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Tracking militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy

John McCain

    • U.S. Senate: Republican of Arizona (1987 - )
    • International Republican Institute: Chair
    • Committee for the Liberation of Iraq: Former Honorary Co-Chair

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John McCain, a Republican senator from Arizona and the GOP's 2008 presidential nominee, is a leading advocate in the U.S. Senate for aggressive U.S. foreign policies, including an interventionist "war on terror." A founding member of the neoconservative-led Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, McCain consistently backed the George W. Bush administration's efforts to expand the "war on terror" in the Middle East, championing the Iraq War and the invasion of Afghanistan. More recently, he has been a leading congressional advocate for going to war with Iran over its uranium enrichment program and intervening militarily in Syria's civil war.

McCain's stature as one of his party's leading interventionists has been buttressed by his longtime chairmanship of the International Republican Institute, the GOP-linked arm of the National Endowment for Democracy that has been closely associated with subversive U.S. actions in Latin America and other parts of the world.

Although sometimes characterized as a political moderate, McCain has established himself as one of the more militaristic senators of his generation, often partnering with Senate colleagues Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) to press for U.S. military deployments across the globe. Following Lieberman's retirement from the Senate after the 2012 elections, theNew York Times ran a piece marking the end of "the three amigos," observing that the trio's "hawkish world views often placed them at odds with their respective parties, but together they secured a place at the center of every major foreign policy debate."[1]

More recently, McCain has been a leading advocate of U.S. intervention in Syria's civil war, characterizing the Obama administration's reluctance to involve itself in the conflict as "shameful" and "feckless."[2] An early proponent of funneling arms to opposition forces, McCain—along with Graham and Lieberman—penned an op-ed for the Washington Post in August 2012 claiming that "U.S. reluctance to intervene in Syria" was "allowing this conflict to be longer and bloodier, a radicalizing dynamic."[3] Earlier that year, McCain and Graham paid a surprise visit to Free Syrian Army forces in Turkey, declaring in a statement that "Diplomacy with Assad has failed," even as former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was attempting to negotiate a ceasefire.[4]

McCain amplified his calls for U.S. action in Syria in 2013, particularly after allegations emerged that the Assad regime had deployed small amounts chemical weapons against rebel forces (although UN investigators later said that rebels had likely used the weapons as well). Referring to President Barack Obama's past remarks that the use of such weapons constituted a "red line" that could spur U.S. action, McCain quipped in May that the line "was apparently written in disappearing ink" and called for the United States to take "game-changing action" in Syria. Washington, he said, should "establish a safe zone" inside Syria and "supply weapons to the right people in Syria who are fighting, obviously, for the things we believe."[5]

Observers have warned against these steps. Bill Frelick, the refugee policy director for Human Rights Watch, has decried the notion of so-called "safe zones," warning that "keeping people fleeing for their lives in buffer zones inside Syrian borders risks trapping rather than protecting them."[6]

Writing for LobeLog, former State Department official Wayne White argued that McCain had distorted Obama's original comments, noting the president had implied action in response to the widespread use and movement of chemical weapons, not their use in a few isolated cases. Moreover, White added, due to stark sectarian divisions in Syria and the widespread presence of radical Islamist elements in the country's opposition forces, arming the "right people" would prove nearly impossible—and would likely provoke a host of unintended consequences. "Still," he concluded, "that has not stopped Sen. McCain (who so fervently backed US intervention in Libya, but now rails on about the deadly events in Benghazi despite the uncertain challenge posed by post-Qadhafi chaos), from advocating U.S. military involvement in the even messier situation in Syria."[7]

Iraq War Advocacy and Neoconservative Drift

A veteran of the Vietnam War who was tortured as a POW, McCain has always given top billing to his views on national security, which have steadfastly remained on the hawkish right (although, unlike many of his Republican colleagues, he has been an unwavering opponent of torture and "enhanced interrogation"). Despite frayed personal relations with President George W. Bush stemming from a bitter primary race for the 2000 GOP presidential nomination, McCain was an important ally of the president's policies in Iraq, supporting the war effort long after it fell from public favor. The senator was once quoted as saying it would be "fine" if U.S. troops remained in Iraq for "a hundred years."[8]

As the GOP's 2008 presidential nominee, McCain hinged his campaign on the argument that he would be a stronger commander and chief than his opponent, Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL). McCain's ongoing support for the Iraq War, however, ran up against growing public discontent with the conflict, highlighting his association with the unpopular George W. Bush and stoking concerns that he was weak on the economy. Obama frequently cited McCain's hawkish tendencies as a sign that the Arizona senator was out of touch. For example, during the candidates' second debate in October 2008, Obama responded to McCain's charge that Obama was too inexperienced on foreign affairs, saying: "Senator McCain suggests that … he's somber and responsible. … [T]his is the guy who sang, 'Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran,' who called for the annihilation of North Korea. That I don't think is an example of 'speaking softly.' This is the person who, after we had—we hadn't even finished Afghanistan, where he said, 'Next up, Baghdad.'"[9]

McCain was also an early advocate of President Bush's "surge" in Iraq, a marked escalation of the war that came shortly after a sweeping GOP defeat in the 2006 midterm elections, which were widely interpreted as a public rebuke of the deeply unpopular conflict.

