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The Politics of War: McCain's Reaction to the Crisis in the Caucasus


If last week's Georgia crisis showed anything, it is that John McCain should not be president. There is a Cabinet post for which he is well-qualified: that's Secretary of War. Too bad it's been abolished.

Seriously, look at McCain's reaction to the crisis in the Caucasus. It was crystal clear. "We are all Georgians," he declared in the Wall Street Journal. He was proposing a confrontation with Russia. Maybe not a military confrontation just yet, but McCain saw this in black and white. Georgia is good. Russia is evil. And we must fight evil to defend this young democracy.

To be fair, there is a lot of truth in McCain's argument. Russia under Vladimir Putin has taken a turn for the worse. It is more modern but not more free. It is richer but not more civilized. It wants to be respected by the West, but it has yet to adopt Western values. Its invasion of Georgia was an outrage. But neither the American people nor any of our Western allies are ready to go to war with Russia over the Georgian province of South Ossetia.

That is why "we are all Georgians" is so troubling. John Kennedy was right when he said "Ich bin ein Berliner." And America was prepared for a military confrontation with the Soviet Union to defend the people of West Berlin in the early 1960s. And Le Monde was right in its famous headline "we are all Americans" after the attacks on 9/11. Sure enough, France and most of the world joined the United States in the war in Afghanistan.

I was proud to accompany Madeleine Albright to Bosnia in 1994, some months before NATO finally used military force against the Bosnian Serbs. At the time, she was a lonely voice for using air power to defend Bosnia. And I suspect there were more than a few administration officials who winced when she told the people of that besieged city, "I am a Sarajevan."

There is a time for that kind of powerful rhetoric. And in international affairs, there is a time and a place when war is justified and necessary. It's just that Georgia is not the place and now is not the time for a war against Russia.

This isn't the first case in which John McCain has sought to convince America that war is the answer to some international problem. Most biographies of McCain say he is a reluctant warrior -- and, as a former P.O.W., someone who hates war as only a soldier who has seen battle can. That may have been true early in his career. But at least in recent years, he has been one of a handful of politicians arguing for the use of force in nearly every major crisis.

There was North Korea in 1994. At the time, the Clinton administration was faced with a crisis that now seems quaint. Pyongyang was threatening to go forward with a nuclear weapons program and kick U.N. inspectors out. Washington was calling for sanctions but offering an agreement to freeze the North's program in exchange for a series of incentives. McCain didn't want a deal. He proposed air strikes to destroy their reactors, arguing that the North would absorb the strike rather than fight a war. We'll never know if his cosmic roll of the dice would have worked. President Clinton rejected his idea. So did President George W. Bush. Under the Bush administration, of course, North Korea has tested a nuclear weapon and made the material for a dozen or so more.

Then there was Syria, Iran and Iraq after 9/11. McCain was one of a few talking about taking the military fight to these three rather than just Afghanistan. Given the difficulty we have had in Iraq over the last five years, it's hard to imagine what would have happened if we also attacked Iran and Syria.

McCain has continued to make the case for war with Iran. He is one of the few who has put his cards on the table, saying the only thing worse than the use of force against Iran is an Iran with nuclear weapons.

The point is not that he is wrong every time. What is so troubling is that I can't think of any other senior politician who seems to always argue for war. For John McCain, then, military force may not be the first resort, but it's not the last either.

Over eight long years, the United States has been led by an administration that has shown little or no facility for solving international crises through diplomacy. The Bush team has also diminished America's historic role as peacemaker. Remember those days when the White House lawn was a virtual rehearsal hall for a Nobel Peace Prize?

The next American government must be able to marry America's military power with the power of its diplomacy. That means not only working to restore respect for the United States but also showing that we are peacemakers, too. America simply can't afford a third administration run by a "War President." That's why it can't afford a McCain victory.