U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., made clear during a Thursday lunch-hour speech that he is prepared to take on younger members of his party who favor a less-active U.S. foreign policy. (SAUL LOEB/AFP)
WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain, the U.S. Senate’s maverick in chief, is gearing up for a new fight, a struggle over the Republican Party’s foreign policy and national security philosophy.
Casting himself as “a proud internationalist,” the Arizona Republican made clear during a Thursday lunch-hour speech that he is prepared to take on younger members of his party who favor a less-active U.S. foreign policy.
The party’s 2008 nominee for president called himself a “loyal Republican,” but acknowledged some of the party’s rising stars and potential 2016 nominees are more in line with dovish Democrats than old-school Republicans like himself.
“Right now, the far left and the far right in America are coming together in favor of pulling us back from the world,” McCain said.
President Barack Obama “and I have had our differences. Many of those differences will persist,” he said. “But there are times these days when I feel that I have more in common on foreign policy with President Obama than I do with some in my own party.”
Citing public opinion polls, McCain noted that during last November’s elections, voters gave Democrats higher marks on foreign policy and national security. McCain called that development “a sea change” from decades of Republican domination of foreign affairs and defense issues.
McCain pinned much of the cause on the George W. Bush-launched Iraq conflict, a war the senator supported until its end.
“The result is that Republicans are now engaged in a fight for the soul of our party on matters of national security and foreign policy,” McCain said.
In something of a challenge to conservative members of his party who want the United States to take a smaller role in the world, McCain called for a “vigorous contest of ideas on national security and foreign policy.”
'We Can't Retreat'
McCain named no names, but there were invisible political elephants in the ballroom of the Willard InterContinental Hotel in Washington — new-school conservative Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas. Both want Washington to do less around the world and move to a foreign policy that is less militaristic.
“I know some Americans want to pull back from the world right now. That’s a luxury we can’t afford. We are America. We can’t retreat into splendid isolation,” McCain said during the Center for a New American Security forum. “We can’t withdraw from the world. We can’t escape its challenges.
“And we can’t afford to cut ourselves off from its opportunities. That is not what America does. America leads. And if we don’t lead, who will? How will that be better for us?
“For all of these reasons, the Republican Party cannot afford to turn away from our proud traditions of internationalism,” McCain said.
Conveniently, the Arizona Republican offered a definition of his preferred “internationalism” philosophy.
“Internationalism means active global leadership to shape events in the world to the benefit of our interests and values. It means maintaining a strong defense as the best way to prevent war,” he said. “It means support for free trade. It means standing by our friends and allies and working to add to their ranks. And above all, it means recognizing that our interests are our values, and our values are our interests.”
The GOP should espouse a message on foreign policy and national security issues based on this metric: “Our principles should dictate our actions, not vice versa.”
A 'New Internationalism'
McCain called for a “new Republican internationalism,” that includes “a more sustainable approach to the fight against terrorism.” He called his “libertarian friends” who recently conducted a filibuster of the Obama administration’s armed drone strike policy “misguided” because they focused on the “theoretical possibility that [a] president would use a drone to kill Americans on U.S. soil.”
Instead of worrying about far-fetched hypotheticals, McCain called on Republicans to craft a new counterterrorism policy “on a new political and legal foundation in order to make it politically sustainable.”
Other pillars of this new philosophy sounded like something from a national political campaign platform.
He said Republicans need to put forth a plan that “[rebuilds] America’s confidence and willingness to lead in the world,” something that must “begin at home.”
“This requires reforming our tax code, fixing our fiscal situation, and getting our economy growing robustly. It requires an aggressive free trade agenda, which we have not had in years,” he said.
“It requires taking advantage of new technologies that could significantly boost America’s energy production. It requires the further economic integration of North America, which can enhance our global competitiveness,” the former presidential candidate said. “And of course, it requires comprehensive immigration reform, which a bipartisan group of my colleagues and I introduced yesterday.”
'Corrupted' Defense Sector
Republicans also need to strike a new tone on national defense, he said.
“Sequestration has occurred, in part, because a growing public frustration with the culture of waste and inefficiency at the Defense Department went unaddressed for too long,” said McCain, who put most of the blame on what he dubbed “the emergence of a military-industrial-congressional complex.”
He said the three-pronged defense complex has “corrupted and crippled the defense acquisition process.
“This system can now be said to be successful only in one respect: turning billions of taxpayer dollars into weapons systems that are consistently delivered late, flawed, and vastly over budget — if, that is, these systems are delivered at all,” McCain said.
As a remedy, Republicans’ message must be to “demand a lot more from the Defense Department.”
“This means insisting that they ‘buy smart’ — focusing their limited resources on systems and services that promise a return on investment,” the veteran senator said. “It means ensuring that the DoD is as good at buying defense programs as industry is at selling them.”
Regarding foreign aid, McCain criticized libertarian Republicans for promoting conditions on assistance dollars to nations like Egypt.
“I don’t believe that works,” he said. “If it is in our national security interest to provide that assistance, we will. And if we have to waive our own conditions to do so, it only makes us look weak and unprincipled.”
(Yet, during the question-and-answer session, McCain said that he had advocated placing conditions on U.S. aid to the regime of then-Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak.)
Case Study: Syria
McCain is more hawkish on using U.S. military force to assist Syrian rebel fighters, and to help train and equip them.
He laid out his vision of a U.S. effort there.
“No one should think that we have to destroy every air defense system or put tens of thousands of boots on the ground to make a difference in Syria. We have more limited options,” McCain said. “We could, for example, organize an overt and large-scale operation to train and equip Syrian opposition forces. We could use our precision strike capabilities to target Assad’s aircraft and Scud missile launchers on the ground without our pilots having to fly into the teeth of Syria’s air defenses.
“We could use similar weapons to selectively destroy artillery pieces and make their crews think twice about remaining at their posts,” he said. “We could also use Patriot missile batteries outside of Syria to help protect safe zones inside of Syria.”
McCain acknowledged such actions likely would fail to end the years-old Syrian civil war.
But McCain’s reasoning for a U.S. intervention there epitomizes the kind of “internationalist” Republican Party he envisions: “But would it save innocent lives in Syria? Would it help us regain the trust of the Syrian people? Would it give the moderate opposition a better chance to succeed, and to marginalize the radicals, and to be in a better position to provide security in Syria on the day after Assad falls? To me, the answer to all of these questions is, ‘Yes’.”