WASHINGTON — Republican presidential hopeful John McCain fixed his sights on Saddam Hussein long before President Bush sent the U.S. military to oust the Iraqi dictator in March 2003.
Four years earlier, the Arizona senator told a Kansas State University audience that Saddam was amassing illicit weapons, and that the U.S. should arm opposition groups to overthrow him, along with North Korea's leaders and other "odious regimes."
Saddam, however, no longer had any chemical, biological or nuclear arms programs. Covert U.S. efforts to oust him had all failed because the Iraqi opposition was riddled with feuds and Iraqi spies, and because the exiles whom McCain favored — led by Ahmad Chalabi, a purveyor of bogus intelligence on Iraq who also had ties to Iran — had virtually no followers in Iraq.
For years, McCain repeated the same assertions about Iraq's weapons programs and ties to terrorism that the Bush administration later used to make its case for invading Iraq. Today, he insists that the war was right and that last year's surge of additional troops to Iraq has put the U.S. "on the road to victory" there.
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Although he's cultivated a maverick image, McCain's fixation with Iraq, and with regime change more generally, is squarely in step with his party's neoconservatives, many of whom now work for his campaign. Neoconservatives believe that the U.S. must preserve its unchallenged global dominance and military superiority, and reshape the world, by force if necessary.
"There is no question that he (McCain) reflects the hard-line neocon view," said retired Army Brig. Gen. John Johns, a former supporter who's known McCain since his return from Vietnam but is backing Democratic nominee Barack Obama. "With his attitude, his finger on the trigger, the slightest thing will (cause him to) execute that philosophy."
Not true, responded Max Boot, a McCain campaign foreign-policy adviser.
"He is not a warmonger, as the caricature has it, but someone who is very prudent on the use of the American military," Boot said. "He takes things on a case-by-case basis. He has no overarching ideological vision that he would impose on the messy reality of the world."
He promises to employ "all instruments of national power" — military, economic and diplomatic — and work with allies to deal with adversaries, and with Democrats to forge bipartisan foreign policy.
"Senator McCain has always made his own calls based on his assessment of the various situations we face in various parts of the world," Boot said. "He is a very careful, prudent thinker who knows the military and how it should be employed."
The words "diplomacy" and "State Department," however, don't appear on the McCain-Palin campaign Web page, which outlines a national security platform heavy with vows to pump up U.S. military muscle.
While McCain has toned down many of his hard-line pronouncements in this campaign, a McClatchy review of dozens of his speeches, interviews, statements and writings over more than two decades traces an evolution from reluctant warrior to advocate of U.S. military intervention on a global scale.
In speeches and interviews McCain:
Supporters insist that there's much more to McCain. They cite his leadership in restoring diplomatic relations with Vietnam, fighting global warming and promoting human rights, democracy and religious freedom as a long-time president of the International Republican Institute.
"I don't see much of an actual evolution here," Boot said. "I see someone who has devoted his life" to studying military affairs, including "how (military force) can be used effectively."
But a transformation in McCain's views can be traced through his words and stances.
He first gained attention as a freshman congressman in 1983 by breaking with the Reagan administration to oppose an extension of the U.S. troop deployment in Lebanon.
McCain also resisted the use of ground troops to end the 1990-91 Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, arguing that U.S. airpower could drive out Saddam's forces. He opposed invading Iraq — which at that time had chemical, biological and nuclear arms programs — because U.S. troops "couldn't tell a Shiite from a Sunni" and Saddam would be turned "from the bum he is" into a "hero" of the Arab world.
Two years later, McCain sponsored a resolution demanding that the Clinton administration immediately withdraw U.S. forces from Somalia after 18 U.S. troops died in a battle with al Qaida-training fighters depicted in the film "Blackhawk Down."
"The American people did not support the goals of nation building, peacemaking, law and order, and certainly not warlord hunting," McCain said in an Oct. 14, 1993, Senate speech on Somalia.
In the same speech, he decried as "baloney" the notion that a withdrawal would diminish U.S. prestige and insisted that Congress had the constitutional power to pull U.S. forces out of unpopular foreign conflicts if the president wouldn't.
The following year, he demanded that U.S. troops leave Haiti. "In Haiti, there is a military government we don't like," The New York Times quoted him as saying in July 1994. "But there are other governments around the world that aren't democratic that we don't like. Are we supposed to invade those countries, too?"
