McCain's Foreign Policy Has Disparate Tones

Republican John McCain's rationale for the Iraq war reflects the neoconservative justification to attack Iraq in 2002. But he has opposed past interventions such as sending U.S. Marines to Beirut in the 1980s and he calls himself a "realistic idealist."

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And while Barack Obama was in Berlin, his opponent stopped by a German restaurant in Columbus, Ohio. John McCain visited Schmidt's Sausage Haus und Restaurant. The restaurant offered the opportunity for McCain to make one of many recent jabs against Obama's foreign policy. He criticized his opponent for speaking in Germany as a candidate rather than as a president.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

McCain has also frequently criticized Obama for his stances on Iraq. Polls show majority of Americans agree with McCain that the troops surge has succeeded but they don't agree with his support for the invasion of Iraq.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports on what that support says about McCain's foreign policy if he's elected.

SCOTT HORSLEY: John McCain told supporters in New Hampshire this week that the U.S. is winning the war in Iraq. And he tried to explain why that's so important.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): We will reduce reining influence in the region. We will have a stable and democratic nation there that's flawed but functioning. And I'm confident with victory will bring about a change not only there but also in the entire region.

HORSLEY: McCain's rationale for the war today sounds a lot like what the neoconservative architects of the invasion were saying in 2002, that the U.S. could reshape the Middle East by replacing Saddam Hussein with a democratic government.

Peter Beinart, who's a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says McCain's thinking on Iraq has neocon assumptions baked in.

Mr. PETER BEINART (Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations): Where neoconservatives break from realists is, you know, their belief that America can extend its power very dramatically without producing a backlash.

HORSLEY: In contrast, the old realist school of foreign policy, typified by advisers to first President Bush, believes the country should be careful about projecting their political values overseas to avoid upsetting the global equilibrium. During a speech to the World Affairs Council in Los Angeles this spring, McCain tried to position himself in the middle of that spectrum.

Sen. MCCAIN: I am an idealist, but I am from hard experience and the judgment and in forms, a realistic idealist.

HORSLEY: McCain had displayed both those sides over the years, sometimes opposing U.S. military action overseas and at other times serving as a cheerleader. Voters might ask themselves, which view McCain would take as commander-in-chief? Would he act like the cautious realist, who warned against sending U.S. Marines to Beirut in the early 1980s or the aggressive idealist who championed the Iraq war two decades later?

McCain's top foreign policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann, says it depends.

Mr. RANDY SCHEUNEMANN (McCain's Foreign Policy Adviser): Senator McCain does approach his any proposed use of American force not with some kind of ideological litmus test but with a hard-headed assessment of what are the interests at stake, what are the values threatened, what can any proposed use of military achieve.

HORSLEY: Scheunemann himself has solid neocon credentials. He's a former director of the Project for a New American Century, a neocon think tank. And in 2002, he helped start the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq with a purpose of building public support for the war. He doesn't exactly boast about that neocon pedigree, though.

Mr. SCHEUNEMANN: Oh, I've been called all kinds of things by all kinds of people.

HORSLEY: And as the Iraq war has dragged on and the cost have mounted, the neocon label has become radioactive. But Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution says that's mainly because some neocons in the Pentagon tried to fight the war on the cheap. He doesn't believe their failures will necessarily silence neocon voices altogether.

Mr. MICHAEL O'HANLON (Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution): Certainly some of them were guilty of an overly arrogant and optimistic view of how the United States would be welcomed wherever it went around the world. But many neoconservatives felt that if you're in it, you're in it to win it. And you better have plenty of force and don't need to be shy about that world view.

HORSLEY: McCain might easily fall into that camp. As he wrote in 2003, a reluctance to resort to military action is no failing in a president; it's a wise caution that doesn't risk American lives unnecessarily. But McCain wrote, it's a terrible failing for a president to call on military force and then not use enough to achieve the objective.

Scott Horsley, NPR News.

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