The Hothead and
the Finger on the Button

John McCain believes that he should be president because only he is prepared to meet the inevitable foreign policy challenges. Only he will put the nation’s interest first. Whatever you think of the economy, civil liberties, or social issues, they don’t matter. Only John McCain is ready to be the military’s commander in chief.

It’s a powerful argument. But it is completely wrong. In fact, his “experienced leadership,” in the words of campaign surrogate and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, demonstrates that Sen. McCain is precisely the wrong man to choose to be commander in chief. Whatever you think of the economy, civil liberties, and social issues, they don’t matter. John McCain does not have the judgment, knowledge, and temperament necessary to be the military’s commander in chief.

Give McCain his due – he served honorably in the military and suffered greatly as a result. He loves America and genuinely believes that only he is qualified to lead it. But physical courage and self-assurance do not alone make a good president. Indeed, his very suffering as a POW may well have damaged an already fiery personality, making him less fit to serve.

It’s never easy to talk about a would-be president’s temperament. Certainly more than a few arrogant and explosive personalities have served as the nation’s chief executive. But McCain mixes both characteristics to a worrisome degree.

His temper is well-known. America probably has survived worse, but McCain’s volatility remains an ill feature for the man who would truly be the most powerful person on earth, with the world’s deadliest military at his disposal. Although he would be unlikely to order a bombing raid on, say, a domestic political opponent while in a white rage – if he did, it would give new meaning to the term “going postal” – anger might affect his judgment in using force against a hostile regime abroad. His fellow Vietnam POW Phillip Butler writes, “I can verify that John has an infamous reputation for being a hothead. He has a quick and explosive temper that many have experienced first hand. Folks, quite honestly that is not the finger I want next to that red button.”

Moreover, McCain’s volatile temperament does not exist in isolation. He parades about Washington with a haughty sanctimony uniquely his own. After his career was nearly cut short by his profitable friendship with failed S&L owner Charles Keating, McCain reinvented himself as the Senate’s chief moral scourge, calling lobbyists “birds of prey.” Yet he raised money from firms with business before the Commerce Committee, which he chaired; his presidential campaign was financed and run by lobbyists; and he is advised on policy toward the country of Georgia by a lobbyist, his chief foreign policy aide, whose firm was paid nearly $1 million by the country of Georgia. McCain’s most vaunted reform legislation, the McCain-Feingold bill, limited criticism of incumbent politicians like himself shortly before an election. Blowing his stack while being simultaneously so certain of his moral rightness and so clueless in his hypocrisy would not likely lead him to reasoned foreign policy decisions.

Equally bad, though McCain constantly talks about foreign policy, he doesn’t appear to understand much about foreign countries. True, he knows enough of other nations to routinely advocate sanctions, bombing runs, and invasions, but he doesn’t appear to actually comprehend anything beyond their place in the Manichean struggle he imagines the world to be. It isn’t just his constant gaffes – talking about the nonexistent Pakistan-Iraq border and confusing Sunnis and Shia (heck, President George W. Bush apparently didn’t even know there was a difference between the latter two groups until shortly before launching the Iraq invasion). However, according to former CIA hand Phil Giraldi, the scuttlebutt among those who have briefed McCain is that he has developed no deep reservoir of foreign knowledge, even after spending a quarter century on Capitol Hill. Reports Giraldi: “When speaking with a genuine area specialist or expert, McCain frequently is primarily interested in stating his own perceptions and is not generally regarded as an attentive listener. Analysts do not like briefing him because he also becomes angry and sometimes personally offensive whenever anyone contradicts a view that he has expressed.” Slate’s Fred Kaplan argues that it’s time to ask “how much does John McCain really know about foreign policy,” not to brush it “away as impertinent.” Even someone with the best temperament and best judgment is apt to make rank decisions without the right information.

Alas, McCain doesn’t have the best judgment. Actually, he has appalling judgment. And good judgment is the most important qualification to be commander in chief of the armed forces.

He’s not always wrong. Like a broken clock that is right twice a day, he recognized the foolhardiness of President Ronald Reagan’s intervention in Lebanon in 1982. After the bombings of the U.S. embassy and the Marine Corps barracks President Reagan made the same assessment and pulled U.S. forces out of the bitter and complicated sectarian civil war. McCain later pushed to get the U.S. out of Somalia and initially opposed involvement in Bosnia.

Since then, however, McCain has rarely found a war that he didn’t want the U.S. to fight. He lards his rhetoric with phrases like America is the “defender of the oppressed” and “American leadership is critical.” But he seems incapable of distinguishing between ideal outcomes and practical objectives. Rather than being “the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all” but “the champion and vindicator only of her own,” in the words of John Quincy Adams, McCain believes that the U.S. should be the guarantor of “the freedom and independence of all.” And that is a prescription for perpetual war, enforced by the American government acting as globocop, whose people would never be able to enjoy the peace being enforced for everyone else.

