McCain: better unfriendly democracies than despotic allies

The May 30 New Yorker had a profile by Connie Bruck (unfortunately unavailable online) of Republican Senator John McCain, who shows every sign of getting ready to run for President in 2008.

McCain supported the invasion of Iraq, but unlike many other Republicans, he has been outspoken on the Bush administration’s misjudgments and failures since then. Even more admirably, he argues that democracy abroad is worth supporting even if it results in governments that are less friendly to the United States.

…McCain always enjoys setting off fireworks at the annual [Munich Conference on Security Policy], but his speech this year was especially incendiary. In the Republican foreign-policy divide between idealists and realists, McCain unequivocally identifies himself as an idealist. He appeared on the podium with the Russian Minister of Defense, the Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs, and the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for International and Legal Affairs– and he did not spare any of them. First, he established his premise: September 11th made plain that the security of Europe and North America is dependent upon the promotion of democracy in the Middle East– and, ultimately, in the world. “The security of New York or Madrid or Munich depends in part on the degree of freedom in Riyadh or Baghdad or Cairo,” he declared. And, therefore, we can no longer afford the view that “a despotic ally [is] preferable to an unfriendly democracy,” he said. “Russia is actually moving backward. Mr. Putin… is reasserting the Kremlin’s old-style central control.” He also attacked Saudi Arabia, where “repression remains the norm.” In Egypt, President Mubarak “has reigned as a dictator for almost twenty-four years, and he seeks yet another term, while grooming his son for what one newspaper described as a ‘pharaonic succession.'” If these and other governments continued their anti democratic ways, he said, “we should reassess our relationships– including the billions of dollars in bilateral aid that flows to them.”

U.S. aid to Egypt, of course, has long been a buttress to the Egyptian-Israeli Camp David peace accords. Did he not worry that a cutoff of aid might be destabilizing? I asked. “Well, there wouldn’t be a war,” McCain said. “You could make that argument fifteen or twenty years ago. But it’s no longer viable to prop up despotic regimes instead of democracies that may not be particularly on our side.”

I’ve never seen Bush speak in such terms, and I’m not even sure he would fully agree. Regime change in the Middle East may indeed replace more-or-less cooperative dictatorships with more idependent-minded democracies. But as McCain recognizes, this would still be in the security interests of the United States and Europe.

McCain would certainly be the strongest Republican candidate in 2008, but many in the party’s rightwing base dislike him for his frequent disagreements with Bush and GOP Congressional leaders. And that base is especially strong in the primary elections that determine the nominee for President.

Much as I admire McCain’s straight talk and independence on some issues, I would have a very hard time voting for him against any reasonable Democratic candidate– largely because on domestic issues, he is pretty much a traditional conservative. According to the AFL-CIO, when it comes to issues affecting working people, he has voted “right” only 18 percent of the time.