McCain’s Foreign Policy Address

John McCain’s foreign policy address is a tricky bundle to digest. Where it’s good, it’s very reassuring; where it’s bad it’s very worrying. The problem to my eyes is that the two seem to be mutually exclusive. In other words, I like the picture he draws of the destination. I just don’t see how you get from here to there using the itinerary he offers.

To start with what I liked, I’d agree with Hampton that it’s not just his call for multi-lateralism, but his appeal for taking advantage of all the many and varied instruments of power at America’s disposal that is such a welcome corrective to the past seven years of bluster and blunder. His reminder that America must be not only convincing but also convincable, not just persuasive, but also persuadable hits the sweet spot of what it means to lead responsibly.

Closing Gitmo, his definition of global good citizenship, and the call for mutual respect between the Americas would all go a long way to taking arrows out of our enemies’ quiver. His acknowledgement that “power in the world today is moving east” to Asia, combined with his confidence that our common interests with China will ultimately render that a benign shift contrast favorably to the hysterical neo-con agenda of stifling all rising powers before they reach potential threat threshholds. His history of American Middle East policy synthesizes the many ways in which our past errors have contributed to our contemporary regional problems. And his call for nuclear arms reduction is welcome, if not a major shift either from current policy or general consensus.

So far, so good. The problem is that these positive elements of McCain’s vision bob around like realist lifeboats in an ocean of misguided idealism. That’s troubling because if you look at how McCain structures the realist-idealist dichotomy, it’s clear that he reverses the poles of the continuum as normally understood. Under the Bush administration, for instance, idealism represented the neo-con democracy promotion agenda, and was a justification for war. Realism, on the other hand, is the pejorative used to describe efforts to engage rivals and enemies in diplomatic bargains.

By contrast, McCain’s idealism, as represented by his “League of Democracies”, is the motor that drives his multi-lateralist, “smart power” instinct:

We need to listen to the views and respect the collective will of our democratic allies. When we believe international action is necessary, whether military, economic, or diplomatic, we will try to persuade our friends that we are right. But we, in return, must be willing to be persuaded by them.

McCain’s multi-lateralism turns out to be something of an optical illusion, since listening to our “democratic allies” is not quite the same thing as listening. His realism, consequently, is made of much tougher stuff than that of the Rice-Gates-Iraq Study Group version:

We cannot wish the world to be a better place than it is. We have enemies for whom no attack is too cruel, and no innocent life safe, and who would, if they could, strike us with the world’s most terrible weapons. There are states that support them, and which might help them acquire those weapons because they share with terrorists the same animating hatred for the West, and will not be placated by fresh appeals to the better angels of their nature.

McCain later leaves no doubt that realism means accepting that terrorism is the “transcending threat” of our times, and while he offers his vision of “smart power” as the best way to deal with it, he also firmly locates the strategic locus of this threat in Iraq and Afghanistan:

Iraq and Afghanistan lie at the heart of that region. And whether they eventually become stable democracies themselves, or are allowed to sink back into chaos and extremism, will determine not only the fate of that critical part of the world, but our fate, as well.

Not only is that crap, it’s dangerous crap, because for the time being Iraq and Afghanistan, McCain’s two trial balloons, are war zones first and projects in democracy a distant second (if we’re lucky). Given everything we know about McCain’s approach to the spread of democracy in that part of the world, there’s cause for concern for it being such a pillar of his global vision, notwithstanding his pledge of allegiance to “smart power.” Larry Diamond’s essay in Foreign Affairs on the global rollback of democracies provides a good discussion of the challenges involved in promoting democracy, none of which makes McCain’s central emphasis on it any more reassuring.

McCain’s structural argument in favor of a democracy agenda comes buried in his critique of America’s historic reliance on autocratic powers in the region who “. . .no longer provide lasting stability, only the illusion of it.” But if the status quo no longer serves our interests, and democracy not just an organ transplant that can be grafted into the body poltic, what’s the alternative? Given McCain’s definition of success in Iraq and Afghanistan (“. . .the establishment of peaceful, stable, prosperous, democratic states. . .”), it’s hard not to see failure looming on the horizon and steaming in our direction.

If you believe McCain, that’s cause for quite a bit of concern, since if Iraq goes down, we go down with it. The closest McCain comes to being convincing about the need to stay in Iraq, though, is this:

These consequences of our defeat would threaten us for years, and those who argue for it, as both Democratic candidates do, are arguing for a course that would eventually draw us into a wider and more difficult war that would entail far greater dangers and sacrifices than we have suffered to date.

That’s compelling, and worth considering, but ultimately debatable. Iran, who McCain identifies as the big winner should we “lose” in Iraq (ie. withdraw), would very quickly find out how not a victory a flaming Iraq on its western border would be. Especially if it’s got an imploding Afghanistan and destabilized Pakistan on its eastern side.

But even if it is true, I’d argue that our best bet for handling that subsequent war from a strategically sound posture would be to withdraw from Iraq, allow the chips to settle throughout the region, and play the board as it subsequently lies. Regardless of whether we stay in Iraq or withdraw, our strategic position will be weakened. Contrary to both McCain and President Bush, though, I’d argue that failure in Iraq is very much an option, and one that not only does not jeopardize America’s existential interests, but harms them less than an endless occupation without any progress.

The moral argument McCain makes for staying is compelling to anyone who isn’t a cold-hearted psychopath. But the question of whether it’s a moral obligation that takes precedence over our ability to respond adequately to all the other myriad challenges of the evolving geopolitical landscape is a valid one that needs to be faced head on, without pathos or exagerrated claims of impending doom.

Besides that overarching critique, I’d also take issue with McCain’s confrontational approach to “. . .addressing the dangers posed by a revanchist Russia. . .”, which include barring it from the G-8 and making it clear that “. . the solidarity of NATO, from the Baltic to the Black Sea, is indivisible. . .” There’s also no mention of Iran in his speech, other than its nuclear program and in regard to Iraq.

So while McCain’s multi-lateralism is better than Bush’s autism, it’s still a few sides short of being the kind of inclusive polygon we need to make sure that potentially divisive powers find it more in their interests to cooperate with the global system than to obstruct it. It’s also based on the kind of idealism that is easily disillusioned, creating the very real risk that force will be left as the only recourse to impose our vision of what the world needs, all in the name of self-determination.