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Hothead McCain | The Nation

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Hothead McCain

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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.

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Robert Dreyfuss
Bob Dreyfuss
Robert Dreyfuss, a Nation contributing editor, is an investigative journalist specializing in politics and national...

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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."

The UN, too, would be shunted aside to make room for McCain's new League of Democracies. Though the concept is couched in soothing rhetoric, the "league" would provide an alternate way of legitimizing foreign interventions by the United States when the UN Security Council won't authorize force. Five years ago, on the eve of the Iraq War, McCain said bluntly before the European Parliament that if Security Council members resisted the use of force, or if China opposed US action against North Korea, "the United States will do whatever it must to guarantee the security of the American people." Among the targets McCain cites for his plan to short-circuit the UN are Darfur, Burma, Zimbabwe, Serbia, Ukraine and, of course, Iran--and he has already referred to "wackos" in Venezuela. According to Scheunemann, it's an idea that bubbled up from some of McCain's advisers, including Peters and Kagan, but it alarms analysts from the realist-Republican school of foreign policy. "They're talking about a body that essentially would circumvent the UN and would take authority to act in the name of the international community, sometimes using force," says a veteran GOP strategist who knows McCain well and who insisted on anonymity. "Well, it's very easy to predict that the Russians and Chinese would view this as a threat."

McCain seems almost gleeful about provoking Russia. At first blush, you'd think he'd be more nuanced, since many of the foreign policy gurus he says he talks to emanate from the old-school Nixon-Kissinger circle of détente-niks, including Henry Kissinger himself, Lawrence Eagleburger and Brent Scowcroft. Their collective attitude is that as long as Moscow doesn't threaten US interests, we can do business with it. But there is little evidence of their views in McCain's policy toward Putin's Russia. "I think it's fair to assume that he's most influenced by his neoconservative advisers," says the GOP strategist.

"We need a new Western approach to...revanchist Russia," wrote McCain in Foreign Affairs. He says he will expel Russia from the Group of Eight leading industrial states, a flagrant and dangerous insult, one likely to draw stiff opposition from other members of the G-8. He refuses to ease Russian concerns about the deployment of a missile defense system in Eastern Europe, saying, "The first thing I would do is make sure we have a missile defense system in place in Czechoslovakia [sic] and Poland, and I don't care what [Putin's] objections are to it." And he's all for rapid expansion of NATO, to include even the former Soviet republic of Georgia--and not just Georgia but also the rebellious Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Since Kosovo's declaration of independence on February 17, which was opposed by Russia, Moscow has said it intends to support independence of the two Georgian regions, making McCain's goal of expanding NATO provocative, to say the least. "McCain says [NATO] ought to include Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which are not under the control of the current Georgian government," says a conservative critic of the Arizona senator. "Which, if not a prescription for war with Russia, is at least a prescription for conflict with Russia."

Earlier in his Congressional career, McCain was reluctant to engage in overseas adventures unless American interests were directly threatened. He opposed US involvement in Lebanon in the early 1980s, and in Haiti and the Balkan conflicts in the early 1990s. But as the post-cold war environment seemed increasingly to promise unchallenged American hegemony, McCain took up the neocons' call for interventionism. His views crystallized in a 1999 speech, when he called for the United States to use tough sanctions and other pressure to roll back "rogue states" like Iraq and North Korea, adding, "We must be prepared to back up these measures with American military force if the existence of such rogue states threatens America's interests and values." In referring to "values," McCain indicates his support for the notion that a selective crusade allegedly on behalf of freedom and democracy can provide a rationale for an aggressive new foreign policy outlook.

"He's the true neocon," says the Brookings Institution's Ivo Daalder, a liberal interventionist who conceived the idea of a League of Democracies with Robert Kagan. "He does believe, in a way that George W. Bush never really did, in the use of power, military power above all, to change the world in America's image. If you thought George Bush was bad when it comes to the use of military force, wait till you see John McCain.... He believes this. His advisers believe this. He's surrounded himself with people who believe it. And I'll take him at his word."

Not surprisingly, the center of McCain's foreign policy is the Middle East. "He's bought into the completely fallacious notion that we're in a global struggle of us-versus-them. He calls it the 'transcendental threat...of extreme Islam," says Daalder. "But it's a silly argument to think that this is either an ideological or a material struggle on a par with [the ones against] Nazi Germany or Soviet Communism." For McCain, the Iraq War, the conflict with Iran, the Arab-Israeli dispute, the war in Afghanistan, the Pakistani crisis and the lack of democracy in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan are all rolled up into one "transcendent" ball of wax.

