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John Mccain Leaves Behind a Hawkish Void

06 Sep 2018

Doug Bandow

John McCain has left us and left behind the record of a
courageous life. But his passing, an obvious tragedy for his
family, has been hijacked by Washington’s elite, who have
used it to attack President Donald Trump. While many of their
criticisms have been warranted, the result has been to paint McCain
as a veritable secular saint, which he was not.

The great tragedy of McCain’s life was his advocacy of war
and military intervention at almost every turn. He backed the
Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya wars. He urged military strikes on
North Korea and Iran. He visited Syrian insurgents to push U.S.
intervention. He supported the Saudis’ brutal war against
Yemen. He urged military action against Nigeria and Sudan. He
pushed Washington to confront Russia over Georgia and lamented the
lack of military options in Ukraine.

Thankfully he never reached the presidency. Lauded for his
foreign policy expertise, his real talent was limited to
proclaiming “bomb them” at strategic political moments.
For McCain there was little difference between Libya, Afghanistan,
Yemen, and Iraq. He didn’t “do nuance.” War was a
first resort, the obvious answer to most any international problem,
whatever the specifics. If only Washington would impose its will
abroad, Pax America would emerge, despots would flee, democrats
would triumph, prosperity would bloom, Kumbaya would be sung, and
the lion would lie down with the lamb.

In short, the subtraction
of John McCain’s voice from Washington’s incessant warmongering
Greek Chorus will reduce pressure on the president to bomb, invade,
and occupy more countries.

Alas, the transition to peace in our time proved to be messy.
Thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of foreigners died
in John McCain’s wars. Millions of people were displaced.
Corrupt and ruthless rulers prospered. Religious minorities were
slaughtered and expelled. Enemy states were empowered. Jihadists
seized control of cities. Terrorists flourished. Civilians were
targeted. America came to realize John Quincy Adams’
admonition, attempting to “become the dictatress of the
world” and in so doing finding itself no longer “the
ruler of her own spirit.”

Of course, McCain was not alone responsible for America’s
permanent state of war. The bipartisan War Party dominates
Washington, and, at least until the advent of Donald Trump, it had
controlled U.S. policy irrespective of administration. Presidents
might disagree on details and be more or less enthused about
loosing the dogs of war, but in a crunch they inevitably unleash
the military. No past failures have deterred them from future

Still, McCain may have been the single most influential of the
Senate’s unofficial horsemen of the apocalypse. His personal
story, including years of captivity in Vietnam, gave him unique
credibility. So did his mythical independence and reputation as a
“maverick” (based on a couple well-publicized
divergences from Republican orthodoxy), his strategic suborning of
the Washington press corps, and his indefatigable determination
that the U.S. should never be at peace so long as it had a plane,
ship, or soldier available for combat. Through Democratic and
Republican administrations, he campaigned for war.

The good news is that there is no one to replace him. South
Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham lacks McCain’s experience and
gravitas. Unlike McCain, Graham cannot say that he knew war;
rather, he knew a guy who knew war. He was McCain’s faithful
sidekick but only that. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas is no less
irresponsible than McCain, but never became the constant media
presence. When Cotton speaks, Washington thankfully does not

Senator Jim Inhofe is likely to take over the Senate Armed
Services Committee chairmanship. He is traditionally conservative
and hawkish, and believes the budget of the Pentagon should be
without limit. But he is two years older than was McCain and is
better known for his skepticism of climate change than as an
advocate for promiscuous war-making.

Senator Bob Menendez has gained a reputation as a reliable but
not particularly articulate hawk. Notably, he is a Democrat, as was
the now-retired Joe Lieberman, a reliable McCain ally. However,
Menendez has been bedeviled by charges of impropriety and might not
survive the November election.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has held Republicans together
for many dubious militaristic causes, perhaps none worse than
having the armed services continue to act as a bodyguard for the
Saudi royals, aiding them in their dirty work against helpless,
impoverished Yemen. However, legislating for war is not the same as
being a celebrated spokesman for a series of mini-Armageddons.

The House has yielded no similarly celebrated advocates of war
here, there, and everywhere. Members face the voters more often and
have trouble collecting similar press attention. Moreover, with
congressmen under far more pressure to satisfy constituents,
another international crusade in which average folks find their
loved ones coming home in boxes is not likely to be a big vote

In short, the subtraction of John McCain’s voice from
Washington’s incessant warmongering Greek Chorus will reduce
pressure on the president to bomb, invade, and occupy more
countries. How much difference that will make in practice is hard
to assess. After all, the president’s own mercurial,
unprincipled approach so far has yielded persistent support for
ongoing wars without initiating any new ones. Moreover, Trump has
within his administration uber-hawks as bad as McCain, most notably
National Security Advisor John Bolton.

Still, McCain’s death creates an opportunity for new and
improved Republican Party foreign policy spokesmen to emerge.
Senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee and Congressman Justin Amash have
been advocating an approach more consistent with the GOP’s
purported commitment to limited government and individual
liberties. Others who might have been intimidated by McCain’s
angry personality may feel freer to express skepticism of
Washington’s conventional wisdom.

The pressure to find peaceful alternatives will only increase as
Uncle Sam’s bankruptcy grows more imminent. Demonstrating
that Republicans care no more about fiscal responsibility than
Democrats, the current administration and Congress have
simultaneously hiked outlays and reduced revenues, pushing this
year’s deficit towards $1 trillion. Absent responsible fiscal
reform, red ink will continue to accumulate at a prodigious pace.
And fiscal pressures will grow even worse as Social Security and
Medicare spending explodes to meet the aging population.

The 81-year-old McCain had few financial worries, but many
others of his generation do. And they are not likely to accept cuts
to their benefits to finance defense subsidies for rich allies or
underwrite military expeditions to remake failed societies. However
enthusiastic wannabe generals such as Lindsey Graham might be, the
appeal of further Middle Eastern adventures has fallen over the

As pressure to cut spending rises, so will reluctance to provide
foot soldiers for a new American empire. Those of military age have
shown less enthusiasm for the unending neoconservative crusades
initiated by their elders. Even now it is increasingly difficult to
find qualified young people willing to serve in the armed forces.
Proposals to sort out foreign civil wars will become ever less
popular. Peace, rather than socialism, might become the signature
issue for the young.

The end of the Cold War provided America with an opportunity to
become a normal country again, in which the security and prosperity
of its own people became the priority of its government. Instead,
following 9/11, neoconservatives and other hawks hijacked U.S.
foreign policy. Their control now looks less certain with the death
of John McCain. It’s time for all good Republicans to come to
the aid of their party, and, more importantly, their country, by
rediscovering what George W. Bush briefly described as a more
“humble” foreign policy.

Doug Bandow is
a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant
to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies:
America’s New Global Empire

Click here to view the full article which appeared in CATO Journal