"We need to listen," John McCain was saying, "to the views … of our democratic allies." Then, though the words weren't in the script, the Arizona senator repeated himself, as if in self-admonishment: "We need to listen." A lot of meaning was packed into that twice-said line, which was a key theme of McCain's first major foreign-policy speech since becoming the GOP's nominee-apparent. McCain was telling America, and the whole world: if I'm elected there will be, at long last, a return to what Jefferson called "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind." There will be no more ill-justified lurches into war, no more unilateralism, no more George W. Bush. Above all, McCain seemed to be saying that while Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama tear each other to pieces, I'm going to be the wise and welcoming statesman patching up America's global relations even before I get to the Oval Office. Not surprisingly, after the speech last week at the Los Angeles World Affairs Council, McCain's campaign could not talk enough about international cooperation—what McCain had called a "new compact." "He has such a deep relationship with so many Europeans and those in other regions, including Asia and the Middle East," said one adviser, Rich Williamson, who added that McCain has kept up his global profile by "going each year to the Munich Security Conference."
It was all very reassuring. There's just one problem: John McCain doesn't always behave according to his own statesmanlike script. In fact, while attending that same Munich conference in 2006, the Arizona senator had another one of what have come to be known as McCain Moments. In a small meeting at the Hotel Bayerischer Hof, McCain was conferring with Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the foreign minister of Germany—one of America's most important allies—when the others heard McCain erupt. He thought the German was being insufficiently tough on the brutal regime in Belarus. Raising his voice at Steinmeier—who's known for speaking in unclear diplomatese—McCain "started shaking and rising out of his chair," said one participant, a former senior diplomatic official who related the anecdote on condition of anonymity. "He said something like: 'I haven't come to Munich to hear this kind of crap'." McCain's old pal Joe Lieberman jumped in. "Lieberman, who reads him very well, put his hand on McCain's arm and said gently, 'John, I think there's been a problem in the translation.' Of course Lieberman doesn't speak German and there hadn't been any problem in the translation … It was just John's explosive temper."
Certainly this was no great crisis, and the Germans later said all was forgiven. (On Sunday Sen. McCain's campaign strongly denied this account of the incident; Sen. Lieberman earlier recalled it as a misunderstanding over the translation.) But McCain's Munich outburst could not be called an isolated incident. Fearless and righteous, McCain has long been known to unleash a lacerating anger on those who cross him—Senate colleagues, foreign interlocutors, even the interrogators who once held his life in their hands at the Hanoi Hilton. (Lieberman, his fellow centrist, recently seems to have assigned himself the role of McCain's monitor. Just two weeks ago, when McCain mistakenly said Iran was training Al Qaeda in Iraq fighters, it was the Connecticut senator who again pulled him aside, gently reminding him that the Iranian regime has been accused of training fellow Shiite extremists, not Sunni Al Qaeda.) For someone who is just an election away from the White House—and who is running on his image as a tested statesman—there remain serious questions about how exactly McCain might behave as president.
Partly this is because McCain himself is not easy to pin down. There is McCain the pragmatist: worldly-wise and witty, determined to follow the facts to the exclusion of ideology—a man willing to defy his own party and forge compromise, even with liberals like Ted Kennedy (on granting illegal immigrants some amnesty) and John Kerry (on normalizing relations with Vietnam). And then there is the zealous advocate, single-minded about pressing his cause, sometimes erupting in outrage at detractors and willing to stand alone—without any allies at all, if need be.
There is much to like in both McCains. He's pragmatic in the service of the national interest; he rises to passion when he believes that America's best values are at stake. Even some of those who fret about his zeal and temper say they plan to vote for him (just as many ultraconservatives who worry about his centrism say they'll reluctantly pull the lever as well). Lieberman says McCain's anger "is part of his strength. And his guts. There are some things we should get righteously angry about."
Sometimes these two McCains—the crusader and the pragmatist—have combined to make him a powerful and leaderly force for change, which seems to be what Americans want now. It was McCain the savvy military analyst who looked hard at the emerging Iraqi insurgency in the fall of 2003, decided a lot more U.S. troops were needed, and then went head-to-head with the mulish Donald Rumsfeld over the issue. (McCain was, in effect, the first person in Washington to call for a "surge.") Ultimately, four years later, he brought the Congress—and the president—with him. "I went against the will of my own party when it wasn't politically expedient," McCain has said.
