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McCain pulled two ways on foreign policy

So-called foreign policy pragmatists in the Republican party are expressing concern that Mr. McCain might be coming under increased influence from a competing camp, the neoconservatives.
Image: John McCain and Henry Kissinger
Republican presidential hopeful, Sen. John McCain, left, and former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, at historic Faneuil Hall in Boston, on Dec. 19, 2007. Kissinger, who endorsed McCain at the event, is considered a Republican 'pragmatist' in foreign policy, a group that is competing with neoconservatives for the candidate's ear.Charles Krupa / AP file
/ Source: The New York Times

Senator John McCain has long made his decades of experience in foreign policy and national security the centerpiece of his political identity, and suggests he would bring to the White House a fully formed view of the world.

But now one component of the fractious Republican Party foreign policy establishment — the so-called pragmatists, some of whom have come to view the Iraq war or its execution as a mistake — is expressing concern that Mr. McCain might be coming under increased influence from a competing camp, the neoconservatives, whose thinking dominated President Bush’s first term and played a pivotal role in building the case for war.

The concerns have emerged in the weeks since Mr. McCain became his party’s presumptive nominee and began more formally assembling a list of foreign policy advisers. Among those on the list are several prominent neoconservatives, including Robert Kagan, an author who helped write much of the foreign policy speech that Mr. McCain delivered in Los Angeles on March 26, in which he described himself as “a realistic idealist.” Others include the security analyst Max Boot and a former United Nations ambassador, John R. Bolton.

Prominent members of the pragmatist group, often called realists, say they are also wary of the McCain campaign’s chief foreign policy aide, Randy Scheunemann, who was a foreign policy adviser to former Senators Trent Lott and Bob Dole and who has longtime ties to neoconservatives. In 2002, Mr. Scheunemann was a founder of the hawkish Committee for the Liberation of Iraq and was an enthusiastic supporter of the Iraqi exile and Pentagon favorite, Ahmad Chalabi.

“It maybe too strong a term to say a fight is going on over John McCain’s soul,” said Lawrence Eagleburger, a secretary of state under the first President George Bush, who is a member of the pragmatist camp. “But if it’s not a fight, I am convinced there is at least going to be an attempt. I can’t prove it, but I’m worried that it’s taking place.”

In addition, Mr. Eagleburger said, “there is no question that a lot of my far right friends have now decided that since you can’t beat him, let’s persuade him to slide over as best we can on these critical issues.”

Mr. McCain, who is aware of the concerns, told reporters on his campaign plane early this week that he took foreign policy advice from a wide variety of people. “Some of them are viewed as ‘more conservative,’ quote,” he said, adding, “but I do have a broad array of people that I talk to, and hear from, and read what they write.”

Mr. McCain has always promoted his reputation for departing from ideological orthodoxy in both foreign and domestic policy. As an unwavering supporter of the Iraq war, he is closely associated with the issue that is most clearly identified with the neoconservatives, even though he often criticized Mr. Bush’s execution of the war.

He has been sympathetic to neoconservative views on some other issues, like taking a hard line with Russia and a proposal to establish a new international body made up solely of democracies as a counterweight to the United Nations. In other aspects of foreign and national security policy, he tilts toward the pragmatist camp, as in his promise to work more closely with allies.

“I don’t think that Senator McCain splits the difference so much as he bridges the difference” between the two factions, Mr. Scheunemann said. “You’ve got well-known realist figures as well as neo-cons,” but “they are signing up to John McCain’s campaign; he’s not necessarily signing up to their views on how best to lead.”

Still, as prominent pragmatists and neoconservatives have started to part company over the war, they appear to be jockeying for influence in Mr. McCain’s campaign and, should he be elected, in his administration.

One of the chief concerns of the pragmatists is that Mr. McCain is susceptible to influence from the neoconservatives because he is not as fully formed on foreign policy as his campaign advisers say he is, and that while he speaks authoritatively, he operates too much off the cuff and has not done the deeper homework required of a presidential candidate.

In a trip to the Middle East last month, Mr. McCain made an embarrassing mistake when he said several times that he was concerned that Iran was training Al Qaeda in Iraq. (The United States believes that Iran, a Shiite country, has been training Shiite extremists in Iraq, but not Al Qaeda, a Sunni insurgent group.) He repeated the mistake on Tuesday at hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The worry about Mr. McCain is centered among a group of foreign policy realists who have long been close to him and who lost out to the hawks in the intense ideological battles of the first term of the current White House. The group includes former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage and Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser to the first President Bush.

