An interesting LA Times article takes a look at John McCain’s record and circle of advisors and tries to determine what his foreign policy would look like. Ultimately, I think Paul Richter winds up massively overcomplicating the issue. There’s no way to say for sure since this kind of thing is inherently a little unpredictable, but all the available evidence suggests that a McCain administration would represent an intensification of the main attributes of the Bush administration’s approach to things.
Nothing Richter says is wrong, but he fails to put things in the appropriate context which, in my view, is how McCain’s views compare to Bush’s rather than how McCain’s views compare to a hypothetical pure-type neoconservative. It’s true, for example, that McCain has non-neocon supporters. But it’s also true that Bush’s team has always included prominent individuals from outside the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz axis — Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Robert Gates, etc.
Similarly, Richter notes that McCain’s not a huge China hawk as evidence of his moderation:
He has been tough on Russia, calling for the country’s ejection from the G-8 group of industrial nations and disparaging President Vladimir V. Putin. But he has taken a more pragmatic position on China, a country that does not follow U.S. human rights practices but is far more vital to its prosperity.
It’s true that McCain’s not as hard-core on China as, say, The Weekly Standard is. But neither is Bush. McCain is clearly more of a Russia hawk than Bush is, and I think a case can be made that McCain is more of a China hawk as well. Note, for example, that the Bush administration’s official missile defense policy is focused exclusively on rogue states, whereas John McCain’s missile defense policy calls for a “hedge against potential threats from possible strategic competitors like Russia and China.”
So McCain is more hawkish than Bush on Russia and at-least-as-hawkish on China. Richter himself notes that McCain is more hawkish than Bush on Iran. On North Korea, Richter says:
[McCain] says he is skeptical that Pyongyang will live up to its obligations under the 2007 international plan that would reward the regime for giving up its nuclear program. But unlike some neoconservatives, he has not called for repudiation of the denuclearization deal, aides say.
Again, yes, McCain is less hawkish than “some neoconservatives” on North Korea, but the proper context here is that McCain is more hawkish than Bush and has been for some time since, as Richter writes, “McCain said in the mid-1990s that the United States should consider military action to stop Pyongyang’s nuclear program” whereas Bush (sensibly, I might add) did so such thing.
With that said, the only indication that McCain would be anything other than McSame or worse than Bush is the fact that McCain was an opponent of military interventions in Lebanon, Haiti, and Somalia back in the day. To describe this as “mixed signals” is, to me, sort of unfair to McCain. The most recent of those controversies happened over fifteen years ago, and McCain has explicitly disavowed his support for pulling out of Somalia and endorsed the neocon view that that pullout embolded al-Qaeda against us. Basically, over the years McCain changed his mind. But throughout his career he’s always been willing to break with his party and take political risks on foreign policy — in the 1980s that sometimes meant getting to Ronald Reagan’s left.
Since the mid-1990s, however, he’s been a hawk and when he’s broken with his party it’s almost exclusively been to criticize the GOP from the right — McCain backed Clinton’s bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 then criticized him for not mounting a ground invasion and then criticized him again for making a deal that was too favorable to Milosevic. He called for “rogue state rollback” in a campaign against Bush at a time when Bush was still talking about deterrence. He called for an invasion of Iraq early in 2003, and called for escalation of hostilities there years before Bush was willing to do so and on virtually every question where he’s ventured an opinion he favors a more confrontational approach than does Bush.