10/27/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Is John McCain a Neo-Con?

With the economy in crisis, foreign policy issues have fallen by the wayside for much of the general election. But with two wars in full swing -- and new fronts and maybe even new wars coming on -- the foreign policy crisis left by the Bush administration should not be overlooked.

A good question to ask yourself going into tonight's debate is, "Is John McCain a neo-conservative?" (Insofar, that is, as the debate remains about foreign policy.) Despite pronouncements by some partisans and some think tanks, the jury is still out on this question.

McCain certainly has neo-conservative leanings. Remember that he was the favorite candidate of the neo-con press in 2000 before Bush and Rove buried him in South Carolina. And the McCain campaign's foreign policy chief in that race, as well as this time around, is neo-conservative Randy Scheunemann, who directed the Project for a New American Century and headed up the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq.

This brief National Security Network report declares, "McCain Has An Extreme Neo-Conservative Foreign Policy Record and Outlook." Which would be fine if the report showed that McCain was a neo-conservative. But it doesn't -- the record and the outlook laid out could just as easily apply to militaristic aggressive nationalists like Rumsfeld and Cheney. What separates the neo-cons is Israel. In the neo-con worldview, Israel plays a major part, and it's not even mentioned in the NSN report.

"I don't know if Israel is central in his worldview, as it is for the neo-cons," veteran neo-con watcher Jim Lobe just told me, noting that McCain has yet to demonstrably fulfill that prerequisite, "but it's clear that he's surrounded by neo-cons and a lot of his positions are consistent with theirs."

But, as the Dude would say, "new shit has come to light."

Lobe, who's closely followed the neo-cons for as long as anyone else out there (and, for full disclosure, is also my boss), has two important posts up on his blog this week.

The first came on Monday, when Lobe wrote that a reliable source has told him that neo-conservative and convicted (and pardoned) Iran-Contra figure Elliott Abrams has been giving the McCain camp briefings, and that Abrams "has told friends and colleagues that he is confident that he will get a top post in a McCain administration."

A quick follow up from Lobe on Tuesday may give more hints as to McCain's worldview and particularly his positions on Israel. A McCain surrogate, the neo-conservative CFR member and LA Times columnist, Max Boot was one of two representatives of the campaign to speak to the AIPAC-formed Washington Institute of Near East Policy retreat last weekend. Boot apparently took the neo-con/Likud lines that, quoting Lobe, "the Republican candidate, if elected, would not become actively engaged in Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts and discourage Israeli-Syrian peace efforts."

The McCain campaign has ballyhooed his independent thinking and balance, citing advisers like Scowcroft and other realists. But Scheunemann poo-pooed that thinking in 2006 in the New York Sun:

[...] Randy Scheunemann, said that while the senator consults widely, his policy stands track more with the neoconservatives than with the so-called realists.

"I don't think, given where John has been for the last four or five years on the Iraq war and foreign policy issues, anyone would mistake Scowcroft for a close adviser," Mr. Scheunemann said.

Given new developments, Lobe calls the balance of the McCain team into further question.

"Frankly, the position of those foreign-policy realists who have endorsed McCain and who, according to the mainstream media, are supposed to be advising him -- I'm thinking of James Baker or Richard Armitage as examples -- is becoming increasingly untenable in this campaign.

If those advisers do, indeed, end up getting nowhere in the potential McCain administration (think Colin Powell in Bush the Younger's first term), we may have to start asking not just if John McCain is a neo-con, but if he is our first neo-conservative president.