What's also true, however, is that he had long supported calls to topple Saddam Hussein, and was an enthusiastic promoter of the war in Iraq. Despite his best efforts to project himself as a healing president, the antic Arizonan has already worried many voters. His Beach Boys wisecrack about whether to "bomb, bomb, bomb" Iran is perhaps too easily mocked.
But McCain has said over and over that as president he will rise to what he calls the "transcendent challenge of the 21st century"—the fight against radical Islamic terrorism. And he's gone beyond that: he's indicated that anyone who disagrees with that premise—read Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton—is simply incompetent. As he declared in Los Angeles: "Any president who does not regard this threat as transcending all others does not deserve to sit in the White House, for he or she does not take seriously enough the first and most basic duty a president has—to protect the lives of the American people."
This is what troubles some about McCain's zeal for certain causes: he can be pragmatic in the pursuit of them, but seems to
see them in largely black and white terms, not unlike George Bush, and rejects too much of the gray. Terror cells may be spreading, but their crazed ideology— all that talk of establishing a medieval caliphate—keeps dying every time it is exposed to the open air. And what about other major threats, like global warming? McCain, in an interview with NEWSWEEK, said those were important, "but I do not believe that anyone who fails to understand the dimensions and enormity of this [extremist] challenge is qualified to serve as president of the United States." In Iraq, where last week the Iraqi government failed to quell renewed hostilities from cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army—forcing U.S. troops to step in once again—McCain declared recently: "We're succeeding. I don't care what anybody says." The diatribe against Belarus was another case in point: no one doubts that Alexander Lukashenko is an evil if fairly insignificant dictator, but sometimes one has to talk to evil people.
On similar grounds, McCain has refused to consider meeting with the current Iranian government. Some critics worry that despite McCain's stated commitment to diplomatic coercion against Tehran, such an uncompromising approach could lead to hostilities. "The typical thing you'd expect from a war veteran, especially someone with his searing experience, is more caution than he shows," says Winslow Wheeler, a defense-budget expert who observed McCain for years as an aide to different senators.
This tendency to pursue causes so relentlessly—like his almost visceral dislike of Russia's quasi-dictatorial Vladimir Putin, whom he wants to cast out of the G8 (contrary to European wishes)—even concerns some GOP stalwarts. "I tried to talk to him about Russia, but he just stiffened," a former senior GOP foreign-policy official, who would speak only on condition of anonymity, said. "To me that's one of the most troublesome things about him. Advisers need to be able to walk into the Oval Office and say, 'Look, Mr. President, I think you're wrong.' That's not easy to do anyway. But if you think your head's going to be taken off and he will never forgive you, then you've got a real problem." As Wheeler puts it: "Joe Lieberman's not going to be there at 3 o'clock in the morning, in bed with him, when the phone call comes."
McCain himself has long been aware of what he called, in his 2002 book "Worth the Fighting For," his "legendary" temper. "I am combative, there is little use in pretending otherwise," he wrote. While he insisted then that people tend to exaggerate his anger (most people with tempers say the same), he admitted that it "has caused me to make most of the more serious mistakes of my career." But it is not just McCain's anger that worries his detractors; it's the fierce righteousness that is joined to it. During his first Senate run, in 1986, McCain grew so tired of hearing complaints about his anger that he thundered to his staffers ("as they struggled to keep straight faces," recorded author Robert Timberg): "I don't have a temper! I just care passionately." The participant who witnessed McCain's 2006 spat with Steinmeier agrees with this distinction. "He is, plain and simple, the most openly emotional politician in the United States," he says. "Other people have had tempers. Eisenhower had a famous temper. Clinton has a temper. Reagan had a temper. But it's that McCain is so emotional. He does jump to conclusions." In the Senate, McCain is known for getting up and walking out if he doesn't like what he's hearing. "You really don't have the luxury of walking out when you're president; you have a broader obligation," says a longtime Democratic Senate staffer who would describe private meetings only if he were not named. McCain denies he ever walked out of a meeting for that reason, saying that his Senate record shows "calm, sober hours of negotiations, good faith and respect for those who hold opposing notions." But he adds: "I feel passionately about issues, and the day that passion goes away is the day I will go down to the old soldiers' home and find my rocking chair."
Not even his harshest critics suggest that McCain—whose character and sanity were tested by some of the most savage torture a human being could endure—is unstable. And even many Democratic admirers, such as former senators Bob Kerrey and Gary Hart, think he'd be an outstanding president. Lieberman, perhaps his most avid supporter in the Senate, says it's "fair" to ask whether the displays of temper that so characterized McCain's Senate career are suitable for the Oval Office. But he adds: "I've never seen him get angry to the point of a loss of control."
