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April 25, 2008

Inconvenient Truths About John McCain


by Doug Bandow

Sen. John McCain is a man of physical courage and personal honor. He's also a warmonger, with little concern for those who would die in his military adventures. The Democrats won't say that. But it's the truth.

Earlier this year Sen. Barack Obama was appearing at a fund-raiser in Grand Forks, N.D. Talk show host Ed Schultz warmed up the crowd by calling John McCain a "warmonger." Sen. Obama distanced himself from Schultz's remarks, with his spokesman opining that "John McCain is not a warmonger and should not be described as such. He's a supporter of a war that Senator Obama believes should have never been authorized and never been waged."

Let us stipulate that McCain believes war is necessary to advance American interests. All that means is that he is a sincere warmonger. He is still far too ready to view war and the threat of war as appropriate and prudent policy tools. If McCain had his way, the U.S. would be fighting several wars at once, none of which would be in America's interest or worth the cost.

There's Iraq, of course. It was a horrid mistake, built on administration fantasies masquerading as intelligence. McCain likes to parade around as a military expert based on his naval service 40 years ago, but his vaunted expertise is never in evidence. On Iraq he ignored all of the discordant voices which disputed virtually every administration claim. He failed to ask any probing questions of an administration that clearly wanted war irrespective of the facts and saw no need to plan for any unpleasant contingencies. McCain's concern about mismanagement of the war didn't begin for months, until the administration's botched performance was evident to all. In short, McCain refused to allow his supposed experience and judgment to get in the way of a war that he evidently wanted America to fight.

At least McCain appeared to treat the decision to go to war with Iraq with a modicum of seriousness. That's not the case with Iran. When asked about the issue on the stump, he famously broke forth with his rendition of "Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran" set to the tune of the Beach Boys' hit "Barbara Ann." It was a funny performance, if you think the idea of unleashing death and destruction on other people is funny.

Unfortunately, McCain's little ditty appears to encapsulate his view of war: just another policy tool to employ without much concern for the consequences. Has he considered what war with Iran would be like? How Iraqi Shi'ites would respond if Washington bombed Iran? The potential of Iranian subversion throughout the Persian Gulf? The consequences of an expanded Middle Eastern war on Pakistan? If he has, he hasn't bothered to share his analysis with the rest of us. Instead, he prefers to sing about bombing Iran.

Frivolous disdain for consequences characterizes his discussion of war against North Korea. He cheerfully dismissed the concerns of South Korea and Japan, American allies that would bear the worst consequences of any attack on the North. Indeed, absent a full-scale U.S. assault that succeeded in crippling North Korean conventional capabilities, the South's capital of Seoul, presently subject to massed artillery fire and Scud missiles, likely would end up in ruins. It's an ugly picture, but apparently not one that concerned McCain.

He and Sen. Hillary Clinton shared an enthusiasm for war in the Balkans, both having endorsed the foolish attack on Serbia over control of its territory of Kosovo. The U.S. had no security interest in the outcome of one of the world's smaller guerrilla wars, but that didn't deter them from pushing war. However, McCain distinguished himself by publicly advocating a ground war against Serbia. It's bad enough to inaugurate an aerial campaign, largely out of range of Serb air defenses, for no purpose. But to guarantee casualties by sending in ground troops? His enthusiasm for having a big war clearly outran his judgment over how best to fight the conflict.

Anyone willing to go to war with Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and Serbia is prepared to fight anyone. Most people lean toward peace and believe that only dangerous necessity can justify loosing the dogs of war. Not McCain, who appears to be in permanent "yes" mode. If that famous 3 a.m. phone call came into the McCain White House, he likely would yell "bomb them" into the receiver, then wait until the morning to ask who we had attacked.

It wouldn't be quite so dangerous if he only wanted to attack small, largely defenseless nations like Serbia. But he is intent on jumping into religious and ethnic conflicts that he obviously doesn't understand, as in the Middle East. (Shia? Sunni? What, me worry?) He also wants to threaten nations that possess the ability to retaliate militarily, namely North Korea. Even worse, he advocates confrontation, if not war right now, anyway with major powers, most notably China and Russia.

