Being a liberal in the Donald Trump era is tricky. On the one hand, you’re grateful for any conservative who denounces the president’s authoritarian lies. On the other, you can’t help but notice that many of the conservatives who condemn Trump most passionately—Bill Kristol, Bret Stephens, Michael Gerson, Jennifer Rubin—remain wedded to the foreign policy legacy of George W. Bush. And in criticizing Trump’s amoral “isolationism,” they backhandedly defend the disastrous interventionism that helped produce his presidency in the first place.
The godfather of this brand of hawkish, anti-Trump conservatism is John McCain. Sure, McCain—being a Republican Senator—doesn’t condemn Trump as forthrightly as his “neoconservative” allies in the press. But the terms of his critique are similar.
Look at his speech on Tuesday after being awarded the National Constitution Center’s Liberty Medal. In a clear swipe at Trump, McCain warned that, “To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain ‘the last best hope of earth’ for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history. We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil. We are the custodians of those ideals at home, and their champion abroad.”
As a man, McCain is as honorable as Trump is dishonorable. But this narrative is false. The last seventy-five years of American foreign policy are not the story of a country consistently pursuing democratic ideals, only to see them undermined now by a fearful “blood and soil” isolationism.
Between 1947 and 1989, the defining imperative of American “international leadership” was anti-communism. At times, anti-communism nurtured ideals of freedom, human dignity and peace. In the name of anti-communism, America protected fragile democracies in West Germany, Italy and Japan. In the name of anti-communism, the United States fed Europe’s starving post-masses via the Marshall Plan. In the name of anti-communism, the United States committed itself to Western Europe’s defense, thus keeping German nationalism in check and laying the groundwork for a postwar economic boom.
But anti-communism also justified America’s overthrow of elected governments in Iran, Guatemala and Chile. It justified Ronald Reagan’s decision to label Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress a terrorist organization and America’s longtime assistance to the kleptocratic Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. And far from keeping the peace, it led the United States to drop more bombs on Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War than it had during during World War II.
Since 1989, this moral duality has continued. The United States has sought to extend its global preeminence while battling a range of enemies—from “rogue states” seeking “weapons of mass destruction” to hyper-nationalists murdering ethnic minorities to jihadist terrorist groups—that challenge the American-led order. During the Gulf War, this imperative led the United States to strengthen the United Nations and defend international law. But during the Iraq War, it led the United States to defy international law and obliterate the Iraqi state, thus creating the conditions for ISIS. In Bosnia and Kosovo, American power helped stop genocide. In Libya, it helped create chaos.
Sometimes America best serves its people and its ideals by not trying to bend the world to its will.
The point is that American “leadership” sometimes furthers the ideals that Americans revere and sometimes it desecrates them. Sometimes it makes America stronger; sometimes it doesn’t. McCain’s implication is that it’s only when American “abandon[s]” and “refuse[s]” its leadership role that it fails its people and the world. But that’s not true. Over the last fifteen years, in a spasm of military hyperactivity, the United States has toppled governments in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, in wars that have cost America dearly, and bred more conflict in their wake. Trump won the Republican nomination, in part, because—facing establishment candidates who would not criticize George W. Bush’s foreign policy—he condemned such adventures and pledged to avoid new ones.
McCain is right to (obliquely) condemn Trump’s hostility to refugees, his indifference to human rights and obsession with ensuring that America’s allies don’t rip it off. But that’s not the same as foreign policy restraint. Sometimes America best serves its people and its ideals by not trying to bend the world to its will. Harry Truman was right to reject preventative war when the Soviet Union was racing towards an atomic bomb; Dwight Eisenhower was right to accept a draw rather than seek the reunification of Korea in 1953; John F. Kennedy was right to admit failure in the Bay of Pigs rather than launch an American invasion of Cuba; George H.W. Bush was right not to march to Baghdad at the end of the Gulf War, and Barack Obama was right to accept an imperfect nuclear deal with Iran rather than risking a fourth war in the greater Middle East.
John McCain once understood that. As a young congressman in 1985, he told the Los Angeles Times that America was neither “omniscient nor omnipotent. If we do become involved in combat, that involvement must be of relatively short duration and must be readily explained to the man in the street in one or two sentences.” In violating that principle, George W. Bush—with the support of an older John McCain—helped discredit the Republican foreign policy establishment, and lay the groundwork for Trump’s nationalist insurgency.
Now McCain and many of his hawkish allies are criticizing Trump’s amoral nationalism, which is good. But until they question the disastrous overstretch that helped create it, they will remain his useful ideological foils.