The collapse of the George W. Bush-era Republican Party is a multifaceted story, but no chapter stands out as clearly as the war in Iraq. As the occupation has dragged on and the U.S. casualties have mounted, Bush has watched his public approval ratings spiral downward. By the time the contested GOP primaries came around, even a healthy proportion of Republican voters were saying that they strongly or somewhat disapproved of the war in Iraq.
Under the circumstances, it's not surprising that the GOP is poised to nominate a presidential candidate who will appeal to its anti-war base. What is surprising is that the candidate is Sen. John McCain.
Things were looking bleak for Republicans in February, and it was clear that only a candidate with crossover appeal to war opponents stood any chance of going toe-to-toe with a Democrat. Thus, though it may have angered the conservative base, the Republicans got lucky as McCain emerged as the front-runner over Mitt Romney, the preferred choice of Bush-lovers. But there is a problem. Despite neoconservatism's close association in the public imagination with the Bush administration, and despite McCain's image as a moderate, a look at the record makes clear that McCain, not Bush, is the real neocon in the Republican Party. McCain was the neocons' candidate in 2000, McCain adhered to a truer version of the faith during the early years of hubris that followed September 11, and as president McCain would likely pursue policies that will make what we've seen from Bush look like a pale imitation of the real thing. McCain, after all, is the candidate of perpetual war in Iraq. The candidate who, despite his protestations in a March speech that he "hates war," not only stridently backed the 2003 invasion of Iraq but has spent years calling on the United States to depose every dictator in the world. He's the candidate of ratcheting-up action against North Korea and Iran, of new efforts to undermine the United Nations, and of new cold wars with Russia and China. Rather than hating war, he sees it as integral to the greatness of the nation, and military service as the highest calling imaginable. It is, in short, not Bush but McCain, who among practical politicians holds truest to the vision of a foreign policy dominated by militaristic unilateralism.
IT WASN'T EVER THUS, When McCain entered the House of Representatives in 1983, one of the first noteworthy things he did was oppose the Reagan administration's deployment of U.S. Marines to Lebanon. Throughout the 1980s, McCain was a fairly conventional Cold War hawk, a supporter of Reagan's defense buildup and Central America policy who distinguished himself from the average Republican by being somewhat less gung-ho about deploying troops abroad. Some liberals, like John Judis, author of an excellent study of McCain's shifting thinking, see in this 1980s version of McCain a realist who may re-emerge in the future. It could happen, but this was a long time ago, and even during this dovish phase McCain was hardly averse to demagogic nationalism, lashing out at Germany and Japan for alleged inadequate support for Operation Desert Shield. He fervently backed the first Gulf War, arguing that absent U.S. action "there will be inevitably a succession of dictators" who will pose "a threat to the stability of this entire globe."
After the Cold War, McCain's views entered a period of drift. He criticized humanitarian troop deployments to Somalia and to Haiti and opposed the idea of military intervention in the war over Bosnia--opposed it, that is, until for somewhat murky reasons he changed his mind and decided to support President Bill Clinton's decision to act. Once this Rubicon was crossed, McCain would never look back, and for over 10 years now he has consistently positioned himself as the most hawkish major figure in American electoral politics--the proud exponent of an ambitious and dangerous conception of America's role in the world. …