It is impossible at this moment realistically to estimate the chances that John McCain will become President in November. The excellent site electoral-vote.com, upon which I relied to follow the 2004 election, shows him beating Barack Obama according to recent state polls, which apparently show him narrowly ahead in Ohio, Florida, Michigan, and Wisconsin, and solidly ahead New Hampshire. On the other hand, both the comparative turnouts in early primaries (such as New Hampshire, where twice as many Democrats as Republicans turned out), and the results of recent special elections, suggest that Obama is likely to win in a landslide, especially if he can mobilize younger voters. The California Supreme Court, meanwhile, has tossed another hand grenade into the contest--like the Massachusetts Supreme Court in 2004-- by overruling its own constituent voters and overturning a ban on gay marriage, reviving a potent Republican issue just in time for another election. (While in favor of marriage between consenting adults, I also believe that with respect to this issue, as with abortion, it might have been better to let the voters of the various states evolve at their own pace.) McCain's election certainly remains possible, and it could even become probable. Thus the appearance in today's New York Times magazine of a long article on the Senator's foreign policy is welcome. It is not very reassuring, however, either about McCain's views or about the integrity of American journalism.
McCain's Silent generation--which grew up in the shadow of the great events of the Second World War and has distinguished itself by empathy--has always excelled at reconciling competing viewpoints. That is why it ruled Congress in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and that is why most of its Congressional representatives fled Congress in droves after the Boomer takeover of the House in 1994--even though the Democratic Congressional leadership is still Silent. McCain has a reputation as a maverick, which helps excuse some of his shifts. As even the very admiring author of today's piece, Matt Bai, acknowledges, McCain has been willing to do almost anything to win votes at critical moments in his career, such as defending the Confederate flag in South Carolina in 2000. He has also been accommodating to powerful economic figures during his Congressional career--not that there is anything very unusual about that. What is remarkable is how the article--and the candidate--manage to put a particular spin on one of the critical facts of this election--McCain's adoption of a neoconservative foreign policy--and to ignore most of what that means.
The Bai article suggests that McCain is motivated essentially by two things: a belief in America's humanitarian mission around the world, and a desire to refight (this time successfully) the Vietnam War in Iraq. McCain apparently believes that the United States has an obligation to promote its political values abroad whenever it can do so successfully. He also has come to believe that we might have won the Vietnam War, had General Creighton Abrams' counterinsurgency strategy been adopted earlier, and that General Petraeus has essentially played the role that Abrams played and should continue to do so. My self-appointed task this morning is to examine those assumptions.
I myself remain profoundly skeptical about American attempts to promote democracy by force, but as Bai seems to realize, McCain is not applying his doctrine with any consistency. He admits that while "troubled" by Darfur, he does not see how we could intervene to stop genocide there, and he also does not believe that we could do much for Myanmar. (Oddly, he also says that he became more interventionist because of events in Rwanda--but that crisis is over.) McCain still defends the attack on Iraq based upon the supposed presence of weapons of mass destruction, but he also claims that we can create democracy there now, and should. I would suggest that nothing has happened to suggest that a united, democratic Iraq is any more likely than it ever was. In addition, with two million Iraqis gone into foreign countries, the same number displaced, and tens or hundreds of thousands dead since the American invasion, it is hard to see how anyone in ten or twenty years is going to regard the American decision as a beneficial one on humanitarian grounds.
What shocked me about this part of the article was a complete failure to ask McCain about the two other factors that made Saddam Hussein more of a target than the rulers of Myanmar--oil, of course, and Saddam's unrelenting opposition to Israel. The article mentions that McCain struck up an alliance with Bill Kristol and other neocons in the 1990s (although it does not mention that in 2000, Kristol preferred him to George Bush), but neither oil or Israel ever comes up--Israel is not even mentioned. Bai mentioned McCain's advocacy of military action once, but he didn't ask him about it. To judge from the article, McCain, if elected, would carry on the war in Iraq simply for the benefit to the Iraqi people and to show that the United States could do the job. Interestingly enough, McCain himself does mention the word "neocon," but he does so sneeringly. This actually has become neocon standard operating procedure--now that neoconservatives have given American foreign policy a new and disastrous thrust, they deny that there is such a movement. (Some also like to make the disgraceful accusation that the word has become a synonym for "Jew." In fact, although many neoconservatives are Jewish, most Jews are still liberal Democrats.) In fact, the neoconservatives are the only leg of the conservative Republican triad (the others being economic and social conservatives) with whom McCain is totally in sync. One might call his campaign, in foreign policy, neoconservatism with a human face.
As for the Vietnam analogy, while Abrams has become the conservative hero and the man who won the war, his role and the reasons for his success have been misunderstood. Lewis Sorley, whose admiring biography of Abrams did much to get this idea going, has now also published the transcripts of Abrams's staff conferences in Saigon. While they do show that Abrams valued population security over body counts, they also show him doing so quite tentatively, and actually declining to order his division commanders to undertake a new approach. He was not about to repudiate the approach of his predecessor Westmoreland, who was now the Army Chief of Staff. More importantly, the gains he made in pacification in 1970-71 owed a great deal to the withdrawal of most of the North Vietnamese Army after the eighteen months of heaviest fighting from January 1968 to mid-1969--the fighting that persuaded President Nixon to begin troop withdrawals. When the North Vietnamese returned in force in early 1972, many of those gains were lost, and the Saigon government never managed to regain much of the disputed territory. Abrams improved population security by stationing more American forces in the countryside, but as one regional study in particular has shown, he could not convince much of the population that the Saigon government would ever be stronger than the Viet Cong. After the American withdrawal, the Vietcong managed so effectively to weaken the Saigon government that it could not offer much real resistance when the North attacked again in 1975.
The same question--whether there is a real political basis for our goal of a united Iraq--still hangs over us there. And McCain, in one key stance, seems to understand that there probably is not, and that that is the reason that American forces will be needed indefinitely. McCain, as Bai explains, opposes the new GI Bill for Iraqi veterans now before Congress because he wants to spend more money to encourage soldiers to stay in the military, not to encourage them to sign up for a tour and leave. This suggests to me that he is committed to indefinite American presence in Iraq to assure our interests there. Another plank of his platform--a League of Democracies outside the UN--is another fanciful conservative project at the moment. Essentially it looks like a return to the cooperative imperialism of the late nineteenth century, in which the European powers parcelled out the task of looking after troublesome, poorer parts of the world. The problem now is that only the United States among the advanced industrial nations believes that the long-term presence of western troops in third world (and especially Muslim nations) can do any good.
John McCain has impressed many people as a decent, engaging man, who has overcome tremendous hardship. Unfortunately, if he is elected this fall, it will probably be largely as a result of continuing social and racial prejudices within the United States. (Those will not be all is voters, but they will have been the swing voters.) And if he is, he will continue essentially the same disastrous foreign policies of the last eight years. That, and that alone, should be reason enough not to vote for him. Unfortunately, it is no longer clear just how much of a foreign policy alternative Barack Obama will be willing to offer. It is also possible--indeed, even probable--that the Bush Administration will attempt to skew the debate still further by starting a new war with Iran.