McCain’s mixed signals on foreign policy

Republican presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain, right, and former Navy Secretary John Lehman speak on McCain's campaign bus, Friday, March 14, 2008, after a town hall meeting in Springfield, Pa.
(Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Sen. John McCain is well-known for scorching denunciations of Democrats, who he says would raise the “white flag of surrender” by cutting off funds for U.S. troops in Iraq.

But 15 years ago, it was McCain himself who startled colleagues by proposing to cut off money for a struggling and embattled U.S. force in another perilous place: Somalia.

McCain foreign policy: In an article in Sunday’s Section A about John McCain’s views on foreign policy over the last 25 years, Nixon Center President Dimitri Simes was described as saying that McCain had privately assured some prominent supporters that “his more exuberant statements don’t necessarily reflect his real views.” However, Simes did not say McCain had privately told supporters that his public statements should not be taken literally; Simes said supporters had private meetings with McCain “which they found quite encouraging.” Also, Simes’ first name was misspelled Dmitri. —

On the campaign trail today, McCain is seen as an unyielding hawk. But before his first presidential run in 2000, he declared he would work with the Democratic Party’s brain trust to devise his foreign policy.

And while he now describes himself as a “foot soldier in the Reagan revolution,” he infuriated Republicans as a freshman congressman in 1983 by trying to thwart President Reagan’s deployment of troops in Lebanon.


The presumptive GOP nominee for president, McCain -- who leads a congressional delegation to Europe and the Middle East this week -- has adopted a surprising diversity of views on foreign policy issues during his 25 years in Congress. It is a pattern that brings uncertainty to the path he would take if elected.

McCain, an ex-Navy pilot and Vietnam POW who has built his campaign around his national security expertise, has advanced views on Iraq and Iran that are tough and assertive, and that seem to put him squarely in the neoconservative camp.

Yet McCain has on many occasions resisted calls for use of U.S. troops. Even now, he adopts positions that are closer to those of traditional, pragmatic Republicans than the more hawkish neoconservatives.

One sign of the internal contradictions in his views is growing friction between rival camps of McCain supporters -- between neoconservatives and those with more traditional views, widely called “realists.” Both sides believe they have assurances from McCain that he would largely follow their path, and that like-minded allies would have key roles in the new administration.

The conflicting signals have caught the attention of foreign policy experts. “Who is the real John McCain?” asked Dmitri Simes, president of the Nixon Center, a Washington think tank and stronghold of the realist thinkers.

Simes said McCain, one of the Nixon Center’s advisors, has privately assured prominent supporters in the traditional foreign policy camp that “his more exuberant statements don’t necessarily reflect his real views.”


“John is a traditional national security guy,” said retired Adm. Bobby Ray Inman, a former top intelligence official who is listed by the campaign as an important supporter. If McCain reaches the White House, Inman predicts, “there’s going to be a lot of disappointment on the neoconservative side.”

In forming his views on national security, McCain has always relied on a large circle of outside advisors and a handful of trusted aides, say former staffers and others who know him. But he has typically worked out his own conclusions. And taken as a whole, they seem quirky and a la carte, rather than developed from a single philosophy.

From his father, an admiral who served in World War II, he inherited the view that the United States must take care to preserve its image of strength and greatness, not backing down in the face of lesser opponents.

At the same time, McCain’s beliefs have been colored by his time as a Navy aviator, when he and his buddies became convinced that civilian leaders in Washington were dangerously mishandling the Vietnam War. Even while he wants to extend American authority, McCain as a lawmaker has regularly bucked the Republican establishment.

The Lebanon vote was an example. In 1983, McCain voted against a bill to extend Reagan’s deployment of U.S. troops there. Reagan wanted more time to strengthen the fragile Lebanese government, but McCain worried that the American force was too small and that U.S. interests did not justify the risk.

In a similar vein, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, McCain initially wanted to limit the response to an air war.


“To start putting American troops into that kind of meat grinder I just don’t think is a viable option,” McCain said in a televised interview at the time. But he quickly changed his view, voting five months later to join an international effort to push Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.

Three years later, after 18 U.S. servicemen were killed in an ambush in Mogadishu, Somalia, McCain decided that it was time to force a withdrawal of the troops, and he introduced an amendment to cut off funds. He wrote later that he regretted the step as an encroachment on the president’s power and “as a retreat in the face of aggression from an inferior foe.”

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.

Growing bolder in his advocacy of U.S. deployments, McCain in 1999 favored American use of force -- even ground troops -- to halt the “ethnic cleansing” of ethnic Albanians in the Yugoslavian province of Kosovo.

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.”