After returning from a January 2007 trip to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Israel with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), McCain and Lieberman presented their opinions on Iraq to an audience at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the Washington, D.C.-based think tank that serves as home for many leading neoconservative writers. Emphasizing his belief that the Iraq War was still "winnable," McCain laid out his argument for a troop surge: "The presence of additional coalition forces would give the Iraqi government the ability to do what it cannot accomplish today on its own—impose its rule throughout the country. In bringing security to Iraq and chiefly to Baghdad, our forces would give the government a fighting chance to pursue reconciliation."[10] This plan was echoed by one proposed by AEI scholar Frederick Kagan and retired Gen. Jack Keane, which unveiled at the same AEI event at which McCain and Lieberman spoke.[11]

Earlier, in 2002, McCain played a role in supporting aWhite House-orchestrated campaign to build public and congressional support for the invasion of Iraq when he served as an honorary co-chair of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, founded in late 2002 by Bruce Jackson of the now-defunct Project for the New American Century.[12] While most of the committee members were neoconservatives and Republican Party hawks like McCain, several hardline Democrats also supported the group, including Lieberman and former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-NE). The group's executive director was Randy Scheunemann, a lobbyist who while on the staff of then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS), wrote the Iraq Liberation Act, which authorized $98 million for the Iraqi National Congress and served as a key stepping-stone on the path to the Iraq War.[13] Scheuenmann went on to become McCain's top foreign policy advisor during the 2008 presidential race.

Outside observers noted the impact of Scheunemann and other hawks on McCain's policy preferences. According to John Judis, it was during McCain's failed bid for the GOP 2000 presidential nomination that the influence of hardliners began to take root. Judis writes that McCain began "seeking to differentiate his views from those of other Republican presidential aspirants and from the growing isolationism of House Republicans ... [placing] his new interventionist instincts within a larger ideological framework. That ideological framework was neoconservatism. McCain began reading the Weekly Standard and conferring with its editors, particularly Bill Kristol." Shortly after his staff consulted with Kristol, McCain hired a bevy of neoconservative-aligned operatives, including Scheunemann, Marshall Wittmann, and Daniel McKivergan.[14]

The impact of this group of advisors on the senator's thinking was revealed in early 1999, according to Judis, when McCain spoke at Kansas State University using a speech Scheunemann helped draft. In it, McCain echoed the neoconservative idea of "national greatness conservatism," arguing: "The United States is the indispensable nation because we have proven to be the greatest force for good in human history.... [W]e have every intention of continuing to use our primacy in world affairs for humanity's benefit." Judis reported about the stumping, "The centerpiece of the speech was a strategy that McCain called 'rogue-state rollback,'" a term Scheunemann claimed to have coined based on rhetoric used by critics of 1950s Cold War containment strategy.[15]


McCain promotes an Israel-centric vision of Mideast peace, often echoing neoconservative rhetoric equating U.S. security with that of Israel. Speaking at a 2001 conference of the American Israel Political Affairs Committee (AIPAC), McCain said: "In addition to her moral commitment to Israel's security, America must provide Israel with whatever military equipment and technology she requires to defend herself, above and beyond what we supply today if necessary. Our support for Israel must intensify, as threats to Israeli security have intensified."[16] In a speech to the American Jewish Committee in 2002, McCain said: "I think the Israeli people would agree that we can't wait for rogue regimes like Iran, Iraq, and Syria to develop the weapons that would seriously challenge Israel's defenses, and our own. I think Israelis would agree that a posture of robust deterrence is no longer enough in this age of weapons of mass destruction."[17]

Similarly, during the Israel-Lebanon conflict in summer 2006, McCain rejected mounting criticism of Israel for its response to the Hezbollah kidnappings. "What would we do if somebody came across our borders and killed our soldiers and captured our soldiers?" asked McCain. "Do you think we would be exercising total restraint?"[18]

Despite sharing a number of common policy objectives with neoconservatives and other hawks, McCain has promoted negotiated compromises in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a May 2006 interview with Haaretz, an influential Israeli daily, McCain said that he favored Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations led by realists like Brent Scowcroft or Jim Baker; he also nodded his assent in response to the question: "In general, a movement toward the June 4, 1967 armistice lines, with minor modifications?"[19] Writing in the New Republic, John Judis commented that the interview—which McCain disputed after an upsurge of Israeli criticism—indicated that McCain might be "closer to George H.W. Bush than to George W. Bush. And that's not a bad thing at all."[20]

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Scheunemann, who advised McCain's 2008 presidential campaign as well as his failed 2000 presidential bid, argued that despite a number of "realists," such as Scowcroft, among McCain's foreign policy advisors, his own influence and that of other like-minded advisors like William Kristol and Robert Kagan was paramount in McCain's thinking. "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," Scheunemann said, adding that even if Scowcroft were close, McCain "was not taking the advice."[21]

McCain has served since 1992 as the chairman of the International Republican Institute, a program of the Republican Party that was created in 1983 as a channel for funding from the then-newly created National Endowment for Democracy. Since its early years of work supporting U.S. partners in Central America and the Caribbean, the IRI has gained a reputation as a surrogate for interventionist U.S. foreign policy. IRI has offices around the world, and currently funds nongovernmental organizations in 50 countries. During the Bush administration, the IRI was a leading U.S. actor in supporting individuals and organizations that sought to overthrow President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti (successfully in February 2004) and President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela (unsuccessfully in April 2002).[22]

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[1] Jennifer Steinhauer, "Foreign Policy's Bipartisan Trio Becomes Republican Duo," New York Times, November 26, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/27/us/politics/liebermans-retirement-is-end-of-three-amigos.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.

