Jonathan Schell examines how much the leading Republicans differ on foreign policy
VOICE OF PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: So as people who support the Republican Party head to the polls, they also have to make a decision between McCain and Romney. How do you assess the foreign policy of leading Republican candidates?
JONATHN SCHELL, AUTHOR AND JOURNALIST: The overall picture is that both McCain and Romney and, as far as I can tell, also Huckabee, although he hasn’t had too much to say about foreign policy, they all really, essentially, embrace the Bush directive. They don’t praise Bush, they don’t mention him, but when it comes to his policies, and above all the policy in Iraq, they seem to be seeking to out-tough one another in that respect, and towards Iran as well. And, in fact, with McCain you see what seems to be a really heartfelt enthusiasm for the war in Iraq. And so if he were president, there’s every reason to believe that the American commitment to that war would get a whole new lease on life. But what’s kind of interesting about that is that he doesn’t really seem to belong to the neoconservative movement. He seems to come at it from a different angle. He’s been quite ready to defy the so-called conservative movement in many respects, both domestic and foreign policy, but especially in the domestic area, such as immigration, and campaign finance reform, and other issues. So he’s not in lockstep with any sort of conservative cabal. What you don’t seem to find in him is the sort of crusading zeal for intervention for remaking the world. Instead, what he seems to do is something that is more in line with the realists’ view, whether one would finally call it realist or not, and that is that he simply slots in Osama bin Laden and the terrorists, so to speak, for Stalin. He sees a complete continuity with the Cold War. It’s as if nothing has changed except the face of the enemy. And he’s constantly making that comparison, and he’s saying that the prime duty of the commander-in-chief is to protect the United States of America. So the war on terror he says is the defining mission—and here he sounds like Bush—very much of our generation, and we can’t overlook it, and we have to stand tall and be like Ronald Reagan, and so on and so forth. But it seems in a certain way to be a defensive objective, in other words to defend the country, even if this involves going on the offense. But what you don’t find is that characteristic neoconservatist zeal to use military force to remake the political complexions of other countries. I think it’s rather significant that he continually cites Ronald Reagan. Of course, they all try to do that, but it’s a little more substantive with McCain, because when you look at Reagan’s record, it’s rather interesting. He went in for a big military buildup, which all the candidates, as I mentioned, want to do now, Democrat or Republican, but Reagan actually did not intervene in a serious way anywhere. When the marine barracks were bombed with more than 200 casualties in Lebanon, he quickly pulled the troops out of there. Then he followed that up with this sort of mock sort of mini-comedy invasion of Grenada and tried to pretend that that was some big tough thing to do. But it was really symbolic action. And in respect to toughness, Reagan was all buildup and symbolism, and it could be that McCain would be in that position, except that we’re already in two wars, and he’s made very threatening noises about getting into a third one, namely, Iran. But the purposes in his case are not those sort of transformative messianic purposes of advancing democracy around the world at the point of a gun. It’s rather that he seems to feel—and I can’t agree with this—that the terrorist threat is really on a level with the Cold War or even Hitler before that. What’s absolutely key to the foreign policy of John McCain is the fact that he was a prisoner in North Vietnam, that his experience of the Vietnam War was in the north in a prison rather than in the south, because the senators and others, such as Chuck Hagel and John Kerry and a couple of others who were in the south, had the experience of the limitations on American power, which were right in their faces every single day in that quagmire. And they eventually came round to the decision that the war was really a mistake and was un-winnable and the United States should get out. That’s true almost across the board, I would say. McCain, on the other hand, never had that direct, firsthand experience in the south. He was up there in that prison suffering torture up there—very heroic. But on the other hand, not only was he not in the south, but also he was even cut off from American newspapers or any newspapers, I suppose, during that period. So there was a sort of, you might say, a missing piece in his education, and the result has been that he’s had a very hawkish position on the use of force in American policy. It’s very striking to see it. He still holds the view that the United States could have won the war in Vietnam if only we’d unleashed even more force or stayed longer and so on and so forth. And this again is replicated in his feeling about Iraq and his conviction that we can win there, and it’s one that, you know, requires a little courage on his part, because that’s not the view of about two-thirds of the American public. So he doesn’t win any points politically for that. So I think that he comes at this from a special angle that’s rooted in his own biography, and it’s quite interesting to see it. As for Romney, I’ve looked over his foreign policy statements, and he doesn’t have foreign policy experience, so there’s no record to go back and look at, no votes in the Senate or anything like that. He was, of course, the governor of Massachusetts. And it looks to me as if he’s just right down the line with Bush on every point, and he’s allowed no daylight to appear between him and Bush. He tries to outdo the other candidates in sort of overall toughness. You know, he burst out that the United States shouldn’t get rid of Guantanamo, prison in Cuba; rather we should double it—given to pronouncements like that. So there’s not too much to discuss there beyond this sort of full-scale, full-bore agreement with the Bush policies as far as I can see. Now, McCain on the other hand, it’s quite interesting. He out-hawked Bush, because quite a time before the current surge, which is now starting to wind down, so we are told, McCain actually called for increases in American troops. So he was even more hawkish than Bush and Rumsfeld, and criticized Rumsfeld rather severely.
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