McCain’s Foreign Policy: Maverick, Erratic or Machiavellian?

I just realized that I know very little of John McCain’s voting record. It’s easy to summarize what I’ve heard: he is an independent thinker, and a maverick. With regard to foreign policy I understand that this policy area is his strength, that he supports the military but compared to administration his military enthusiasm is tempered by concern for human rights and civilian lives. I thought that it would be useful to look at his voting record and thought that I’d do this in separate installments, each addressing one topic. Today I looked at Senator McCain’s voting record on foreign policy issues and found that my understanding did not appear to be accurate.

After two terms in congress McCain was elected to the Senate in 1986. In his first term he became involved in the savings and loan scandal as one of the “Keating Five.” The Senate Ethics Committee neither censured nor exonerated him but found that he engaged in “questionable conduct” that related to corruption charges involving the investigations. After that he seemed to focus on foreign policy and campaign finance reform in public speeches.

In 1990 he and Republican Senator William Cohen had a press conference at which they proposed a significant reduction in defense spending. He proposed a $50 billion reduction by 1995 and a 2% to 4% annual reduction thereafter. He acknowledged that there was no consensus in favor of this position, either Republican or Democrat, and the Defense Secretary Cheney opposed close congressional oversight of the defense budget. This certainly qualifies as a maverick position and it is useful to note that it occured during the Senator investigation of the Keating Five, as its novelty attracted attention and the sentiment of reduced defense spending, as they said at the press conference, was held by the majority of Americans.

Seven months later President Bush announced preparation for the Gulf War and Senator McCain was asked for his comments. He applauded the president’s speech but said that he favored more patience, presumably to explore a nonmilitary solution. When asked about the projected cost of $15 billion, he said that absolutely this should be shared in substantial part by Japan and Germany. He did not explain precisely why they together should pay most of the cost, but he was quite clear that we should not bear this financial burden. This position kept him at least within explanation distance of his call for cutting the defense budget while keeping him in line with his party on the Gulf War.

During the Clinton administration he extolled all of the military action taken by the Reagan and Bush administrations — never mentioning (as far a I could tell) Regan’s Beirut pullout (which seems to have been a key historical event in the eyes of jihadists) nor the Iran Contra debacle. At the same time he became a sharp critic of Clinton’s use of the military. The criticism that he repeated in a number of speeches was that Clinton failed to articulate a clear policy regarding the use of the military; Clinton did not define precisely when military involvement was appropriate, leaving the use of the military somewhat haphazard.

This seems like a fair criticism of Clinton, but it seems quite partisan in light of his praise of Reagan’s use of the military, and it seems disingenuous in light of our country’s stark need for an honest explanation of our current situation. It seems to me that each one of these statements could be applied with a great deal more force today, but Senator McCain seems to have entirely abandoned this approach, as he abandoned reducing the defense budget.  In fact his position now is the opposite of what he advocated during Clinton’s administration.  He has no problem with an open ended war in Iraq, he does not advocate the need for a clear policy and articulation of national interest in this military action.  Precisely how does he distinguish the Mideast’s need for our military from the need in the Balkans a few years ago?
Anyway McCain in 1998 seems to have been spoiling for a run at the nomination when he made a presidential sounding speech about foreign policy. This was perhaps intended to be the sort of thing that he had been criticizing Clinton for having failed to do. In this speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

McCain posits that the core of American foreign policy is that “universal human values exist and must be reflected in the way government and people relate to one another.” He went on to say that the first principle is to solidify relationships with countries and international institutions that embody our values, such as the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Marshal Plan and NATO. While acknowledging that Bosnia engaged our values but said that it promoted our national interests only to a limited degree. He criticized our intervention there as being open-ended. He criticized the Clinton administration for not having a clear strategy on Iraq.

He picked the Iraq theme up on a floor speech in 1998. There he said that Iraq’s violations of U.N. resolutions could not be tolerated. “The time to talk may be over.” This is a little bit odd as Israel has violated more resolution than Iraq. The U.N. resolution argument seems like a justification for whatever you want to do, as it turned out to be in Iraq. In this speech McCain said that the elimination of Saddam Hussein was all that was needed to establish long term stability in the country. (I have heard him say recently that he did not ever take this position, but there it is.)

It seems to me that there has been a gap between what Senator McCain says and how he votes. (I by no means think that this is peculiar to him, but it is important to know how his voting record deviates from his talk and reputation.)

McCain spoke out prominently against torture when the topic came up in Congress a couple of years ago. This of course related to the central tenet of his 1998 foreign policy speech. In 2006, he neglected to vote against a bill to stop funding to the U.N. Human Rights Council. That same year he declined to support legislation emphasizing the country’s commitment to the Geneva Conventions. This of course made his talks against torture seem hollow.

In 2001 and 2003 he opposed tax cuts saying that they were unwarranted with increases in spending, as he talked in the 2000 primaries. He famously said in 2003 that it was immoral to cut taxes while at war.  This voting followed his defeat by Bush in the 2000 primaries and is at least by many attributed to some hostility over the campaign tactics that he complained about during the debates, particularly South Carolina. It appears to me though to be consistent with what he was saying during the primaries. Since then if has been uniformly in favor of all tax cuts and claims that our increases in defense spending over the last eight years must be significantly increased next year and in years afterwards.

In recent years he has supported every Iraq-related legislation backed by the administration. I include in this category his consistent refusal over the years of this administration to support veterans: in 2001 he voted against increasing medical care, favored legislation in 2004 to increase the tax burden on veterans, 2006 saw him again opposing increased medical benefits and funding for Department of Veteran Affairs. With respect to the troops he has opposed funding for equipment for the National Guard in 2003, for safety equipment for Iraq and last year voted against legislation assuring rest time between deployments. He has voted against all legislation recommending reduction of forces.

I cannot explain all these different positions but it seems to me that they all have one thing in common, political expedience.


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