You can’t accuse Sen. John McCain of being inconsistent.
Year after year, from hot spot to crisis point, McCain has taken the same position: The U.S. military should intervene.
He supported interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and even seemed to suggest it in the Republic of Georgia when he was running for president. “Today, we are all Georgians,” he intoned in August 2008 after Russia launched reprisal attacks on the small country.
Now it is Syria’s turn — and McCain’s consistency may be starting to hurt him.
McCain made familiar arguments for U.S. strikes against Syria’s government Thursday in Tucson, but the audience was largely unreceptive.
“I am not calling for American engagement or a single boot on the ground,” McCain told the town hall audience. “I am saying that, throughout our history, we have helped people who are struggling for freedom, and this is another case of that.”
In this case, McCain said, American attacks on Syrian government targets would give the Free Syrian Army the upper hand in the civil war, helping force President Bashar Assad out of office. He also cited the country’s humanitarian crisis and the need to respond to Assad’s use of chemical weapons.
“There is no guarantee this will have any positive effect,” one audience member told McCain. “In fact, it could just make it worse, as we have done in Iraq.”
His comments were among the tamer critiques of McCain’s support of strikes in Syria. For me, McCain’s argument was somewhat persuasive but undercut both by our foreign entanglements of the last decade and the identity of the man making the case.
After the town hall, I asked McCain why he has been so regularly enthusiastic about U.S. military intervention in foreign conflicts during the last 10 to 15 years.
“I think we live in a dangerous world, and I think there’s no substitute for American leadership,” he said. “And I think we are an exceptional nation. And I think we have done a great deal of good in the world. I think the world now is more dangerous than at any time since the Cold War, and I think there’s a lack of American leadership.”
McCain hasn’t always been so confident about U.S. military intervention abroad. Author Matt Welch makes a convincing case in his 2008 book, “The Myth of a Maverick,” that McCain opposed military entanglements in Lebanon and Central America before seeing U.S. operations succeed in the Balkans in the 1990s.
McCain formulated his current approach in the late 1990s, when he appears to have fully embraced American military intervention abroad. In a 1999 speech at Kansas State University, he explained his view this way:
“The United States is the indispensable nation because we have proven to be the greatest force for good in human history. That is not empty chauvinism. Imagine how different the crises of the last half of this century would have ended had the United States been a minor power. We enter the new century a peerless, mature power.
“And despite the isolationist views of a distinct minority, we have every intention of continuing to use our primacy in world affairs for humanity’s benefit.”
The Iraq experience and the interminable Afghanistan engagement have not dimmed McCain’s enthusiasm. Again and again, he has cited the danger a given crisis presents as justifying military action, be it with troops on the ground, airstrikes or missile launches.
In February 2003, before we invaded Iraq, McCain said: “The threat posed by Saddam Hussein will not diminish until he is removed from power. Disarmament by regime change must be our goal.”
In January 2006, he called Iran’s nuclear program “the most serious crisis we have faced outside of the entire war on terror since the end of the Cold War.”
Discussing Georgia’s conflict with Russia at the Aspen Institute in 2008, he said: “My friends, we have reached a crisis, the first probably serious crisis internationally since the end of the Cold War.”
See the pattern? McCain responds to international crises every couple of years, calling them the most serious since the Cold War ended. Sometimes his military prescriptions work, and sometimes they fail. But he always returns to them.
And yet McCain apparently did not catch the irony when he told the Tucson crowd, “Those who ignore the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.” They hooted with derision, apparently concluding it’s he who has ignored the lessons of history.
When I reached through the scrum of reporters to ask McCain my one question Thursday, I premised it by saying that he had become more “enthusiastic” about military intervention in the last 10 to 15 years than he was earlier in his political career.
“I haven’t changed at all,” he interrupted. “Your premise is wrong.”
He repeated this objection six times before answering my main question — why he’s been so persistently in favor of military intervention.
Clearly, to McCain, the idea that he’s been consistent is crucial. What he doesn’t seem to get is that his consistent militarism is undercutting the credibility of his arguments for it.
Contact columnist Tim Steller at firstname.lastname@example.org or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter