John McCain's foreign 'policy' problem is that he doesn't really have a policy. What he has are several tics, or gut reactions, that keep getting played out on the world stage. When you look at the sum of what he advocates, it amounts to a vague, incoherent, contradictory, self-defeating mish mash of reactions against things McCain doesn't like. Almost entirely negative, his foreign 'policy' offers very little that is forward looking. At best, he identifies a few things he doesn't want to see happen. It's not surprising that somebody who tries to build 'policy' on a crumbly foundation of gut reactions - very much as George Bush himself - comes across frequently as rash. A McCain presidency would be dangerous not just because he shoots from the hip, but because that's a symptom of a deeper problem: He has no clear idea what he wants to achieve. He has no method, no meaningful goal, and thus no path to get there.
A coherent foreign policy doesn't necessarily require elaboration in lengthy tracts aimed toward policy wonks. It just requires coherence...that is, it needs to be backed up by thought until national interests, goals, and methods are brought into line. Typically, you can tell that thinking is clear when it can be summarized. So for example this is the core of a coherent foreign policy.
Avoid foreign entanglements.
Clearly that's not a policy McCain embraces; perhaps one he doesn't even comprehend, given his desperate desire to enroll Georgia in NATO while it's enmeshed in war.
In any case, McCain has never clearly enunciated his foreign policy either in whole or in part. For example, anybody who's paid attention over the years to his many strange and contradictory pronouncements about Iraq, going back to McCain's determination since 2001 to promote an invasion, is left with the uncomfortable feeling that he has only the vaguest idea what he stands for and why, what his goals are and how to achieve them. He wants 'victory' and he's against 'defeat' in Iraq; that's about the extent of his ruminations. His Strategy for Victory in Iraq, though no doubt burnished by his campaign staff, is reactive and negative at best:
It would be a grave mistake to leave before Al Qaeda in Iraq is defeated and before a competent, trained, and capable Iraqi security force is in place and operating effectively. We must help the Government of Iraq battle those who provoke sectarian tensions and promote a civil war that could destabilize the Middle East. Iraq must not become a failed state, a haven for terrorists, or a pawn of Iran...The best way to secure long-term peace and security is to establish a stable, prosperous, and democratic state in Iraq that poses no threat to its neighbors and contributes to the defeat of terrorists.
More than 5 years into this war and McCain is still talking on the level of magical ponies. When pressed for serious answers about the intractable problems, he camouflages his vacuity in rambling appeals to support the troops and such not. He numbs the mind in the hopes that listeners won't notice that he can't put together national interests, goals, and methods in a coherent Iraq policy.
The underlying problem with McCain's foreign 'policy' has been so glaring for so long with regard to Iraq that I'd almost stopped noticing it. However the war in Georgia has really brought it into sharp relief in a very short span of time. McCain has nothing like a coherent policy. He hasn't tried to align realistic interests, goals, and methods. Instead, his positions have been almost entirely reactive and negative. They're governed mostly by what he dislikes - in this case, Russia and Vladimir Putin. It's a classic demonstration of how McCain makes 'policy' by shooting from the hip.
And once again, McCain was wrong as events showed. He wanted the US and NATO to take the toughest (im)possible line against Russia to the point of confrontation. His gut hatred of Russia/Putin simply blinded him to Russia's frequently expressed interest (i) in keeping NATO away from its doorstep and out of the Caucasus, and (ii) in reversing a series of humiliations at the hands of Bush, particularly (iii) in making a counter-example of the US intevention in Kosovo. That's a lot to ignore. With his blinkered and reactive view of the conflict, McCain couldn't see that a likely outcome of the fighting would be that Russia would lay off Georgia once it had humiliated Saakashvili. Instead, McCain could only see Hitler on the move. It was all about 'Defense of the West' vs 'appeasement' as far as he was concerned. So he staked out an impossibly bellicose position and was left high and dry when the tawdry little war sputtered out more or less as realistic observers anticipated.
