June 14, 2011 | National Review Online

Would a President McCain Have Invaded Iraq?

A doubter's analysis.

“We need to be honest about one central fact,” Senator John McCain intoned, explaining his opposition to the use of American military force. “We have no way to predict the size, length and casualties” that might result. The Arizonan elaborated:

    If we find ourselves involved in a conflict in which American casualties mount, in which there is no end in sight, in which we take sides in a foreign civil war, in which American fighting men and women have great difficulty distinguishing between friend and foe, then I suggest that American support for military involvement would rapidly evaporate.

It was April 21, 1993, when McCain addressed his colleagues with those words. He was warning against American military intervention in Bosnia. As he later told the New York Times, he worried about an open-ended commitment of troops and aircraft. We seemed to be “flailing around,” he said, “looking for a way to do this on the cheap. And there is no way to do this on the cheap.”

Read today, the senator’s admonitions echo the rabid debate, a decade later, over the American invasion of Iraq and the wisdom of maintaining U.S. troops as an occupying presence. They caught my attention for two related reasons.

First, we’ve been having an interesting conversation on “The Corner” about whether, given Senator McCain’s stalwart support of President Bush’s decision to oust Saddam Hussein, Americans should assume a President John McCain would have made the same decision. The senator’s stock appears to be rising in the 2008 GOP nomination stakes, so the question is not an idle one. (Full disclosure: I support Mayor Rudy Giuliani for president but speak here only for myself.)

Second, on Bosnia, McCain changed his mind. A fierce opponent of administration strategy for over two years, the senator reversed himself in 1996, co-sponsoring with Bob Dole a key Senate resolution in support of the peacekeeping mission to which President Clinton had promised American troops. Indeed, these days McCain prefers to be remembered, as he put it in a 2006 oped (co-authored with Dole), as an “advocate of military action in Bosnia.”

His rationale for the shift is instructive for present purposes. As he told the International Herald Tribune at the time, “[W]hen the president made his commitment, committing not just Bill Clinton but the United States of America, the entire situation changed.” For Senator McCain, this meant our nation had dispatched its troops and America’s credibility as leader of the free world was at stake. He had also become convinced that, without U.S. troops, ancient hatreds would reignite the internecine conflict, causing massive loss of life. In fact, by 1999, McCain had so come around that he took to the Senate floor to chastise Clinton and the vast majority of his colleagues for ruling out the introduction of ground forces in Kosovo.

In short, a President McCain may not have made the same decision as President Clinton, but Senator McCain considered it a point of honor, a matter of urgency, to support the decision once it was made.

To be sure, while there are obvious parallels, there are also salient differences between Bosnia and Iraq, the most salient being that Senator McCain never voiced opposition to the Iraq invasion. That does not necessarily mean, of course, that he would have ordered the invasion. But there is other evidence that he might well have. On Wednesday afternoon, Patrick Hynes of the McCain 2008 presidential campaign team pointed us to the senator’s 2003 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations. (I’m now supplying the link, here.) The speech is very much worth considering — on the thought experiment before the house as well as on McCain’s overall foreign-policy approach (a topic for another day).

Hynes is right: The speech tends to suggest that, had he been commander-in-chief armed with a congressional authorization, McCain would have invaded Iraq.

I have speculated that McCain would not have invaded. If I were right, one would naturally expect to find some hedging on his part by late 2003, when the speech was delivered and by which time things in Iraq had started to go badly. After all, at the time there was already plenty of hedging from others who had ostensibly supported President Bush’s decision to remove Saddam. Senator McCain, however, was a rock. He was completely committed to staying as long as it took to win. He was trenchant in reminding Americans that we had prematurely left Somalia to al-Qaeda in 1993, and Beirut to Hezbollah in 1983. The jihadists had seized on these indicators of weakness, leading to a spate of new attacks.