[2] Kevin Robillard, "John McCain: Obama 'shameful' on Syria," Politico, July 23, 2012, http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0712/78851.html.

[3] John McCain, Joseph I. Lieberman and Lindsey O. Graham, "The risks of inaction in Syria," Washington Post, August 5, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/mccain-lieberman-and-graham-the-risks-of-inaction-in-syria/2012/08/05/4a63585c-dd91-11e1-8e43-4a3c4375504a_story.html.

[4] Josh Rogin, "McCain and Lieberman meet with the Free Syria Army," Foreign Policy "The Cable" blog, April 10, 2012, http://thecable.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/04/10/mccain_and_lieberman_meet_with_the_free_syria_army.

[5] Wayne White, "Syria: Pressure for US Military Action Rising Ominously," LobeLog, May 6, 2013, http://www.lobelog.com/syria-pressure-for-us-military-action-rising-ominously/; Reuters, "McCain: Israeli strikes could force US action, Jerusalem Post," May 5, 2013, http://www.jpost.com/International/McCain-Israeli-strikes-could-force-Obama-to-act-on-Syria-312153.

[6] Bill Frelick, "Blocking Syrian Refugees Isn't the Way," New York Times, April 23, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/24/opinion/global/blocking-syrian-refugees-isnt-the-way.html?_r=1&.

[7] Wayne White, "Syria: Pressure for US Military Action Rising Ominously," LobeLog, May 6, 2013, http://www.lobelog.com/syria-pressure-for-us-military-action-rising-ominously/.

[8] David Corn, " McCain in NH: Would Be "Fine" To Keep Troops in Iraq for "A Hundred Years," Mother Jones, January 3, 2008, http://www.motherjones.com/mojo/2008/01/mccain-nh-would-be-fine-keep-troops-iraq-hundred-years.

[9] CNN, "Transcript of Second McCain, Obama Debate," http://edition.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/10/07/presidential.debate.transcript/.

[10] John McCain, Remarks at the American Enterprise Institute, "Iraq: A Turning Point: Panel II: Reports from Iraq," January 5, 2007.

[11] American Enterprise Institute, "Iraq: A Turning Point: Panel II: Reports from Iraq," January 5, 2007.

[12] John B. Judis, "Minister Without Portfolio," American Prospect, January 1, 2003.

[13] Jim Lobe, "New Champions of the War Cause," Asia Times, November 6, 2002.

[14] John Judis, "Neo-McCain," New Republic, October 16, 2006.

[15] John Judis, "Neo-McCain," New Republic, October 16, 2006.

[16] Quoted in "John McCain, Republican," The Israel Factor, Haaretz.com, November 13, 2006.

[17] Quoted in "John McCain, Republican," The Israel Factor, Haaretz.com, November 13, 2006.

[18] Cited in "John McCainand Israel," One Jerusalem, http://www.onejerusalem.com/2008/02/28/john-mccain-and-israel/ (accessed on November 9, 2008),

[19] John B. Judis, "John McCain's (Disputed) Plan for Middle East Peace," New Republic, October 25, 2006.

[20] John B. Judis, "John McCain's (Disputed) Plan for Middle East Peace," New Republic, October 25, 2006.

[21] Josh Gerstein, " McCain Signals Distance From Bush, Neocons," New York Sun, August 23, 2006.

[22] Mike McIntire, "Democracy Institute Gives Donors Access to McCain," New York Times, July 28, 2008; Tom Barry, "Aristide's Fall: The Undemocratic U.S. Policy in Haiti," IRC America's Program, February 27, 2004.

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John McCain Résumé


    • International Republican Institute: 1992-Present; Chair
    • Committee for the Liberation of Iraq: 2002-2003
    • Council on Foreign Relations: 1997-Present
    • New Majority Council: Honorary Vice-Chair, 1997-Present
    • American Political Dream Political Action Committee: 1997-Present
    • Nixon Center: Distinguished Service Award (1997)


    • U.S. Senate: Senator, R-AZ, since 1987
    • Former Senate Committees: Armed Services; Commerce, Science, & Transportation; Indian Affairs
    • Senate Navy Liaison: 1977-1981
    • U.S. Navy: 1958-1981
    • House of Representatives: Representative, R-AZ, 1983-1986


    • National War College: 1973
    • U.S. Naval Academy: B.S., 1958


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