Which fights is he likely to pick as president? As a Vietnam veteran, tempered in the failure of that war, McCain has made many thoughtful and careful judgments about the use of force during his more than 20 years in the Senate. In 1983, as a congressman, he called for the withdrawal of the Marines from Beirut—defying a president he professed to admire, Ronald Reagan. He voted against intervention in Haiti and in favor of a cutoff of funds for the "Black Hawk Down" mission in Somalia. He was leery of a ground war against Iraq in 1991, though he ultimately voted for it. But since then, McCain has also shown a willingness to use force that suggests he has escaped from his Vietnam-bred caution.
McCain himself denies there's been much change in his views, and aides say he's been fairly consistent in embracing the concept so many Vietnam vets have: the "Powell doctrine." Named after former Joint Chiefs chairman and secretary of State Colin Powell, the doctrine says the U.S. military should not be used unless the mission and exit strategy are clear and overwhelming force is applied. In Beirut and Somalia, McCain saw that the missions were muddled, says Mark Salter, his longtime speechwriter and alter ego. "He thought, 'What in the world are these few hundred Marines doing but making themselves targets?' " (Soon afterward, on Oct. 23, 1983, 241 Marines died in a terrorist bombing.)
McCain began to grow somewhat more sanguine after the stunning successes in the gulf war—the start of the "smart bomb" era—and the fall of the Soviet Union. He came to expand his view of America's calling, especially after Serbs slaughtered 8,000 Muslims at Srebrenica in 1995. In the late 1990s he forcefully backed the air war in Kosovo, and signed the Project for a New American Century letter along with neocons like Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle that called for Saddam Hussein to be ousted.
A decade later, after 9/11, McCain proved more eager than Bush was to take on Saddam in the middle of the war against Al Qaeda, declaring in early 2002 that Iraq was "the next front." He has since pledged to keep U.S. troops there indefinitely, saying he's in accord with none other than Osama bin Laden that Iraq is the central battleground in the War on Terror. "General Petraeus and I and Osama bin Laden are in agreement," McCain said recently. "It is hard to understand why Senator Clinton and Senator Obama do not understand that."
McCain knows that his candidacy will rise or fall on how the public sees Iraq and the larger War on Terror. "How people judge Iraq will have a direct relation to how they judge me," he recently told reporters on his campaign plane. "In some ways, it's out of my control." Last week, as violence scorched Baghdad and Basra, there were renewed questions about whether McCain even now "gets" Iraq and the delicate counterinsurgency campaign being run by Gen. David Petraeus. When he traveled there last year, appearing in a flak jacket in an open Baghdad market to demonstrate the success of the surge, "many of us were very uncomfortable," says a former member of the U.S. command in Baghdad who would reveal internal discussions only on condition of anonymity. "We felt he was pushing things too hard and too fast."
Despite McCain's nuanced record on the use of force, his team understands that he's got something of an image problem. Hence it was no surprise that the first lines of his remarks last week were designed to remove any lingering doubts that McCain is a warmonger, according to Salter. "I detest war," McCain declared. "When nations seek to resolve their differences by force of arms, a million tragedies ensue … Whatever gains are secured, it is loss the veteran remembers most keenly."
Still, McCain's Vietnam experience, not surprisingly, shapes him yet. "His position on Iraq is heavily influenced by his Vietnam experience," says Gary Hart, who was an usher at McCain's 1980 wedding. "I think that he has an emotional stake in not losing. He, like other veterans, believes that we could have 'won the Vietnam War,' but the politicians panicked and caved in to public sentiment and withdrew prematurely."
If there is one issue that haunts the reinvigorated McCain candidacy even more, it is whether he will start a new war with Iran. McCain told NEWSWEEK that he "will continue to exhaust every other option before committing young Americans to harm's way," but that "we cannot afford to have Iran acquire nuclear weapons." Lieberman says McCain is precisely the man to keep America out of a war. "He's going to do everything he can to avoid military confrontation with Iran," he says. "There's an old expression: the best way to achieve peace is to prepare for war." McCain has called for expanding the U.S. Army and Marines by about 100,000 service members, but he also understands that the global struggle against terrorists and their state sponsors is counterinsurgency writ large, requiring aid and the winning of "hearts and minds" as much as military ops. "In this struggle, scholarships will be far more important than smart bombs," he said in Los Angeles. If John McCain becomes president, which will be used more?