The senator had evolved. It had been a long and winding road from his opposition as a freshman congressman to President Reagan’s deployment of marines to Beirut (regarding which McCain later declared he was “prepared to accept the consequences of our withdrawal”), to his Bosnia 180, to his effort to goad President Clinton into a ground war in Kosovo, to his insistence that the Bush administration should send thousands more troops to Iraq. From where he stood in late 2003, leaving Iraq before the terrorists and Baathist insurgents were defeated was simply not an option. From that, it is fair to infer that he would not have been deterred, as president, from starting the fight nine months earlier.

Moreover, as Ramesh Ponnuru has observed, McCain strongly supported the project of democratizing the Islamic world. That theme, too, comes through powerfully in the speech, and its roots lie deeper than Iraq, digging back to McCain’s Bosnia conversion. (Ramesh’s article about the senator’s 2000 GOP convention speech is instructive.) Those who follow our “Corner” discussions will not be surprised to learn that this is part of what I find disturbing in the speech. But that is a different issue. On the question whether McCain was so committed to the Iraq expedition that he not only vigorously supported it but would in fact have ordered it himself, enthusiasm for aggressive democracy-promotion tends to indicate that a President McCain would have ordered Saddam’s ouster.

Nevertheless, I remain skeptical. To be clear, I am not intimating, nor would I ever, that there is anything the slightest bit inauthentic about Senator McCain’s commitment to Iraq. Quite the contrary. Instead, taking a further step back, I am questioning whether the international and domestic pressures exerted against an Iraq invasion between 2002 and March 2003 would have had a more profound effect on a President McCain than they did on President Bush.

In early 2002, the president allowed British prime minister Tony Blair to talk him into the war’s first real quagmire: the U.N. Security Council process. At the U.N., we were waylaid for months — while Saddam laid the groundwork for the insurgency we are still combating. It was a futile effort to win the approval of countries we now know (thanks to Claudia Rosett’s investigative journalism) were swimming in oil-for-food pay-offs from the Iraqi regime. I believe, however, that Bush went along with Blair only reluctantly and never really accepted the notion that the Security Council’s imprimatur was vital for the U.S. (though Blair obviously thought it was for the Brits). President Bush needed only to be convinced that Saddam was a menace who might be beyond the capacity of international sanctions to rein in. For the President, the post-9/11 environment made that too much of a risk: A thumbs-down from the U.N. was not going to stop him.

Senator McCain, however, places much more stock in the esteem of the international community. It’s the global version of what he regards as one of his candidacy’s signal selling-points: the maverick Republican who can work with Democrats will also reach out to our tetchy allies.

As it happens, most of our allies did not want us to go to Iraq and the Security Council would not approve it. (Indeed, in his infinite wisdom, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan pronounced it a violation of international law.) McCain, furthermore, frets a good deal about how our actions affect our standing in the Muslim world, where opposition to a U.S. ouster of Saddam was strident (even from such regime foes as Iraq’s current prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki). And the senator is greatly influenced by the uniform military, as well as quadrants of the State Department and the intelligence community notoriously hostile to Bush. There was significant opposition in all those camps.

Moreover, conventional wisdom (which is occasionally right) holds that it was the Bush administration hawks in the vice president’s office and the Pentagon’s civilian leadership who were most gung-ho for Saddam’s ouster — the Powell/Armitage faction was, to put it mildly, not as enthusiastic. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell and his then-deputy, Richard Armitage, are McCain intimates. So is Brent Scowcroft, the national-security adviser in the Ford and Bush-41 administrations who opposed the Iraq invasion.

I think a McCain administration circa 2002-03 would have featured those and other similarly minded advisers, such as General Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff who testified that “several hundred thousand” troops would be required for a successful occupation of Iraq. There would have been far fewer advisers in the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz-Bolton mold. It is not for nothing that Senator John Kerry — a leading liberal Democrat whom candidate McCain, vintage 2000, said he would consult “to get foreign policy, national security issues back on track” — wanted Senator McCain to be his running mate in 2004.

A McCain administration would have been chockablock with influential senior administration officials counseling against an invasion — urging, at the very least, that he give the U.N. inspectors more time to work. I could be wrong, but I think he’d have listened to them.

– Andrew C. McCarthy directs the Center for Law & Counterterrorism at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.