John McCain and the War Party

The McCain stampede is on, even before the South Carolina election results are in. As I predicted in my election night column about the New Hampshire primary,

“Like rats leaping from a sinking ship, the political hacks and neoconservative apparatchiks who latched on to the Bush campaign because they saw Dubya as inevitable will follow their instincts. It won’t be long now before they’ll be throwing their Bushian baggage overboard and frantically scrambling to climb on the McCain bandwagon as it rolls out of New Hampshire and on to South Carolina. See how quickly they turn on their former conquering hero. It isn’t going to be pretty.”UGLY AND GETTING UGLIER

It is indeed hideous how quickly and shamelessly the publicists of the neoconservative Right are hailing the ascension of John McCain as the de facto frontrunner in the race for the GOP nomination. Why it seems like only yesterday, as I noted in my column, that John Podhoretz was gleefully if implausibly proclaiming:

“George W. Bush won the Republican presidential nomination last night in Iowa – not because he received over 40 percent of the votes there, but because John McCain received only 5 percent. McCain may win New Hampshire a week from today – he has to if he’s even going to go on through the end of February – but he’s basically toast.”

Today, Podhoretz, past editor of the New York Post and son of neocon nabob Norman, is proclaiming the opposite just as avidly:

“John McCain will be the Republican nominee for president. Barring some really catastrophic error on his part, he is on an inexorable path to coronation at the GOP Convention in Philadelphia on Aug. 2.”


Podhoretz briefly acknowledges his previous prediction with an “oops” and breezily waves “bye bye Dubya.” What a fickle bunch these neocons are! Making the case for “Why McCain Will Smash Bush,” as the headline that graced his column framed the issue, Poddy averred that the Bush campaign “was always built on a tower of sand” – and this might not be such a bad thing after all. Whereas before Podhoretz was likening McCain to such phony liberal “populists” as John Anderson and Gary Hart, now we are told that McCain’s authentic populism is attracting Democrats and independents “by the thousands.” Besides, everyone realizes that the ruthless Gore will rip Dubya to shreds in the debates, and this prospect, along with the sin of having addressed an audience at the politically incorrect Bob Jones University, is cited by Podhoretz as reason enough to abandon ship.


But the real reason, of course, is that it looks like Dubya is a loser – and nothing causes a mass defection of neocons and establishment “conservatives” quicker than the odor of defeat. For this means that the one and only goal of this crowd – access to power – is unattainable, if their present course is maintained, and so they are shifting gears, effortlessly dumping Dubya without regrets or even acknowledging that this is what they are doing.


If Podhoretz is a little late in jumping on the bandwagon, Bill Kristol – editor of the Weekly Standard and the little Lenin of the neocons – didn’t waste any time. The New Hampshire vote totals had barely been announced before Kristol was out with an op ed piece in the Washington Post headlined: “The New Hampshire Upheaval: Bill Kristol Declares the Conservative Movement ‘Finished.'” The voters of New Hampshire had not only rejected the Republican frontrunner, they had also ushered in “a new politics of the new millennium.” Serious stuff, but just wait: it gets heavier. For, you see, conservative primary candidates had flopped miserably: “leaderless, rudderless and issueless, the conservative movement, which accomplished great things over the past quarter-century, is finished.” Wow! Not only is Bush finished, but so is the conservative movement – and Kristol, the editor of a magazine that has ceaselessly lectured, hectored, and presumed to lead that movement is now moving on to greener pastures.


In their relentless search to be on the winning side, the Weekly Standard crowd has jumped on the McCain bandwagon bigtime, with Jeanne Kirkpatrick and Bill Bennett joining Kristol and his editorial sidekick, David “National Greatness” Brooks, in hailing the McCain “insurrection.” This is not just a defection from the Bush camp, but a “Dear John” letter to the conservative movement. Having moved from the Hubert Humphrey-Scoop Jackson wing of the Democratic Party to become ardent Reaganites in the 1980s, the neocons have been meeting increasing resistance from the conservative rank-and-file, especially in the foreign policy realm. The Weekly Standard, along with virtually every neocon of any consequence, called for the spilling of Serb blood long before the bombs began falling on Belgrade. Most conservatives, on the other hand, took the exact opposite position, bitterly opposing that war and challenging the globalist mentality that motivated it When a conservative Republican Congress refused to support Clinton’s Balkan bloodsports, Kristol fumed that he would have to leave the GOP just as the neocons had once left the “McGovernik” Democracy. Well, now it appears that won’t be necessary: McCain has come riding in to save the day for Kristol and his fellow interventionists, a man on horseback they hope to ride all the way to the White House – even if it is over the prone body of a decimated and badly split Republican Party.


Kristol and Brooks exult in their certainty that McCain is the leader of an insurrection that is almost fated to succeed: McCain, we are told, is the new Reagan, the new Newt Gingrich:. Never mind that he is coming from the left, in terms of domestic policy; instead, we are told that “the McCain insurgency is not ideological. It does feature certain themes and principles, but they are not yet fully developed into a governing agenda.” He might as well have added: But don’t worry, Senator – we’ll be more than happy to help govern your agenda. Here is an altogether new literary genre, one peculiar to our era: the job application disguised as an essay. Surely this is an innovation that finds its natural home in the pages of the Weekly Standard.


