Looking ahead to this Friday’s presidential debate on foreign policy, it’s worth reviewing some of the items on John McCain’s promised agenda. McCain maintains that on “transcendent issues” like the war on terror, he is in “total agreement” with President Bush, and McCain’s ideas bear this out. Like Bush, McCain contends that Iraq is the “central front” in the war on terror, ignoring the fact that there was no Al Qaeda in Iraq before there was America in Iraq. Invading Iraq has radicalized scores of young Muslims, who have traveled to Iraq and learned terrorist tactics, which they have now begun to bring back to their home countries. In a speech in November 2003, McCain responded to a question about whether the U.S. would “finish the job” in Afghanistan by saying that “we may muddle through.”
Unfortunately, as a result of the diversion of resources and attention to an unnecessary war in Iraq, “muddling through” is precisely what we have been doing in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda and the Taliban have regrouped in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas and waged an increasingly lethal insurgency. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen recently told the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, “I’m not convinced we are winning it in Afghanistan…Frankly, we’re running out of time.” In July, Mullen told reporters, “I don’t have troops I can reach for, brigades I can reach to send into Afghanistan, until I have a reduced requirement in Iraq.” Though McCain now says that he will support a “surge” in Afghanistan, he has consistently opposed drawing down troops from Iraq, so it’s unclear where he intends to find the troops.
McCain has made his support for the Iraq surge central to his campaign, but ignores the fact that the surge has not delivered on its stated objective: achieving a sustainable power consolidation among Iraq’s different political forces. According to a recent report from the Center for American Progress, “Iraq’s Political Transition After the Surge,” the surge “has frozen into place the accelerated fragmentation that Iraq underwent in 2006 and 2007 and has created disincentives to bridge central divisions between Iraqi factions.” These factions remain at loggerheads over significant issues such as the oil law, constitutional reform, and the status of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
McCain has also tried to de-couple his support for the surge from his support for the 2003 invasion, insisting that the latter is a matter for historians. McCain’s support for the surge does not absolve him for his support for the war, and his role as one of its earliest and most strident advocates. The fact remains that a surge of 30,000 troops to Iraq would not have been necessary if not for the disastrous decision to invade Iraq in the first place. The Iraq war has resulted in the deaths of over 4,000 American servicemen and women, leaving over 30,000 seriously wounded. The war has also resulted in the deaths of an estimated 150,000 Iraqis, with many more wounded and maimed, and over 4 million displaced, both within and outside the country. Economists Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University and Linda Bilmes of Harvard University estimated the total cost of the Iraq war to U.S. taxpayers at around $3 trillion. McCain has said that, even knowing that Saddam had no WMD and no connections to Al Qaeda, “there’s no question” he would still have voted to authorize the war.
In the few areas where McCain and Bush disagree, McCain advocates an even harder line than Bush, promising to continue policies that the Bush administration has discarded. President Bush now recognizes the necessity of talking with Iran, “abandon[ing] its longstanding position that it would meet face to face with Iran only after the country suspended its uranium enrichment.” At a recent panel, five former U.S. secretaries of state — Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell, Madeleine Albright, Warren Christopher, and James Baker — all agreed that “the next American administration should talk to Iran.” Kissinger specifically supported negotiating with Iran “without conditions,” which McCain has called naive and irresponsible.
McCain also advocates a harder line against North Korea, using language that the Washington Post called “remarkably similar to President Bush’s first-term rhetoric.” McCain has broken with the Bush administration’s new policy of diplomatic engagement, under which North Korea has provided greater disclosure of its nuclear activities. McCain’s approach would turn back these gains.
McCain’s hysterical response to the Russia-Georgia conflict is a troubling indication of how he would handle international crises. McCain immediate reaction was to declare it “the first probably serious crisis internationally since the end of the Cold War,” this after having spent months declaring the threat of Islamic radicalism “the transcendent challenge of our time.” Even before the Russia-Georgia crisis, McCain had advocated an aggressive posture toward Russia, suggesting that Russia should be thrown out of the G8. Writer Fareed Zakaria called this “the most radical idea put forward by a major candidate for the presidency in 25 years…a policy that would alienate many countries in Europe and Asia who would see it as an attempt by Washington to begin a new cold war.” McCain’s anti-Russia stance has serious implications for efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Many of America’s allies, including the Israelis, believe that “Russia’s cooperation is essential” for dealing with the Iranian nuclear program.
After eight years of arrogant and isolating unilateralism, John McCain proposes a foreign policy approach that would do even more to alienate America’s allies, and make it even more difficult to work together with the international community to address common threats. This Friday, McCain’s challenge is to explain how doing so is in America’s national security interests.