McCain — The Neocon Candidate (Part 1): Firmly In The Interventionist Camp

An article in this morning’s New York Times examines the “competition” between realists and neoconservatives in John McCain’s foreign policy:

Senator John McCain has long made his decades of experience in foreign policy and national security the centerpiece of his political identity, and suggests he would bring to the White House a fully formed view of the world.

But now one component of the fractious Republican Party foreign policy establishment — the so-called pragmatists, some of whom have come to view the Iraq war or its execution as a mistake — is expressing concern that Mr. McCain might be coming under increased influence from a competing camp, the neoconservatives, whose thinking dominated President Bush’s first term and played a pivotal role in building the case for war.

This article is trying to set up tension where none really exists: The competition for McCain’s foreign policy soul is over. The neocons cleaned up, took the trophy, and went for beers (or maybe wine spritzers.) Of course McCain is still going to seek and take advice from a gallery of venerated foreign policy wise men, but the idea that there’s actually a conflict between the neocon and realist camps for John McCain’s attention is nonsense. Not only has John McCain long pitched his tent in the neoconservative camp, he advocates a view of American power diametrically opposed to the realism of people like Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft, whose pragmatic approach the neocons have derided in the past as an ideology of “managed decline.”


In a 2006 article tracking McCain’s foreign policy views, John Judis wrote that, starting in 1998, McCain began to “place his new interventionist instincts within a larger ideological framework. That ideological framework was neoconservatism.”

McCain began reading the Weekly Standard and conferring with its editors, particularly Bill Kristol…When McCain wanted to hire a new legislative aide, his chief of staff, Mark Salter — himself a former aide to neoconservative Jeanne Kirkpatrick, consulted with Kristol, who recommended a young protege named Daniel McKivergan…Randy Scheunemann, who had drafted the Iraq Liberation Act and was on the board of Kristol’s Project for a New American Century, became McCain’s foreign policy adviser. One person who has worked closely with Kristol says of Kristol and McCain, “They are exceptionally, exceptionally close.

McCain espoused a realist point of view in the 1980s and early 90s, supporting the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Lebanon even before the Marine barracks bombing sparked Ronald Reagan’s quick retreat, and later opposing the U.S. mission in Somalia (even introducing an amendment to cut off funds for the troops there, a move he later said he regretted). After the quick U.S. victory of the first Gulf War, however, his views began to move in a more interventionist direction, and by the late 1990’s he was firmly in the interventionist camp.

Unlike Bush, who came into office without having really thought much about foreign policy (apart from having derided “nation-building” during the campaign) and then landed upon neoconservatism after casting about for a suitable ideological framework for his post-9/11 vengeance policy, McCain derives his strong views on the vigorous and unconstrained exercise of American power from a righteous belief in American “national greatness.”

The bottom line is that John McCain has been tied to the neocons, both personally and ideologically, for nearly a decade. Jacob Heilbrunn, author of They Knew They Were Right, a history of the noeconservatives (and a self-described former neocon himself) described the relationship this way: “McCain represents for the neocons the ultimate synthesis of war hero and politician.”

And McCain, in turn, has been increasingly drawn to the neocons’ militaristic vision of the U.S. as an empire that can set wrong aright around the globe.[…] If McCain becomes president, the neocons will be in charge.