are concerned, telling them to run on “peace through strength as opposed to peace through retreat and appeasement” is to tell them to change nothing. McCain and Romney both thought they were running on exactly this message. They didn’t understand that their professed interest in peace had no credibility. “Peace through strength” is a phrase that is now frequently dismissed as a combination of unthinking Reagan nostalgia and insincere pandering. The compulsion to try to out-hawk Obama on every issue compounds the problem. The next Republican nominee needs to convince a majority of Americans that he has no wish to start new wars or prolong ongoing ones indefinitely, and to do that he has to mean it. Reciting “peace through strength” without breaking with prevailing hawkish policies will accomplish nothing.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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