McCain adviser Robert Kagan says that "We have made the mistake of being too passive as Putin has consolidated his autocracy." Exactly what Washington could have done to stop Putin other than bombing Moscow isn't clear. But McCain wants to the U.S. to back the state of Georgia against Russia over the status of Abkhazia and Ossetia, as if they mattered one whit to American security. (There's also McCain's unprincipled aggressiveness: he enthusiastically pushes Kosovo's independence, but he opposes self-determination by Abkhazia and Ossetia. In each case his only principle appears to be taking the position most likely to result in conflict between Washington and Russia.)

As for China, McCain has mercifully said less. He evidently knows next to nothing about Islam and the Middle East. He appears to understand even less about China's history and ambitions. But the potential for conflict may grow in coming years, as Beijing behaves more assertively in East Asia, which is, of course, its home region. His "bomb now, ask questions later" philosophy could lead to disaster there.

McCain's foreign policy appears to be a form of neoconservatism squared. All you have to do is threaten everyone around you, and they will kowtow. Talk a little more loudly, brandish your military stick a bit more tightly, and you'll get what you want. If you don't, no problem, just bomb away and you will emerge victorious, so long as you are determined and willing to spill as much blood and treasure as necessary. That's clearly McCain's position in Iraq and likely would govern his approach to any other conflict.

That sounds like a warmonger to me.

But there's more to McCain, another truth that even the Democrats don't want to speak. For instance, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) observed: "McCain was a fighter pilot, who dropped laser-guided missiles from 35,000 feet. He was long gone when they hit. What happened when they [the missiles] get to the ground? He doesn't know. You have to care about the lives of people. McCain never gets into those issues."

Naturally, the war lobby erupted, and Rockefeller apologized. Obama said that he disagreed and had "a deep respect for Senator McCain's service to this country."

It's hard to ask combat pilot John McCain, whose own life was at risk, along with those of his comrades, to worry about what happened at the receiving end of his weapons. But it is fair to expect policymaker John McCain, cheerful advocate of multiple wars around the globe, to consider what happens when the missiles get to the ground. Yet there's no evidence that he does so.

Consider Iraq. Four thousand Americans are dead, thousands are maimed, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are dead and injured, and four to five million Iraqis are refugees. Have these numbers registered with policymaker McCain as he justifies the decision to invade? Does he consider the prospect of increasing the toll in advocating fighting as long as necessary for whatever is considered to be victory these days?

When McCain sings about bombing Iran, does he give a thought to the Iranians who would die? Does the prospect of increased fighting in Iraq as a result give him even a momentary pause? Then there's Korea. Does he believe that the U.S. has any responsibility to avoid triggering a war that could generate hundreds of thousands of casualties in South Korea? Did the prospect of killing even more Serbian civilians occur to him as he was pushing for an expanded war in the Balkans? Does the admittedly distant prospect of war, and the casualties that would result, enter his consciousness as he advocates confronting Russia over such geopolitical irrelevancies as Abkhazia and Ossetia? Or in challenging China over who knows what in the coming years? It would appear not.

In short, Rockefeller might have been unfair about pilot John McCain, but he almost certainly was right about policymaker John McCain.

We are left with no good choices for November. Neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama fill most Americans with confidence. Certainly not on economics, where they have rushed to the populist Left, engaging in such silly displays of ignorance as worrying about the impact of trade with Colombia on the $13 trillion U.S. economy. On foreign policy, both appear to be conventional liberal interventionists, right on Iraq, thankfully, but untrustworthy on many if not most other potential wars.

However, John McCain is far worse. Establishment Democrats might be afraid to state the truth, but McCain is a warmonger. A sincere one, yes, but that only makes him more dangerous.

And there is no evidence that he cares about the human consequences of his policy prescriptions. That doesn't make him unique on Capitol Hill or as president if, God forbid, the worst comes to pass in November. Nevertheless, his callous hawkishness should be a key issue in the coming campaign.

It would be nice to have a president who has suffered for his or her beliefs, in contrast to such chickenhawks as George W. Bush and Richard Cheney. But more important than courage is judgment. And the latter quality is what John McCain completely lacks.

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  • Joshua Frank is the author of Left Out!: How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush, just published by Common Courage Press. You can order a copy at a discounted through Josh's blog at www.brickburner.org. He can be reached at brickburner@gmail.com.

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