McCain as C-in-C?

No one can be totally prepared for the presidency. Arguably the president’s most important role is that of commander-in-chief and Senator John McCain has demonstrated a treasure chest full of characteristics, experiences and well-considered proposals that suit the position and time.

Last week, Senator McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, traveled to the Mideast and Europe on a fact finding tour. His activities while on that tour provide a glimpse of the kind of commander-in-chief he might become.

In Iraq, McCain demonstrated a willingness to take political and personal risks. He met with Iraqi officials alongside Vice President Dick Cheney and promised to build on the successes of the “surge.” The joint meeting was a calculated risk in aligning himself with the Bush administration’s Iraq policy. While in Iraq he left the safety of the “Green Zone” to visit hot spots like Mosul, a center of US and Iraqi operations aimed at countering al Qaeda. 

While in Israel, the senator traveled to Sderot, the Israeli city under constant attack from Hamas rockets. After meetings with Israeli leaders, McCain aligned himself with Israel’s struggles by stating, “There is no country in the world that better understands the vigilance required to counter the very real, and continuing threat of terrorist attack than the nation of Israel.”

In London, McCain demonstrated a willingness to work with a diversity of leaders.  He met with Prime Minister Gordon Brown at No. 10 Downing Street and with Conservative party leader David Cameron at his offices in the House of Commons. 

These activities and statements evidence McCain’s well-established style of being a tough, pragmatic and a hands-on leader. But is he fit to be commander-in-chief?

The senator is a fighter who tends to take the hard road. He spent much of his five years as a prisoner of war in solitary confinement and because he respected the unwritten POW code of conduct he refused to be released ahead of others in line before him. Then he showed the rare capacity to forgive his brutal Vietnamese captors. These attributes — fighter, team player, and forgiver — suggest a temperament that could help him bridge Washington’s partisan divides.

Some argue McCain is too much of a hot-head for the top job. "The anger is there," Stephen Wayne, a political science professor at Georgetown University said. “If McCain is the one to answer the phone at 3 a.m.,” he said, "…you worry about an initial emotive, less rational response."

John Lehman, the Navy secretary during the Reagan administration and a 30-year McCain acquaintance, dismisses the “hot-head” allegation. “I have never seen him really lose it and really be just passionately furious,” Lehman explained. Rather, the senator uses his temper “for effect,” Lehman contends. 

Lehman argues that McCain’s national security experience is critical for a prospective president. Lehman explains that McCain’s experience “…gives you a depth of knowledge of people and institutions.” 

McCain is a thinker and listener. One of the reasons he frequently travels to war zones is to listen to commanders believing they know best. Perhaps that’s why after visiting Iraq in 2003 the senator encouraged President Bush to get on top of “…more details of what’s going on” in Iraq. 

In 2003, the senator told Bush to level with the public about the need for more troops and money to make postwar Iraq peaceful enough for democracy. He tenaciously pushed the president over the next four years to change strategy until Bush relented by launching the “surge.”

McCain is pragmatic. He has dismissed his Democratic opponents’ call for early withdrawal from Iraq and embraced the current effort. Last week in Iraq, McCain said that he believes Iraq is “…on the precipice of winning a major victory against radical Islamic extremism.” He is confident the “…war will be won” but he argues we must be committed to the long haul.

When asked whether he supported Bush’s view that US troops could be in Iraq for 50 years, the senator surprised some by answering “Maybe 100. As long as Americans are not being injured … or killed, it’s fine with me … if we maintain a presence in a very volatile part of the world where al-Qaida is training, recruiting, equipping and motivating people every single day."

His pragmatism is complimented with an independent streak that has alienated some Republicans on issues like immigration. On national security, he has broken with the administration on areas of judgment. In a senate hearing McCain blasted then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for not putting enough troops on the ground. McCain was one of the first to call on Bush to fire Rumsfeld.

McCain differs with President Bush on some foreign policy challenges. Unlike President Bush who said he looked into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s eyes and saw a man “…very straight forward and trustworthy,” McCain says that all he saw when he looked into Putin’s eyes were three letters: K, G and B — the former Soviet Union’s abbreviation for its Soviet-era spy agency (which survives under Putin under different initials).

McCain is cautious about Russia. He warns the West not to tolerate “…Russia’s nuclear blackmail or cyberattacks” and calls on the West to maintain its solidarity. He points out Russia’s diminishing political freedoms, bullying of democratic neighbors and attempts to manipulate Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas. “We need a new western approach to this revanchist Russia,” McCain writes.

Regarding the war on terror, McCain doesn’t mince his words about the Bush administration. He says “…mismanagement and failure in Iraq demonstrate that America should go to war only with sufficient troop levels and with a realistic and comprehensive plan for success.” 

McCain promises a number of significant changes. He will not limit the counterterrorism efforts to stateless groups operating in safe havens. He points out that Iran, the “…world’s chief state sponsor of terrorism,” continues its quest for nuclear weapons. He fears an Iran protected by a nuclear arsenal would be even more willing and able to sponsor terrorist attacks. “The next president must confront this threat directly,” McCain wrote.

He has large plans for the military. “I will increase the size of the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps from the currently planned level of roughly 750,000 troops to 900,000 troops,” create an Army Advisory Corps to partner with militaries abroad, and create a modern-day Office of Strategic Services that draws specialists in unconventional warfare, civil affairs and psychological warfare. 

The commander-in-chief needs more than experience, pragmatism, bulldog tenacity and a foreign policy agenda. He needs a national security team that compliments his style and expertise. Unlike President Bush who provided broad guidance to his seasoned national security team and then stepped back, McCain will likely be a hands-on president constantly engaged with experts across the chains of command always on watch to steer the ship of state into better waters. 

Senator McCain says “I am ready” to lead America “…to establish an enduring peace based on freedom that can safeguard American security for the rest of the twenty-first century.” We’ll have to wait and see if the voters are willing to give him that chance.


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