In RNC Speech, John McCain Reminds America Why It Didn't Elect Him

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The GOP's 2008 nominee extols an interventionist foreign policy with no acknowledgement of Bush-era failures.

mccain full rnc.jpg
Reuters


Speaking at the Republican National Convention Wednesday evening, John McCain cloaked a jingoistic agenda of more war in multiple countries with the familiar language of American leadership and exceptionalism. "We must return to our best traditions of American leadership," he said. "The demand for our leadership in the world has never been greater. People don't want less of America. They want more."

That is nonsense.

The world wanted American leadership more when it involved liberating them from German fascists and Japanese imperialists. They wanted American leadership more when it meant being saved from Soviet aggression. With those threats gone, and nothing as dire having replaced them, the world is at this moment less needful of America's help and less enamored of its leadership.

Ask a Brazilian or a Mexican or Frenchman or an Indian.

They'd prefer to lead themselves.

Better yet, ask an Iraqi. The people of that country decided, through the government we helped install, that they wanted us out. John McCain opposed that withdrawal, and opposes our withdrawal from Afghanistan. Meanwhile, he agitates for more interventions abroad as the key to American success, even as the last two major campaigns he advocated for have ended in failure.

In what reality is John McCain living?

Until he took the stage, the GOP convention had been all about improving the economy, adding jobs, and extolling the entrepreneurs who create them. The slogan was "We did build that." John McCain told his audience something most voters don't want to hear: that the key to America's future is doubling down on what Jennifer Rubin, the neoconservative Washington Post blogger, calls "the freedom agenda," though the evidence that it reliably brings freedom is dubious.

What does it reliably produce?

Thousands of dead American soldiers. Record suicide rates among service members. Deficits billions bigger than they'd otherwise be. Hatred for America in various countries and increased danger of blowback.   

"At our best America has led. We have led by our example as a shining city on a hill," McCain said. "We have led by insisting that every human life has dignity." Do the innocents killed in American drone strikes have dignity? McCain never mentions them when spinning fantasies about the actual effects of American foreign policy. Yet he supports that part of Barack Obama's agenda.

He just won't admit it in a partisan speech at the RNC, encouraging the crowd to elect Mitt Romney, despite having once quipped that America couldn't afford a Commander in Chief who had to learn on the job.

At one point in his speech, John McCain invoked American exceptionalism, as Republicans so often do, and argued that what makes us an exceptional nation are our various military triumphs, the "record of what we have done" in the world. In fact, America is exceptional insofar as its Founding ideals introduced a new experiment in self-government to the world, limiting government and protecting individual liberty. We are exceptional for the society we've created at home.

History has plenty of hegemons in its annals.

Our military victories are not what makes us exceptional.

But for John McCain, war is ennobling, and America's honor depends on flexing its military might. It's a bellicose strain of national greatness conservatism that U.S. voters repudiated in 2008, having observed the huge chasm that separates neo-con predictions when they're urging war and the real world results after the wars they urge are launched. Sen. McCain is supposed to be mistrusted by real conservatives and beloved by independents, but Wednesday he delivered a speech that ought to terrify any independent who soured on George W. Bush.

In a dispatch from the RNC filed earlier today, Jordan Bloom wrote the following:

I asked several delegates how they felt about Romney's foreign policy, which in light of proposed increases in defense spending and a Bush-era foreign policy team, is the most troubling aspect of his candidacy. Most of them supported the former and were completely unaware of the latter. "I can't say I'm that familiar with who he has on his foreign policy team, but I think he's the kind of man that is gonna get the best people available to get the job done," said Philip Smith, a delegate from Grand Rapids, Michigan. "The president doesn't have to know everything, he just needs to know those who do."

For Smith, Romney's decision-making acumen, plus his moral fiber, was enough to assuage any doubts about his potential to embroil the United States in another war in the Middle East.

After John McCain's speech, which the RNC decided to schedule in prime time, Republican delegates have that much less of an excuse to be ignorant of the foreign policy their nominee is signalling.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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