Election 2008  
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McCain's Two Wars

Two of America's greatest foreign policy debacles have shaped the "straight-talker's" unbridled militarism.
 
 
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For many Democrat voters, John McCain represents the least bad Republican presidential candidate on the ballot. Democrats not wanting the Bible in the White House are disinclined toward southern Baptist Mike Huckabee, and those not wanting a doubled-in-size Guantanamo or an immigrant-free America find Mitt Romney completely unlikable. McCain seems to be the most willing to build bipartisan coalitions, the most willing to give detainees legal representation, and the most willing to tackle global warming - all of which makes many Democrat voters fonder of McCain than any other Republican candidate.

For many Republican voters, the thinking is similar: John McCain represents the least unfavorable option. He is strong on defense, envisions small and accountable government, promotes fiscal conservatism, supports pro-life and traditional marriage values, and is an experienced soldier who paid his dues in Vietnam. Perhaps most importantly, compared to competing candidates Huckabee and Romney, McCain will be, by far, the best commander-in-chief. He stands ready to "win the war" against Islamic extremism and will fearlessly lead the country further into battle until the war is won. Voters who have a hard time imagining preacher Huckabee or corporate executive Romney on the battlefield, have no trouble envisioning the retired Navy POW on the streets of Baghdad saying "once more unto the breach dear friends, once more."

John McCain, the self-dubbed straight-talker, is indeed a unique candidate. The New Hampshire victory breathed life into his faltering campaign. Whether he can maintain the momentum remains to be seen. In the meantime, analysis into President McCain's foreign policy is needed. It turns out that 'least bad' and 'least unfavorable' maintains the status quo on two critical foreign policy issues: the war on terrorism and the war on global warming.

McCain on Iraq

In Iraq, McCain has diligently stood by President George W. Bush's troop surge from the onset. In fact, had McCain been the American commander, troop numbers would have tripled in the 2003 invasion. Similarly, as if the $500 billion dollars spent on the Iraq war was somehow insufficient, McCain was long ago convinced that "we need to spend a lot more money."

Flak-jacketed McCain has been to Baghdad. Though well protected by helicopters, tanks, and troops while touring, he has consistently returned with assessments of improvement and success. Never daunted by reports indicating otherwise, McCain's stubborn commitment to winning the war has appeared both foolish and yet, in a weird way, valorous. Now that the troop surge appears to be paying off in terms of slightly reduced attacks, McCain's persistence is paying dividends in the primaries.

All this is remarkable for one reason: McCain deviates little from Bush. In fact, on Iraq, President Bush has McCain to thank, being at times the president's most solid support in the Senate. But on Iran and Syria, unlike rival Huckabee, President McCain would not, in his words, "enter into unconditional dialogs with these two dictatorships" but rather ensure that the United States "bolster its regional military posture to make clear to Iran our determination." This is straight up President Bush speaking. In the last two presidential terms, the president has effectively inculcated a new US foreign policy protocol of no dialog with the adversary. American presidents, pre-Bush, had no such policy in place. Nixon talked to China. Reagan eventually talked to the Soviets. And in both cases, U.S. foreign policy was well served: the conflict deescalated as a result.

But Bush and now McCain continue to keep Iran, Syria, and others at American arms' length. McCain's tough talk here is disappointing. It fails to match his more measured tone in Guantanamo detainee rights, for example, and guarantees more war-making on par with Afghanistan and Iraq. McCain is near venomous in his desire to decimate anti-American actors in the Middle East, and his "beacon of freedom in a dangerous world" verbiage dovetails with the current president's preferred approach. In the war on terrorism, little would change.

McCain on Climate

Credited for his climate concern by Washington pundits, McCain may, comparatively speaking, have the upper hand among Republican candidates. Unfortunately, however, his message is not only Bush-lite, but also insubstantial. By now, both Bush and McCain acknowledge that global warming exists and that the world, in concert, should do something about it. Their approaches are strikingly similar and sadly unassertive: let innovation, technology, and the free market solve the problem. According to both, business will lead and the greening of America will follow. The only main difference between the two is that Bush would rely on ethanol subsidies to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil while for McCain leans heavily toward nuclear energy.

McCain has no clear climate agenda other than a vague swath of market-based initiatives. The absence of climate change savvy is so apparent that during a pre-Iowa-caucus campaign speech, McCain tripped over the pronunciation of Prius, the world's top-selling hybrid that recently usurped the American SUV in sales. The audience corrected him after numerous fumbled attempts but the damage was done. It was clear that McCain was new to this field and had embarrassingly little to show.

This is potentially problematic. Certainly McCain can get ahead of the curve in due time but to be so ill-informed when serving in the Senate surrounded by colleagues long ago versed in climate change prevention, shows lack of interest and commitment. Republican Senator John Warner has done more with his recent America's Climate Security Act, which passed the Environment and Public Works subcommittee in December. The bill calls for aggressive greenhouse gas emissions reductions by 60-80 percent by 2050. McCain until now has not exhibited anything close to this kind of Republican leadership.

For both wars, in Iraq and on climate change, Republicans and Democrats should be cautious of a President John McCain. Voters of both parties are deeply concerned with the Bush doctrine in the Middle East, a policy which McCain would likely maintain. Voters of both parties see climate change as a key election issue, one which McCain seems interested in but lackadaisical about tackling. If McCain is to rally in the remaining primaries, a distinctly different tack from President Bush's handling of both these wars would be wise. There is a reason why public support for the president is poor; McCain would do well to figure out why.

Michael Shank is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus ( www.fpif.org) and an analyst with George Mason University's Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.

 
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