Tuesday, April 8, 2008

What Does McCain Know, and When did he Know It?

One of my first thoughts after the shock of seeing the World Trade Center come down was, “I’m glad there is a Republican in the White House.”

You remember how it went. Everybody wanted military action. And national security was a Republican specialty. So the whole country and pretty much the entire world got behind George W. Bush.

One year later, I was already sorry there was a Republican in the White House.

“[After the attacks] the international community grieved with the horrified citizens of the United States ... Washington had a historic opportunity to enlist the world in a campaign against terror, an exceptional moment in history,” I wrote on Sept. 11, 2002, a time when the Republican in the White House, and the one in the Pentagon, were blustering their way into the Iraq disaster

“[M]uch of that good will and cooperation is gone overseas, thanks in no small part to the Bush administration’s inability to see the United States in a global context -- as the only superpower, yes, but still as a part of the international community, part of the larger world beyond America’s borders.”

It’s been downhill from there. A BBC poll said this week that in 34 nations surveyed, 35 percent of respondents said the United States had a positive influence on world affairs, and 47 percent said it had a negative influence. We did not do as well as Russia and China. But hey, we beat North Korea and Iran.

And it was an improvement. The year before, the negative rating was five points higher and the positive four points lower. Why the change? Steven Kull, of the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes (which helped conduct the survey) told the BBC that “as the U.S. approaches a new presidential election, views of the U.S. are being mitigated by hope that a new administration will move away from the foreign policies that have been so unpopular in the world.”

The move away from those policies is a given if a Democrat wins. But what if it’s John McCain this November?

McCain has, in more than one prepared speech, acknowledged that over-reliance in the unilateral use of American military strength has grievously damaged American interests.

“[T]he United States cannot lead by virtue of its power alone,” he said in a speech last week in Los Angeles “We must be strong politically, economically, and militarily. But we must also lead by attracting others to our cause, by demonstrating once again the virtues of freedom and democracy, by defending the rules of international civilized society and by creating the new international institutions necessary to advance the peace and freedoms we cherish.”

The speech has been seen as a repudiation of what the Bush team did for the past eight years, but McCain has been saying this kind of thing for a while. A year ago he said at VMI, “The many complex challenges we face require more than a military response. This is a contest of ideas and values as much as it is one of bullets and bombs.”

Yet when McCain speaks extemporaneously, the insightfully nuanced view of his prepared speeches sometimes gives way to something that looks and sounds like Bush. There was the puerile Beach Boys humor of “Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran.” And there was that puzzling moment in Jordan, a few days before the Los Angeles speech, when he charged that Iranian intelligence was “taking al-Qaida into Iran, training them and sending them back.”

Of course, al-Qaida and Iran are not only enemies of the United States -- they also are enemies of each other. Yet McCain’s mistake appears to be more than merely a slip of the tongue, because he went on to insist it was “common knowledge and has been reported in the media that al-Qaida is going back into Iran and receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran, that’s well known.” It wasn’t until Sen. Joe Lieberman leaned in to whisper something that McCain said, “I’m sorry, the Iranians are training extremists, not al-Qaida.”

It was shocking to hear such a mistake from a presidential candidate supposed to be an expert on foreign policy. Is the best hope of Republicans to gain back credibility on national security just another George W. Bush but with better advisers?

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