No simple answer from McCain on use of force
In 1983, his first year in the House, John McCain felt he had to split with President Reagan on a pressing national security issue. Reagan, whom McCain greatly admired, was urging Congress to pass a resolution to keep the Marines in Lebanon for 18 months as part of a multinational peacekeeping force to back up a shaky government.
But the then-47-year-old lawmaker thought that peace could not hold in Lebanon, given the ferocity of the warring factions inside the country. The former Navy pilot concluded that Reagan's objectives were simply unachievable, especially with the small force that the president wanted to deploy: Marines would be lost and the United States' reputation would suffer.
McCain's stance put him at odds with most other lawmakers and marked the first time that he, as an elected official, wrestled with deciding when it is appropriate to deploy U.S. military might. He took a measured approach to the use of force--a trait that has been evident throughout his career despite some critics' contention that as a former military man, McCain would be too quick to pull the trigger in international confrontations.
Judging from his 25 years on Capitol Hill and his writings, McCain decides on a case-by-case basis whether U.S. national security must be protected through military action. If so, he believes that the military should proceed full bore. But, as shown by his position on Lebanon, McCain does not believe that deciding against using force, even when prevailing sentiment favors it, is a sign of weakness.
"The wrong caricature of McCain is that every problem is a nail and every answer is a hammer," observed James Lindsay, director of the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas. "The episode in '83 also speaks to the fact that Senator McCain historically has been willing to speak his mind, even when in a traditional sense it may not have been in his political interests to do so."
Despite his conviction that the Lebanese mission was doomed, McCain took no pleasure in bucking Reagan. His stance attracted more media attention than a first-term lawmaker typically would get, because of his fame for having withstood horrific treatment as a prisoner of war in Vietnam for more than five years.
"A freshman Republican, particularly one who had been a professional military officer, was expected to support the commander-in-chief in all national security matters," McCain wrote in his 2002 book, Worth the Fighting For. "And I did not then, nor would I now, object lightly to any president's call to arms, especially from a president to whom I felt personally loyal.... I would have much preferred giving the president my support, had I thought his policy had a chance in hell of being successful."
In a speech on the House floor, McCain explained his position. "The longer we stay in Lebanon, the harder it will be for us to leave," he said. "We will be trapped by the case we make for having our troops there in the first place.... I also recognize that our prestige may suffer in the short term, but I am more concerned with our long-term national interests."
Ultimately, the resolution easily passed 260-170, but less than a month later two suicide bombers killed 241 U.S. marines and 58 French soldiers. The marines soon "redeployed" out of Lebanon.
Fast-forward to today and McCain is quick to say he took another political risk when he strongly advocated a troop surge in Iraq, again putting him at odds for months with a president of his own party--until President Bush embraced the tactic in the face of the political cognoscenti. That decision rescued Iraq from "the abyss of defeat" and "opened the way for something approaching normal political and economic life for the average Iraqi," McCain contended in an April speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
That stance was consistent with his position in Lebanon, said Carl M. Smith, who flew jets with McCain in the Navy and supports him today. "The question regarding the surge was not, should we go to war, but, now that we are there should we fight and win this war? What he is saying is, if you are going to deploy the military, do it right. Don't do it halfhearted and don't give them missions that they are not trained to perform."
Over his congressional career, McCain has supported force in some instances and opposed it in others; his approach cannot be easily pigeonholed. He backed the 1990 decision to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, for example. McCain later came to believe that President George H.W. Bush made a serious mistake by not toppling Hussein, though he acknowledges that he, too, had initially opposed such action.
In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, McCain, like most lawmakers, favored action in Afghanistan to take out the Taliban-led government. A year later he supported Congress's use-of-force resolution to oust Saddam from Iraq.
"In this new era, preventive action to target rogue regimes is not only imaginable but necessary," he said in Senate debate.
Of his foreign-policy philosophy, the four-term senator has called himself a "realistic idealist" and spoken in favor of multilateral approaches. "We cannot build an enduring peace based on freedom by ourselves, and we do not want to," McCain said in March. "We need to listen to the views and respect the collective will of our democratic allies."
