As the Democratic candidates battle each other, John McCain's ideas about America and the world have gotten too little coverage. Some see him as George W. Bush redux; others say his opposition to torture and concern about global warming show he's more open-minded.
In an obvious effort to distinguish himself from Bush, McCain describes himself as "realistic idealist." Yet his speeches and comments reveal a disturbing lack of realism about the world, especially the Middle East.
McCain's global outlook is that of a man still living in the 1990s, when America's power and the dollar reigned supreme. "Our next president," he wrote in Foreign Affairs in November/December 2007, "will have a mandate to build an enduring global peace on the foundations of freedom, security, opportunity, prosperity and hope." He adds that "the next president must be prepared to lead America and the world to victory" against terrorist adversaries "and build a peace that will last a century."
Has the Arizona senator not noticed the world has changed since George W. made similar pronouncements at the turn of the century? The illusion that America alone can shape the globe should have passed.
To be fair, in a March 26 speech McCain tried to distance himself from Bush unilateralism, taking note of the rise of China and Russia, and the growing power of countries such as India and Brazil, along with the European Union. He spoke of the need for "international good citizenship" in the case of global warming, and warned against any "imperial impulse" in dealing with Latin America.
Yet when McCain lays out how he'd exercise American power in Iraq and elsewhere, he seems unaware of the consequences of seven years of Bush policies.
Everyone knows McCain is strongly opposed to a hasty withdrawal from Iraq. So am I. But large numbers of U.S. troops can't stay forever. And they can't stabilize Iraq unless they are part of a new regional strategy. McCain shows no sign he recognizes either point.
His comments that it would be fine to stay for 50 or 100 years illustrate his oldthink, even though he qualified this to say "as long as Americans are not being injured ... or killed."
The comparison McCain makes is to Japan and South Korea, where U.S. troops have stayed for decades. But Iraq is not in northeast Asia, nor will it ever be like Japan or South Korea.
In those two countries, the populations supported a long-term U.S. presence to protect them from, respectively, the Soviet and Chinese threat and North Korea. And unlike those homogenous Asian countries, Iraq is divided into contending ethnic groups and sects.
This isn't nitpicking. The Japan analogy - which Bush has repeatedly used - shows abysmal ignorance of Iraq and the Mideast.
First, Iraq. The senator says his goal is a "generally peaceful, stable, prosperous, democratic state" that doesn't threaten its neighbors, helps defeat terrorists, and is a "strong ally against an aggressive and radical Iran." Our soldiers can't afford to wait endlessly for this pipe dream.
Moreover, any formula for a remotely stable Iraq requires the cooperation of Iraq's neighbors, including Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, now waging a proxy war by backing Iraq's different factions.
The next president must convince those neighbors it is in their interest to help calm, rather than inflame, Iraq. This "diplomatic surge" - and no one should underestimate the difficulty - would require a broad, new approach to Iran.
Yet nowhere does McCain mention a "diplomatic surge." Nowhere does he indicate any awareness of the need to woo Iraq's neighbors.
Just the opposite. He says America can no longer rely on Mideast "autocracies" such as Saudi Arabia. And when it comes to Iran, he talks only of sanctions.
The Republican hopeful seems unaware that America's ouster of Saddam Hussein and the Afghan Taliban left Iran as the strongest power in the region. More astonishing, he seems unaware that Iraq's Shiite-led government is and will remain an ally of Iran, not "a strong ally against" Iran.
This lack of essential Iraq knowledge is stunning. McCain's approach to the Iraq mess assumes America can impose "victory" with enough troops. It imagines that "the international community" and "Arab neighbors" will then help foot the bill. Both assumptions are wrong.
Despite his nod to "realism" and a multipolar world, McCain still clings to the same illusion that ensnared Bush: that America can remake Iraq and the region in its image. If Iraq is to be salvaged, and the spread of radical Islam checked in the Middle East, the next president can't afford such blinders. And America can't afford another president who ignores the realities of the world.