In McCain’s view, there are few international problems that can’t be solved by a bombing campaign or an invasion. For instance, though the Balkans was of little, if any, strategic relevance to the major powers of Europe, let alone the U.S., McCain advocated a bombing campaign against the Bosnian Serbs – to preserve a unified Bosnia against the wishes of most Serbs and Croats. Yet he previously supported the right of Bosnian Muslims to secede from Serbia.

Shortly thereafter, President Bill Clinton took America into Kosovo’s guerrilla war, featuring ethnic Albanians against ethnic Serbs, a conflict in which the U.S. had no conceivable interest at stake. Yet McCain was a fan. Indeed, he was upset that the Clinton administration only relied on a bombing campaign. He publicly pushed the administration to launch a ground invasion and authored a joint congressional resolution to authorize the use of ground forces (tabled by a 78 to 22 vote in the Senate). It’s bad enough to jump into a nonsensical, unnecessary war. But to do so with ground forces? Amazingly, President Clinton’s military acumen and foresight outshone that of McCain.

Before Iraq there was also North Korea, which generated a lengthy list of bombing advocates. McCain favored this course more than a decade ago, and in 2003 he reiterated his stance in the Weekly Standard. He cheerfully discussed inaugurating war on the Korean peninsula irrespective of the opinions of South Korea and Japan, Washington’s major East Asian allies – which would suffer most in any war. Indeed, Seoul, the population and economic heart of the Republic of Korea, likely would be devastated in any war with the North. McCain didn’t believe the issue to be worth mentioning in his article.

Then there was Iraq. McCain was as oblivious as President Bush was to those who challenged the administration’s presentation of Iraq as a near-superpower preparing to conquer the Middle East and bombard America. The war was unnecessary, and the occupation was botched. Instead of becoming a shining example of Western-style democracy run by friends of America, Iraq turned into a national charnel house with thousands of dead Americans and tens or hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis. Terrorists proliferated as Muslim hostility to the U.S. grew. Osama bin Laden evaded capture, the pro-U.S. government in Afghanistan tottered, and Pakistan grew even more unstable. But McCain was unrepentant.

He followed the president in predicting a speedy victory and said America’s soldiers “will be welcomed as liberators.” It took him months to notice that things weren’t turning out as he’d expected and to begin criticizing the administration. Finally, he appeared to get something right – the surge. Of course, timing is everything (especially with a broken clock!): Moqtada al-Sadr’s stand-down in conjunction with the turn of the Sunni tribes against al-Qaeda, occurring after most mixed neighborhoods in Baghdad had been largely ethnically cleansed, created an environment in which violence was certain to drop. Better, more sophisticated anti-insurgency tactics also helped. Still, give him credit for his belief that more troops could make a difference.

Of course, McCain then wanted a permanent occupation, or at least one lasting 100 years or more. Not content with the sacrifice of more than 4,000 American lives and the expenditure of more than $500 billion, he wanted to risk more lives – Iraqis wouldn’t likely welcome a permanent occupation with unarmed hands – and money to create bases for use in more wars in the Middle East. When America’s troops come home is “not too important,” he declared. As such, he was oblivious both to the frustrations in America with the risk and expense of an unnecessary foreign occupation and to the obvious hostility among Arabs engendered by U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia. In his view, America’s mission in Iraq never would be accomplished. Only the opposition of the Iraqis themselves ruined his grand scheme.

Nevertheless, after helping drag America into a needless, foolish, and counterproductive war, and lobbying to remain in Iraq forever, McCain cites his “courage” and “judgment,” and demands credit for figuring out how to make the conflict less destructive and disastrous after five terrible years – longer than it took to win World War II. Sorry, but that’s no argument for making someone the military’s commander in chief.

McCain’s foolish predilection for war didn’t stop with Iraq. Iran, too, is on his hit list. He has long advocated military action against “rogue regimes” in general, and has said that allowing a nuclear Iran would be worse than taking military action against it. So enthused was he at the prospect of war that he came up with his famous ditty to the tune of the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann”: “Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran.” He apparently views the prospect of attacking another country, killing untold numbers of people, and setting an entire region ablaze as a laughing matter.

But war with Iran would be a like an amusement park visit compared to a conflict with Russia. Yet McCain lacked any sense of proportion when it came to evaluating the Russia-Georgia conflict. Indeed, he exhibited the worst tendencies of President Bush, who famously said that he looked into Vladimir Putin’s eyes and liked what he saw. McCain was as poor a judge of character when he looked into the eyes of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and thought he found a bosom buddy. During the war McCain talked far more about his friend “Misha” – the million-dollar client of McCain’s chief foreign policy assistant, and the man who foolishly triggered the conflict with Russia and then attempted to sucker America in on his side – than about how the U.S. was threatened by the tragic conflict.

