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McCain Retreats in his War on the UN

April 21, 2008

The Los Angeles Times reports today that Republican nominee John McCain has begun a quiet retreat from the centerpiece of his foreign policy vision, a so-called "League of Democracies." First unveiled in May 2007 and a highlight of his March 26 national security address, McCain despite his past angry criticism of America's European allies envisioned a league of democracies which could "act with great influence and power, both economically and militarily." Unfortunately for McCain, what thrills his neoconservative backers is what worries America's friends: the true purpose of his proposal is to "kill the UN."
In multiple speeches and in his November 2007 article in Foreign Affairs, McCain outlined a vision of the world's 100 democracies as like"-minded nations working together in the cause of peace." The organization, which would not include Russia, could act "with or without Moscow's and Beijing's approval." As the LA Times noted, McCain's League "could use military force as well as economic and diplomatic pressure" in Iran, Darfur and other global hot spots.
Despite Senator McCain's insistence that "this League of Democracies would not supplant the United Nations or other international organizations," his hawkish neocon supporters haven't been shy about proclaiming otherwise. Last May, the Weekly Standard reported that many in the conservative blogosphere felt McCain's proposal didn't go far enough in defenestrating either the UN or America's supposedly feckless allies. But on March 27, Charles Krauthammer was positively ecstatic about McCain's League as representing a death blow to the United Nations:

"What I like about it, it's got a hidden agenda. It looks as if it's all about listening and joining with allies, all the kind of stuff you'd hear a John Kerry say, except that the idea here, which McCain can't say, but I can, is to essentially kill the U.N."

Which is precisely what so concerns foreign policy realists here at home and America's friends abroad. Despite McCain's claims to the contrary, the LA Times reports that "European officials were cautious." On senior EU official said McCain's league, with its confrontational stance towards Russia (whom McCain would expel from the G-8), "can appear as something divisive." Ford and Bush 41 national security adviser Brent Scowcroft wrote "that it was a 'bad idea' to create a new bloc in global affairs that would divide the world 'between the good and the evil.'" (The Desert Beacon has a thorough round up of other reactions.)
So this past week, John McCain began the walk back from the edge of the foreign policy abyss. While still mouthing his platitudes and catch phrases about his League (as recently as yesterday on ABC's This Week), McCain has started - quietly - to defang his proposal:

Now, however, McCain says the group would not use military force, and would be an informal organization in which democratic nations come together in different groupings, depending on their concerns.
"It does not envision military action," McCain told reporters in Dallas on April 11. He said it would "not be a formal organization; it would be a coalition of nations that shifts sometimes depending on what their priorities are."

That dramatic turnaround, however, is just one of the ironies for a man who prides himself on supposed straight talk. The very democracies McCain sees as the core of his League are the same nations he repeatedly ridiculed in the past.
Last May, for example, McCain announced that "to be a good leader, America must be a good ally," adding, "We Americans must be willing to listen to the views and respect the collective will of our democratic allies." But in the run-up to and in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, John McCain had only scorn for France, Germany and the other nations of what Donald Rumsfeld deemed "Old Europe:"

"The majority of Europe's democracies have spoken, and their message could not be clearer: France and Germany do not speak for Europe...most European governments behave like allies that are willing to meet their responsibilities to uphold international peace and security in defense of our common values. We thank this European majority for standing with us." (February 11, 2003)
"Compare our great power allies in the Cold War with those with whom we act today in dealing with Iraq. France has unashamedly pursued a concerted policy to dismantle the UN sanctions regime, placing its commercial interests above international law, world peace and the political ideals of Western civilization. Remember them? Liberte, egalite, fraternite." (February 13, 2003)
"They remind me of an aging movie actress in the 1940s who is still trying to dine out on her looks but doesn't have the face for it...Perhaps Churchill and Roosevelt made a very serious mistake when they decided to give France a veto in the Security Council when the United Nations was organized." (February 18, 2003)

While John McCain's dual retreats from his past France-bashing and League of Democracies concept may create confusion about his future foreign policy and attitude towards the United Nations, one man provides a pretty good indication of where McCain's true feelings lay. John Bolton (who famously quipped that if the UN building lost its top 10 floors, "it wouldn't make a bit of difference") praised McCain for his past support. "He thought I was the type of ambassador that ought to represent the United States at the United Nations."


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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