The Evolution of an Interventionist

How John McCain became America's unofficial ambassador of leading from the front.

Allison Shelley/Getty Images
Allison Shelley/Getty Images

In the twilight of his political career, John McCain has become the Zelig of interventionism — that is to say that he is always there. First, he gets photobombed in Syria, where he was accused of posing with Sunni rebels who kidnapped innocent Shiite pilgrims. Next, his daughter announces that she learned her father was in Syria via Twitter. And just yesterday, he took to the Senate floor to announce that the White House had determined the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against its own people, and that Washington would likely start arming the rebels — jumping the gun on the Obama administration’s own announcement of its findings.

Love him or hate him, McCain has become a surprisingly consistent voice speaking out on behalf of beleaguered citizens abroad during their worst hours. This has been particularly true on Syria. Yes, he wrote recently, he knows Americans are war-weary and there are no easy options to topple Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. But, he reminded Americans, "our interests are our values, and our values are our interests," and intervention could "save innocent lives, [and] give the moderate opposition a better chance to succeed."

It’s not the first time McCain has prodded a reluctant White House into action. The senator argued early and often in 2011 that the United States and its allies needed to intervene in Libya to oust Muammar al-Qaddafi. As early as February 2011, a full month before the international community acted, he called on President Barack Obama to establish a no-fly zone and provide arms and funds to the rebels. As he put it, the situation "demands more than just public condemnation; it requires strong international action."

Where McCain’s supporters see a tireless defender of human rights, many Democrats see a reckless hawk who never saw a Middle Eastern country he didn’t want to invade. Exhibit A in this view of McCain is Iraq: The senator was an avid cheerleader for George W. Bush’s campaign to topple Saddam Hussein, and later for the "surge" of troops into the country. Calling it the "right war for the right reasons," he pontificated in 2003 that "[o]nly an obdurate refusal to face unpleasant facts — in this case, that a tyrant who survives only by the constant use of violence is not going to be coerced into good behavior by nonviolent means — could allow one to believe that we have rushed to war." That humanitarian argument may have survived the test of time, but given the lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the complete mess of an occupation by U.S. forces, many would argue that the war was still not worth the cost in blood and treasure for the United States.

McCain’s quickness to argue for humanitarian and other interventions, and the heavy military hand which he often argues should be deployed, certainly make it easy to dismiss him as a hot-headed neocon eager to use force at the drop of the hat. (Playfully singing "Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran," to the tune of the Beach Boys’s "Barbara Ann," during a 2007 campaign appearance probably didn’t help matters in that regard.)

But the caricature of McCain as a warmonger remains at odds with what seems to be his genuine regard for the little guy on the ground.

The senator from Arizona has immersed himself in the details of global conflicts large and small, weighing in on the side of American intervention whether it was a political boon or a considerable risk. In 1999, there were not many GOP hardliners lining up to say that President Bill Clinton’s administration should offer logistical assistance to aid the East Timor independence movement. McCain did. Similarly, at a time when many in the Republican Party was quick to accuse Clinton of starting a war with Slobodan Milosevic in Kosovo as a supremely Machiavellian effort to change the topic from the Monica Lewinsky scandal, McCain offered full-throated support for the intervention and pushed for the use of ground troops, even when Clinton himself was unwilling to do so.

It was equally hard to make the case that McCain was hell-bent on world domination when he joined hundreds of thousands of American college students across the country in pushing for a no-fly zone over Darfur in 2006.

But what is perhaps most interesting about McCain’s brand of interventionism is that it came about so late in his career. As a freshman Congressman from Arizona’s first district, McCain directly broke with the man he still describes as his "hero," Ronald Reagan, in opposing the U.S. intervention in Lebanon in the early 1980s. As McCain later explained his position, "if we send Marines in there, how can we possibly beneficially affect this situation?… Unfortunately, almost 300 brave young Marines were killed."

Yes, McCain ultimately supported the 1991 Gulf War to oust the Iraqi military from Kuwait — but he did not favor expanding that effort to deposing Saddam Hussein, and he expressed concerns about U.S. troops getting bogged down on the ground. It is also important to note that Republicans overwhelmingly supported this war, and McCain was eager to change the subject from the Keating Five banking scandal in advance of his 1992 re-election campaign.

As the Cold War ended and small, complex conflicts erupted across the globe, McCain repeatedly urged America to stay at arm’s length. He advocated against U.S. troops becoming involved in Bosnia, saying that the United States risked taking sides in a foreign civil war, in which American troops would have a hard time "distinguishing between friend and foe." In 1993, he pushed to withdraw U.S. troops from Somalia, and railed against the folly of nation-building there. In 1994, he strongly opposed the U.S. intervention in Haiti, insisting that there was simply no national security interest in doing so.

But sober reflection on the cost of U.S. inaction — measured in the deaths of thousands of innocents in conflicts across the globe — seems to have changed McCain’s tune. "I think so, I think so," the then presidential candidate replied in 2008, when asked whether the violence in Rwanda and Bosnia had fundamentally changed his thinking about America’s role in the world. "And Darfur today."

McCain clearly feels he is a "realistic idealist" — a figure intent on using American power to advance human rights, but still aware of the limitations of that power. It is an important stance for Syria today, a subject on which the voices of the realists seem to have decidedly drowned out the ide
alists. For McCain and others pushing for stronger action from Washington, the ultimate tipping point is fairly clear — when both realists and idealists recognize the cost of inaction is potentially even higher than that of intervention.

McCain may be wrong as often as he is right. He may drive both Democrats and Republicans to distraction. But standing up for innocent civilians caught in the modern world’s slaughterhouses is far from a sin.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola