John McCain and the Warrior Spirit in American Foreign Policy

I did not join in the rather ghoulish anticipation of John McCain’s death indulged in by some war opponents. On Twitter, one aspiring attention-seeking pundit was suspended for her tasteless display of disdain for a dying man, and while there was an outcry (she was reinstated) I was not among the out-criers. For once I agreed with @jack, although I’m sure this meeting of the minds was purely coincidental and not likely to happen again: a little old-fashioned respect for the dying never hurt anyone. Far be it from me to cheer on the effects of cancer on a human being: I won’t do it, no matter who is involved.  This disrespectful rudeness was also indulged in by our President, another class act, who has more in common with his left-wing enemies than either is ready to acknowledge. (Trump eventually did his duty, however, albeit laconically.)

In his person, and his public pronouncements, McCain was the perfect representative of the nascent imperial class: born in the Panama Canal zone, the son of an Admiral, he was almost fated to become what he did indeed become – the archetypal Praetorian, the veritable embodiment of America’s post-World War II empire. A paladin of the cold war while it lasted, and a tireless advocate of post-cold war hegemonism, his favorite phrase was “boots on the ground,” and he championed this as a policy option for virtually every foreign policy problem confronted by US policymakers.

Indeed, McCain was on the other side of the barricades from from our founding during the run up to the Kosovo war, right up to the present day, In 1999, he rose to prominence – after the “Keating Five” scandal – as the one dissident in a quasi-“isolationist” (i.e. anti-war) GOP. His recommendation? “Boots on the ground!” This position was lapped up big-time by the pro-Clinton media, which had him on every Sunday talk show and then some.

Prior to this, McCain had been cautious about supporting US intervention overseas, e.g. he opposed Reagan sending troops to Lebanon. However, the Bosnian civil war, in the course of which the US sent 20,000 troops to Central Europe to enforce the nonexistent “peace,” was a turning point for him.

Even as many liberals were turning toward interventionism in the name of “humanitarianism,” so McCain, a liberal at heart, was replicating the new globalist dispensation. In a speech delivered on the Senate floor, McCain reveled in his role as the Republican spokesman in favor of militant internationalism, Clinton-style:

“Our interests and values converge clearly here. It seems clear to me that Milosevic knows no limits to his inhumanity and will keep slaughtering until even the most determined opponent of American involvement in this conflict is convinced to drop that opposition.”

From that point on, McCain grew into his role as the leading Republican advocate of global intervention, no matter where or how tenuous the connection to American interests: his primary campaign against George W. Bush featured a full-throated soliloquy in favor of “rogue state rollback,” the phrase he christened his foreign policy views with, in marked contrast to the “humble foreign policy” line taken by the Bush campaign.

The 9/11 attacks found him ready, willing, and able to lead the American overreaction, and his alliance with the neoconservatives in the run up to the invasion of Iraq was a natural. While eventually admitting the Iraq war was a “mistake” – many years after the failure of his signature policy stance – his view of that war was still ambiguous, mired in the implied contention that we could have won if only the American people had “stayed the course.” This isn’t surprising considering his view of the Vietnam war, which he also believed we could have won – and indeed did win –if only the American people hadn’t thrown away our “victory” and forced our officials to withdraw.

The Obama years saw him as one of the few Republican defenders of our interventions in Libya and Syria. Again, he was all over the media with his pro-war message, together with his sidekick, Sen. Lindsey Graham: the two seemed to be competing as to which one of them was the biggest warmonger. While Graham is consistently pro-war, he is often seen as a caricature of himself: McCain was taken more seriously. Perhaps Tom Cotton will take his place as the most unhinged interventionist in the Senate, but he’ll have to step up his act quite a bit in order to equal the late Senator from Arizona.

On the surface, McCain was the personification of what Walter Russell Mead called the Jacksonian spirit that has always pervaded the foreign policy discourse in this country. Meade, one of our smartest foreign policy wonks, described that spirit this way:

“One way I describe them is to talk about an incident in American history that illustrates a lot of that school’s values. When Andrew Jackson was a general in 1818, he was fighting a war against the Creek Indians in Georgia. Because Florida at the time was still under Spanish rule and there were two Englishmen in Florida selling arms to the Indians, who were then attacking U.S. forces in Georgia. Jackson took the US Army across the international frontier into Spanish territory without any permissions or any U.N. resolutions. He went in there, arrested the two Brits, brought them back to the United States, tried them before a military tribunal and hanged them. And this did cause outrage in Europe. They said ‘These people have no respect for international law.’ But it made Jackson so popular in the US that his election to the presidency was just a matter of time after 1818. [The idea is]: ‘Don’t bother with people abroad, unless they bother you. But if they attack you, then do everything you can.’"