Yes, McCain claimed that while the war “might seem distant and unrelated to the many interests that America has around the world,” it is “both a matter of urgent moral and strategic importance.” Why? He never answered. McCain advocated a policy of direct confrontation with Russia, a nuclear-armed power, over a complicated conflict begun by America’s ally in Russia’s geopolitical backyard, a region of little interest to the U.S. Yet Georgia’s defeat only increased McCain’s commitment to bring Georgia (and Ukraine) into NATO. He complained, “NATO’s decision to withhold a Membership Action Plan for Georgia might have been viewed as a green light by Russia for its attacks on Georgia, and I urge the NATO allies to revisit the decision.” Expanding NATO to the Caucasus would not only take the “North Atlantic” Treaty Organization far beyond anything it was ever intended to cover, but would ratchet up the stakes by directly extending America’s security guarantee to Tbilisi. Is there any nation he does not believe the U.S. should defend, irrespective of the risk in U.S. blood and money?

Apparently, in his mind all the U.S. had to do was threaten and bluster, and Moscow would give way. That is a bit like Russia expecting a little saber-rattling on Mexico’s behalf to scare America away from supporting U.S.-allied separatists in Baja California. McCain is living in a fantasy world in which only Americans are tough-minded patriots. In fact, the more he threatened the Russian government, the more the Kremlin would fill with talk of why it was important not to “appease” the Americans, whose humiliating demands would only grow.

Nor are these the only possible wars during a McCain presidency. He told Rev. Rick Warren at Saddleback Church that “Our obligation is to stop genocide wherever we can.” Does that mean everywhere? Does McCain believe the U.S. should have intervened in Sudan, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Zaire, Burundi, Rwanda, and more? Although he admits that it isn’t always possible, Matt Bai of the New York Times Magazine, who profiled McCain’s foreign policy views, writes that McCain seems to look at such cases “and ask himself, ‘why not?'” Apparently the practical problems of the war in Iraq – where the U.S. invasion triggered the worst kind of sectarian violence – are lost on him. Not only does McCain not know much, but he doesn’t learn anything. So much for his claim that “I don’t need any on-the-job training.”

McCain isn’t just a little too likely to believe that war is the answer. That’s almost all he believes. “I know how to win wars,” he claims, based on no evidence other than having supported the surge in Iraq. Alas, he apparently doesn’t know how to avoid wars, an even more important skill in today’s world. Joe Klein of Time magazine believes the basic problem is McCain’s conversion to neoconservatism or capture by neoconservatives: “McCain’s greatest claim to the presidency – his overseas expertise – now seems squandered. He has appeared brittle and inflexible, slow to adapt to changes on the ground, slow to grasp the full implications not only of the improving situation in Iraq but also of the worsening situation in Afghanistan and especially Pakistan. Some will say this behavior raises questions about his age. I’ll leave those to gerontologists. A more obvious explanation is that McCain has straightjacketed himself in an ideology focused more on enemies (real and imagined) than on opportunities.”

However, even if McCain wasn’t a neocon or neocon fellow traveler, he would be ill-suited to be president. His mindset reflects an almost complete absence of the qualities needed by the military’s commander in chief. He’s ignorant of the subtleties of international conflicts, temperamentally inclined toward angry bluster, and prone to recommending war and threats of war as the best option, irrespective of circumstances.

Yet the polls indicate that if McCain wins the presidency, it will be on the strength of his foreign policy persona. Although the vast majority of Americans believe he was wrong on Iraq, they rate him higher than Obama on the issues of foreign policy, Iraq, and terrorism. When asked who would be “very likely” to be an effective commander in chief, McCain beats Obama 46 percent to 24 percent; another poll found that 72 percent and 48 percent of people, respectively, say McCain and Obama would make a “good” commander in chief. In a third poll, 80 percent of the people said that McCain could handle the responsibilities, compared to 55 percent for Obama. It’s a bizarre result: Americans apparently believe John McCain sounds more like a commander in chief, even though they aren’t likely to support what he actually would do. They want him to take that famous 3 a.m. phone call, even though he won’t know much about the situation, is likely to act impulsively and violently, and has exhibited poor judgment regarding almost every other war.

John McCain recently told the American Legion that the U.S. should be “a force for peace,” but all he ever seems to think about is going to war. He said that “we live in a very dangerous world,” pointing to the crisis in Georgia, but his policies would make the world far more dangerous. Ted Carpenter and Malou Innocent of the Cato Institute bluntly warn that McCain “would be a clear and present danger in the Oval Office.”

Sen. Barack Obama might not have made the case for why he should be president. But Sen. John McCain has made the case for why he should not be president.