Yet when it came to Iraq, a far more formidable challenge than Somalia or Haiti, McCain embraced the neoconservative belief that a U.S. occupation would foster peace and democracy throughout the Middle East. He also backed the U.S. military's lead role in Iraqi reconstruction, argued that a withdrawal would weaken U.S. stature and, contradicting his statement on Somalia, asserted that only Bush — not Congress — had the authority to order a pullout. (More here and here.)
McCain's apparently ideological shift began after Haiti. His conversion coincided with his becoming president of the New Citizenship Project, a neoconservative advocacy group that was founded in 1994 by columnist Bill Kristol.
The group initiated the Project for A New American Century, led by Kristol and Robert Kagan, a former State Department official who now advises McCain's campaign.
It was a leading voice of neoconservative security policy and an advocate of using force to topple Saddam's and other anti-U.S. regimes. Its founding members included Vice President Cheney, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and other key Bush administration officials who pushed the Iraq invasion.
The committee, whose directors included Randy Scheunemann, now McCain's top foreign-policy adviser, was a key advocate for the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act, which McCain co-sponsored. The act funneled millions of dollars in U.S. aid to Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress and other opposition groups, and made "regime change" the U.S. policy. (More here and here.)
Initially an opponent, McCain became a strong supporter of the 1996 U.S.-led intervention in Bosnia, although some conservatives and U.S. military commanders questioned the country's importance to U.S. security. He also backed NATO's 1999 intervention in Kosovo, lambasting the Clinton administration for a restrained bombing campaign against Serbia, and urging NATO to mount a ground invasion, as well.
Air strikes "needed to be, from the beginning, massive, strategic and sustained," McCain said in an April 1999 speech. "No infrastructure targets should have been off limits. And while we all grieve over civilian casualties as well as our own losses, they are unavoidable."
Responding to the 9/11 attacks, McCain called for unleashing the "full fury of American power" against al Qaida and other radical Islamic groups and urged the Bush administration to make civilian casualties a secondary consideration.
"We cannot allow the Taliban safe refuge among the civilian population," McCain wrote in The Wall Street Journal on Oct. 26, 2001, of the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan. "We must destroy them wherever they hide."
His willingness to tolerate civilian casualties has proven to be off the mark.
Thousands of civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Pakistan over the past seven years are now recognized as a key reason for the Taliban's resurgence, as popular outrage has brought the insurgents fresh support, recruits and propaganda windfalls.
McCain also argued against fighting terrorism with "half measures," even at the cost of destabilizing pro-U.S. regimes in the Middle East. He insisted that using massive force would convince Islamic extremists and ordinary Muslims that resistance was futile.
"We must change permanently the mindset of terrorists and those parts of Islamic populations" who did not believe that the United States was prepared to "wage a relentless, long term, and, at times, ruthless war," he wrote in the October 2001 Wall Street Journal column.
McCain also used the 9/11 attacks to justify the ouster of Saddam. On Oct. 29, 2001, he said on CNN that there was "very clear" evidence that Saddam had played a role in the 9/11 attacks. There was no such evidence. As soon as there's a government of "some kind of minimal viability" in Kabul, "the next step is Iraq," he said.
In January 2003, as U.S. forces were fighting in Afghanistan and massing to invade Iraq, McCain proposed a unilateral U.S. attack on North Korea if other nations failed to join the "aggressive, multilateral isolation of" the isolated Communist regime.
"Spare us the usual lectures about American unilateralism," McCain wrote in Kristol's magazine, the Weekly Standard. "We would prefer the company of North Korea's neighbors, but we would make do without it if we must."
McCain has since shifted his posture, and he now backs negotiations to end North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
He's also shifted his position on Iran's defiance of U.N. demands to suspend its uranium enrichment program, which many experts believe is intended to make nuclear weapons.
After rejecting direct talks with Tehran, he now says that he'd hold them at the secretary of state level. He also advocates tougher international sanctions, including limiting sales of gasoline and other refined petroleum products to Tehran, a step that Bush and the European allies have ruled out as too harsh for ordinary Iranians.
McCain also wants to slap financial sanctions on Iran's central bank, which Bush and the European Union have resisted, and he's refused to rule out the use of force.
"There is only one thing worse than a military solution," he said in a December 2006 speech, "and that ... is a nuclear-armed Iran."
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