Thursday, July 24, 2008

How much does John McCain really know about foreign policy?

There seems to be an assumption among the media that Senator John McCain has substantial experience in foreign policy and that somehow automatically translates into wise leadership internationally. But is that a fair assumption?

There are his multiple gaffes such as his referral to "the Iraq-Pakistan border," or calling the Czech Republic "Czechoslovakia" (three times), or confusing Sunnis with Shiites, or saying that the U.S. troop surge preceded (and therefore caused) the Sunni Awakening in Anbar province. Fred Kaplan wonders, “Were they gaffes—slips of the tongue, blips of momentary fatigue? Or did they reflect lazy thinking, conceptual confusion, a mind frame clouded by clich├ęd abstractions?” Of course, McCain gets a pass by the press whereas if Obama said anything like this he would have been declared too inexperienced to qualify for the presidency.

However, what is disturbing about McCain is less the not-well-thought-out comments he makes to the press off the top of his head but some of his supposedly well-thought-out foreign policy proposals.

Fred Kaplan examines a few of those proposals:
… Quite apart from the gaffes, in formal prepared speeches, McCain has proposed certain actions and policies that raise serious questions about his suitability for the highest office. As president, he has said, he would boot Russia out of the G-8 on the grounds that its leaders don't share the West's values. He would form an international "League of Democracy" as a united front against the forces of autocracy and terror. And though it's not exactly a stated policy, he continues to employ as his foreign-policy adviser an outspoken, second-tier neoconservative named Randy Scheunemann, who coined the term "rogue-state rollback" and still prescribes it as sound policy.

Evicting Russia from the group of eight leading industrial nations may have some visceral appeal, but it has at least two drawbacks. First, all the G-8's other members are opposed to the notion. Second, the main issues that concern the G-8—for instance, climate change, energy policy, nuclear nonproliferation, and counterterrorism—cannot be fully addressed without Russia's participation.

The idea of a League of Democracy has a nice ring, especially given the United Nations' frequent obstructionism in the face of human misery and common danger. The obstructionism stems in part from vetoes by Russia or China, which, of course, would not be members of this league. But there are a few problems here as well. First, democratic nations often differ on high-profile issues (e.g., the invasion of Iraq, the rules of engagement in Afghanistan, the Kyoto Treaty, etc.). Second, very few of the world's pressing problems break down along the lines of democracies vs. nondemocracies, either by topic or constituency. Third, creating such an overtly ideological bloc as a central tool of foreign policy would only alienate the excluded nations—and possibly incite them to form an opposing bloc. The challenge is to find common solutions to global problems, not to encumber them in a new Cold War.

As for rolling back rogue states, one would hope that McCain has learned some lessons from George W. Bush's failures as even Bush himself has done, albeit belatedly—for instance, in deciding to negotiate with the North Koreans (though not until after they tested an atomic bomb). Someone should ask McCain: Would he cut off those talks? Does he value Scheunemann's advice? If so, which rogues does he hope to topple next, and with whose army does he plan to do it? (Ours is overbooked at the moment.)

In other words, how much does John McCain really know about foreign policy after all? It's a question to be asked and answered, not brushed away as impertinent.

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