The Wars of John McCain

John McCain believes the Vietnam War was winnable. Now he argues that an Obama administration would accept defeat in Iraq, with grave costs to American honor and national security. Is McCain’s quest for victory a reflection of an antiquated pre-Vietnam mind-set? Or of a commitment to principles we abandon at our peril? Is there any war McCain thinks can’t be won?

John McCain has been said to have neoconservative inclinations; to critics, this suggests a commitment to the unilateral deployment of military force to bring about a democratic transformation in once-hostile countries. The question of whether he’s a neocon, however, is not entirely relevant; McCain has advisers from both the neocon and realist camps, and he’s too inconsistent to be easily labeled. In one area, though, he has been more or less constant: his belief in the power of war to solve otherwise insoluble problems. This ideology of action has not been undermined by his horrific experience as a tortured POW during the Vietnam War, or by the Bush administration’s disastrous execution of the Iraq War. All this is not to suggest that McCain is heedlessly bellicose or reflexively willing to send U.S. soldiers into danger; he is the father of a marine and a Naval Academy midshipman, James McCain and John S. McCain IV, whose service he rarely mentions. And he opposed, presciently, keeping the Marines in Beirut in 1983, just before their barracks were bombed. But his willingness to speak frankly about the utility of military intervention sets him apart from his opponent. Senator Obama, though certainly no pacifist, envisions a world of cooperation and diplomacy; McCain sees a world of organic conflict and zero-sum competition.

I asked McCain whether his experiences of two wars—World War II, which saw America achieve absolute victory over fascism, and Vietnam, which saw, in his view, America dishonor itself—have informed his opinions on the subject of victory in the more ambiguous wars of the 21st century.

“We know that there will never be in our lifetimes a celebration like V-J Day,” McCain said. “I don’t know of any enemy we face, or possible adversary, where there’s a clear-cut victory. In Iraq, we will withdraw with honor, and the troops will come home, and there are other conflicts—in Afghanistan, over time, we’ll grow an army—but there will be no church bells ringing all over America and prayers of thanksgiving in cathedrals.”

Is this because of the nature of modern America?

“It’s the nature of the adversary,” he said.

Two aspects of his answer were interesting to me: his conscious use of the term withdraw with honor, with its explicit echo of Vietnam; and his equally explicit echo of an idea advanced by Philip Bobbitt, a Columbia law professor and former member of President Clinton’s National Security Council, who argues in his new book, Terror and Consent, that the struggle against terrorism is in fact a war but that, unlike with previous wars, we will not know when this war is over.

McCain calls Terror and Consent “the best book I’ve ever read on terrorism.” He has been carrying it with him this campaign season, showing underlined passages to his staff and to reporters, and he invited Bobbitt to fly with him for two days. Terror and Consent was recommended to him by Henry Kissinger, for understandable reasons: Kissinger, a foreign-policy “realist,” embraces Bobbitt’s argument that the so-called Bush Doctrine is “incoherent” because its call for the democratization of Arab states undermines another of its principles, the need to “preclude” states from acquiring weapons of mass destruction. “When we try to square the circle by connecting the means offered by the doctrine (unilateral action, preemption of the acquisition of WMD, counterterrorism) to its ends (promoting democracy), the doctrine falls apart,” Bobbitt writes. “It is highly implausible that the president intended to suggest that the U.S. would, or should, use preemptive military strikes to impose democracy, or that democracy, whether imposed or not, supplies a check on proliferation, terrorism, or ethnic cleansing.”

Bobbitt, like McCain, is also a stern critic of the Bush administration’s endorsement of torture, and of what he called, in an interview with me, its “disregard” for the law. “Rather than seeking legal reform” to address the new challenges of terrorism, Bobbitt writes in his book, “the U.S. has used the inadequacy of the currently prevailing law as a basis for avoiding legal restrictions on government entirely.”

The most controversial of Bobbitt’s assertions is that the absence of actual stores of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq does not undermine the need for America to “preclude”—he prefers preclude to preempt—certain countries from developing WMDs in the future. Bobbitt writes:

The war against a global terror network, al Qaeda, is in an early phase. Yet already owing to the Coalition invasion of Iraq, terrorists from this network or any other cannot someday call on Saddam Hussein to supply them covertly with weapons with which to attack the West when he would not have dared to have done so directly, and when he, but not they, had the resources to buy into a clandestine market in WMD.

The view of most Democrats, of course, is that the American experience in Iraq has almost fatally undercut the doctrine of preemption. Senator Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island and a former Army officer, who traveled with Obama to Iraq in July, said of McCain: “I think he’s ignoring the consequences of Iraq. First of all, the intelligence and the arguments for Iraq have been proven universally wrong. The logic now is, ‘It doesn’t really matter if there are no facts to support this operation, because there’s always a chance that a country could go bad.’ I think this is totally unpersuasive as a matter of logic or strategy. The other test of Iraq is that it has cost us strategically. Iran is a much more influential country because of the Iraq invasion.” He went on, “You can justify practically any military operation, not based on the facts of the moment but on what might happen years from now.”

