As I wrote in Part 1 of this series, John McCain shares with the neoconservatives a similar expansive view of American power. What he also shares, however, is an alarmingly simplistic view of Islamic extremism.
One of McCain’s favorite talking points over the last few months has been that radical Islamic extremism is “the transcendent challenge of the 21st century.” He used this formulation in his Foreign Affairs manifesto last year. It was also featured prominently in his March 26 foreign policy address, and he tends to use it whenever he talks about national security.
For all of McCain’s media-abetted posturing as a foreign policy expert, however, there’s no evidence that McCain’s ever really understood the region from whence comes this transcendent challenge. Casting this struggle in grandiose terms is a way to hide the fact that he doesn’t really understand what it is.
Here’s what McCain said in his foreign policy address on March 26:
This challenge is transcendent not because it is the only one we face. There are many dangers in today’s world, and our foreign policy must be agile and effective at dealing with all of them. But the threat posed by the terrorists is unique. They alone devote all their energies and indeed their very lives to murdering innocent men, women, and children. They alone seek nuclear weapons and other tools of mass destruction not to defend themselves or to enhance their prestige or to give them a stronger hand in world affairs but to use against us wherever and whenever they can.
McCain’s website contains similarly vague references to “the war against the terrorists.” McCain has never really defined who these terrorists are, apart from “radical Islamists,” nor does he suggest any difference in either goals or ideology among the various groups so labeled.
And that’s what’s really scary. As far as McCain is concerned, it’s all one big Islamofascist (sic) front against the West, Al Qaeda equals Iran equals Muqtada al-Sadr equals Hamas equals Hezbollah equals whomever’s shooting at us this week. This is the same sort of thinking that got us into Iraq. And we shouldn’t be surprised about this, because John McCain is being advised by many of the very same people who put us there. Like his advisers, McCain tends to cast all of these groups and movements together under the heading “radical Islamic terrorism” and proceed as if this were actually a strategically meaningful category.
McCain has made a number of gaffes over the past few months, suggesting on several occasions that Iran was training Al Qaeda, then briefly identifying Al Qaeda as Shia at Tuesday’s hearings. While I do think it’s significant that McCain may not, at this late date, have yet committed these things to memory, I think it’s even more significant that, in McCain’s foreign policy view, they don’t even really matter.