Sunday, May 18, 2008

George Bush, John McCain, and U.S. Foreign Policy

The New York Times has a big article up on John McCain's foreign policy, "The McCain Doctrines."

I'm going borrow from
James Joyner's post, on Daniel Drezner's take on it:

Dan Drezner argues, persuasively, that John McCain’s foreign policy is not, as critics charge, simply a continuation of George W. Bush’s. Essentially, while McCain has strong neoconservative tendencies (i.e., he’s quite willing to intervene militarily based on morality alone even if there is no compelling U.S. security interest at stake) but that’s he’s much more aware than Bush that the need for the support of the American public.

He quotes extensively from a piece in the NYT Sunday Magazine from Matt Bai. The key [paragraphs]:

It’s clear, though, that on the continuum that separates realists from idealists, McCain sits much closer to the idealist perspective. McCain has long been chairman of the International Republican Institute, run by Craner, which exists to promote democratic reforms in closed societies. He makes a point of meeting with dissidents when he visits countries like Georgia and Uzbekistan and has championed the cause of Aung San Suu Kyi, the imprisoned leader of the Burmese resistance. Most important, as he made clear in his preamble to our interview, McCain considers national values, and not strategic interests, to be the guiding force in foreign policy. America exists, in McCain’s view, not simply to safeguard the prosperity and safety of those who live in it but also to spread democratic values and human rights to other parts of the planet.

McCain argues that his brand of idealism is actually more pragmatic in a post-9/11 world than the hard realism of the cold war. He rejects as outdated, for instance, a basic proposition of cold-war realists like Kissinger and Baker: that stability is always found in the relationship between states. Realists have long presumed that the country’s security is defined by the stability of its alliances with the governments of other countries, even if those governments are odious; by this thinking, your interests can sometimes be served by befriending leaders who share none of your democratic values. McCain, by contrast, maintains that in a world where oppressive governments can produce fertile ground for rogue groups like Al Qaeda to recruit and prosper, forging bonds with tyrannical regimes is often more likely to harm American interests than to help them.
Here's how Joyner concludes:
On this score, I think McCain is right. That he’s more aware of the limitations of American military power to shape the world than Bush, too, is a hopeful sign. I do wish, however, that he was more reluctant still.

Now, back to Drezner:

This strikes me as a spot-on assessment of McCain's foreign policy instincts -- a little less postmodern, "we create reality" than George W. Bush's, but nevertheless leaning quite heavily in the neocon direction.

It's this passage, however, where McCain mentions something I haven't heard from him before on foreign policy:

Most American politicians, of course, would immediately dismiss the idea of sending the military into Zimbabwe or Myanmar as tangential to American interests and therefore impossible to justify. McCain didn’t make this argument. He seemed to start from a default position that moral reasons alone could justify the use of American force, and from there he considered the reasons it might not be feasible to do so. In other words, to paraphrase Robert Kennedy, while most politicians looked at injustice in a foreign land and asked, “Why intervene?” McCain seemed to look at that same injustice and ask himself, “Why not?”

“I think we’ve learned some lessons,” McCain told me. “One is that the American people have to be willing to support it. But two, we need to work more in an international way to try to beneficially affect the situation. And you have to convince America and the world that every single avenue has been exhausted before we go in militarily. And we better think not a day later or a week later, but a year and 5 years and 10 years later. Because the attention span, unfortunately, of the American people, although pretty remarkable in some ways, is not inexhaustible.”....

McCain is relying on the same strategy to achieve success both in Iraq and in the November election. In each endeavor, McCain is staking everything on the notion that the public, having seen the success of a new military strategy, can be convinced that the war is, in fact, winnable and worth the continued sacrifice. Absent that national retrenching, McCain admits that this war, like the one in Vietnam, is probably doomed. Near the end of our conversation in Tampa, I asked him if he would be willing to change course on Iraq if the violence there started to rise again. “Oh, we’d have to,” he replied. “It’s not so much what McCain would do. American public opinion will not tolerate such a thing.”

The Bush administration's fundamental mistake was to believe that a generation-long project could somehow be pursued without the need for consensus by anyone outside the executive branch. McCain seems to get that.

After researching what the American people think about foreign military interventions, I'm pretty sure that the American people don't want us in Iraq regardless of how well the surge works (Bai makes this point later on in the article). I'm not sure, however, whether this will be the deciding factor in how they vote in November.

The paradox: for McCain to be a more prudent foreign policy president, he needs to have a hostile public constraining him. Of course, if that's the case, then it's entirely possible he won't be elected president in the first place.

This is all very interesting, although note something about Drezner's conclusion: The research he's talking about is his thesis that Americans are "realist" in their basic orientation to American forward power internationally (which is, surprisingly, the opposite of the major "internationalist" strand posited by scholarship on U.S. public opinion on foreign policy).

In other words, the public views foreign commitments in terms of crude national interests (cost-benefit analysis), and thus if Americans "don't want us in Iraq," we can expect pressure to force a withdrawal from the war early next year.

I don't read public opinion that way, as I've noted many times (the war's unpopular, but the public's not demanding a precipitous surrender).

Thus Drezner's reading of McCain and public opinion misses something.

As Thomas Powers has suggested at the New York Review of Books, it's not so much that McCain "gets" the intense public resistance to costly foreign adventurism. If public opinion's as bad as it is, then the skills we need in the next president are the courage to admit we've lost the war and the political leadership to guide the political system to extract our forces from the supposed fiasco.

McCain won't do any such thing, of course. But I think Powers is wrong anyway, because I have a different take on public opinion: Success is contagious. If we continue to make gains thoughout the post-surge period of the deployment, the public will ride out the storm. (And we are continuining to make progress: See, for example, Captain Ed, "Guess Who Realized the Surge is Working?", on Nancy's Pelosi's acknowledgment of progress in Iraq.)

As expensive as the war is, Americans don't want to lose. The election campaign will allow McCain to clarify these issues, and with his experience, he'll most likely be a better salesman than President Bush on the vital need for a continuing commitment to the Iraqi people.