Monday, March 31, 2008

The World According to John McCain

He's both the consummate pragmatist and a zealous crusader for causes he feels just. The question is which America needs now.

"We need to listen," John McCain was saying, "to the views … of our democratic allies." Then, though the words weren't in the script, the Arizona senator repeated himself, as if in self-admonishment: "We need to listen." A lot of meaning was packed into that twice-said line, which was a key theme of McCain's first major foreign-policy speech since becoming the GOP's nominee-apparent. McCain was telling America, and the whole world: if I'm elected there will be, at long last, a return to what Jefferson called "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind." There will be no more ill-justified lurches into war, no more unilateralism, no more George W. Bush. Above all, McCain seemed to be saying that while Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama tear each other to pieces, I'm going to be the wise and welcoming statesman patching up America's global relations even before I get to the Oval Office. Not surprisingly, after the speech last week at the Los Angeles World Affairs Council, McCain's campaign could not talk enough about international cooperation—what McCain had called a "new compact." "He has such a deep relationship with so many Europeans and those in other regions, including Asia and the Middle East," said one adviser, Rich Williamson, who added that McCain has kept up his global profile by "going each year to the Munich Security Conference."

It was all very reassuring. There's just one problem: John McCain doesn't always behave according to his own statesmanlike script. In fact, while attending that same Munich conference in 2006, the Arizona senator had another one of what have come to be known as McCain Moments. In a small meeting at the Hotel Bayerischer Hof, McCain was conferring with Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the foreign minister of Germany—one of America's most important allies—when the others heard McCain erupt. He thought the German was being insufficiently tough on the brutal regime in Belarus. Raising his voice at Steinmeier—who's known for speaking in unclear diplomatese—McCain "started shaking and rising out of his chair," said one participant, a former senior diplomatic official who related the anecdote on condition of anonymity. "He said something like: 'I haven't come to Munich to hear this kind of crap'." McCain's old pal Joe Lieberman jumped in. "Lieberman, who reads him very well, put his hand on McCain's arm and said gently, 'John, I think there's been a problem in the translation.' Of course Lieberman doesn't speak German and there hadn't been any problem in the translation … It was just John's explosive temper."

Certainly this was no great crisis, and the Germans later said all was forgiven. (On Sunday Sen. McCain's campaign strongly denied this account of the incident; Sen. Lieberman earlier recalled it as a misunderstanding over the translation.) But McCain's Munich outburst could not be called an isolated incident. Fearless and righteous, McCain has long been known to unleash a lacerating anger on those who cross him—Senate colleagues, foreign interlocutors, even the interrogators who once held his life in their hands at the Hanoi Hilton. (Lieberman, his fellow centrist, recently seems to have assigned himself the role of McCain's monitor. Just two weeks ago, when McCain mistakenly said Iran was training Al Qaeda in Iraq fighters, it was the Connecticut senator who again pulled him aside, gently reminding him that the Iranian regime has been accused of training fellow Shiite extremists, not Sunni Al Qaeda.) For someone who is just an election away from the White House—and who is running on his image as a tested statesman—there remain serious questions about how exactly McCain might behave as president.

Partly this is because McCain himself is not easy to pin down. There is McCain the pragmatist: worldly-wise and witty, determined to follow the facts to the exclusion of ideology—a man willing to defy his own party and forge compromise, even with liberals like Ted Kennedy (on granting illegal immigrants some amnesty) and John Kerry (on normalizing relations with Vietnam). And then there is the zealous advocate, single-minded about pressing his cause, sometimes erupting in outrage at detractors and willing to stand alone—without any allies at all, if need be.

There is much to like in both McCains. He's pragmatic in the service of the national interest; he rises to passion when he believes that America's best values are at stake. Even some of those who fret about his zeal and temper say they plan to vote for him (just as many ultraconservatives who worry about his centrism say they'll reluctantly pull the lever as well). Lieberman says McCain's anger "is part of his strength. And his guts. There are some things we should get righteously angry about."

Sometimes these two McCains—the crusader and the pragmatist—have combined to make him a powerful and leaderly force for change, which seems to be what Americans want now. It was McCain the savvy military analyst who looked hard at the emerging Iraqi insurgency in the fall of 2003, decided a lot more U.S. troops were needed, and then went head-to-head with the mulish Donald Rumsfeld over the issue. (McCain was, in effect, the first person in Washington to call for a "surge.") Ultimately, four years later, he brought the Congress—and the president—with him. "I went against the will of my own party when it wasn't politically expedient," McCain has said.


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