While Mr. Powell and Mr. Armitage supported Mr. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq while they were in office, they have become critics of the management of the war. Mr. Scowcroft incurred the anger of the current President Bush when he wrote a 2002 opinion article in The Wall Street Journal that argued against the invasion of Iraq.

Conservatives around Mr. McCain counter that the other side’s concerns are groundless because Mr. McCain is hardly an empty vessel who might succumb to the views of one group or another.

“I would say his world view is so established that there is not a real battle going on,” said Mr. Kagan, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “A struggle over individual policies I could imagine, but the broad view, no. People would agree on what McCain thinks. This is not one of those situations like Bush all over again, with some titanic struggle going on between different factions.”

Mr. McCain’s advisers say he talks to realists like former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger and former Secretary of State George P. Shultz. Mr. Kissinger said in an interview that he had talked with Mr. McCain “15 to 20 times in the last year,” including on a bus ride to a fund-raiser on Long Island.

“In his speeches and daily pronouncements, I generally have no input,” Mr. Kissinger said. “When we meet for lunch or dinner, or on the one or two occasions he has come to my home, we have had philosophical discussions. When he calls me now, it will be mostly ‘this event has happened and what do you think?’ ”

'Utter nonsense'
Mark Salter, one of Mr. McCain’s closest advisers, called the concerns of the pragmatists “utter nonsense” and added that “if John McCain on a given issue would talk to Bob Kagan about 30 percent as often as he talks to Henry Kissinger, for some people that is 30 percent too much.”

Although the concerns at this point are focused more on access to Mr. McCain than on major policy differences, there have been some substantive areas of dispute. Mr. Kissinger was said to have been disturbed by Mr. McCain’s hardline attitude on Russia and the Russian president Vladimir Putin in the March 26 speech, viewing it as “going far beyond anything that is necessary” and “something that he has got to be talked out of,” according to someone who has spoken recently with Mr. Kissinger.

“I have no comment on that paragraph,” Mr. Kissinger said when asked directly. “You have to take my judgment from what I have written. But I am a strong supporter of the senator.”

Similarly, Mr. Scowcroft is said to have expressed reservations about Mr. McCain’s call for creating a League of Democracies as a complement to the United Nations. An associate of Mr. Scowcroft said he viewed it as an effort to diminish the United Nations — a target of scorn among neoconservatives — and inhibit engagement with enemies.

But Mr. McCain’s positions on many other issues appeal to the pragmatists. In the Los Angeles speech, he rejected the unilateralism that has been the hallmark of the Bush administration’s foreign policy in favor of what he called “being a good and reliable ally to our fellow democracies.”

Before the Iraq war, Mr. McCain generally opposed aggressive assertions of American power abroad. As a freshman congressman he criticized Ronald Reagan’s deployment of marines in Lebanon in 1983; later, in the 1990s, he sought to cut off financing for American troops in Somalia, at first wanted to limit the American response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait to the air, and opposed military intervention in Haiti.

So far, Mr. McCain has not established a formal foreign policy briefing process within his campaign. If he needs information or perspective on an issue, advisers say he picks up the phone and calls any number of people, among them Mr. Kissinger, Mr. Shultz or Senators Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, and Joseph I. Lieberman, independent of Connecticut.

Mr. Scheunemann, who works out of McCain campaign headquarters in Arlington, Va., serves as the coordinator who sends advance copies of Mr. McCain’s speeches to the foreign policy advisers and receives information from them to send to the candidate and throughout the campaign.

Philip D. Zelikow, a former top adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who is not working for Mr. McCain, said it was not surprising that there were worries among the realists about the presumptive Republican nominee.

“It’s partly because McCain hasn’t settled himself in one camp, and hasn’t told Rich, you’re my man, Rich, you’re the lodestar,” said Mr. Zelikow, referring to Mr. Armitage. “But if you’re in McCain’s position, is it in his interest to settle the argument now? It’s in his interest to embrace the largest number of Republicans and not declare that he is in favor of one faction or another.”

This article, , originally appeared in The New York Times.