If you've followed Senator John McCain at all, you've heard about his tendency to, well, explode. He's erupted at numerous Senate colleagues, including many Republicans, at the slightest provocation. "The thought of his being President sends a cold chill down my spine. He is erratic. He is hotheaded. He loses his temper, and he worries me," wrote Republican Senator Thad Cochran, shortly before endorsing McCain.
You've heard about his penchant for bellicose rhetoric, whether appropriating a Beach Boys song in threatening to bomb Iran or telling Russian President Vladimir Putin that he doesn't care what he thinks about American plans to install missiles in Eastern Europe.
And you've heard, no doubt, about McCain's stubbornness. "No dissent, no opinion to the contrary, however reasonable, will be entertained," says Larry Wilkerson, a retired army colonel who was former Secretary of State Colin Powell's top aide. "Hardheaded is another way to say it. Arrogant is another way to say it. Hubristic is another way to say it. Too proud for his own good is another way to say it. It's a quality about him that disturbs me."
But what you may not have heard is an extended critique of the kind of Commander in Chief that Captain McCain might be. To combat what he likes to call "the transcendent challenge [of] radical Islamic extremism," McCain is drawing up plans for a new set of global institutions, from a potent covert operations unit to a "League of Democracies" that can bypass the balky United Nations, from an expanded NATO that will bump up against Russian interests in Central Asia and the Caucasus to a revived US unilateralism that will engage in "rogue state rollback" against his version of the "axis of evil." In all, it's a new apparatus designed to carry the "war on terror" deep into the twenty-first century.
"We created a number of institutions in the wake of World War II to deal with the situation," says Randy Scheunemann, McCain's top adviser on foreign policy. "And what Senator McCain wants to begin a dialogue about is, Do we need new structures and new institutions, both internally, in the US government, and externally, to recognize that the situation we face now is very, very different than the one we faced during the cold war?" Joining Scheunemann, a veteran neoconservative strategist and one of the chief architects of the Iraq War, are a panoply of like-minded neocons who've gathered to advise McCain, including Bill Kristol, James Woolsey, Robert Kagan, Max Boot, Gary Schmitt and Maj. Ralph Peters. "There are some who've moved into his camp who scare me," Wilkerson says. "Scare me."
If McCain intends to be a shoot first, ask questions later President, consider a couple of the new institutions he's outlined, which seem designed to facilitate an unencumbered, interventionist foreign policy.
First is an unnamed "new agency patterned after the...Office of Strategic Services," the rambunctious, often out-of-control World War II-era covert-ops team. "A modern day OSS could draw together specialists in unconventional warfare; covert action operators; and experts in anthropology, advertising, and other relevant disciplines," wrote McCain in Foreign Affairs. "Like the original OSS, this would be a small, nimble, can-do organization" that would "fight terrorist subversion [and] take risks." It's clear that McCain wants to set up an agency to conduct paramilitary operations, covert action and psy-ops.
This idea is McCain's response to a longstanding critique of the CIA by neoconservatives such as Richard Perle, who have accused the agency of being "risk averse." Since 2001 the CIA has engaged in a bitter battle with the White House and the Pentagon on issues that include the Iraq War and Iran's nuclear weapons program. The agency lost a major skirmish with the creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which put the White House more directly in charge of the intelligence community. And now McCain wants to put the final nail in the CIA's coffin by creating a gung-ho operations force. Scheunemann, who credits Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations with the idea, says the new agency is urgently needed to "meet the threats of the twenty-first century in a time of war, much as the OSS was created in a time of war." And he disparages the CIA as a bunch of has-beens. The new agency would eclipse "an organization created to meet the needs of the cold war and hang out in embassies and try to recruit a major or two or deal with walk-in defectors," Scheunemann told The Nation.
But John McLaughlin, a former deputy director of the CIA who retired in 2004, is more than skeptical, and he worries that McCain doesn't understand the need for Congressional controls over spy agencies. "You need to have Congressional oversight and transparency," he says. "I would not recommend a new agency that is set up parallel to the CIA.... All of those things can be done within the boundaries of the CIA." Told about McLaughlin's comments, Scheunemann says, "Anyone who thinks that the agency today is a nimble, can-do organization has a different view than Senator McCain does."