More than any other politician, McCain is identified with the Iraq War. From the mid-1990s on, he and his advisers were staunch supporters of "regime change." Scheunemann helped write the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998, which funded Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress; joined Bill Kristol's Project for the New American Century; and helped create the neoconservative Committee for the Liberation of Iraq in 2002, with White House support. Together with Joe Lieberman, Sam Brownback and a handful of other senators, McCain emerged as a major cheerleader for the war. Like his fellow neocons, McCain touted what proved to be faked intelligence on the threat posed by Iraq. Echoing Vice President Cheney, McCain said on the eve of the war, "There's no doubt in my mind, once [Saddam] is gone, that we will be welcomed as liberators." He pooh-poohed critics who argued that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's war plan was too reliant on technology and too light on troops, saying, "I don't think you're going to have to see the scale of numbers of troops that we saw...back in 1991." When Gen. Eric Shinseki warned, a month before the war started, that occupying Iraq would require far more troops, McCain was mute.

Today McCain portrays himself as a critic of how the war was fought, but his criticism did not emerge until long after it was clear that the United States faced a grueling insurgency. From the fall of 2003 onward, against a growing chorus of critics who called for US forces to withdraw, McCain repeatedly called for more troops to secure "victory." By late 2006, when the bipartisan Iraq Study Group called for pulling out all combat brigades within fifteen months, McCain, Lieberman and a hardy band of neocons, led by Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute and joined by Cheney, persuaded Bush to escalate the war instead. Asked if McCain directly lobbied Bush to reject the ISG's recommendations, a McCain aide says, "There were many encounters with the President's senior advisers and with the President on this issue." Fred Kagan, the surge's author and Robert Kagan's brother, told McClatchy Newspapers, "It was a very lonely time. He went out there for us."

In January McCain famously said US forces might end up staying in Iraq for a hundred years. It's clear that for McCain the occupation is not just about winning the war but about turning Iraq into a regional base for extending US influence throughout the region. According to the original neocon conception of the war, as promoted by people like Perle and Michael Ledeen, Iraq was only a first step in redrawing the Middle East map. Gen. Wesley Clark said recently that on the eve of the war he was shown a Pentagon document that portrayed Iraq as the first in a series of operations to change regimes in Iran, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Lebanon.

When The Nation asked Scheunemann why US forces would have to stay in Iraq so long, he explicitly linked their presence to the entire Middle East. "Iraq might be stable, but what about the region?" he responded. "Other countries could be in turmoil; other countries could be threatening Iraq. It could be an external threat that we need to have troops there for, à la South Korea, à la Japan." He added, "I understand your readers may think it's some sort of malevolent imperialist conspiracy." Conspiracy or not, it's clear that McCain sees our presence in Iraq as a permanent extension of US power in the oil-rich Persian Gulf.

McCain has made no secret of his belief that using force against Iran is the only way to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons. "There is only one thing worse than a military solution, and that, my friends, is a nuclear-armed Iran," McCain said. "The regime must understand that they cannot win a showdown with the world." He supports tougher sanctions against Tehran, but critics note that implementing them would require Russia's consent. McCain's provocative anti-Russia stand, though, makes such a deal less than likely. And he rejects direct US-Iran talks.

In the end, McCain seems almost reflexively to favor the use of America's armed might. "He would employ military force to the exclusion of other options," says Larry Korb, a former Reagan Administration defense official. Scion of admirals (his father and grandfather), a combat pilot in Vietnam who continued to believe long after that war that it might have been won if the US military had been allowed free rein, McCain presents the image of a warrior itching for battle. He is the candidate of those Americans whose chief goal is an endless war against radical Islam and who'd like nothing more than for the Arizona senator to clamber figuratively into the cockpit once more. Like his former aide Marshall Wittman, currently a top aide to Senator Lieberman, McCain sees Theodore Roosevelt, the Bull Moose interventionist President of the early twentieth century, as his role model. And that attracts neoconservatives.

"I'm an old-fashioned, Scoop Jackson--I guess you'd now say Joe Lieberman--Democrat, and he's a Teddy Roosevelt Republican, and they're pretty close in their views, so substantively there's a lot of overlap between us," says James Woolsey, a former CIA director who's endorsed McCain and has campaigned with him this year. "I think John's style is very TR-like. It's very much about speaking softly but carrying a big stick."

We're still waiting for the "speaking softly" part. "There's going to be other wars," McCain warns. "I'm sorry to tell you, there's going to be other wars. We will never surrender, but there will be other wars."

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