McCain tempers his war message

Times Staff Writers

Sen. John McCain, carefully distancing himself from President Bush and seeking to sound a moderate tone, called Wednesday for stronger ties with allies and cautioned that American power "does not mean we can do whatever we want, whenever we want."

In his first major foreign policy speech since becoming the presumptive GOP nominee, McCain told the World Affairs Council in Los Angeles that to end terrorism and pacify Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States must lead by "attracting others to our cause" and "defending the rules of international civilized society."

The speech showed McCain in a political pivot as he emerges from a Republican primary battle and looks ahead to a general election campaign in which he must win over independents and moderates. In his primary addresses, McCain has frequently accused Democrats of waving "the white flag of surrender" on Iraq and of lacking the resolve necessary to forcefully confront Iran.

By contrast, his address Wednesday at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel omitted such strong language and instead tapped themes meant to appeal to moderates and potential Democratic crossover voters.

He said the government should close its prison for terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and "work with our allies to forge a new international understanding" on how to treat detainees. He said Americans needed to be "good stewards of our planet," and urged steps to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Recalling his military experience -- and that of his father and grandfather, who were admirals -- McCain declared: "I detest war. . . . It is wretched beyond all description." When Americans believe military or diplomatic action is needed, he said, "we will try to persuade our friends that we are right. But we in return must be willing to be persuaded by them."

He said the struggle against terrorism was not primarily about military force, but instead about winning over moderate Muslims through development aid, diplomacy and trade.

Though McCain's speech did not contain his toughest language, there were unmistakable references to beliefs that long have made the Republican senator from Arizona an attractive figure to neoconservatives. He called the confrontation with Islamic militancy "the transcendent challenge of our time," and said the nation's security in the future could not be assured through "passive" defensive measures.

In discussing Iraq, he avoided restating his belief that the U.S. was "winning" the war but stressed the need for a substantial troop presence.

"We have incurred a moral responsibility in Iraq," he said. "It would be an unconscionable act of betrayal, a stain on our character as a great nation, if we were to walk away from the Iraqi people and consign them to the horrendous violence, ethnic cleaning and possibly genocide that would follow a reckless, irresponsible and premature withdrawal."

On Iran, McCain said that the United States and allies must do "all in our power" to keep the country from developing nuclear weapons. But he notably stopped short of saying that the United States should consider using military force, as he has in the past.

He also said America and China were "not destined to be adversaries." In response to a question later, he said any U.S. response to recent unrest should be limited to urging Beijing to begin conversations with Tibetans "to give them a better and freer life."

Democrats, who have sought to portray McCain as a reckless militarist, charged after the speech that his embrace of diplomacy was fraudulent.

"John McCain's empty rhetoric today can't change the fact that he has steadfastly stood with President Bush from Day One, and is now talking about keeping our troops in Iraq for 100 years," Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said in a statement. "His new appreciation for diplomacy has no credibility."

McCain's positions on foreign policy are diverse and include some with a neoconservative bent and others more in tune with more moderates and pragmatic voters.

McCain has said that because of his appeal to independents and some Democrats, he believes he can be competitive in California, a state last won by a Republican presidential contender in 1988, when former President George H.W. Bush ran.

Speaking with reporters after the speech, McCain advisors pointed out the candidate's self-description as a "realistic idealist" -- a phrase that reflects the combination of his "realist" and "neoconservative" impulses.

They singled out as particularly significant portions of the speech that dealt with the need for more collective international action, his distaste for war, his call for nuclear disarmament and his declaration that the war on terrorism is not primarily a military effort.

McCain endorsed the idea of promoting democracy in the Muslim world, a cause adopted with fanfare by Bush but later set aside after it complicated the president's search for practical solutions.

The candidate also rejected the idea of dealing with the Middle Eastern autocrats who are some of America's closest allies. "We can no longer delude ourselves that relying on those outdated autocracies is the safest bet," he said.

McCain favors creation of a world organization he calls a "league of democracies" that would work to put political, economic and possibly military pressure on countries considered undemocratic. Such an organization could move in ways the United Nations can't because of resistance from Russia and China, among others.

For instance, the league could join together to increase economic pressure in Iran, where U.N. measures are seen as lacking the necessary force to bring about change, he said.

Such a league, which has been embraced by others, has been controversial because critics fear it would drive countries such as Russia and China further from the West. And McCain has yet to fully explain his views on how the league might work with the United Nations and NATO.

Walter Russell Mead, a historian at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that while McCain's speech sent mixed signals, it seemed crafted "to reassure audiences in Europe," where McCain traveled last week.

Mead said it was striking that McCain did not mention the use of military force against Iran, even when discussing the need to halt nuclear proliferation, and did not dwell on allegations of Chinese human rights violations in Tibet.

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maeve.reston@latimes.com

paul.richter@latimes.com

Reston reported from Los Angeles and Richter from Washington.

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