Politics & Government

McCain rejects Bush's foreign-policy tactics, but embraces his goals

Sen. John McCain smiles during a recent town hall meeting in Springfield, Pa.
Sen. John McCain smiles during a recent town hall meeting in Springfield, Pa. David Swanson / Philadelphia Inquirer / MCT

WASHINGTON — In a major speech, Sen. John McCain distanced himself Wednesday from President Bush's foreign-policy tactics but embraced Bush's foreign-policy goals.

In a nod to foreign-policy realists, McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, called for the United States to practice "international good citizenship" and reconnect with allies weary of Bush's go-it-alone doctrine. But, embracing neo-conservative thinking, he reiterated his support for the Iraq war and made clear that he would, as president, remain committed to an activist foreign policy bent on promoting democracy and confronting Islamic extremists.

"I am an idealist," McCain said, adding later that he was "a realistic idealist."

In one of the few new proposals in the speech, McCain called for U.S-led worldwide reduction in nuclear arms: "We do not need all the weapons currently in our arsenal." He offered no specifics.

Otherwise, the speech broke little ground on policy. McCain has previously proposed, for example, negotiating a successor to the Kyoto treaty on climate change and closing the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay.

The address came at a time when Democrats are honing a campaign theme that paints a McCain presidency as a third term for the unpopular Bush.

Howard Dean, the Democratic National Committee chairman, continued the narrative Wednesday by saying that McCain's "new appreciation for diplomacy has no credibility after he mimicked President Bush's misleading case for a unilateral war of choice when it mattered most. Why should the American people now trust John McCain to offer anything more than four more years of President Bush's reckless economic policies and failed foreign policy?"

In an effort to counter that line of attack, McCain declared that "the United States cannot lead by virtue of its power alone.

"We must also lead by attracting others to our cause, by demonstrating once again the virtues of freedom and democracy, by defending the rules of international civilized society and by creating the new international institutions necessary to advance the peace and freedoms we cherish," McCain said. He added that "mutual respect and trust" would be at the heart of his relationships with U.S. allies: "We need to listen to the views and respect the collective will of our democratic allies."

Other aspects of the speech seemed designed to assuage the neo-conservative wing of Republican foreign-policy thinking: McCain challenged "a revanchist Russia" and said that the country should be kicked out of the Group of Eight industrialized democracies in favor of Brazil and India.

He also called again for a "League of Democracies" that would work — and, if necessary, fight — for peace and freedom when other international institutions will not. He seemed to embrace the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war even as he said, "I detest war..."

"Passive defense alone cannot protect us," McCain said. "We must also have an aggressive strategy of confronting and rooting out the terrorists wherever they seek to operate and deny them their bases in failed or failing states."

Ivan Eland, a foreign-policy analyst at the libertarian-leaning Independent Institute, said the speech revealed McCain to be "a softer, gentler neo-conservative."

"The only difference between Wilsonian liberals and neo-conservatives is Wilsonian liberals talk about international institutions and neo-conservatives talk about national greatness," Eland said. "He's trying to go somewhere between those two on the interventionist spectrum. He recognizes Bush got into trouble by doing things unilaterally."

The speech "is definitely an effort at triangulation," said Duke University professor Bruce Jentleson. McCain, he said, is "trying to show he is a realist and not a neocon," and at the same time "trying to sound like not just a realist, but an internationalist" by endorsing cooperative action with other nations.

Jentleson, who served as a policy adviser to then-presidential candidate Al Gore, said McCain's speech reminded him of Gov. George W. Bush in 2000, who pledged a "humble" foreign policy and dismissed "nation-building." The question for McCain is, Jentleson said, "is this really what the policy would be about?"

McCain tied these disparate strands of foreign-policy thinking together by saying that diplomatic "soft power" is as important as military power in facing the world's challenges, particularly in "winning the hearts and minds of the vast majority of moderate Muslims who do not want their future controlled by a minority of violent extremists."

"In this struggle, scholarships will be far more important than smart bombs."

Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York issued a statement saying that "while there is much to praise in Senator McCain's speech, he and I continue to have a fundamental disagreement on Iraq." She said that McCain's Iraq policy was the same as Bush's.

(Warren Strobel contributed.)

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