McCain and the Militarist Mentality

Amid all the media-generated hype surrounding John McCain’s narrow victory in the South Carolina primary – which portrays him rising, phoenix-like, from the ashes of what many considered a failed last hurrah – one anomaly stands out: he did well among antiwar voters. This seems counterintuitive, at first, especially when one considers that McCain is the candidate of the so-called "surge" and has always been among the biggest warmongers on the block – not only when it comes to Iraq, but even regarding interventions that Republicans opposed, such as in Kosovo. In that case, you’ll recall, he urged the Clinton administration to launch a land invasion of the former Yugoslavia: just Google McCain and "boots on the ground," and you’ll come up with the one underlying consistent theme of McCain’s life as a public figure – he always takes the most belligerent foreign policy stance imaginable, no matter what the context.

Iraq war I, the Balkans, Iraq war II, and even when it comes to developing tensions with Russia – here is a U.S. senator who traveled all the way to the ex-Soviet republic of Georgia to personally intervene in the Georgian-Russian dispute over the status of South Ossetia. Not one inch of sovereign Georgian soil shall be ceded to the Russians, he declared, or words to that effect. One would have thought the fate of the Free World depended on stopping the South Ossetians from gaining autonomy over their own affairs. Yet it would be hard to imagine a conflict in which the U.S. has less interest in taking sides. Part of it was no doubt due to the fact that McCain loves to posture and preen, and this was an opportunity he could hardly resist. Yet such unseemly – and foolhardy – posturing isn’t just a function of his blustering, overbearing personality: it’s a matter of ideology, too.

In the McCainiac worldview, there is no corner of the globe that wouldn’t benefit from American boots on the ground. If you liked President Bush’s infamous "fire in the mind" second inaugural address, in which he averred that the proper objective of U.S. foreign policy is "ending tyranny in our world," then you’ll love President McCain’s world-saving neo-Wilsonianism. Matthew Yglesias, writing on his Atlantic blog, succinctly summarizes the McCainiac mentality when it comes to foreign policy issues:

"For McCain, a certain culture of honor, militarism, and nationalism are their own reward. The military is to be celebrated and supported not for what it does but for what it is. Thus, a given military venture doesn’t need to have a real purpose or be ‘worth it’ in any particular sense. It is what it is, and what we need to do is keep on doing it for as long as ‘it’ takes and it doesn’t matter if ‘it’ is pointless or futile or even if ‘it’ isn’t anything in particular at all. The war is its own rationale."

This is really the essence of militarism that Yglesias is describing: an ideological commitment to war as an end in itself, if not a virtuous act then a condition – perhaps the only condition – under which it is possible to demonstrate one’s commitment to the highest values. Honor, duty, country, sacrifice – these are the words that are used to evoke and rationalize McCainian militarism. Yet there is no honor in a foreign policy based on axiomatic aggressiveness. There is no "duty" to pursue a policy that neither benefits this country, nor those we are ostensibly "liberating," especially when what is being sacrificed, in the bargain, is the economic and moral health of our republic.

Support for McCain among those who oppose the war is explained by the way the candidate frames his support for the surge in terms of opposing the policies of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld – not because Rummy was the face and voice of the War Party, with his infamous arrogance and inability to concede error, but because he wasn’t warlike enough for McCain’s taste. In addition, the revival of McCain’s formerly moribund presidential ambitions has occurred in the context of a curious development: the war has been practically banished as an issue from the primary horse race in both parties. This has happened, in part, because we’re told the "surge" has succeeded, but the reality is quite different. As Andrew Bacevich pointed out recently, the great bonanza that was supposed to follow from the "liberation" of Iraq never materialized. Quite the contrary:

"A nation-building project launched in the confident expectation that the United States would repeat in Iraq the successes it had achieved in Germany and Japan after 1945 instead compares unfavorably with the U.S. response to Hurricane Katrina."

Yet the surge has achieved its real objective, which has everything to do with winning the battle for hearts and minds on the home front:

"In only one respect has the surge achieved undeniable success: It has ensured that U.S. troops won’t be coming home anytime soon. This was one of the main points of the exercise in the first place. As AEI military analyst Thomas Donnelly has acknowledged with admirable candor, ‘part of the purpose of the surge was to redefine the Washington narrative,’ thereby deflecting calls for a complete withdrawal of U.S. combat forces."

The Bushies know that if they hand off the war to McCain, he’ll continue and even escalate their policy of confrontation and conquest. That’s why he seems to have been anointed by the party establishment as the only viable alternative to Mike Huckabee, whose cornpone populism and outsider status make him anathema to the GOP powers-that-be.

The myth of the surge’s success is part of the mainstream media’s narrative of McCain’s redemption. He’s always played to journalists and counted on getting a pass from them, and they stand starry-eyed before his stagy self-regard. Yet what is it about our ongoing occupation of Iraq – which McCain wants to extend for 100 years – that can rightly be deemed a "success"? The country, you’ll recall, was supposed to be a "model" for other Muslim nations in the region to follow; its ‘liberation" was supposed to augur seismic ideological and political changes in the Muslim world and ignite a rebellion against the fanatic authoritarianism of the jihadists. In reality, it did no such thing.

Bacevich trenchantly argues that the surge advocates confuse the success of a tactic – that is, a temporary maneuver – with confirmation of the War Party’s strategy. American casualties may be down, but we are farther away than ever from achieving our announced strategic objectives in Iraq and the region. The occupation of Iraq is a recruiting bonanza for al-Qaeda and a growing drain on our military and financial resources. The "global democratic revolution," whose banner Bush took up in a speech to the National Endowment for Democracy as well as his second inaugural, has not only been delayed, it has been betrayed. The "democratic" government of Iraq is a regime notorious for its pandemic corruption, its promotion of religious sectarianism, and its rampaging death squads.

With "success" like this, who needs failure?

Yet, as Bacevich correctly maintains, the "surge" is all about domestic politics – building a pro-war consensus in Washington, rather than nation-building in Iraq – and on that front it has succeeded admirably. The last sparks of organized antiwar sentiment in the Democratic Party will be stamped out with the defeat of Barack Obama’s campaign and the final triumph of the old Clinton machine, ensuring that no major party candidate for the White House will represent the majority view of the American people, which is that we ought to get out of Iraq pronto. We’ll be faced with a choice between John "One Hundred Years of War" McCain and an increasingly hawkish Hillary Clinton, who has never advocated getting out of Iraq and surely won’t start if and when she emerges as her party’s nominee. The War Party wins, not by winning the debate but by ensuring that no debate on the war – and our foreign policy of "preemptive" aggression – ever takes place.

Furthermore, as the Democrats fight among themselves over identity politics, a conflict rooted in issues of race, gender, and the personalities of the candidates, the McCain "surge" threatens us with a continuation of Bushism without Bush. America, a deeply racist country, is not going to put a black man in the White House any time soon; a woman, too, faces an uphill battle. We may get McCain by default – and that, in many ways, would be the worst of all possible worlds. Of all the candidates, only Rudy Giuliani would arguably be more of a catastrophe for the peace of the world. Fortunately, Rudy’s natural cowardice forced him to flee the Iowa battlefield, and his $2 million spent in New Hampshire, along with many days of personal campaigning, was all for naught; Ron Paul, the antiwar Republican, has consistently beaten him, most recently in Nevada and South Carolina.

President John McCain – if the prospect doesn’t scare you, then it ought to. Unconstrained by either common sense or Congress, McCain’s volcanic temper and crusading temperament will soon have us embroiled in multiple conflicts, and not only in the Middle East.

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].