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John McCain's Middle East Policy

The Interventionist

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In General

At age 71, John McCain, a fourth-term Republican Senator from Arizona is the second-oldest of all the major candidates for the U.S. presidency in 2008, behind Republican Ron Paul (who’s 72). If elected, McCain would be the oldest-ever president to begin a first term (Ronald Reagan began his first term when he was 69). McCain’s age and experience as a Vietnam War airman and prisoner of war in Vietnam explains to some extent his rear-view-mirror perspective on foreign policy in general and the Middle East in particular.

That perspective is heavily influenced by dualist Cold War thinking: The United States must remain on the offensive against a pre-eminent enemy (currently, “Islamist extremists,” who McCain does not define, and “al Qaeda’s leadership”). It must do so unilaterally if necessary while mistrusting Russia and looking out for the possible emergence of China as a potential enemy and rival. McCain’s approach, while forceful and militant, leaves little room for new ideas about how to peacefully settle wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, how to successfully fight a war on terror that won’t be open ended, and how to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

While McCain recognizes the need for America’s top military and foreign service experts to develop much greater understanding of Arab, Persian and Asian cultures and languages, his policies toward the Middle East appear indistinct from those of George W. Bush.

On Iraq

McCain disagreed with President Bush’s execution of the war in Iraq only to the extent that it was not militarily overwhelming enough. McCain, along with 76 other senators, voted in 2002 to approve invading Iraq. He’s never advocated withdrawal. To the contrary. He’s been an advocate of building up military forces in Iraq, and he fully supported Bush’s spring 2007 “surge”. Iraq, he says, the war on terror’s “central front.” He adds, “So long as we can succeed in Iraq—and I believe we can—we must succeed.” He opposes “a withdrawal strategy that has no Plan B for the aftermath of this inevitable failure and the greater problems that would ensue.” But McCain does not propose an exit strategy on his own terms, either. His plan is Bush’s current plan: stay, fight, and see what happens.

On Afghanistan

McCain considers the United States’ and NATO’s campaign in Afghanistan successful, based on the return of 2 million refugees, even though, as he wrote in Foreign Affairs, the Taliban’s recent resurgence “threatens to lead Afghanistan to revert to its pre-9/11 role as a sanctuary for terrorists with global reach. Our recommitment to Afghanistan must include increasing NATO forces, suspending the debilitating restrictions on when and how those forces can fight, expanding the training and equipping of the Afghan National Army through a long-term partnership with NATO to make it more professional and multiethnic, and deploying significantly more foreign police trainers. It must also address the current political deficiencies in judicial reform, reconstruction, governance, and anticorruption efforts.” McCain does not propose how to do so.

On Iran

According to McCain, Iran is “the world’s chief state sponsor of terrorism.” Asked in a forum when the United States should send “an air mail message” to Iran in the form of bombs, McCain replied by setting his own words to the Beach Boys song, “Barbara Ann." Instead of

Ah, ba ba ba ba barbara ann
Ba ba ba ba barbara ann

McCain's version made it

Bomb bomb bomb,
Bomb bomb Iran...

More formally, McCain advocates levying severe sanctions on Iran to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons technology, then stepping up to military intervention if Iran doesn’t comply. McCain goes further than most candidates in one regard: He would work against other nations acquiring any kind of nuclear technology, even if it’s for peaceful purposes: “The notion that non-nuclear-weapons states have a right to nuclear technology must be revisited,” he says.

Next Page: McCain on Israel and the Palestinians, on terrorism and on foreign oil

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