The Cable

McCain: On foreign policy, I may have more in common with Obama than with some in own party

Sen. John McCain sounded a civil note at the beginning of his remarks at a Center for a New American Security event on Thursday, April 18. "What Republicans need now is a vigourous contest on ideas on national security and foreign policy," he told a group of military, foreign policy, and business professionals. "This contest can and should be conducted respectfully and without name-calling, which is something an old wacko-bird like me must remember from time to time."

Though he didn't resort to epithets, the rest of the speech featured a series of broadsides against isolationists and non-interventionists of both parties, but especially senators on McCain's own side of the aisle. "When it comes to the politics of national security," McCain said, "my beloved Republican Party has some soul-searching to do."

In particular, McCain singled out his "libertarian friends" who participated in Sen. Rand Paul's filibuster against John Brennan's confirmation as CIA director. "Rather than debate the very real dilemmas of targeted killing," McCain said, "my colleagues chose to focus instead on the theoretical possibility that the president would use a drone to kill Americans on U.S. soil even if they're not engaged in hostilities. As misguided as this exercise was, the political pressures on Republicans to join in were significant, and many ultimately did -- including many who know better."

As a compromise, McCain suggested revising the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which provides the legal justification for the targeted killing program, and codifying drone policy "to preserve, but clarify the commander-in-chief's war powers, while insisting on greater transparency and broader congressional oversight of how these war powers are employed."

He inveighed against the "emergence of a military-industrial-congressional complex that has corrupted and crippled the defense acquisition process," though his critique focused on the runaway costs of projects like the F-35 and Littoral Combat Ship rather than the defense budget writ large, which he has pushed to maintain. He also went after colleagues who have tried to slash foreign aid, pointing out that, "It now seems that every piece of legislation that the Senate considers faces an inevitable amendment that would cut off all our assistance to Egypt or some other critical country. And unfortunately, these kinds of provisions keep winning more and more votes." McCain sounded downright weary as he described "explaining" and "reminding people" of the purpose of foreign aid. "While foreign aid might not make its recipients love us," he noted, "it does further our national security interests and values."

McCain went after colleagues' knee-jerk opposition to the United Nations as well. When asked about the Law of the Sea Treaty, he said, "It's probably not going to come up. Not with the makeup of this Senate, that's the reality. We couldn't even do a disabilities treaty, for God's sake." The problem? Here, McCain got sarcastic. "It's just, you know, it's the 'U.N.' It's the 'U.N.,'" he exclaimed, making air quotes and shrugging.

Then again, McCain only hinted that he would support ratifying the Law of the Sea Treaty before opposition from Republican lawmakers postponed consideration indefinitely last year.

Despite the critiques of sequestration and U.S. policies on Syria and Iran, President Obama got off pretty easy by comparison. "Right now, the far left and far right in America are coming together in favor of pulling us back from the world," McCain observed. "The president and I have had our differences, many of those differences will persist, but there are times these days when I feel that I have more in common on foreign policy with President Obama than I do with some in my party."

And while McCain seemed uncomfortable with the many rounds of nuclear negotiations with Iran, he said he didn't envy the president's decision on the use of force. "It's going to be probably one of the most difficult decisions the president of the United States has ever had to make," he argued, "and it's very rarely that I'm glad that I'm not the president of the United States, but this is one of [those times]."

Alex Wong/Getty Images

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