McCain: a roll-the-dice commander

                                                By Gideon Rachman, from the Financial Times, September 2, 2008

            The world has been moving John McCain’s way over the past year.  The success of the “surge” in Iraq has helped his cause.  So has the Russian invasion of Georgia.  On both issues, the Republican candidate for the presidency took positions that now look prescient and courageous.

            More generally, the sense that the world is getting more dangerous helps Republicans in general – and a tough, experienced, military man such as Mr. McCain in particular.  Why take the risk of electing a neophyte such as Barack Obama, the Democratic candidate?

            Opinion polls consistently show that the American public has more faith in Mr. McCain as commander-in-chief.  He looks like the safe choice for dangerous times.

            But this is wrong.  Mr. McCain will not run a “safe” foreign policy.  He adores rolling the dice.  His decision to select Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska as his running mate typifies the man.  It is a big risk.  It could turn out to be inspired.  Or it might turn out to be a disaster.  But it is not “safe”.

            Mr. McCain approaches international affairs in the same spirit.  His instinct is always to take the radical option and to march towards the sound of gunfire.

            It was indeed courageous to back the idea of sending more troops to Iraq, at a time when the war was going so badly.  But it was the same instinct to choose the bold, aggressive option that made Mr. McCain such an enthusiastic backer of the Iraq war in the first place.  Indeed, he was arguing for the invasion of Iraq well before the terror attacks on New York and Washington.  That now looks reckless.

            The Georgian crisis also looks, at first sight, like a vindication for Mr. McCain.  He has been a longstanding critic of the Russian government.  He saw the crisis in Georgia coming a long time ago.

            When I visited Georgia last April I discovered that President Mikheil Saakashvili counted Mr. McCain as one of his closest friends and allies.  Mr. Saakashvili told me (with a laugh) that the South Ossetians – whose rebel enclave he later attacked, with such disastrous consequences – had even shot a missile at a helicopter carrying Cindy McCain, the Senator’s wife.  And the Georgian president told me proudly that Mr. McCain had given him a gift – a bullet-proof vest.

            Even at the time, this struck me as an ambiguous present.  Was it saying, I’m behind you all the way; or was it saying, best of luck, I’ll be cheering for you – from a safe distance?  Now that Georgia has been so severely mauled by Russia, the dangerous ambiguities in the policies pushed by Mr. McCain and the Bush administration are even clearer.  The Georgians were flattered, hugged and trained by the Americans.  But when the Russian tanks rolled in, there was little the west could do.

            Mr. McCain says that President Teddy Roosevelt is one of his heroes.  But Mr. McCain’s proclamation in the aftermath of the Russia’s (sic) invasion – that “we are all Georgians now” – was the opposite of Roosevelt’s famous advice to “speak softly and carry a big stick.”  It was tough talk, with very little to back it up.

            Mr. McCain’s failure to spell out the implications of his strong rhetorical support for Georgia may mean that he has failed to think things through – or just that he does not want to alarm voters.  But the Republican needs to answer some difficult questions.

            Is the US really prepared to fight Russia to protect Georgia and Ukraine – as Mr. McCain’s firm support for swift Nato membership for these countries implies?  Are we entering a new cold war, as his determination to isolate Russia suggests? If the tough talk is not backed up by tough action, what does that do to American credibility?

            Mr. McCain’s instrinct certainly is to confront Russia – and indeed China.  Even before the conflict in Georgia, he was arguing for throwing Russia out of the Group of Eight and forming a new League of Democracies.

            Mr. McCain’s confrontational instincts are even more to the fore when it comes to Iran.  He has said that the only thing worse than a war with Iran would be a nuclear-armed Iran.  Taken at face value – and given what we know of Iran’s nuclear programme – that sounds like a commitment to attack Iran within the first term of a McCain presidency.

            The Obama camp argue that Mr. McCain will simply continue with the policies of President George W. Bush.  The comparison is certainly interesting.  In some ways, Mr. McCain is a more reassuring figure – because he is curious and has thought hard about foreign policy for many years.  But in other respects, Mr. McCain might make Mr. Bush look like a cautious softie.  It was Mr. McCain, not Mr. Bush, who was the favourite of the neo-conservative wing of the Republican party, when the two men ran against each for the Republican nomination in 2000.  Mr. McCain’s policies on Iran, Russia and China are more hawkish even than those of the Bush administration.

            Then there is the matter of temperament.  Mr. Bush is a sunny and optimistic person.  Mr. McCain is funnier, darker and angrier.  Mr. Bush steered clear of Vietnam.  Mr. McCain really is a warrior, whose autobiography begins “I was born into a tradition of military service” – and whose books are full of brooding reflections on the nature of honour.

            In international crises, the character and instincts of the American president are critical.  Mr. Obama is by temperament a cautious, pragmatic conciliator.  Mr. McCain is aggressive, unorthodox and radical.

            Sometimes, of course, the radical choice is the right one.  Mr. McCain would be an interesting choice for president.  But safe?  Forget about it.

Contact: Joshua Leinsdorf

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