The first crisis over North Korea's nuclear program
arose in late 1994. It was obvious there was not much the United States could
do to step in unilaterally and disarm the North Korean regime. Sanctions, the
normally inevitable option short of war, had no meaning – the United States
had no trade with the North in the first place and the regime followed a policy
of economic autarky (Juche) in any case. There was really only one feasible
course of action: gather as many regional allies as possible, agree to a process
of inducing North Korea to freeze its nuclear program, and tender an offer to
the North Koreans on the basis of a quid pro quo.
When the Clinton administration outlined its proposed course of action to Congress
there was some grumbling. Arm-waving professional patriots of the American political
class do not like seeing the slightest diminution of their country's God-given
prerogative to impose its will abroad when and as it likes. But there was no
rational alternative, and apart from a few obscure, back-bench House Republican
members a general consensus emerged that the administration's Agreed Framework
was the best of a bad series of options.
Only one politician of any political standing dissented. His name was John
Sidney McCain III. His modest proposal was that the United States should be
prepared to bomb the North Korean reactor sites. Never mind that he could be
condemning several thousand U.S. troops (and tens of thousands of South Korean
civilians) in the vicinity of the Demilitarized Zone to a virtual death sentence.
It had never occurred to this self-proclaimed military expert that the North
Korean regime had amassed thousands of long-range artillery pieces and rocket
launchers and concealed them in tunnels north of the DMZ. From these positions
the North Korean military could unleash an avalanche of fire south of the border.
The result would probably have been a repeat of the Korean war of 1950-53 but
with even more murderously lethal weapons.
Fast forward to 1999 and the Clinton administration's great crusade in the
Balkans (carefully calculated to target a weak and isolated country – Clinton
was no fool). Humanitarian intervention was all the rage but it had to be designed
to minimize the exposure of U.S. troops; after all, with no conceivable vital
U.S. interest at stake, the public would not contemplate the spilling of American
blood without an attendant drop in Clinton's all-important poll numbers.
Some politicians were actually able to set aside their reflexive jingoism and
smell the scent of wag-the-dog in the sanctimonious statements of Bill Clinton,
Madeleine Albright, and Richard Holbrooke. The vote on an authorization of the
use of force against Serbia failed in the House on a tie vote of 215-215 — the
only time the equivalent of a war declaration failed in either house in U.S.
In the other chamber John McCain was also critical of the administration's
Balkan policy. Only for him, it wasn't bellicose enough. Rather than limiting
it to a bombing campaign he introduced a joint resolution to authorize the introduction
of ground troops into a full-scale war with Serbia, something the Clinton administration
did not even ask for. Fortunately, in a rare show of good sense, the Senate
tabled the McCain resolution by a vote of 78-22.
McCain's unbridled, almost manic, bellicosity with respect to the quagmire
in Iraq is too well known to require elaboration. But the sophistication of
his military strategy with respect to that country can be inferred from his
remarks to a group of bikers in Sturgis, S.D.: "We'll win it the right way,
and that's by winning it!"
Apparently, though, McCain's neoconservative handlers have already grown tired
of the generational struggle against "Islamofascism" (not to mention their long-planned
intention to bomb Iran), for they are already pivoting McCain into a stance
of maximal belligerence against Russia.
Much has been made about McCain's relationship with his principal foreign policy
handler, Randy Scheunemann, heretofore a paid lobbyist of the Republic of Georgia,
and who still benefits financially from part ownership of the lobbying firm
that continues to service the Georgia account. This is clearly a conflict of
interest and indicates the corruption that is endemic to political campaigns
of both parties. But to try to explain McCain's actions in this way is to misunderstand
Scheunemann is merely a toad overstuffed by one too many lunches at the Capitol
Grill, in sum, a typical Washington success story. But McCain is sui generis.