But McCain believes strongly that the only way to ensure Saddam would never pose a threat to American interests was to remove him from power. “Is there anyone who believes that Saddam Hussein wouldn’t have pursued WMD?” he asked me. “He told his interrogators he would. Is there anybody who believes that the sanction regime was going to hold, or that the status quo would hold, or that sooner or later they wouldn’t shoot down one of our planes patrolling the no-fly zone?”

This comment was unusual because McCain rarely discusses his original vote, in 2002, to authorize the Iraq invasion; he prefers to talk about the surge. The comment was also striking because it is almost identical to something he said to me around the time of the original vote. “There is no such thing as containment,” he said then. “If we don’t act, we’ll pay the price later. If we ‘give peace a chance,’ Saddam will pursue his ambitions against us, but he will be more powerful, and more deadly than ever.”

His constancy is noteworthy. Nothing in his experience, recent or not-so-recent, has moved him away from his essential belief that the president has a duty to confront perceived threats well before they reach American shores. I asked Kissinger whether he thinks that McCain can be too inflexible on the subject of preemption. He said McCain will not change his mind if he feels that the nation’s defense is at stake. Much of this, Kissinger continued, is related to McCain’s sense of national honor, and personal honor. “He will not do the easy thing,” he said.

I pointed out that McCain has changed many of his positions during his candidacy in order, it seems, to better conform to Republican orthodoxy. Kissinger replied: “Under the pressure of a presidential campaign, it’s possible that he will make adjustments. He may deviate from his positions, but he will not like himself for it.”

In my conversations with McCain, however, he never appeared greatly troubled by his shifts and reversals. It’s not difficult to understand why: tax policy, or health care, or even off-shore oil drilling are for him all matters of mere politics, and politics calls for ideological plasticity. It is only in the realm of national defense, and of American honor—two notions that for McCain are thoroughly entwined—that he becomes truly unbending.

Kissinger learned this at their first meeting. “When I was in Vietnam for negotiations on implementing the Paris Agreement, the North Vietnamese prime minister had a dinner—I was leaving the next day—and he said if I wanted to take McCain on my flight, it could be arranged,” he said. “I told him that I won’t take McCain or anyone else on my plane. The prisoner release would have to happen on a schedule previously agreed. Somehow McCain heard about this and months later, at the White House reception for returned prisoners, he said to me, ‘I want to thank you for saving my honor.’ What McCain did not tell me at that time was that he had refused to be released two years earlier unless all were released with him. It was better for him to remain in jail in order to preserve his honor and American honor than to come home on my plane.”

For McCain, the doctrine of preemption clearly falls outside the realm of mere politics, as does the need to “win,” rather than “end,” wars; the safety of America demands that they be fought, and honor demands that they be won.

McCain’s father, Kissinger said, saw the world the same way McCain sees it. “He was a military man, not a diplomat. Both men grasp the notion of consequences. From about 1967 on, we were experiencing a national trauma, with obsessive doubts about the fitness of government and with a yearning to just get out of Vietnam and get it over with, with a refusal to look at the consequences. Both of them understood that withdrawal without honor has costs. The son knows this from his own experience and from his father.”

I once asked Lindsey Graham to name something unusual about McCain in the context of the debate about Iraq; he said that McCain believes, among other things, that “some political problems have military solutions.” A related McCain belief that’s even more out of sync with America’s current mood: wars are quagmires only until someone figures out a way to win them.

The most plausible target of a McCain-ordered preemptive war would be Iran. In January 2006, he said, “There’s only one thing worse than the United States exercising the military option—that is a nuclear-armed Iran. The military option is the last option, but cannot be taken off of the table.”

I asked him in Columbus to describe a situation in which preemption might be required. He offered a scenario in which Iran provides the terrorist group Hezbollah with weapons of mass destruction to use against Israel.

“While we don’t go around launching preemptive strikes all the time, we can’t afford to wait until a terrorist organization, or a nation which is an avowed enemy of the United States, has the capability to use weapons of mass destruction—or even uses them,” McCain said. “If we knew with absolute certainty that the Iranians were going to support Hezbollah to make sure they got a weapon of mass destruction in southern Lebanon—would we just wait until Hezbollah attacks Israel with that weapon? Well, first of all, I don’t think the Israelis would wait, but I’m not sure. The consequences, as we know, are catastrophic.” (In May, when I asked McCain why the defense of Israel was an American national-security interest, he said, “The United States of America has committed itself to never allowing another Holocaust.”)

But McCain, though stalwart in defense of preemption, is not obtuse about its unpopularity; he knows that the idea of preemption has taken on a negative cast.

“With preemption, the connotation is that the cowboy just wants to go out and attack people,” he said. “The country is in one of our occasional periods of isolationism, a reaction to what [the public views] as failure, even when we are succeeding in Iraq—and we have succeeded in Iraq. There’s still going to be a greater reluctance than there was” before the Iraq War to try to stop an adversary from gaining possession of weapons of mass destruction.

As he said this, he seemed depleted by the discussion of preemption. It’s not the first unpopular cause he’s adopted, but it might be the most difficult one to sell to the American public.

“It’s very hard to run for president on this idea right now.”

Presented by

Jeffrey Goldberg, an Atlantic national correspondent and the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror (2007), blogs at More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.


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