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Keith T. Bukovich

What Can America Expect from President McCain in Foreign Policy?

In September of 1901, Theodore Roosevelt said he thought America in world affairs should "speak softly and carry a big stick." The thrust of that remark appears not to have been lost on Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee for president. For both Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan are political heroes to McCain and like those former presidents, he too seems to feel that America's military power is a force for positive change in the world.

Recently, McCain has been a leading supporter of President's Bush's troop "surge" in Iraq—a position some journalists and political observers feel has led to voter support in the primaries since security has improved in Iraq—at least temporarily. Now that McCain has his party's nomination for president locked up, what does his support for the surge suggest his foreign policy might look like were he elected in November?

For one thing, McCain contends that the surge has shown that with sufficient troop levels the United States can dampen down the violence and support the newly begun democratic government in Iraq. The alternative, he said in early February in Norfolk, Virginia, "would have catastrophic consequences. I believe al Qaida would trumpet to the world that they had defeated the United States of America." In that same speech, he criticized Democratic senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama  for wanting "to set a date for withdrawal in Iraq. I believe that would have catastrophic consequences. They [terrorists] would try to follow us home." McCain also talked tough about Iran and asserted he was best prepared to deal with security threats on his first day in office.

The best indication as to McCain's foreign policy as commander-in-chief is to be found in an article he wrote last year for Foreign Affairs.[1] Here one reads about his less well known (or discussed) promises if he is elected president. For one thing, he would expand the Army and the Marine Corps to 900,000 troops from the currently planned 750,000. He would also advocate a U.S.-led "League of Democracies" to act internationally when the United Nations cannot or will not; plus, he would create a new government unit, patterned after the World War II-era OSS (Office of Strategic Services), "to fight terrorist subversion" and  to "take risks that our bureaucracies today rarely consider taking." Clearly, McCain envisions a very activist American role on the world stage during his presidency—especially in regard to what he considers vital U.S. security interests.

McCain has selected an interesting mix of foreign policy advisers. They comprise traditional Republican "realists," who advocate a pragmatic view of the world (something like that of a Henry Kissinger who, along with three other ex-Secretaries of State, has endorsed McCain for president), but also neoconservatives, who pushed for the Iraq invasion, advocate stronger action to counter Iran's and North Korea's nuclear weapons ambitions, and favor using American power to transform the Muslim world. This second group may prove problematic for McCain as the presidential campaign heats up and a sole Democratic opponent finally emerges, for it includes some whose positions have already been discredited with large segments of the voting public. Randy Scheunemann, for example, the campaign's director of foreign policy and national security, was a staunch proponent of the 2003 Iraq invasion who dismissed warnings of unintended consequences. Another, William Kristol, the editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, has supported the Iraq invasion and its continuation in many television appearances, and James Woolsey, who speaks mostly on energy security concerns, is a former CIA director. Though McCain's advisers are hesitant to publicly criticize President Bush and his foreign policy team, they suggest that, while McCain does agree with many White House policies, he is critical of the way they have been implemented.

To his credit, McCain has broken with the Republican establishment by his more moderate position on immigration, greater concern about global warming, support for campaign finance reforms, and, very importantly, opposition to the Bush administration regarding the Guantanamo Bay prison and "advanced [i.e., torturous] interrogation techniques" like waterboarding. Clearly, as president, McCain will pursue some policies that differ from those of the Bush administration, but on other issues, such as Iran and North Korea, he will be equally firm (some have said "bellicose").

Unlike senators Clinton and Obama (or, for that matter, President Bush), John McCain would come to the presidency with actual combat experience as a former Navy pilot (and prisoner of war for five and a half years in North Vietnam), in addition to decades of examining national security issues and very extensive foreign travel during his years in the U.S. Senate. He has made it clear that he plans to use national security as an issue against the eventual Democratic nominee in the upcoming general election campaign.

Still, McCain has not spelled out in complete detail how he would deal with the many and varied threats to America's security. Would he continue to keep, say, over 100,000 troops in Iraq if the situation in that country deteriorates further or politically stagnates? Would he as commander-in-chief follow through on threats to attack Iran if it seems close to constructing a nuclear weapon? How would he deal with continuing political instability in nuclear-armed Pakistan? How does he view the rapidly growing economic power of China (to say nothing of Taiwan) in Asia and an increasingly combative Russia in Europe? His Democratic opponent will, of course, face the same questions, but McCain on the campaign trail has sounded much more willing to use military force.

