Sunday, July 27, 2008

The McCain Drift

In this week’s TIME, Joe Klein explores John McCain’s foreign policy frustrations. As the campaign rolls on, not only do the differences in ideology between the candidates become more apparent but so do their differences in temperament and their approach to addressing the complex issues of today. Their recent back-and-forth on national security issues has been a perfect case in point. McCain, who has always spoken of the responsibility of candidates in electoral politics to raise the level of discourse above the petty partisanship and personal attacks we’ve become accustomed to, has quickly thrown all scruples out the window by questioning Barack Obama’s patriotism. We knew the Republicans would make that assertion sooner or later but we didn’t realize it would come straight from McCain and so early in the election. Perhaps it stems from a growing frustration that he no longer has the upper hand in the ongoing debate over America’s national security priorities. Klein:

"I had the courage and the judgment to say that I would rather lose a political campaign than lose a war," John McCain said during a Rochester, N.H., town meeting on July 22. "It seems to me that Senator Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign." It was a remarkable statement, as intemperate a personal attack as I've ever heard a major-party candidate make in a presidential campaign, the sort of thing that no potential President of the United States should ever be caught saying. (A prudent candidate has aides sling that sort of mud.) It was also inevitable.

You could see McCain's frustration building as Barack Obama traipsed elegantly through the Middle East while the pillars of McCain's bellicose regional policy crumbled in his wake. It wasn't only that the Iraqi government seemed to take Obama's side in the debate over when U.S. forces should leave (sooner rather than later). McCain was being undermined in Washington as well, by his old pal George W. Bush, who seemed to take Obama's side in the debate about whether to talk to Iran. Bush sent a ranking U.S. diplomat to negotiate with the Iranians on nuclear issues — and also let it be known that a U.S. Interests Section could soon be established in Tehran, the first U.S. diplomatic presence on Iranian soil since the 1979 hostage crisis.

In the end, both Obama and McCain seemed to have a piece of the truth about Iraq, but Obama's truth was larger and more strategic. Obama had been right about the war in the first place. It was a disastrous idea, a phenomenal waste of lives and American credibility that diverted focus from our real enemy, al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And Obama was right about the war now: the progress in Iraq was enabling a quicker withdrawal — a plan already hinted at by Bush. And Obama was right about the future: the Iraqis don't want long-term U.S. bases on their territory, a McCain keystone and the source of his infamous comment about staying in Iraq for 100 years. McCain's piece of the truth was tactical: he was right about the surge and right about the brilliance of David Petraeus' battle plan, which had helped quiet down Iraq. McCain was justifiably infuriated that Obama wouldn't acknowledge that success - indeed, Obama seemed to understand that he was pushing McCain's buttons, hoping perhaps to elicit McCain's Vesuvian temper, and in Rochester the eruption occurred.

Ultimately, the one-time maverick’s downfall will be traced to his steady embrace of a neoconservative foreign policy ideology. In Klein’s words, that would be best defined as “unilateral bellicosity cloaked in the utopian rhetoric of freedom and democracy.” This drift has led McCain to become more myopic and less adaptable to changing circumstances - and yes, more Bush-like. As Klein contends, "McCain has straitjacketed himself in an ideology focused more on enemies (real and imagined) than on opportunities."

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