While admitting that the McCain “reform” crusade may be “demogagic and hyperbolic,” Kristol and Brooks credit the candidate with having “reinvigorated” the concept of “citizenship,” whom they compare to John Kennedy. Their ode to McCain might well have been entitled “Hail, Caesar!” For what they celebrate is not so much the man’s platform as the man himself. What makes this piece especially interesting is that it so dramatically illustrates the character of the McCain movement as a cult of personality, with all factions of the “respectable” Right and the Left seeing their own particular visions reflected in the Great Leader. The liberals see the anti-corporate reformer, while the neocons see the perfect reflection of their “Big Government conservatism” as well as the virtual embodiment of the martial virtues.


It is this last, of course, that really motivates Kristol and his crowd. All this talk about “national greatness” and the virtues of McCain as a role model for self-sacrificing youth, this celebration of the candidate as a war hero, is really talking in code. Never mind all this doubletalk about “sacrificing for a cause bigger than yourself” – what the authors of this piece really mean to say is that this is a candidate who will not hesitate to lead his country into war. Why don’t they come right out and say it?


Forget all that sanctimonious guff about “citizenship” and the “reinvigoration” of America, it is McCain’s militarism that makes the neocons at the Weekly Standard swoon. Mixed up with the McCainian cult of personality is an unmistakable militaristic streak that goes far beyond a (perfectly legitimate) celebration of soldiering as a noble profession. As Kristol and Brooks put it:

“For all his conventional political views, McCain embodies a set of virtues that today are unconventional. The issue that gave the McCain campaign its initial boost was Kosovo. He argued that America as a great champion of democracy and decency could not fail to act. And he supported his commander in chief despite grave doubts about the conduct of the war-while George W. Bush sat out the debate and Republicans on the Hill flailed at Clinton..”


This is what the neoconservatives, the intellectual Praetorian Guard of the Republican Party lo these many years, really care about – foreign policy. That is why they can’t stand a loser, and why they are willing to ride on practically anyone’s back in order to make it into the White House as advisors and policymakers of one sort or another. For while the President must depend on a Congress that often has its own ideas of how the country should be run, in the foreign policy realm what we have is a presidential dictatorship. Ever since Truman went to war in Korea without congressional consent, each and every President has asserted his right to dispatch troops around the globe without so much as a by your leave to the elected representatives of the people. With McCain in the White House – and the neocons presumably ensconced in key policy positions – the dream of a “benevolent world hegemony” held up by Bill Kristol as the goal of US foreign policy in a famous Foreign Affairs article could turn into one long nightmare.


If the Bush camp were nearly as opportunistic and desperate as everyone says they are, they would attack McCain for going out on a limb and not only supporting the Kosovo war when most Republicans – and most Americans – opposed it, but rabidly harping on the absolute necessity of introducing American ground troops and occupying all of Yugoslavia. Kristol and Brooks are correct that this batty idea is what made their hero so popular initially with the liberal media – but outside of the elites, this stance is a liability. Why don’t the Bushies bring this up with the voters? It isn’t enough to call up fifteen year old boys and tell them that John McCain is a liar, a fake, and fraud, a “hero” with feet of clay. You have to tell that kid, in no uncertain terms, that President McCain is going to send him off to war, to fight and die in some godforsaken jungle – maybe Colombia, maybe some Balkan backwater, getting shot in the name of “national greatness.” Now that is the kind of “push-poll” I would really like to see!


Or how about a TV modeled on the one that attacked Barry Goldwater as a mindless warmonger? ! With a voice-over giving us choice quotes from McCain’s bloodthirsty ravings on the subjects of Kosovo, and the need to confront Russia, we could bring back that little girl innocently picking flowers in a field and then the countdown starts: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 – KA-BOOM! That mushroom cloud should do much to deprive McCain of any chance at a coronation.


The Bushies will never bring out the big guns, in part because Bush signed on to the Kosovo war, contrary to what Kristol and Brooks seem to imply. In the foreign policy area, as in the domestic arena, Bush and McCain differ in degree, not in principle. Both candidates agree that the US must play the role of the hegemon, and that we have no choice but to follow the road to Empire. McCain, however, represents that faction of the War Party which seems to be in a very great hurry. With new opportunities for expansion opening up all the time, in the Balkans, in the former Soviet Union, and especially in the Caucasus, there is a certain sense of urgency among some to seize the moment and establish a global order centered in the West. With the Soviet Union gone, and the lack of any counterbalancing superpower to take its place, the US/EU alliance feels free to rampage throughout Europe and perhaps beyond, and McCain is their man – or so they hope. Kristol and Brooks started out by saying that the McCain movement was not really ideological, but that two themes could be vaguely discerned through all the bromides,: big government at home, and perpetual war abroad. As we are treated to endless reiterations of McCain’s personal “narrative,” his life story reinvented as modern myth, the political subtext couldn’t be clearer. This year, the most militant wing of the War Party is running its own candidate for President, and his name is John McCain.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].