One can easily imagine McCain doing such a thing – but one can also even more easily imagine President Trump barging in there and hauling those perfidious Brits to the nearest hanging tree. Which brings us to a key point about McCain and the spirit of American foreign policy: the Arizona hawk may have started out a Jacksonian, but he soon turned into something else – a Wilsonian, after another one of Professor Meade’s categories named after iconic American statesmen, the most interventionist and anti-libertarian of them all.

McCain retained the looming muscularity of the Jacksonian stance, and also its bold unilateralism: and yet the “Don’t bother with people abroad” aspect was completely erased, its place taken by a nosiness that knew no bounds. Wherever the possibility of war involving the US raised its head, there was McCain, surrounded by media, calling for “boots on the ground.” In particular, he was a fan of the Islamist revolt against Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, and traveled to the region to literally stand by them – some of the most unsavory people on earth. From Georgia to Ukraine to Timbuktu, he was an omnipresent scold, urging a US presence on every continent, in the midst of every dispute.

McCain hated the President with a passion that was more than ideologically-motivated, but still the Senator’s vitriol – which Trump returned in more than equal measure – was in large part colored by the ostensibly pro-peace agenda of Trump and his fellow deplorables. Trump’s famous attack on the Iraq war, and George W. Bush, at the South Carolina Republican primary debate, was undoubtedly enough to put him on McCain’s target list. The gulf only widened as the campaign took its course.

It was inevitable that the two of them – two Alpha males, with strong opinions and gigantic egos – would not only clash but would also come to represent two opposite trends in the national discourse.

With interventionism in such disrepute, at least among the voters, a politician preaching the pure militarism of the McCainiac legacy is unlikely to arise any time soon: the Trumpified GOP is not a good nesting place for hawks these days. McCain represents the past – the cold war, the security arrangements that came out of that worldwide struggle, and the post-cold war hubris that infected our policymakers and their attendant policy wonks after the Berlin Wall fell. The Arizona Senator defended those institutions – NATO, our empire of bases, and the so-called liberal international order with the US as its chief enforcer – to the bitter end against the rising tide of anti-globalism both here and overseas.

Surely the preeminent symbol of anti-globalism is none other than the President, and that is precisely why this antipodal dynamic grew up between the two.

When it came to bombast, the Senator could equal the President any day of the week — and yet the treatment afforded to them by the political class was markedly different. The Senator’s talent for histrionics was well-known and appreciated by his adoring fans in the media, who took his defense of the status quo as the defining characteristic of a “maverick.” Yet the media’s reaction to Trump’s similarly explosive temperament is quite the opposite of adoration. The difference is that the Fourth Estate agreed with McCain and thought his warlike posturing and posing was good copy. On the other hand, they had no use for Trump, a real maverick, whose foreign policy views were condemned by all the “experts” in their address books as an “isolationist.”

McCain’s legacy is that of a Republican party that no longer exists: a recent poll taken shortly before his passing shows he’s loved by the Democrats and disdained by the Republicans. This probably reflects, at least in part, a sea change in the way both parties approach the foreign policy issue: McCain’s rabid interventionism is much closer to the Democrats’ anti-Russian pro-NATO Euro-centric expansionism than the increasingly “mind your own business” attitude of the typical Republican voter.

This has been the long-range trend all along: the “small government’ ideology of the Republicans necessitates a modest foreign policy, and surely not one that requires the expenditure of trillions and a policy of perpetual war. The “war on terrorism,” inaugurated by George W. Bush and his neoconservative advisors, was only a temporary interruption in the general scheme of things: since the end of the cold war, conservatives have been inexorably pulled in the direction of Trumpian “isolationism.” That the President has managed to pull his party with him on this — and without being perceived as a weak, easily caricatured “peacenik” — is due to the healthy dollop of Jacksonian belligerence that infuses his rhetoric. (Remember that shortly before hailing Kim Jong-un as a great peacemaker he was threatening to blow the Hermit Kingdom to kingdom come.)

McCain, more than any Republican politician since Teddy Roosevelt, represented the warrior spirit that has, at times, animated American foreign policy, and still dominates the thinking of our political class. Trump’s victory over McCain is that he managed to appropriate the warrior style while annulling it as a policy.

No politician of equal stature and consistency is apt to take McCain’s place as the country’s leading warmonger for the simple reason that this kind of demagoguery has mostly gone out of style – except in the Green Rooms of the Sunday talk shows, where the war god reigns supreme. Poor Lindsey Graham is going to be mighty isolated in the coming days, a lone laptop bombardier calling for wars from the Middle East to the Far East without the company of his co-pilot. The voters and ordinary people in general don’t like this constant talk of war, be it “humanitarian” or otherwise, because they know the people agitating for it won’t be sending their children to die on any battlefield.

Many tributes to McCain in the media from his admirers come with the phrase “and we shall not see his like again.” To which one can only reply: and thank God for that.


You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.

I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).

You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.

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].