Four More Years in the Middle East?

Senator and presumptive GOP presidential candidate John McCain’s recent trip to the Middle East was, among other things, a prolonged photo opportunity to demonstrate his standing as a foreign policy and national security expert, the latter a keystone of his claim on the country’s highest office. It may, however, also have been a preview of what President McCain’s policy toward the Middle East might be. Depending on how one views that policy’s success over the last seven years, the result was either fairly encouraging or alarming.

The trip began, predictably, in Iraq, where McCain sounded his familiar themes of support for the “success” of the surge and the need to stay the course in that country. Included in this emphasis was what is becoming the standard refrain regarding his championing of an Ira policy the majority of Americans reject: “I would rather lose a political campaign than lose a war,” as he puts it. It is either a classic face-saving device or an attempt to demonstrate that McCain is above the “low politics” of presidential campaigning and pandering to public opinion on the war. The reader can decide which.

There were, however, two other aspects of the visit that may offer an insight into McCain’s approach to the Middle East that suggests he is in fundamental agreement with the policies of the Bush administration.

The first was his well publicized gaffe about the connection between Iran and Al Qaeda, where he accused Shiite Iran of providing “well known” training, refuge, and support for Sunni fundamentalist Al Qaeda. He corrected this remark after accompanying Senator Joe Lieberman whispered in his ear that Iran and Al Qaeda are in fact enemies, but that is not the point (although the mistake itself is so egregious as to raise questions about his command of the subject). The point is that this assertion came in the middle of a virtual diatribe against Iran as essentially the cause of most of the region’s ills and as a force to be opposed as a clear adversary. One could almost hear his intemperate attempt at humor earlier on the campaign trail, singing “Bomb, bomb, bomb, Bomb, bomb Iran” to the melody of the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann.” So much for engaging Iran in any Middle East—including Iraqi—peace process under President McCain.

McCain then moved on the Mediterranean Middle East to add his imprimatur to the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. He began with a profession of undying support for the Israelis (including donning a yarmulke earlier in the presidential campaign than any candidate in recent memory) that would have brought tears of joy to the most diehard neoconservative. He did not bother to meet with Mohammad Abbas, the leader of the Palestinians, at all, limiting himself to a telephone courtesy call. So much for any chance of serving as an honest broker in trying to move the Israelis and Palestinians toward some form of accord in their intractable conflict.

The tone and effect of these events is decidedly neoconservative. Retired Admiral Bobby Ray Inman told the Los Angeles Times on March 16, 2008 that “there’s going to be a lot of disappointment on the neoconservative side” over McCain’s policies, but that was certainly not evident in his most recent foray into the region. During Easter Week, 2008, John McCain sounded and acted like a classic neocon, a sobriquet at which McCain would bristle.

One way to figure out why McCain took the position he did was to look at those who are advising him, but that does not help much. Certainly, he has his share of neoconservatives in the ranks, including people like Randy Scheunemann and Gary Schmitt of the Project for a New American Century (discussed in What After Iraq?), Eliot Cohen, R. James Woolsey, John Lehman, and Weekly Standard editor William Kristol. These advisors are counterbalanced by classic realists like Brent Scowcroft, Colin Powell, Barry McCaffrey, Robert Zoellick, Henry Kissinger, and Richard Armitage, as well as more eclectic figures like Andrew Krepinevich, Ralph Peters, Max Boot, and Robert Kagan. It is not clear which group or individuals had the candidate’s ear at this moment in time. It would appear the neocons won.

If the snapshots gathered in candidate McCain’s most recent trip mean anything, a McCain presidency in the Middle East would look a lot like his predecessor’s: an obdurate commitment to continuing the Iraq War, opposing Iran to the point of excluding it from participating in diplomatic efforts in the Persian Gulf, and a smothering embrace of Israel that guarantees the Palestinians and their Muslim supporters will not take any peace initiatives in the Mediterranean Middle East seriously.

Four more years in the Middle East? Is that what we all want?

Also check out:

“The War over Wonks.” Washington Post, October 2, 2007; Cameron W. Barr and Michael D. Shear
“A McCain Gaffe in Jordan.” Washington Post, March 19, 2008
“McCain Has Long, Diverse List of Advisors.” Arizona Republic, August 11, 2006


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