Sunday, February 17, 2008

Foreign Policy Questions For John McCain

George Will, over at the Washington Post, has a few questions for John McCain:

Foreign policy has slipped to the periphery of presidential politics, displaced by a nonexistent recession as the voters' preoccupation. Come autumn, however, Iraq and Iran may be central subjects, Iraq as a bigger problem for the Democratic nominee than for John McCain and Iran as a problem for McCain. And the presidency may be won by the candidate who embraces a modest conception of that office.

Regarding Iraq, Democrats have won a retrospective argument: Most Americans regret the invasion and execrate the bungled aftermath. But that will not enable the Democratic nominee to argue prospectively that what America's sacrifices have achieved should be put at risk by the essentially unconditional withdrawal of forces that both Democratic candidates promise.

Nancy Pelosi says that the surge has not "produced the desired effect." " The effect"? The surge has produced many desired effects, including a pacification that is a prerequisite for the effect -- political reconciliation -- to which Pelosi refers.

The Democratic nominee will try to make a mountain out of McCain's molehill of an assertion that it would be "fine" with him if some U.S. forces are in Iraq for "maybe 100" years, if Americans are not being harmed. Voters are not seething or even restive because U.S. forces have been in Japan and Germany for 63 years and in South Korea for 58. McCain's real vulnerabilities are related to four questions about Iran and one about Iraq. By answering all five he will reveal what constitutional limits -- if any -- he accepts on the powers of the presidency regarding foreign and military policies.

First, he says war with Iran would be less dreadful than an Iran with nuclear arms. Why does he think, as his statement implies, that a nuclear Iran would be, unlike the Soviet Union, undeterrable and not susceptible to long-term containment unless internal dynamics alter the regime?

Second, many hundreds of bombing sorties -- serious warfare -- would be required to justify confidence that Iran's nuclear program had been incapacitated for the foreseeable future. Does McCain believe that a president is constitutionally empowered to launch such a protracted preventive war without congressional authorization?

Third, why would any president not repelling a sudden attack want to enter the pitch-black forest of war unaccompanied by the other political branch of government?

Fourth, President Bush has spoken of the importance of preventing Iran from having "the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon." Does McCain think it is feasible and imperative to prevent, or destroy, such "knowledge"?

The fifth question concerns Iraq and Congress's constitutional role in the conduct of foreign policy. On Nov. 26, Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued a "Declaration of Principles for a Long-Term Relationship of Cooperation and Friendship." Pursuant to this declaration, a status-of-forces agreement -- or perhaps something substantially more far-reaching than such agreements often are -- is to be completed by July 31. The declaration says that the agreement will include "security assurances and commitments" requiring the United States to defend Iraq "against internal and external threats," and to "support" Iraq's attempts to "defeat and uproot" all "terrorist groups," including "al-Qaeda, Saddamists, and all other outlaw groups," and to "destroy their logistical networks and their sources of finance."

In a Dec. 19 letter to the president, Sen. Joe Biden, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said constitutional law and "over 200 years of practice" establish that such an agreement would require congressional authorization in the form of a treaty, statute or concurrent resolution by both houses. Sen. Hillary Clinton has introduced, and Sen. Barack Obama is co-sponsoring, legislation to deny funds to implement any such agreement that is not approved by Congress. Hundreds of such agreements, major (e.g., NATO) and minor (the Reagan administration's security commitment to the Marshall Islands and Micronesia), have been submitted to Congress. Does McCain agree with Clinton and Obama?
Whoa! Those are some big ones!

Well, let's see what McCain ought to do:

1) Containment assumes national leaders who serve as rational actors who act in the name of the state. Some argue that Iran's leadership is essentially conservative, trying to consolidate the distribution of power in the Middle East after Saddam. Other's have argued that Iran's an unsatified revisionist power. However Iran's viewed, the ravings of a state leader like Ahmadinejad don't bode well for the assumptions of deterrence. Who's to say he wouldn't seek to wipe Israel off the map with intermediate range missiles, the same delivery systems that could reach the European heartland? The research is not definitive on this, although there's by no means a consensus the potential to deter an emerging Third World nuclear power. McCain's on solid ground to suggest Iran might not be deterrable.

2) Hundreds of bombing sorties could be launched in the absence of congressional authorization. The War Powers Resolution authorizes the president to deploy military force for 60 days in the absence of a congressional resolution, and Iran could be buried in cataclysmic rain of death from above in a matter of a few days, or weeks if need be. Would McCain do it? Should he? I watched McCain this morning on ABC's "
This Week with George Stephanopoulis," and the Arizona Senator stressed his many years in Congress, and how the experience would incline him toward a legislative resolution on the use of force. I have no doubt that's what he'll do as president, but he doesn't have to if immediate threats arise that do not require a prolonged deployment of U.S. force. (Keep in mind, public opinion will likely demand congressional authorization for war, but should the U.S. or its key allies face hostile military power, McCain could act first and get a resolution later.)

3) I doubt any president would want to enter a "pitch-black forest of war unaccompanied by the other political branch of government." To be honest, G.W. Bush is the one to whom Will should be posing this question. The Democrats in 2007 worked endlessly to thwart the administration's revised strategy in Iraq, and they demonized the war effort as a failure. McCain was in the Senate throughout this period, and he's practiced in defending against a congressionally-imposed surrender. As president - more than any candidate currently in the race - McCain would have both the legislative and national security credentials to avoid a potential circumstance Will suggests.

4) Would or should a President McCain work to prevent Iran from obtaining actionable knowledge on nuclear capability? Well, that's what happening right now,
according to the recent NIE. The question's probably moot, the way things are going. Depending on the source, Iran's well along the path to developing nuclear capability, and recent announcements from Ahmadinejad have essentially proclaimed it.

5) Will is right that the "Cooperation and Friendship" agreement with Iraq amounts to a treaty. Indeed, the statement is the basis for a U.S.-Iraq alliance, and a McCain administration would stake its presidency on securing this modus operandi. We are still in Japan and Germany after 60 years. Americans won't expect the U.S. to implement an unconditional withdrawal from Iraq - after years of blood and treasure - without some type of security guarantee in place. The Clinton-Obama pledge to torpedo such an agreement is irresponsible. Will's question here clarifies the differences between the parties on Iraq. McCain's certainly ready to engage these issues.
John McCain may or may not be a "TR" kind of president. The difference? He won't speak softly.

The same can't be said for the Democrats, and the voters have nine months to ponder that.