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Thursday, April 10, 2008 | We can’t really hold politicians, even so-called “straight-talking” ones, to their word, can we? Politicians need the freedom to run at the edges in the primaries and move back to the center in November. Only a curmudgeon would call it pandering.

Nobody was better at it than George W. Bush, who came up with the oxymoronic slogan “compassionate conservative” for the 2000 general election, confusing people to the point that a quarter of the public in the fall of that year said there was no difference between Bush and Al Gore.

Right.

This time, John McCain is at it. Darling of independents as a Senate rebel — slashing at corporations, attacking bloated budgets, sponsoring election reforms, opposing tax cuts, supporting immigration rights, rejecting the religious right, rejecting Bush — McCain has reinvented himself on everything except Iraq, the one place he needs reinvention. His latest sleight of hand came two weeks ago in a speech to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council.

McCain’s army of foreign policy cooks is so full of contradictory tastes that it’s no surprise the stew is off. How do you mix realists like Colin Powell, Brent Scowcroft and Richard Armitage with neo-cons like Bill Kristol, Robert Kagen, Gary Schmitt and Randy Scheunemann? We know what the first three thought of the Iraq war. As for the last four, they were all ringleaders of the Project for the New American Century, the blueprint that got us into the war.

For his foreign policy speech, McCain had a problem with too many cooks in the kitchen. He tried to solve it by coming up with a slogan that, as oxymorons go, beats even Bush’s compassionate conservatism. In foreign policy, McCain informed us, he is a “realistic idealist.”

Politics being what it is, one can’t be too surprised. No one described the politician (or much else for that matter) better than H.L. Mencken, who called politics the “art of enchanting the intellectually underprivileged.” “Hooey,” he added, “pleases the boobs a great deal more than sense.”

In introducing us to “realistic idealism” (or was that idealist realism?), McCain, enchanter of the press with daily briefings at the back of his bus, the “Straight Talk Express,” was peddling the purest hooey. Assuming not all the attendees at the LAWAC are not “intellectually underprivileged” (I know that members of San Diego’s two World Affairs Councils are not) — a good many of them understood they were being had.

Realists and idealists represent two opposing poles in foreign policy, and mixing them together produces the kind of incoherence McCain produced in Los Angeles. Though this nation is in the sixth year of an ugly war conceived and executed by the neo-cons, McCain didn’t get around to Iraq until the end of his speech. That’s part of the deal of course, one in which McCain’s friends in the press are his accomplices: push war off the front pages; confound it with terrorism; pretend that Iraq is just one issue among many.

The idea is to lump it all together in the catch-phrase “radical Islamic-terrorism,” which, says McCain, is the “transcendent challenge of our time,” a phrase lifted straight from the neo-con catechism. “Any president,” he said, “who does not regard this threat as transcending all others does not deserve to sit in the White House.”

What has that to do with the war in Iraq? And who are these radical Islamic terrorists? “They alone,” said McCain, “seek nuclear weapons and other tools of mass destruction not to defend themselves or to enhance their prestige or to give them a stronger hand in world affairs, but to use against us wherever and whenever they can.”

Which of McCain’s (Bush’s) neo-cons wrote that idiotic sentence, which contains not an ounce of foreign policy realism? Terrorists are the Taliban, but the Taliban in their caves, whatever the neo-cons want you to think, are not a nuclear threat. Nuclear threats are North Korea and Iran, but those states, whatever the neo-cons want you to think, are not terrorists. And how does Iraq, which was not a terrorist state, a nuclear state nor representative of radical Islam figure in any of that?

Yes, McCain’s stew had a dash of realistic seasoning here and there (no to torture, yes to international allies, yes to nuclear non-proliferation), but the essence was pure Bush neo-conservatism. McCain doesn’t want to campaign on Bush’s foreign policy, a disaster on all fronts, but can’t separate himself from it. He is a prisoner of the neo-cons and their war as much as Bush, and in Los Angeles used the same Bush techniques to confuse the intellectually underprivileged.

Whoever the Democrats choose to run against him, we know what to expect from McCain. “If I cannot convince the American people that Iraq is a worthy cause,” he says, “I lose.” Here’s how he put it in Los Angeles:

“It would be an unconscionable act of betrayal, a stain on our character as a great nation, if we were to walk away from the Iraqi people and consign them to the horrendous violence, ethnic cleansing and possibly genocide that would follow a reckless, irresponsible and premature withdrawal.”

Substitute the word Vietnam in that sentence, and you get to McCain’s true thinking. He believes in military solutions where there are none. “I look for the shadow of Vietnam in every prospective conflict,” he told the VFW in a 2000 campaign speech, and apparently always finds it. For McCain, politicians, not the military (or the American people) lost the Vietnam War. In his autobiography, he describes as “senseless” and “illogical” the limiting of bombing in Vietnam to military targets. “We thought civilian commanders were complete idiots.”

It is an argument for total war, war that makes no distinction between combatants and civilians, one that knows no limits. For McCain, there was a bombing and occupation solution in Vietnam, and so must there be one in Iraq.

Someone else once said the same thing. His name was Tacitus, who said of Rome’s insatiable appetite for conquest:

“They make a desert and call it peace.”

And look what happened to Rome.

James O. Goldsborough has written on foreign affairs for four decades, both from the United States and abroad, where he worked as a foreign correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune, International Herald Tribune and Newsweek magazine for 14 years, reporting from more than 40 countries. Visit his website here. Submit a letter to the editor here.

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