Ron Briley: McCain and Foreign Policy ... Challenging the Conventional Wisdom

Roundup: Media's Take

            Retired General Wesley Clark, a candidate for the 2004 Democratic Presidential nomination, set off somewhat of a political firestorm when he questioned the conventional wisdom of John McCain’s foreign policy expertise by informing CBS reporter Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation, “Well, I don’t think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president.”  McCain immediately issued a statement asserting that Clark’s rhetoric was “unnecessary,” while Barack Obama, whose candidacy Clark supports, issued a statement disavowing the general’s statement and praising McCain for his service.  Of course, when John Kerry’s service to the nation was questioned during the 2004 presidential campaign, the Bush camp was reluctant to issue such comments of support.

            It is not surprising to learn that General Clark’s statement was taken somewhat out of context.  Clark acknowledged McCain’s bravery and even referred to the former Naval officer as a hero for his steadfast defiance under torture when he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam.  The general, however, accurately concluded that distinguished military service does not make one an expert on national security and foreign policy.  In fact, it is worth remembering that one of the fundamental cornerstones of American Constitutional democracy is civilian control of the military.  While his comment on being a fighter pilot and getting shot down was rather flippant, General Clark challenged the conventional wisdom of the media that McCain is the foreign policy expert.  But such an assumption should not simply be based upon the fact that McCain was a war hero.  What matters are the foreign policy views and experience of McCain which the media is often reluctant to examine in any degree of detail.

            McCain has certainly traveled more broadly than President Bush, and he has served on the Senate Armed Services Committee.  His experience as a prisoner of war in Vietnam led McCain to challenge the Bush administration’s policies of torture and interrogation in Guantanamo.  Unlike the president and many of his closest advisers who did not serve during the Vietnam War era, McCain is rightfully concerned about the precedents torture by the United States might provide for treatment of American prisoners in future conflicts.  In fact, McCain emerges as somewhat of a hero in Alex Gibney’s Academy Award-winning documentary film Taxi to the Dark Side for challenging the Bush administration on torture.  Yet, the senator who has suggested that he would close the detention center at Guantanamo has been largely silent on the subject of torture during his presidential campaign.  He blasted the Supreme Court ruling that those detained at the American base in Cuba have a Constitutional right to challenge their detention in the courts; proclaiming that it was “one of the worst decisions in the history of the country.”

            McCain’s experience as a prisoner of war also influenced an essay he prepared for the Naval War College in 1974, the year after he was released by the Vietnamese.  This unpublished essay was featured in a front-page New York Times article on June 15, but it has received little attention by other media outlets.  In his essay, McCain was concerned with why captured servicemen cooperated with their Vietnamese captors in denouncing American policy during the conflict.  McCain concluded that Americans captured after 1968 “had been exposed to the divisive forces which had come into focus as a result of the antiwar movement in the United States.”  To assure that servicemen were not overly influenced by such voices of dissent, McCain called for the military to better educate recruits in support of American foreign policy goals.  While McCain insisted that he wanted to avoid Soviet-style indoctrination, the program he outlined seems to conflict with notions of American democracy and free speech.

            McCain essentially supported the domino theory and policy of containment which culminated in the foreign policy disaster of the Vietnam War.  Linking the Vietnam War with Iraq, McCain suggests that critics of these conflicts are appeasers in the tradition of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin at the 1938 Munich Conference.  The senator was an early supporter of regime change in Iraq, but he was critical of the Bush administration for not supplying sufficient forces for the mission.   McCain takes credit for the troop surge in Iraq and perceives no problem with a long term military presence in that nation.  In a 2007 piece published in Foreign Affairs, McCain describes Iraq as the “central front” in defeating “radical Islamist extremists.”  Yet, he seems to ignore the idea that the military adventure in Iraq created this front in the war on terror while draining precious resources from the deteriorating military situation in Afghanistan.  The senator also asserts that Iran is the “world’s chief sponsor of terrorism,” and the United States must confront this threat by keeping all military options on the table.  Made early in the primary season, McCain’s flippant remark, to the tune of the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann,” that the way to deal with Iranian nuclear ambitions is to “bomb, bomb Iran” deserves greater scrutiny.

            To deal with a threatening world Senator McCain calls for increased military spending, but he is not always clear on the source for this funding.  He also envisions a free trade zone “extending from Morocco to Afghanistan,” bringing prosperity to the Middle East and undermining the poverty which breeds discontent.  But just in case this does not work, he proposes an energy policy less dependent upon Middle Eastern oil by emphasizing nuclear power and off-shore oil drilling. 

McCain also appears to perceive the war on terror as an opportunity to perpetuate an ideological struggle similar to that of the Cold War.  Accordingly, the senator suggests in his Foreign Affairs piece that we bring back the U. S. Information Agency and create a new Office of Strategic Services which will play a key role in “front line efforts to rebuild failed states.”  He also asserts that the United States should take the lead in formulating a League of Democracies which would be able to function independently of restrictions from the United Nations.  McCain expresses surprise that America, which he describes as the “antithesis of empire,” is perceived by so many in the world as an imperialist power.  Yet, the McCain vision seems to embrace the worse features of the Bush administration’s doctrine of preemptive war by expanding the national security state and fostering a state of perpetual war and conflict in which the international community will continue to view American foreign policy as serving corporate rather than humanitarian ends.

Conceding the conventional wisdom that McCain is the foreign policy expert does a disservice to the nation by undermining the vigorous debate which we need over issues of terrorism, nation building, preemptive war, free trade, energy policy, oil, nuclear proliferation, torture, world hunger, and the futures of Iraq and Afghanistan. 


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