McCain addresses other, more pragmatic questions as well in his Foreign Affairs piece. Along with increasing the armed forces by 150,000 additional soldiers and marines, he also promises to increase funding for public diplomacy and to launch a "crash program" to train more armed service personnel and civilians in critical foreign languages (Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, etc.]. Though it is still early in the presidential election year, McCain has yet to spell out where he expects to find the billions of dollars needed to recruit and train these additional troops and foreign language specialists, a question complicated by his willingness to retain President Bush's tax cuts.

At the heart of McCain's national security strategy is his belief that America's armed forces need to be expanded. In September 2007, he spoke told an audience at the conservative Hudson Institute think tank that "Prevailing in Iraq and Afghanistan are [sic] critical to defeating the threat posed by radical Islamic extremists, but are [sic] not the last battle in this global challenge. We are in a long war, and I am afraid the U.S. government is not adequately prepared to fight."[2] So, precisely how would McCain better prepare the United States to fight a wider war against terrorists or others? Presently, the Pentagon says it does not have enough troops to carry out any other major land operations and that the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have almost depleted its equipment. To make matters more difficult, traditional U.S. allies such as Great Britain and Australia are unlikely at this point to deploy additional troops in either Iraq or Afghanistan. If the United States under a McCain presidency were to enlarge the military, it would require more defense spending and/or a military draft, both of which would be, politically, very hard sells indeed, given America's pressing domestic problems—rising unemployment, crippling health care costs, social security funding worries, large federal budget deficits, credit and housing dislocations, increasing energy costs, etc.

Some may be surprised to learn that McCain's views on the use of U.S. military power have shifted over time. For example, as a first-term Republican congressman in 1983, McCain drew considerable attention for opposing President Ronald Reagan's extension of the U.S. Marine deployment in Lebanon. He said in a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives, "The longer we stay in Lebanon, the harder it will be for us to leave. We will be trapped by the case we make for having our troops there in the first place." (Whether that quote comes back to haunt him in the presidential campaign this fall remains to be seen.) However, in the last couple decades McCain has supported American interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo, and (twice) in Iraq.

Regarding the present war in Iraq, McCain has long advocated a larger military presence in that country. Though a keen backer of the invasion, he expressed concern within weeks of toppling Saddam Hussein that the United States needed more troops. His appeals to Rumsfeld's Defense Department were largely ignored, he claims. Despite these frustrations, McCain has consistently voted to continue funding the war.

At a town hall meeting (3 Jan 2008) during New Hampshire's primary campaign, McCain told a questioner that it "would be fine with me" if the United States had a military presence in Iraq for 100 years. That quote is sure to be used against him by his Democratic opponent this fall but, in fairness, it should be noted that McCain stipulated as part of his answer that he would favor the U.S. presence as long as Americans were not being killed and al Qaida still posed a threat. That is, he was envisaging a peacetime presence like that of American troops presently in Germany and Japan. However, to some voters in the presidential campaign, it might also sound like the half-century U.S. troop presence in South Korea--along with the considerable costs that have gone with it. At a time when the United States is facing pressing domestic economic concerns, another longstanding foreign troop presence may prove unpalatable.

While Senator McCain trumpets the surge's success in quelling the violence and decreasing American deaths in Iraq, U.S. commanders there have been  more cautious, saying that the decrease in violence is tenuous and is due in part to the cease-fire by radical Shiite militiamen. Indeed, some officers have warned that the death and violence would quickly escalate if American troops leave before the Iraqi military is ready to take over responsibility for security. They also warn that al Qaida continues to exert a strong presence in some areas of Iraq and, very importantly, the U.S. tactics that have worked in Baghdad and Anbar province may not be as effective in other trouble spots.

Nevertheless, as president, John McCain would push for not only a continued large American presence in Iraq, but also more vigorous intervention in other parts of the world where groups hostile to the United States thrive. Indeed, he sees the war on terrorism as also a war of ideas.

McCain believes that the United States can stabilize troubled regions, given adequate troop strength. The lessons of Vietnam and Iraq, McCain said in May 2007, are that "we must never again launch a military operation with too few troops to complete the mission and build a secure, stable, and democratic peace. When we fight a war, we must fight to win."[3] However, every president is constrained by practical realities. Whatever McCain's foreign policy instincts may tell him, as president he will be limited by the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As Gary Samore, vice-president of the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations, said recently, "Bush has overdrawn the bank account on use of force for the time being."

Eastern Michigan University


[1] "An Enduring Peace Built on Freedom Securing America's Future," Foreign Affairs (Nov/Dec 2007) <link>.

[2] See "John McCain's Speech on Foreign Policy," Council on Foreign Relations (27 Sep 2007) <link>.

[3] See "Senator McCain Addresses The Hoover Institution on U.S. Foreign Policy," JohnMcCain.com (1 May
2007) <link>.