THE BLOG
08/01/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

War President McCain

Last weekend, when Iraq's prime minister supported Senator Obama's timetable for withdrawing American troops, John McCain's national security adviser, Randy Scheunemann, countered: "Timing is not as important as whether we leave with victory and honor, which is of no apparent concern to Barack Obama." Scheunemann also said: "The American people deserve a commander-in-chief who puts their country first ahead of party, politics and self-interest."

McCain is emulating Nixon's 1968 election strategy, which got him elected while successfully concealing his actual war plans. McCain is not as diabolical as Nixon, but he remains ideologically confined by the same faulty hawkish logic the U.S. used to lose the Vietnam War.
Senator McCain, to many Americans, seems trustworthy, particularly on war matters. In an ABC News/Washington Post poll this July, 72 percent of adults surveyed viewed the Vietnam War POW as a good supreme commander of the military, while only 48 percent thought the same about Obama.

By guaranteeing victory with honor, McCain has boosted his standing and curtailed scrutiny of himself as a potential commander-in-chief. Richard Nixon received the same 'Don't-Question-Him' treatment in 1968 with a promise "to end the war and win the peace." A year into Nixon's presidency (halfway through the 3,630 covert B-52 bombings over Cambodia, codenamed "Operation Menu"), he enjoyed a 71% approval rating. In fact, McCain's entire war strategy relies upon Nixonian political logic: Americans will vote for the candidate who won't countenance defeat not because they're attached to the country we're liberating, but because they can't accept that many American lives may have been lost without purpose.

McCain's military outlook bears a striking resemblance to Nixon's via his advisers. McCain claims Henry Kissinger as his most important national security mentor. McCain's other main national security adviser, John Lehman, served on Kissinger's staff during the Nixon presidency. McCain and Lehman and the neo-con Schneuemann have embraced Nixon's belief that if public confidence can be maintained, American military power will compel surrender.

Like Kissinger today, McCain's top national security advisers have their personal economic interests mixed up with the America's. Scheunemann picked a bad week to talk about putting country ahead of self-interest, given his role in an unfolding war-profiteering scandal. As a member of Worldwide Strategic Partner's executive team, Scheunemann offered to sell his White House connections to the leaders of Kazakhstan, Georgia, etc. in exchange for oil leases in those countries. Scheunemann's early, successful lobbying for the U.S. to go to war with Iraq is cited in Worldwide Strategic Partner's sales brochure as proof that Scheunemann can deliver the political goods.

Finally, McCain's strategy for Iraq can be seen as an extension of his greatest and earliest mentor: his father, Admiral McCain. The elder McCain was both Nixon's and Kissinger's go-to briefer when each wanted to convince the other to up the military ante in Vietnam. Admiral McCain, an ardent advocate of the Cambodian carpet bombings, was included in Nixon's backdoor channel that circumvented the Pentagon hierarchy. He was the most hawkish among the most hawks, urging on Nixon's secret nuclear brinksmanship. *

Senator McCain is as optimistic about winning wars as his father was. In 1972, upon his retirement, Admiral McCain wrote an op-ed for The New York Times that claimed: "President Nixon's plan to reduce the total United States troop commitment in South Vietnam is a result of our confidence that the South Vietnamese can continue to improve their capability for their own defense. We are seeing a much-improved South Vietnamese fighting force. The South Vietnamese are doing sound military planning; the South Vietnamese Army has come of age; and the South Vietnamese Air Force is playing a steadily growing role in support of South Vietnamese Army ground forces. Vietnamization is successful."

If Admiral McCain believed this, he was the only top American official who did. By then the author of the Vietnamization strategy, General Creighton Abrams, was privately calling it "Slow Surrender." Nixon and Kissinger were cynically seeking "a decent interval" between the time American troops returned home "with honor" and the moment when the South Vietnamese military would be crushed.

Senator McCain patriotism has both old-fashioned and Born-again qualities. As he's written, he survived as a POW by rediscovering his love for his country. This faith in America seems to have come at the cost of comprehending the enemy. The military historian John Karaagac explains in his biography of McCain: "Captives cannot afford to sympathize with their captors, who are trying to win over the 'political prisoners' through calibrated game manipulation, payoff and punishment. Perhaps for this reason, discussion of politics surrounding the war was something of a taboo subject in the POW environment, as it was on the carriers: it damaged the larger, collective morale."

When McCain returned home, he asked to attend the National War College, but was told that his rank didn't qualify him. He went over his superior's head to the-then Secretary of the Navy, John Warner, who was his father's friend. Warner got him admitted. In his War College thesis, McCain wrote exclusively about his own POW experience and concluded that in the future, soldiers should be more politically educated about the cause for which they're fighting so they can be resolute if captured. But his thesis cites nothing -- no articles, no books, no one -- to indicate that McCain himself used his time at the college to reflect on why the U.S. fought in Vietnam and whether the country, including our military, were misled. In this sense Senator McCain, with all due respect for his great courage as a POW, remains a prisoner of the Vietnam War.

McCain's current guarantee of victory with honor appeals to magical thinking. He asserts: "Understand this: When I am commander-in-chief, there will be nowhere the terrorists can run, and nowhere they can hide." Put another way, McCain is promising that American forces will constantly scour the globe to annihilate terrorism for good. He wants to kick Russia out of the G8 (a much more hostile stance than George W. Bush's) and hold China at arm's length. Meanwhile we'll keep permanent bases in countries like Iraq, just as we did during the Cold War. McCain calls withdrawal from Iraq a "morally reprehensible abandonment of our responsibilities." His faith in America's transcendent moral destiny is a mirror image of the terrorists' paranoid nihilism, and hence a boon to their cause.

Like Nixon, McCain is a complicated man, but fundamentally pugnacious. If he's elected president, he'll surely find no shortage of wars he is dying to win. And no shortage of war profiteers eager to advise him.

*Footnote:
Admiral McCain played a key role in Nixon's nuclear brinksmanship during October of 1969, when 71% of Americans approved of their war president. Nixon concocted an astonishingly secret operation to fake a nuclear attack on North Vietnam. From Oct. 10 through the end of the month, Nixon ordered the US military to full global war readiness alert with no explanation. Nixon knew both his Secretaries of State and Defense opposed his nuclear brinksmanship. Admiral McCain, however, was in Nixon's loop and urged maximum mobilization, including the deployment at sea of as many threatening Polaris nuclear missile submarines as possible.
On Oct. 27, Nixon dispatched 18 B-52 bombers loaded with nuclear weapons to the northern edge of the Soviet Union, where they circled for three days. This signal to the Soviets and the North Vietnamese ("Compromise on our terms or else!") was completely hidden from the American public and virtually all of the top military brass. Nixon's mad bypassing of the chain of command caused tactical screw-ups, including near collisions of the nuclear-armed bombers with other planes over Alaska. And the bottom line? The operation failed to budge the North Vietnamese.