By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 27, 2008
LOS ANGELES, March 26 -- Sen. John McCain on Wednesday promised a collaborative foreign policy that would seek the input of allies abroad and would contrast sharply with the go-it-alone approach of the Bush administration.
McCain (Ariz.) also refused to give ground on Iraq to his Democratic rivals, declaring that the continued U.S. presence there is a "moral responsibility" and that a "reckless" withdrawal would be an "unconscionable act of betrayal, a stain on our character as a great nation."
In his first extensive policy speech since securing the delegates needed to win the Republican presidential nomination, McCain delivered an impassioned argument that achieving democracy in Iraq is necessary for a peaceful world.
"Those who argue that our goals in Iraq are unachievable are wrong, just as they were wrong a year ago when they declared the war already lost in Iraq," he said, without naming Democratic candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama. "Those who claim we should withdraw from Iraq in order to fight al-Qaeda more effectively elsewhere are making a dangerous mistake."
But even as McCain offered a defense of President Bush's current war policy, he outlined a sharp critique of the administration's dealings with foreign allies.
In a speech to the World Affairs Council in Los Angeles, McCain called himself a "realistic idealist" and outlined a worldview mirroring that of some Bush administration critics, who say the first task of the next president must be to repair relations around the world.
"Today we are not alone," McCain said. "Our great power does not mean we can do whatever we want whenever we want, nor should we assume we have all the wisdom and knowledge necessary to succeed."
The speech drew a quick response from Obama spokesman Bill Burton. He castigated McCain for being "determined to carry out four more years of George Bush's failed policies, including an open-ended war in Iraq that has cost us thousands of lives and billions of dollars while making us less safe."
In a statement, Clinton said: "While there is much to praise in Senator McCain's speech, he and I continue to have a fundamental disagreement on Iraq." Clinton said that McCain, like Bush, opposes "a swift and responsible withdrawal from Iraq" and wants to "keep us tied to another country's civil war."
Despite McCain's support for the Iraq war, he said the United States should take a different approach to future conflicts.
In the speech, McCain renewed his call for a "global compact -- a League of Democracies" that would unite the world's free countries against tyranny, disease and environmental destruction. As he did in Europe last week, he played down unilateral action and stressed cooperation on global warming, torture of prisoners and trade.
"We need to listen -- we need to listen -- to the views and respect the collective will of our democratic allies," McCain said. "When we believe international action is necessary, whether military, economic or diplomatic, we will try to persuade our friends that we are right. But we, in return, must be willing to be persuaded by them."
Bush's foreign policy approach has moderated significantly in his second term, with greater outreach to European allies and a willingness to strike deals with countries such as North Korea. In essence, McCain suggested he would embrace Bush's policies on terrorism, Iraq and Afghanistan while extending his willingness to meet allies halfway.
At the same time, McCain indicated he would sharply break with Bush's efforts to accommodate Russia, saying he would push to eject it from the Group of Eight club of industrial powers.
Part of the opening of McCain's speech echoed the opening of an opinion piece he wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2001 in support of the administration's anti-terrorism efforts. In both instances, the lengthy passage says that in war "the lives of a nation's finest patriots are sacrificed" and "commerce is disrupted, economies are damaged," among other nearly identical lines.
McCain is often portrayed in the news media as a global John Wayne who would tread on the world stage with a Navy veteran's swagger and talk tough toward unfriendly governments in Iran and North Korea.
But his record on foreign policy during two decades in the Senate is more nuanced. A skeptic about foreign interventions when he arrived in Congress in 1983, McCain later became a vocal advocate for unilateral U.S. action in Kosovo and the Middle East.
In 1983, in opposition to President Ronald Reagan and others in his party, McCain argued for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Lebanon. But in 1999, he supported the use of ground troops to stop "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo. And his full-throated backing of the Iraq war in 2002 is well known.
McCain's rhetoric as he courted Republican voters in primaries was often laced with incendiary language. On Iran, he hinted at an eagerness to take military action, saying the only thing worse would be a "nuclear-armed Iran."
But since becoming the presumptive Republican nominee, McCain has rarely used the language of the neoconservatives in Washington who pushed Bush to adopt a policy of preemptive strikes against foreign enemies.
Instead, McCain has sounded more like the foreign policy "realists" who advised Bush's father, President George H.W. Bush.
In Texas last month, one of those advisers, former secretary of state James A. Baker III, endorsed McCain and described his assessment of the senator's foreign policy.
"John is what I think I am, a principled pragmatist," Baker said at a news conference after McCain spoke to students and professors at Baker's Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. "He prefers to get things done rather than to insist on ideological purity."
In Wednesday's speech, McCain cited China's emergence as a "central challenge" for the United States but said the two countries are not destined to be adversaries. He said relations will be based on "periodically shared interests rather than the bedrock of shared values" until China allows liberalization.
He called for excluding Russia at G-8 meetings until Moscow follows through on political changes. He said the United States must "strongly engage" with friendly governments in Africa, and he pledged to eradicate malaria on that continent. Additionally, he reiterated his call for a free-trade zone across Latin America, the United States and Canada.
"Relations with our southern neighbors must be governed by mutual respect, not by an imperial impulse or by anti-American demagoguery," he said.
Staff writer Glenn Kessler and staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report from Washington.