McCain’s Mad Foreign Policy, Straight Up

Just like the first time he ran for President, John McCain is presenting an enormously compelling case to free-thinking Republicans and independents.

Eight years ago, he was everything that George W. Bush wasn’t: a reform-minded, everything-on-the-record American hero eager to do battle with his own party’s interest-group establishment and their narrow, selfish aims.

Today, he’s a little less free-wheeling, but he has come to stand out just as much, as the only top-tier Republican candidate consistently willing to stand on principle—political expediency be damned—whether the subject is immigration, torture or even the Iraq war.

But there’s a difference. In 2000, Mr. McCain offered a crusade to reform the political system and to inspire a new generation of Americans to subordinate their self-interest to the common interest. This time around, his emphasis is on foreign policy—specifically, his own vision of what the war on terrorism is and how it should be prosecuted.

“Most of all,” he said on a recent edition of ABC’s This Week, “people want somebody who has the experience and the judgment to lead this country, and I’ve got that record, and they’re beginning to focus on that because the transcendent challenge of the 21st century is radical Islamic extremism.”

Mr. McCain is quite serious and quite sincere about this. And, after seven years of a foreign policy defined by neoconservatism, that should make the anti-establishment voters who buoyed him the first time around think twice about a McCain presidency.

The architects of the Bush administration’s response to 9/11, including the Iraq war, have been motivated by deeply flawed assumptions that they have come to express in two simple mantras: The terrorists hate us because we’re free; and we’re fighting them over there so we won’t have to fight them here.

America has since turned on the administration’s foreign policy, and yet Mr. McCain remains an unwavering adherent.

He objects only to the Defense Department’s conduct of the war under Donald Rumsfeld, and not to the any of the arguments for the war itself. He speaks of “the terrorists” as if they represent some recognizable army that can be defeated with force. He persists in describing Iraq as “the central front in the war against Al Qaeda,” ignoring the role that the U.S. invasion itself has played in fomenting terrorist activity there. And, as he did in his ABC interview, he speaks of a hawkish U.S. posture in the Middle East as part of a clash of cultures, dismissing the idea that U.S. policy itself has stirred up resentment in the region.

More alarmingly, Mr. McCain has swallowed—hook, line and sinker—the neoconservative hype about Iran, ignoring the lessons of Iraq and beating the drum for military action. And he has maintained this posture even in the face of a National Intelligence Estimate that undermines much of the ostensible justification for the fear-mongering.

Long before 9/11, when the idea of preemptive war seemed fanciful and when few voters dwelled on the implications of a politician’s foreign policy rhetoric, Mr. McCain was an advocate for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. In this decade, he has seen his long-held views applied, and the consequences have been disastrous. But he seems to have learned nothing.

Of course, with the exception of Ron Paul, most of Mr. McCain’s foreign policy rhetoric synchs up with that of every other G.O.P. candidate. They all profess support for the Iraq war and for this past year’s surge, and they all like to beat their chests when discussing Iran.

The difference is that no one can doubt that Mr. McCain means it. The same cannot necessarily be said of some of his rivals.

Like Mitt Romney. In a backward way, the former Massachusetts governor, whose duplicity on virtually every issue has helped make Mr. McCain look like a rock of integrity, may represent the best hope among the G.O.P.’s top tier for meaningful foreign policy change.

On paper, there is no reason to suspect this. In discussing foreign policy, Mr. Romney dutifully hits every note that a Republican candidate in 2008 is supposed to. But he does the same thing on every subject—even, as often is the case, when it contradicts everything he has said and done before.

On foreign policy, Mr. Romney is a complete blank slate. His campaign pronouncements are meaningless, since he has routinely abandoned his expressed principles throughout his political career. With Mr. Romney, there would at least be a chance that fresh thinking would prevail. That is more than can be said for John McCain—even if he is the more honorable man.

McCain’s Mad Foreign Policy, Straight Up