Indeed for more than a week McCain's bellicose position consistently and perversely ran afoul of absolutely basic facts. From the moment the Russians counter-attacked in South Ossetia, McCain has been acting as if he were president - calling Mikheil Saakashvili daily, announcing that Americans are all Georgians, even sending his own personal envoys to meddle in affairs he has little say in. McCain has also been pushing aggressively for a confrontational policy. He's hinted repeatedly that he might insert US and NATO troops into the conflict on behalf of Georgia. Yet neither NATO nor the US is in any position to get troops there quickly, even if we wished to. McCain blamed the fighting entirely on Russia, failing to acknowledge that the Georgians started it. McCain has lavished praise on Saakashvili for his leadership and moderation, though the Georgian President obviously began the conflict with the intention of dragging the US in as his ally. Indeed this interview with Saakashvili, conducted on the eve of the war, shows that the propaganda McCain subsequently adopted had been prepared for him in Georgia before Saakashvili sent the troops in:
In this conversation, with fullscale war just 2 hours away, the Georgian president insists that his country does not seek conflict with Russia. He appears to understand the stakes involved, acknowledging that Russia’s population is 30 times larger than Georgia’s and that any Georgian attempt to reclaim one of the separatist regions would mean opening a war against Russia itself.
But at the same time, in this interview, Saakashvili is openly contemptuous of his counterparts in Russia. “You know them and their corruption,” he says; “you can imagine what horrible consequences there would be if we followed their political and economic model.” He says he cannot imagine the West not coming to Georgia’s aid. It would be like the betrayal of Hungary in 1956 or the then Czechoslovakia in 1968, when the Soviet Union’s aggressive repression of restive satellites was met with silence from the West.
Does America's interest really involve seeking a military confrontation with Russia by aligning ourselves so closely with Georgia's as to equate our interests? Is the US able to achieve what Georgia might wish, and if so at what cost? Once involved, can the US disentangle itself if affairs in the Caucasus spiral out of control? These are questions that McCain never seems to have asked himself in his headlong embrace (as a mere candidate) of yet another potential quagmire.
This August 13 NPR interview highlights the shallowness of McCain's thinking as he blathers about what the Georgian war means for his foreign policy views. There's just nothing here but gut feelings stated and restated. Notice too that McCain even repeats as fact the assumption that the Russian attack was about controlling the oil pipeline running through Georgia. The idea had been thoroughly discredited by that time, if only because the Russians made no move to seize the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline.
RENEE MONTAGNE: Russia's president did order an end to Russian military operations there. To the degree that that is in effect, and to the degree that peace talks are in motion, how much did statements from the West make a difference here? Because there is an argument that they didn't make much difference at all, that Russia had its own agenda, and it came and went as it pleased in Georgia.
JOHN MCCAIN: Well, I think, to a large extent, unfortunately, that's the case. They want a friendly country on their border. They want to control the oil pipelines that goes through there. And this is clearly in keeping with the Russian ambitions for the old, near a broad control of or absolute takeover of surrounding countries. And this may be trying to send a message to Ukraine and other countries in the region.
MONTAGNE: Well, there would be those who would say that that message has been sent and heard even beyond the region. What, realistically, could the U.S. in particular do to prevent, as you say, other sorts of influence that the Russians would like to exert in that region?
MCCAIN: Well, I think, in the short term, there is limited options, certainly, that we have. Long term, I think we may be in a period of relations with Russia where we have to make sure that we help our friends, that we do what we can to protect democracies and freedom, and make sure that we understand that there is a new era that obviously began when President Putin took over, and so we will adjust our relations accordingly.
And I don't think that there's going to be a re-ignition of the Cold War; don't get me wrong. I don't think there's going to be nuclear-weapons buildups, et cetera, but I think that Russian behavior is not acceptable. And we will do what we can to maintain our alliances and our friends and make the Russians understand that this kind of behavior is not a part of what we view as the 21st century.
So his European foreign 'policy' amounts to helping friends and protecting democracies and freedom while making sure Russians know we don't like their behavior. I think it's fair to say that's about as deep as McCain ever gets. He offers nothing about broad goals or methods or outcomes. McCain doesn't even have an ideology to fall back upon, to create a framework in which he might conjure a foreign policy.
I suspect that's why McCain fell so easily captive to the neocons during the late 1990s. They at least have (bad) ideas and a coherent set of goals and methods - though thoroughly unworkable ones.
All McCain has going for him, however, is his gut. By 2008 we've all had quite enough of that kind of foreign 'policy'.
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