In 1993, McCain opposed the U.S. military intervention in Haiti. Like then- President Clinton, he initially was reluctant to intervene in Bosnia in 1993 and 1994. After the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995, McCain supported the administration's plan to send U.S. peacekeepers into the region, with some reservations.
McCain was moving closer to the muscular interventionism advanced by analysts like William Kristol and Robert Kagan, friends and advisors who are generally considered neoconservatives. McCain began giving greater emphasis to the idea that the United States needed to assert itself abroad to promote its values, not just narrower national interests.
"He clearly was moving closer to the neocons," said Simes of the Nixon Center. By the time the 2000 election campaign got underway "they were already quite enthusiastic about him."
Yet throughout, McCain continued to keep close ties among old-school realists, including former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, and former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. They thought he was on their side too.
In 2002, when debate erupted over war with Iraq, McCain seemed to strengthen his identity as a neoconservative. He agreed with administration officials that Saddam Hussein was trying to restart his nuclear weapons program, and he urged the United States to give more money to controversial financier Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress and other Iraqi exiles. He predicted that regime change in Iraq could catalyze sweeping democratic change in the region.
McCain has staked out a more hawkish position on Iran than the Bush administration, saying that "the only thing worse than military action against Iran is a nuclear-armed Iran."
But McCain has sent conflicting signals as well.
In 1998, he suggested to the Weekly Standard magazine that as president he would seek to develop a kind of consensus foreign policy, consulting the "best minds I know," including President Carter's national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski; Clinton Secretary of State Warren Christopher; President George H.W. Bush's secretary of State, James A. Baker III; Scowcroft; and Kissinger.
He has been tough on Russia, calling for the country's ejection from the G-8 group of industrial nations and disparaging President Vladimir V. Putin. But he has taken a more pragmatic position on China, a country that does not follow U.S. human rights practices but is far more vital to its prosperity.
Hawkish toward North Korea, McCain said in the mid-1990s that the United States should consider military action to stop Pyongyang's nuclear program. Recently, however, he has toned down his comments.
He says he is skeptical that Pyongyang will live up to its obligations under the 2007 international plan that would reward the regime for giving up its nuclear program. But unlike some neoconservatives, he has not called for repudiation of the denuclearization deal, aides say.
McCain has supported the idea of a "League of Democracies," a coalition that might substitute for the United Nations and even use military force. Critics view the idea as a dangerous neoconservative scheme that could alienate countries like Russia, China and Saudi Arabia and further polarize the world.
At the same time, he has been generally positive about the role of the U.N. McCain has also favored strengthening NATO and ties to European allies, and has personally spent time cultivating European leaders.
Randy Scheunemann, McCain's chief foreign policy advisor, rejects the idea that McCain has moved to a more neoconservative position in recent years, and, indeed, rejects the term "neoconservative" as meaningless. He said the differences on foreign policy among McCain's supporters reflect not that he has taken many views, but simply his wide appeal.
"John McCain unites the Republican foreign policy spectrum," Scheunemann says. "They're almost all supporters."
Some of the realists in McCain's camp believe that some of his public pronouncements during the long primary season have followed from his need to build Republican support at a time when many conservatives have been distressed by his views on immigration and campaign finance, to name only two issues. They predict that in the general election campaign, the red-meat lines may be given less prominence.
But some analysts say the internal tension between these conflicting foreign policy visions will continue during the campaign -- and, indeed, would follow McCain to the White House if he won.
Derek Chollet, a former State Department official now at the Center for a New American Security, predicts that these security issues "will continue to be fought out in a McCain administration, just as we've seen them fought out in the person of John McCain."