WASHINGTON — Arizona Sen. John McCain tours the Middle East this week as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, and his support of the Iraq war is well known. Less well known is how the war fits into his overall view of the region: He sees it as the linchpin to almost everything.
On key Middle East issues, such as his support for Israel and his pledge to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, McCain's thinking is in line with most pragmatic American politicians, including his two Democratic opponents, Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois.
What separates McCain from the Democrats — both of whom tout plans to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq — is how closely he ties success in Iraq to other U.S. goals for the Middle East.
"So much that happens going forward depends on what happens in Iraq," said Randy Scheunemann, McCain's chief foreign-policy adviser. "Obviously, Iraq is not the only interest we have in the Middle East, but from Senator McCain's viewpoint, it would be difficult if not impossible to achieve our other goals in the Middle East if we're defeated in Iraq."
That's because McCain sees Iran as the common thread promoting instability throughout the region: arming extremists in Iraq, Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and using Syria as a proxy in its efforts.
If the U.S. fails in Iraq, McCain thinks that it will be that much harder to achieve a peaceful solution between Israel and Palestinians and to prevent Iran from dominating the region. An emboldened Iran also would be able to pressure moderate Arab nations sympathetic to U.S. goals. This is why McCain refers to "radical Islamic extremism" on the campaign trail as "the transcendent challenge of our time."
Tamara Cofman Wittes, a Middle East expert at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the center-left Brookings Institution, said McCain's worldview hewed closely to the Bush administration's in that regard. But she said that McCain deserved credit for contemplating the consequences of a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq from an international strategic perspective rather than only a domestic political perspective.
"Whether the consequences would be as global as he suggests, that might be going a step too far," Wittes said. "But he is certainly willing to look into the abyss of what a failed Iraq would look like more than his counterparts in the campaign are."
Critics fear that McCain's Middle East approach — combined with his oft-stated desire for a moralistic U.S. foreign policy — portends an aggressive, woolly-headed idealism.
McCain's statement that "there will be other wars" and his musing that the only thing worse than a military strike on Iran is a nuclear-armed Iran are part of "McCain's journey from realist to wild-eyed neo-con fantasist," lamented Justin Logan, a foreign policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute. "He hasn't really learned the lessons of Iraq."
To deal with Iran, McCain wants to tighten existing sanctions, including restricting imports of refined gasoline. He's called for a divestment campaign to isolate the regime in the same way that the apartheid government of South Africa was isolated in the 1980s. He seeks efforts to persuade Malaysia and China to abandon planned investments in Iran's energy sector.
And, like Clinton and Obama, he hasn't taken the military option off the table, though his language is more threatening than theirs. He's called Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "evil," and he harshly criticized Obama for saying that he'd meet Ahmadinejad without preconditions.
McCain staunchly backs Israel. While he supports an independent Palestinian state, he "would never pressure Israel into making concessions that endanger its national security," Scheunemann said.
"Just as there will always be a proud, strong Israel, so too will there always be a close and enduring U.S.-Israel relationship," McCain said in a speech last summer. "When it comes to the defense of Israel, we simply cannot compromise. In view of the increased threats to Israeli security, American support for Israel should intensify — to include providing needed military equipment and technology and ensuring that Israel maintains its qualitative military edge."
McCain argues that an enduring peace can't be attained without disarming Lebanon's Islamist Hezbollah militants "sooner or later, one way or another" and isolating Hamas militants, who took over the Gaza Strip last June after winning Palestinian Authority parliamentary elections in January 2006.
Of Hamas, McCain said "the United States cannot have normal relations with . . . a government that deliberately targets innocent Israeli civilians in an attempt to terrorize the Jewish population."
He sees U.S. dependence on foreign oil as a grave foreign-policy challenge with particular roots in the Middle East. He noted that Iran, a chief state sponsor of terrorism, earned $45 billion in oil revenues in 2005.
"National security depends on energy security, which we cannot achieve if we remain dependent on imported oil from Middle Eastern governments who support or foment by their own inattention and inequities the rise of terrorists," McCain declared in an energy-policy speech last year.
McClatchy Newspapers 2008