It was not a new theme. In Worth the Fighting For, McCain wrote: "As powerful a nation as we are, as good a nation as we are, we are not omnipotent, and we cannot impose our values by force of arms everywhere they are threatened. But where both our values and our security interests are at risk ... we are obliged to defend them by whatever means necessary."
To that end, McCain opposed using force in Somalia in 1993. The first President Bush had deployed troops there on a humanitarian mission to ease the famine. But when that mission evolved under President Clinton to include keeping peace among warring factions, McCain saw the situation as ill-defined and risky.
In 1994, Clinton withdrew U.S. forces from Somalia after 18 troops were killed and more than 70 wounded in a bloody firefight. McCain suggests in his book that Clinton was loath to deploy ground troops throughout the remainder of his presidency--a mind-set that the Arizonan views as dangerous for a commander-in-chief.
"When the use of force was necessary to protect American interests, [Clinton] would seldom consider any option other than cruise missile strikes and a few inconsequential bombing runs," McCain wrote in Worth the Fighting For. "I became more convinced that my early assessment of the president's leadership as timorous and uncertain was, if anything, understated."
That issue of optimal force level was at the forefront of the debate when NATO responded to the Serbs' invasion of Kosovo in 1999. McCain supported Clinton's decision to join NATO air strikes, but he blistered the president for ruling out the use of ground forces.
In the Senate, McCain argued that by limiting the U.S. action to air strikes, Clinton emboldened the murderous onslaught of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. The president's "indefensible ruling out of ground troops," McCain said, made Milosevic feel "safe enough to ... displace, rape, and murder more Kosovars more quickly than he could have if he feared he might face the mightiest army on earth. That is a fact of this war that is undeniable. And shame on the president for creating it."
Ultimately, the NATO-led bombardment led Serb troops to withdraw. Still, McCain wrote that Clinton's "spasmodic, irresolute, and reactive approaches to international security problems" reflected "self-doubt [and] a mystifying uncertainty of how to behave in a world in which America was the only superpower."
McCain's sometimes harsh rhetoric strikes a different chord abroad than it does at home, said Alton Frye, senior fellow emeritus at the Council on Foreign Relations. "The senator's strong national security credentials, his capacity for having shown courage and willingness to make tough decisions reassures the domestic audience that this is a man you can depend on to make firm decisions," Frye said. "But if you look at it abroad, the perception from a number of friends, as well as potential adversaries, is one of potential bellicosity. So he has a balance to strike between reassurance at home and avoiding bellicosity abroad, while establishing the necessary deterrent that is certainly his first objective."
Most recently, McCain was quick--even faster than the Bush administration--to blast Russia following its invasion of the former Soviet republic of Georgia. He charged that Russia's military action was designed to restore its old empire. Critics jumped on that early tough talk as reflecting McCain's increasingly provocative stance against Russia. He subsequently said that an independent, international peacekeeping force should be deployed and that the U.S must work with allies to persuade Russia to withdraw and to airlift humanitarian aid to Georgia. After a few days, Democrat Barack Obama's statements gradually began to echo McCain's mix of strong rhetoric and multilateralism.
Of course, predicting how a candidate will make decisions as commander-in-chief is hazardous. "We don't know how they are going to view the world when, all of a sudden, they are no longer on the sidelines telling people what to do but have to bear that burden themselves," Lindsay said. "This is sort of the pig-in-a-poke quality of all presidential elections."
Randy Scheunemann, McCain's top foreign-policy adviser, says that those who worry that McCain will be too quick to send in the Marines have the wrong impression. "The idea that Senator McCain, who sacrificed so much for his country, would be anything less than extremely circumspect in ordering our men and women in uniform overseas is ridiculous," he said. "The use of military force is a last resort--only when all other options have been exhausted and only if it is warranted by what we hope to achieve and what interests are at stake. Senator McCain has said repeatedly that he knows firsthand the costs of war and that he hates war."