Over at the Cato Institute's blog, Jim Harper argues that McCain's "I'll follow bin Laden to the Gates Of Hell" rhetoric at the Saddleback Forum gave our terrorist enemies something to cheer about: "What a gift to the recruiting efforts of Al Qaeda! - to have an American presidential candidate declare himself a follower of Osama bin Laden."
A little glib at the outset, methinks, but Harper's goal isn't to get off a zinger. It's to point out that any national leader worth his salt should recognize that America "will be made more secure by deflating the world image of Osama bin Laden and making his movement less attractive."
McCain's "gates of hell" talk is leadership malpractice, and he should stop using it immediately. Calling the threat of terrorism "transcendent" is equal parts incoherent and false. Terrorism stands no chance of defeating the United States or the West unless we ourselves collapse the society. Speaking this way about terrorism thrills our terrorist enemies and draws recruits and support to them. Silence would be much better, presidential campaign or no.
And McCain's lack of silence speaks volumes about his overall foreign policy incoherence, because every time he opens his mouth about the world at large, the man is speaking in nonsensical superlatives. This tendency gets documented well by Matt Welch over at Reason, who correctly notes that melodramatic exaggerations are "a feature, not a bug, of McCainite neoconservatism." Welch puts McCain's recent hyperbolic response into perspective:
Consider another line from last week: "I think it's very clear that Russian ambitions are to restore the old Russian Empire. Not the Soviet Union, but the Russian Empire."
Let's review what McCain is alleging here: Not only does Russia have malevolent designs on recently detached "Near Abroad" territories within nearby Georgia, Belarus, and Moldova -- a critique, I hasten to add, that I share -- McCain warns that the Bear is also working actively toward re-swallowing all or much of such Russian colonial holdings-turned sovereign states as, oh, Finland, Armenia, the Baltics, a pack of 'stans, and a big chunk of Poland.
It's one thing to look into Putin's eyes and (accurately) see three letters: K-G-B, quite another to base your foreign policy approach on the assumption that the second biggest nuclear arsenal in the world wants to go on the biggest nation-gobbling rampage the globe has seen in over 60 years, devouring a half-dozen NATO members in the process.
Welch notes that this isn't, by any means, a recent phenomenon with McCain either, but rather a two decades-long pattern of hysteria. Matt Yglesias, deploying his typical flourish for summation, puts it like this:
In short, not only is Russia on the march beyond Tbilisi to Ukraine, Finland, and substantial swathes of Poland but that's not even the transcendent issue of our time. And North Korea's nuclear program is "the greatest challenge to U.S. security and world stability today" but that's not the transcendent issue of our time. And Islamism is the transcendent issue of our time, but not a serious international crisis or an especially great challenge to U.S. security and world stability. Now of course there's no way to make sense of that, because it's not supposed to make any kind of sense. McCain just thinks that overreacting is the right reaction to everything. It's a hysteria-based foreign policy.
Yesterday, with an assist from Tom Tomorrow, everyone noted Bill Kristol's backtrack on the whole "cone of silence" issue. But Kristol's response to that "Gates Of Hell" comment bears noting as well. When Barack Obama averred that "evil" must be "confronted," Kristol maintained that this response contained a "high level of abstraction." But things don't get more abstract than claiming you'll follow bin Laden to the Gates of Hell. After all, there's no need: bin Laden is holed up somewhere much less metaphysical, the Afghan/Pakistan border. And for all of McCain's transcendent hysteria, he demonstrates only a tepid interest in going there.
But to McCain and his surrogates, these flights of fantasy represent "tough" and "realistic" talk. I say the next time Michael Goldfarb wants to criticize Dungeons and Dragons, he needs to rid his own house of Dungeon Masters first.