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A Century in Iraq, Replacing UN with “League of Democracies,” Rogue State Rollback? A Look at John McCain’s Foreign Policy Vision

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We speak with investigative reporter Robert Dreyfuss about Senator John McCain’s vision for foreign policy. “McCain is drawing up plans for a new set of global institutions,” Dreyfuss writes, “from a potent covert operations unit to a 'League of Democracies' that can bypass the balky United Nations, from an expanded NATO that will bump up against Russian interests in Central Asia and the Caucasus to a revived US unilateralism that will engage in 'rogue state rollback' against his version of the 'axis of evil.' In all, it’s a new apparatus designed to carry the 'war on terror' deep into the twenty-first century.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain might have attracted some ridicule last week when he falsely insisted Iran is training and supplying al-Qaeda in Iraq. McCain corrected himself after independent Senator Joseph Lieberman stepped in and whispered in his ear.

    SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Well, it’s common knowledge and has been reported in the media that al-Qaeda is going back into Iran and receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran. That’s well known. And it’s unfortunate. So I believe that we are succeeding in Iraq. The situation is dramatically improved. But I also want to emphasize time and again al-Qaeda is on the run, but they are not defeated.

    SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: [whispering] You said that the Iranians were training al-Qaeda. I think you meant they’re training in extremist terrorism.

    SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I’m sorry, the Iranians are training extremists, not al-Qaeda, not al-Qaeda. I’m sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator McCain made the comment in Jordan, while on a trip to the Middle East last week. While the media focused on the gaffe, there has been little serious analysis of McCain’s foreign policy. In fact, when it comes to the Middle East and establishing US power in the world, McCain might even be more in line with neoconservative thinking than President Bush. That’s the argument in investigative reporter Robert Dreyfuss’s latest article in The Nation magazine. It’s called “Hothead McCain.” It outlines the Republican presidential candidate’s foreign policy vision.

Robert Dreyfuss joins us now from Washington, D.C. Welcome to Democracy Now!

ROBERT DREYFUSS: Thank you so much, Amy. It’s really great to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. You cite Brookings Institution analyst Ivo Daalder as saying, quote, “If you thought George Bush was bad when it comes to the use of military force, wait ’til you see John McCain.” Can you explain?

ROBERT DREYFUSS: Well, what I did in putting this piece together was look at McCain’s own writing and speeches, his article in Foreign Affairs, and I spoke to a number of his advisers, including Randy Scheunemann, who is his chief foreign policy strategist. I spoke to John Bolton. I spoke to Jim Woolsey. I spoke to a number of people who are neoconservative in thought who have now clustered around the McCain campaign and see his effort to become president as a way for them — that is, for the neoconservatives — to return to the position of power they had in the first Bush administration from 2001 to 2005.

McCain has an instinctive preference for using military power to solve problems overseas. And when you couple that with a kind of hotheaded temperament, with a kind of arrogance and really a tendency to fly off the handle, I think we have a lot to fear, if he were ever to have his finger on the button, because he’s a man who I think would try to solve a lot of the very delicate foreign policy problems that we have around the world by a show of force. And, of course, you start with Iran in that context, but I think you could include many other problems, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about — or John McCain talks about “rogue state rollback.” Explain.

ROBERT DREYFUSS: Well, this is a theory that he developed way back in the 1990s, and he began speaking about it probably around ’96 or ’97, but it crystallized in 1999 in a famous speech that he gave, where he talked about the need to look around the world and figure out these states, and you can make up the list as easily as I. At that time, it would have been Iraq, Iran, Syria, Cuba, various countries in Asia and Africa that were under various kinds of rebellion, whether it was Somalia or perhaps Burma, perhaps Zimbabwe. I mean, a lot of countries were being put in the category of rogue states. Some of them were on the State Department list of countries that supported terrorism.

McCain looked around the world, and he said, OK, our job is basically to force regime change in all of these countries. And he signed on early to the issue of going into Iraq and forcing a regime change there, long before anybody really had any kind of concerns about al-Qaeda, long before Iraq’s connection to terrorism seemed important. It was simply a principle that any state that didn’t conform to an American view of democracy was liable to be rolled over or rolled back, in McCain’s view.

Many of his advisers, including Randy Scheunemann, who’s now running his foreign policy task force, were engaged in that. Randy was then a chief staffer for Trent Lott. He wrote the Iraq Liberation Act that the neoconservatives and Ahmed Chalabi championed and pushed through Congress. He, Scheunemann, founded the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq in 2002 with White House support. He was also a founder of the Project for a New American Century, which was the sort of ad hoc think tank that the neocons put together. All of this is a sign of — and the fact that McCain would name him as his chief adviser — that McCain, in a way that Bush never did, is a true neocon.

