In his efforts to portray himself as the better foreign-policy candidate, John McCain has distanced himself from President Bush. That's not surprising. McCain calls for leaders to be held accountable for past decisions. And Bush's foreign policy has produced a sad series of failures, from Iraq's post-war agony to Iran's surging power to the rebirth of al-Qaida.
Surely voters should hold someone accountable for eight years of judgment errors. So can the Republican candidate really shirk responsibility for the mistakes the Republican White House made? If you judge him by his record, he cannot.
On his signature issue, Iraq, McCain was as out of touch with Iraq realities in 2003 as Bush was. He compared Saddam Hussein to Hitler, even though the Iraqi leader was never more than a regional threat.
And the Arizonan seems as oblivious to Iraq's history and geography as the current occupant of the White House. Even today, McCain insists Iraq is the central front in the war on terrorism, even though that front clearly lies on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Until recently, he insisted we could "muddle through" in Afghanistan, even as U.S. casualties there were rising.
Meantime, McCain persists in comparing Iraq to Japan and South Korea (as does Bush) because the United States has long-term troop agreements with those countries. But Iraq is in the Middle East; the senator doesn't seem to understand that its colonial past makes Iraqis hostile toward such a pact.
But the most crucial question is whether McCain shares Bush's "moral clarity," a theological worldview that calls for America to change evil regimes. With America bogged down in two wars and a global economic crisis, our next president desperately needs a more sober approach.
McCain calls himself a "realist idealist," to distance himself from White House dreamers. His foreign-policy team mixes pragmatists and ideologues, yet the latter seem to be getting more of his time.
I listened last week to one of his "realist" advisers, Henry Kissinger, who spoke at the University of Pennsylvania. I was struck by how little of Kissinger's advice McCain is heeding.
Kissinger stressed the need to remake America's foreign-policy image and to lead in conjunction with other powers, not alone. "There is no law that we must be the sole superpower," he said. "Our task will be to involve other nations in the creation of a new order so they think it's their own." Kissinger said America's image in Western Europe had been harmed "by behavior at the beginning of the current administration," such as the rejection of the Kyoto treaty, the Bush preemption doctrine on Iraq, and the images that emerged from Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.
Could a Republican president convey a new image? McCain has backed off his earlier, firm position against torture. He talks of diplomacy, but signals that he feels more comfortable with a more militant U.S. stance.
One instance: the senator's reluctance to embrace the idea of negotiating with senior Iranian officials. On this subject, Kissinger showed no hesitation. "Should we, as part of our Middle East policy, include negotiations with Iran?" he asked. "Yes, with a serious program." Kissinger has suggested talks at the secretary-of-state level without preconditions.
"Some look at diplomacy as theology," Kissinger added. "The other side has to be morally deserving." (This has been the predominant Bush vision.) Kissinger noted that high-level talks with enemies don't guarantee results but are worth trying. McCain mocks Barack Obama for this approach.
A second instance: McCain's proposal for a "League of Democracies." The senator seems to believe a new organization of democracies would stand with America against Iran and Russia, circumventing NATO. And McCain was highly emotional in supporting Georgia against Russia, seemingly to the point of Western military action.
But Kissinger warned of the danger of setting up such a confrontation.
"The next administration," he said, "should try to get Russia into a cooperative relationship and not slide toward a Cold War mentality." Kissinger's sobriety sharply contrasted with McCain's emotive appeals.
It was a reminder of how badly this country needs a dose of realism in the White House. No matter how much he demurs, McCain seems tied to Bush's preference for illusions over facts.