John McCain’s Foreign Policy Exposes The Limits of Bushido Politics

There was a lot to admire in John McCain's foreign policy address to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council yesterday. The Arizona senator rejected the glib dulce et decorum est rhetoric of many of his supporters — "[o]nly a fool … Read More

By / March 27, 2008

There was a lot to admire in John McCain's foreign policy address to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council yesterday. The Arizona senator rejected the glib dulce et decorum est rhetoric of many of his supporters — "[o]nly a fool or a fraud sentimentalizes the merciless reality of war," he said — and called for the US to abandon torture of detainees and close down the Guantanamo Bay prison. McCain broke with his party's ostrich-like stance on global warming and implicitly presented the issue as a threat to national security. Most encouragingly, he committed a McCain administration to nuclear non-proliferation, pledging to lead "a global effort at nuclear disarmament consistent with our vital interests and the cause of peace."

McCain's speech was also helpful in that it outlined the fatal conceptual flaws of his approach to foreign policy. According to McCain, all the doctrinally and politically disparate Islamic terrorist groups, non-violent Islamism, the Iraqi insurgency (with its many incommensurate factions), Iran, conventional middle Eastern autocracies, and even Russia and the confederation of states allied with it, are alternative representations of a single foreign policy problem. That problem, which McCain dubs "the transcendent challenge of our time," amounts to a contest of sheer will between the US and its loyal allies on one side, its enemies, the rest of the world, on the other. McCain recognizes neither distinctions among distinct individuals and groups with distinct histories and agendas, nor does he pay the slightest heed to weighing the goals and potential benefits of any foreign policy against its political and economic costs. The right policy is simply the one jibes best with McCain's sense of honor, which, in practice, always turns out to be war. McCain's alternative to Realpolitik is Bushido.

Naturally, by conflating all challenges into a single amorphous threat, McCain beggars any effort at producing concrete, useful policies. Thus the weaknesses of McCain's approach come to the fore the moment he stops trading in warmed-over Churchillian generalizations and begins to discuss a specific foreign policy issue.

"Radical Islamic terrorism," McCain argues, presents a "transcendent" challenge because it is "unique." But this is silly. No one problem in foreign policy is exactly alike any other. They are all unique. The uniqueness of Islamic terrorists, according to McCain, consists in their desire to acquire nuclear weapons and use them against the US and its allies. That's hardly a transcendent quality of terrorists. Anyone can want nuclear weapons; what's important is whether an agent has the means to acquire nuclear weapons. And any responsible foreign policy would place the highest possible premium on nuclear non-proliferation, even if there were no such thing as radical Islamic terrorism in the first place. Moreover, it's at best half-true that "the terrorists" seek nuclear weapons. Presumably, ceteris paribus, any extreme armed faction would desire to have nuclear weapons. That doesn't mean an outfit like Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood, or even, yes, al Qaeda, is in any sort of position to divert their scarce resources to an astronomically expensive project like nuclearization. (How, incidentally, would a terrorist group use a nuclear weapon if they had one? The capacity to build and launch nuclear-armed missiles requires an infrastructure far beyond anything any non-state actor possesses.)

Furthermore, McCain's fixation on dividing the world into two intractably opposed camps leads him to make proposals that will exacerbate the very problem he views as transcendent. Thus, though he pays some lip-service to the concept of multilateralism, McCain's only concrete proposal for reincorporating the US into an international system is to circumvent the UN, the EU, the G-8, and NATO, by creating a "League of Democracies" consisting in the G-8 countries excluding Russia but including India and Brazil. The idea is that other allied states could join along the way, provided they conformed to certain norms McCain fails to specify. But NATO already exists. All that creating a second NATO can do is heighten tensions between "The League" and its enemies. And in order for a global nuclear non-proliferation policy to have any efficacy at all — in particular, in order to prevent nuclear materials from falling into the hands of rogue states and terrorists groups — the US will have to find ways to work with Russia, China, and the central Asian republics, not fabricate pointless ways of antagonizing them.

But to make any of the foregoing objections is to miss McCain's point entirely. The success of a McCain foreign policy is not a function of successful outcomes, but of satisfaction of the demands of honor and piety regardless of outcomes — an immoral and unserious outlook. Withdrawal from Iraq would be unthinkable, McCain argues, because:

It would be an unconscionable act of betrayal, a stain on our character as a great nation, if we were to walk away from the Iraqi people and consign them to the horrendous violence, ethnic cleansing, and possibly genocide that would follow a reckless, irresponsible, and premature withdrawal.

Yet in the absence of political reconciliation in Iraq, which appears now to be decisively out of reach, extending the war any longer than is necessary to withdraw safely will not save the Iraqis from the horrors McCain fears; but it will get more Americans killed and will physically and psychologically cripple many more. It was the reckless, irresponsible, and premature invasion of Iraq — and not a rational effort to select a least bad option from among the terrible menu of choices George Bush has left for his successor — that consigned the Iraqi people to horrendous violence and ethnic cleansing, and may still prove to have consigned them to genocide.

But McCain has no time for practical obstacles to upholding his vision of "national greatness" such as the concept of sunk costs. He would rather issue belligerent proclamations about countries like Iran and implement policies that strengthen their international position and weaken our own, than "stain our character" by employing an intelligent carrot-and-stick diplomacy that might actually succeed. International politics, for McCain, is the continuation of war by other means.

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