If Scheunemann had never existed someone else would be writing precisely the
same talking points for the presumptive Republican candidate. McCain's love
of war and diplomatic brinkmanship is nothing if not sincere. Perhaps it is
the only sincere thing about the man.
Democrats are finally stumbling onto the fact, although the press has yet to
discover it, that McCain is a serial flip-flopper and prevaricator. Across virtually
the entire spectrum of domestic policy McCain has held one position and then
jumped to the polar opposite, apparently without noticing the inconsistency
(and his pals on the press bus are too polite to bring it up):
- A recipient of cash and favors from savings and loan fraudster Charles Keating,
McCain reminted himself as the Conscience of the Senate, to the hosannas of
an adoring and amnesiac press.
- McCain could not in good conscience support tax cuts that disproportionately
favored the rich – until he began to sniff the incense of a Republican presidential
- He was against offshore oil drilling before he was for it.
- Wearing the garb of the Serious Centrist (a mythical species that David
Broder venerates), McCain railed against "agents of intolerance" like Jerry
Falwell, but crawled to Canossa when Republican base-pandering mandated that
he must give a cringing speech at Falwell's Liberty University.
- Even on his signature issue of torture McCain postured as an implacable
foe of the Bush policy right up until the primary season commenced. Since
then he has voted "no" on measures that would ban torture or confine CIA interrogation
techniques to those permitted by the U.S. Army Field Manual.
And so on. McCain's hypocrisy is perhaps somewhat more egregious than the practices
of the average politician, but not markedly so. After all, politicians do not
have principles, they have positions. No doubt the Democrats will make heavy
weather of these flip-flops, as they are clearly entitled to. But in so doing
they miss the central point about John McCain.
All these flip-flops illustrate McCain's near-total lack of sincerity: he
doesn't really care about the issues at all. In practice he changes positions
so easily because the positions themselves are throwaways. He is required to
have them for political purposes, but they mostly bore and annoy him.
There is only one thing he cares about, and that is building an altar
to Mars. War is the one fixed star in the McCain universe. You will find no
flip-flopping or prevaricating there.
While McCain admits he doesn't understand the economy (and then denies that
he doesn't), he claims unlimited expertise in national security matters. His
belligerent megalomania with respect to the Georgian crisis has now, finally,
even earned him a mild reproof from the neocon-friendly Washington
Post: "Standing behind a lectern in Michigan this week, with two trusted
senators ready to do his bidding, John McCain seemed to forget for a moment
that he was only running for president."
In a development little reported in the U.S., Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili
that Georgia's ports and airports would be placed under U.S. military protection,
a suggestion quickly denied by the Pentagon."
Assuming that the Department of Defense is telling the truth (and granted
that it is difficult to determine whether the Pentagon or Saakashvili is more
prone to fabrication), then where did the Georgian president get his information
that the United States would be militarily intervening? Given that McCain claims
to talk to Saakashvili every day, and given a string of grandiose pronouncements
by McCain and his handlers regarding Georgia, is it possible that he misled
Saakashvili, either deliberately or by implication, to believe that U.S. military
intervention would be forthcoming?
It is still unclear whether McCain promised Saakashvili anything, or whether
it was simply the Georgian president's own delusion that he was the apple of
Washington's eye, but McCain's buttinski tactics would already have been a major
scandal if any other American politician who was not the sitting president had
made such inflammatory pronouncements on foreign policy. As it is, McCain is
already, in his campaign ukases, dramatically
downgrading relations with Russia in a manner that suggests he thinks he
The public is inclined to believe the worst of a politician when he is insincere,
inconsistent, or dishonest; indeed, such personality traits are virtually what
makes the typical politician as we know him today. But such creatures are merely
nuisances, like mosquitoes. The really dangerous politician is one with an idée
fixe, and when that obsession centers on the desirability of perpetual war,
the possibility of catastrophe is all too real.
Given who he is, what makes him tick, and the potential that he might actually
realize his ambitions on the world stage, John McCain is the most dangerous
man in America.