McCain the Diplomat

I wrote a piece on the election for The Spectator, and there’s one section that I think some readers will find totally absurd. Here it is:

During the Saddleback Civil Forum, the celebrated evangelical pastor Rick Warren asked McCain to name a time when he went against his party’s interests and his own interests to serve a higher cause. McCain’s answer was instructive. He chose the time when he opposed Ronald Reagan’s decision to deploy US Marines to Lebanon on a peace-keeping mission.

‘My knowledge and my background told me that a few hundred Marines in a situation like that could not successfully carry out any kind of peacekeeping mission. And I thought they were going into harm’s way. Tragically, as many of you recall, there was a bombing in the Marine barracks and well over 100 brave Marines gave their lives. But it was tough, that vote, because I went against the president I believed in, and the party that believed that maybe I was disloyal very early in my political career.’

McCain’s meaning is clear. Whereas Democratic partisans accuse McCain of being a warmonger, the truth is that he believes that force should be used sparingly. And he believes that when force is used, it must be used effectively and with a clear goal in mind, a belief that was at the centre of his dispute with Donald Rumsfeld. Barack Obama and the Democrats made great hay out of McCain’s assertion that it would be fine for US troops to remain in Iraq for 100 years provided there were no casualties. What they don’t mention is that in 2004 McCain explicitly opposed the creation of permanent US bases in Iraq. Whereas Obama’s foreign policy ideology led him to oppose the surge, McCain’s foreign policy pragmatism will make him a more effective commander-in-chief. That is a message McCain needs to get across.

Sparingly? Hasn’t McCain backed force whenever the option was even remotely plausible? I actually don’t think he has. To be sure, he’s not a devotee of the Powell-Weinberger doctrine. But when you look at Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq, I think you had three compelling cases for the use of force, certainly from the vantage point of when those decisions were made. What was distinctive about McCain is that in each case he believed that we should deploy a decisive force. Will he be similarly inclined to deploy force to settle disputes in Georgia, Burma, the Nigerian delta, etc., etc.? I doubt it. My sense is that he wants to strengthen our alliances so that conflicts don’t escalate — he wants to nip potential crises in the bud. Which is why I tend to think that he would be diplomatically hyperactive, like George H.W. Bush.

I realize that this is a minority view. Noah Millman made the case far better than I can.