He is someone who in his soul believes in the use of American military power, and as he said in his rollback speech, not just to deal with emergent threats to the United States, but even to enforce the prevalence of what he called American values — that’s a codeword for democracy — so that countries whose internal functioning — let’s say Russia today, under Putin and Medvedev — that countries like Russia that don’t seem as democratic as we like would then become ostracized or sanctioned or subject to various kinds of hostile, both political and military, sanctions. So this is what I find extremely troubling about McCain.

And if you look at his broad policies that he’s outlined, he has suggested point blank that we’re in a long-term, almost unending struggle with al-Qaeda and various other forms of Islamism. And as a result, he wants to create a whole new set of institutions to deal with those. One of those institutions would be what he calls the League of Democracies, which is basically a way of short-circuiting the UN, where Russia and China, in particular, but also various non-aligned countries often stand up to the United States.

Also, he wants to create a new much more aggressive covert operations team. He says he wants to model it on the old Office of Strategic Services, the World War II era OSS, and to create this out of the CIA but include into it psychological warfare specialists, covert operations people, people who specialize in advertising and propaganda, and a whole bunch of other kind of — a wide range of these kind of covert operators, who would then form a new agency that would be designed to fight the war on terrorism overseas and to deal with rogue states and other troubling actors that we — or McCain decides he happens not to like at that moment.

AMY GOODMAN: And kick Russia out of the G8?

ROBERT DREYFUSS: Yeah. And that’s a really important issue. I mean, his attitude toward Russia seems not to be based on any explicit Russian threat to the United States, but simply the fact that he doesn’t like the way Russia operates internally. So he’s said we’re going to expand NATO to include a number of former states in the Russian space — that is, former Soviet republics, notably including Georgia — and he wants to include not only Georgia in NATO, but some of Georgia’s rebellious provinces, which is a direct affront to Russia. He’s a hardliner on Kosovo. He says he doesn’t care what Putin thinks about us putting air defense system missiles in Eastern Europe. He wants to kick Russia out of the G8. And all of this would obviously create much more hostile relations between Washington and Moscow, and that makes it impossible to solve the biggest problem that we face: namely, how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program.

If we’re ever going to get a deal with Iran, if we’re ever going to have some sort of diplomatic solution to Iran, which McCain says he wants, it’s literally impossible if you don’t get the Russians on board. If you can’t get a deal with Russia to approach Iran and try to negotiate a peaceful resolution to their nuclear program, then the Russians will simply stand back and say, OK, it’s your problem. And that would almost guarantee that McCain would face the choice of having to either attack Iran or to accept Iran having a nuclear bomb at some point in the period in his eight-year term as president. So the idea that you can isolate Russia in that way and take this aggressive anti-Moscow strategy means that you’re not going to get Russian cooperation on key problems like Iran and like other problems in the Middle East and Afghanistan that we’re going to need their help on.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Robert Dreyfuss, investigative reporter, contributing editor to The Nation magazine. His latest piece is called “Hothead McCain.” I want to talk more about McCain’s advisers in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Robert Dreyfuss, investigative reporter, contributing editor at The Nation magazine. His latest piece is called “Hothead McCain.” McCain famously said that US forces might end up staying in Iraq for 100 years. What role did John McCain play in the surge and in shaping, if he did, any part of President Bush’s policy in Iraq, the war?

ROBERT DREYFUSS: Oh, I would say that of all the politicians in the United States, McCain was number one in a crucial moment, when the President, President Bush, had to decide whether to accept the Baker-Hamilton report, which called for phasing out US combat forces over a period of sixteen months or alternatively escalating the war. And at that time, McCain was the number one voice in calling for an escalation. He had traveled to Iraq. He had said we need more troops. I believe he was calling for at least 50,000 troops. He worked closely along with Senator Lieberman, who’s now his traveling companion. McCain and Lieberman spoke at the American Enterprise Institute and worked closely with Robert and Frederick Kagan, who — Frederick Kagan, in particular, who is at AEI and was the author of the report that led to the surge and was brought into the administration by Vice President Cheney, who went over to AEI and consulted with them. It was that team — Kagan, McCain, Lieberman and Cheney — who convinced the President to go with the escalation a year ago in January.

And McCain was not only advocating the surge, but really pushing, and is today pushing, for a long-term presence by the United States in Iraq, using Iraq as an aircraft carrier to support American power throughout the Persian Gulf and the Middle East and Central Asia. And his advisers told me so. When I spoke to Randy Scheunemann at length, he said, in fact, yes, we want to stay in Iraq for a long time, not just to stabilize Iraq, but because we may have to deal with many threats from the region. And of course you have to include Iran as among the possible threats that we’d have to deal with, according to McCain.

