Is McCain a Neocon?

John McCain reacted this morning to news of the North Korean nuclear tests by pushing the willfully hawkish, neoconservative position: America, he said, should buy itself a missile defense shield to protect itself from threats like this one. This is a position that one wing of conservatism has been backing since the Reagan administration, even though it makes even less sense than it used to: Such a missile shield would be unbearably expensive, it would probably be anachronistic in an age when the most urgent nuclear threats are likelier to come from a suitcase bomb than they are from a fleet of launched missiles, and most evidence suggests such a shield wouldn't work anyway.

But there's a more interesting question now begged by the Arizona Republican's stance: Is John McCain, the current frontrunner for the Presidency in 2008, a hawkish neocon likely to push regime change? Or is he an ideologically more moderate figure, a realist with deep-seated skepticism about committing American troops overseas? What kind of president, in other words, would McCain be?

In a fascinating cover story in this week's New Republic (subscription only), John Judis wrestles with the issue and winds up mostly making the case for McCain the neoconservative. It's a convincing story, and terrifically well told. In Judis's recounting, McCain came out of his experiences in Vietnam believing that the United States ought only to get involved in overseas conflicts when its national interests were clearly at stake and when it possessed overwhelming military force, a realist position. Judis believes McCain then underwent a slow evolution through the 1990s — watching with horror as American troops failed to prevent massacres in Bosnia in the late 1990s — and pushing Clinton to send troops on a humanitarian mission to Kosovo, a war in which he acknowledged no great American national interest was at stake.

By 1999, in Judis's telling, the transformation was complete. McCain was hiring prominent neoconservatives to work on his staff, was supporting the now-discredited Iraqi dissident Ahmad Chalabi, and soon became very prominent early advocate of regime change in Iraq and Iran positions which he defends staunchly to this day. In an interview that is recounted towards the end of the piece, Judis presses McCain to differentiate himself from the neoconservatives, or to concede that the war in Iraq was a mistake in conception and not just execution. McCain passes up the opportunity; of the neoconservatives he says "generally I agree with them and respect them enormously. " McCain backed regime change in Iran, and defended the Bush administration's decision to go to war in Iraq.

Judis concludes that McCain's instincts are basically neoconservative. But he includes this caveat: McCain, he says, has proven that he is willing to listen to objective evidence and change his mind. "It is true that little he said to me suggests he will alter his worldview," Judis acknowledges, "but he has done so before. Perhaps he will again."

That seems a bit too hopeful to me. Judis seems to want to distinguish between two errors that the neoconservatives have made in Iraq, and argue that though McCain may be susceptible to one, he is much less susceptible to the other. The first error was of ambition, to believe that less progressive corners of the world could be transformed into democracies by the application of military force. This, the article is pretty clear, is a theory that still has a great deal of currency for McCain. But there was a second error in the neoconservative project in Iraq, and that was its simple divorce from reality: The unwillingness of the Bush administration and their neoconservative allies to listen to the military planners who said we were sending too few troops, the State Department officials who said the necessary groundwork hadn't been laid for a political transition, or to a thousand others. It's this set of errors that Judis seems to want to suggest that McCain is unlikely to make; he is simply more clued into reality, more willing to listen to advisors, and less stubborn than Bush was.

Well, maybe. But the evidence in the piece cuts stronger the other way, and his insistence that the Iraq war was a worthy project suggest that he is perhaps more stubborn than Judis wants to admit. Not only has McCain consistently backed neoconservative positions over the last decade of his career, but he's also brought in that movement's leaders as his closest advisors. And if the best evidence he can muster is the speculation that McCain, having soured on one foreign policy ideology, might sour on a second, then I don't think I share his confidence McCain will be returning to the realist camp any time soon.