Admiration is not much practiced in today's dyspeptic politics. Surely, however, Americans of all persuasions should pause in their partisan furies and honor what John McCain did last week with his speech at the Virginia Military Institute. It is stirring and poignant to watch McCain, by acting presidential—like a leader-putting at risk his long-held and exhaustingly pursued dream of being president.
There are reasons of temperament and policy, including Iraq policy, to doubt that he should be president. And concerning Iraq, thoughtful people of good will honorably hold dramatically different views of what can and should be done now. What McCain has done is not merely bind himself, as with hoops of steel, to the president's current "surge" policy. At a moment of intense national weariness with a strenuous foreign policy, he has intimated an agenda which, like the president's "freedom agenda," promises unending strenuousness.
There is not much of a constituency for a policy of "stay in Iraq and get into Darfur." McCain did not urge the latter, but he did align himself with those who "look back at America's failure to act to prevent genocide in Rwanda with shame." It is highly improbable that many Americans, in the context of today's Iraq miseries, regret that the U.S. military was not inserted into a tribal and ethnic cauldron in sub-Saharan Africa.
When McCain, an inveterate moralist, implies that America had a duty to "prevent" genocide in Rwanda, he ignores a principle of moral reasoning, one particularly pertinent to U.S. "nation-building" in Iraq. The principle is: There can be no duty to do what cannot be done.
Speaking to the media after his VMI speech, McCain said, "I've always believed those words about 'all of us being created equal and endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights' didn't say only people who live in certain parts of the world who come from certain cultures." So, neoconservatives have their candidate.
Other Americans, however, may recoil from someone who does not distinguish between a sound philosophic judgment and an alarming policy. The judgment is that all human beings have a natural right to live under a regime respectful of personal autonomy and political self-government. Such a regime is a natural right because it would be best for the fulfillment of human nature. The alarming policy flows from the assumption that all peoples and polities are somehow spontaneously—meaning without long acculturation in the necessary habits and mores—prepared to flourish under such a regime. That generous but preposterous assumption is a recipe for many Iraqs.
At VMI, McCain said political freedom is "the natural desire of the human heart." Actually, it is not "natural" to desire for oneself and others what is best for one's nature. It is, rather, a triumph of civilization over some of our natural inclinations.
Still, McCain is a politician, not a philosopher, and in an era awash in synthetic emoting (e.g., almost everyone who vented during the Imus absurdity), McCain really is so tightly wound that anyone who has recently spoken with him about Iraq knows that he is passionate to the point of tears about America's, and Iraq's, agonies. At VMI he cited a new car-bomb tactic of the terrorists:
"They drove their car to a security checkpoint and were waved through because there were two small children in the back seat. The terrorists then walked away from the car, leaving the children inside it, and triggered the explosion."
McCain asked: If terrorists are willing to do that to Iraqi children, what would they do to ours? Hence his asperity in asking: When House Democratic leaders "smiled and cheered" as they passed their measure mandating withdrawal of U.S. forces, what exactly were they "celebrating"? He is right: A sense of the unfolding tragedy would be seemly.
Vietnam produced an antiwar movement in America; Iraq has produced an antiwar America. McCain knows this, but is undeterred. During Vietnam, McCain risked and nearly lost his life. Regarding Iraq, he is risking the great goal of his life. There is only one precedent for the position of dependency McCain has put himself in. In 1864, President Lincoln's re-election perhaps depended on a general's success—on Sherman's capture of Atlanta in September. McCain's candidacy is in General Petraeus's pocket.
Leadership often is the ability to recommend, indeed to promise, pain—presumably short-term pain for long-term gain, but pain—and get away with it. If you seek leadership, look at what McCain is doing. Will he get away with it? Will he find sufficient followers to win the presidency, or even the Republican nomination? Probably not. Still, of his many services to the nation, none has been more noble than his fidelity to a cause that he knows imperils what increasingly looks like his last campaign.