So I would say that McCain and the surge are almost identical, and it’s McCain who we have to thank for the fact that two years ago we didn’t start withdrawing from Iraq, but in fact escalated to the point where the next president will have probably 130,000 troops on the ground when he or she takes office.

AMY GOODMAN: And the others in the neocon circle, the advisers, like, for example, Bill Kristol, like Max Boot, tell us about their involvement.

ROBERT DREYFUSS: You know, it’s very interesting, Amy. If you look at the list of people who say they’re advising the McCain camp, you find a broad range of people. You find people like Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft, Larry Eagleburger. These are the traditional kind of Nixon-era realists, many of whom certainly wouldn’t be considered liberals, but who certainly are realists. But when you look at McCain’s positions, his views on things, you don’t find any of the influence of people like Eagleburger and Scowcroft.

What you see instead is that the rest of McCain’s advisers, and you named several of them — James Woolsey, the former CIA director, who has been traveling and campaigning with McCain and who I interviewed for this piece; Bill Kristol, who’s very close to McCain for probably a decade and has been kind of an angel sitting on his shoulder and whispering in his ear all that time; people like Scheunemann; people like Max Boot; Ralph Peters; there’s a long list of people who have joined the McCain advisory team — and it’s these people whom McCain listens to when it comes to foreign policy. He certainly hasn’t expressed anything in any foreign policy area that you would identify with the Republican realist camp. He’s much closer to the neocons.

And he seems to be, as I said earlier, the true neocon himself, someone who, after early in his career in the ’80s being kind of suspicious about some foreign interventions that happened at that time, at the end of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union collapsed, McCain seemed to have felt unburdened, like now American power can express itself. And that’s when he attached himself to the neoconservative vision that America, as the sole superpower, could throw its weight around, could remake the world in its own image and that there would be no effective opposition to it.

When I look at McCain, though, I have to say, I go back to Vietnam. This is a man whose father and grandfather were extremely conservative, even rightwing admirals, who served in Vietnam until he was shot down and held as a POW, conducting air raid missions, dropping napalm on Hanoi and other cities in North Vietnam, who learned from that and became convinced that American military power, if it’s constrained by politics, was unable to win that war. And so, he took out of Vietnam not the lesson that we shouldn’t get into land wars in Asia or that fighting guerrilla counterinsurgency efforts might not be the task that America’s military is most suited for; what he learned in Vietnam is that we need to take the gloves off, that the politicians need to get out of the way and let the military do its job.

And that’s precisely the message that he’s adopted in approaching Iraq. I think to this day, McCain thinks that the Vietnam War could have been won if we had just stayed another five or ten or fifteen years, and he seems exactly prepared to do that in Iraq, despite all evidence to the contrary that we can’t do anything in Iraq other than sit on a very ugly stalemate that, you know, continues to blow up and flare into violence.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Dreyfuss, you got your title, “Hothead McCain,” from a Republican senator. You’re quoting Republican Senator Thad Cochran, who said, “The thought of his being President sends a cold chill down my spine. He is erratic. He is hotheaded. He loses his temper, and he worries me.”

ROBERT DREYFUSS: Yes, I use that quote, and it says immediately after that that shortly after saying that, Thad Cochran endorsed McCain. So it’s clear that the Republicans are gathering around their leader, despite the fact that many senators, not just Cochran, but many Republican senators view McCain with alarm and not because he’s some sort of closet liberal — it’s true that on some domestic issues he lined up with some Senate liberals — but on foreign policy, they’re are scared of him. And on a personal level, McCain has had a tendency over the years — this is so well known on Capitol Hill — to erupt, to explode, to scream and yell at his colleagues in the Republican caucus, in closed-door meetings behind the scenes, and sometimes even in public. So he has scared a lot of his colleagues, who I’m sure are supporting him, like Cochran did, out of party loyalty, but who’ve said, as Cochran did, that they’re extremely concerned about his temper and his apparent willingness to explode.

And I’ve met McCain up close. I rode around the bus with him nine years ago when he was campaigning in New Hampshire. I found him scary up close. I think when you see him two feet away, he looks like somebody whose head could explode. He’s got a very barely controlled anger underneath his sort of calm demeanor that he seems to almost grit his teeth to keep inside. And I found him very scary personally. And I’m always shocked, I’m always stunned, when media who cover McCain don’t bring that across. He’s not a jolly fellow. He’s not somebody who you want to sit down and have beers with, where I could see people think that about President Bush — he’s kind of an amiable dunce, as someone said about an earlier president. McCain is not somebody I want to have a beer with. I think he’s a really scary guy.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’ll leave it there, Robert Dreyfuss, investigative reporter, contributing editor at The Nation magazine. His book is called Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam.

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