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What Newsweek's Editor Doesn't Get About John Mccain

This morning on NPR, Newsweek editor Jon Meacham provided a bizarre analysis of John McCain's worldview, and then dove headfirst down the rabbit hole in arguing that it's quite similar to Barack Obama's. Meacham argued that, as fans of Reinhold Niebuhr, both McCain and Obama are "moral realists"--men who understand that good cannot always triumph over evil, that the world is stubbornly tragic, and, because we must live in that world, we must learn to compromise. Although I think Obama possesses an innate optimism, that's not a bad description of his approach to morality in policy, particularly foreign policy. But it completely misses the essence of John McCain--and therefore one of the most important distinctions between the two candidates.

McCain is the opposite of a moral realist. His foreign policy may sometimes elude easy ideological classification, but the constant in his worldview has been Manichaeism--the insistence that the world is divided into good and evil and that foreign policy should spring from that moral understanding. That's why, for example, he has opposed talks with North Korea and Iran--not simply because he believes that those states are evil, but because he believes that strategy should be based on that moral understanding. Thus, contra Meacham, McCain does not welcome conciliation with enemies. Ultimately, McCain's Manichaeism leads to a foreign policy in which, like the Bush administration, we are forced toward military solutions because we cannot stomach coexistence with evil.

Oddly, much of Meacham's own commentary seems to reinforce that point. Putting McCain's own martial biography in context, he points out that not only were his father and his grandfather admirals in the U.S. Navy, but that a McCain has fought in every American war back to the Revolution. In fact, he says, the family likes to trace its warrior line all the way back to Charlemagne. War, of course, is a binary exercise--there are good guys and bad guys; it's us versus them--and McCain defines himself chiefly as a fighter. That doesn't mean that McCain is automatically more prone to using force, but it means, as Meacham himself confusingly acknowledges at one point, that "his instinct is not to compromise." (My emphasis.)

McCain's worldview is a version of American exceptionalism, which is why Meacham thinks he has a "far more romantic view of America's role in the world than Senator Obama does." That's why Meacham says, "He has more epic sense that America can be the America of 1945. I sometimes have to really make an effort to remind myself that John McCain fought in Vietnam and not in the Second World War. I'm not being cute about his age. He just feels like a figure from World War II." He feels like that because McCain's worldview fits far more neatly into the narrative of the "Good War" than into the moral murkiness of Vietnam.

John McCain's emphasis, to put it bluntly, is on conflict over cooperation. And that attitude bleeds into his approach to domestic politics as well. In his column today, George Will recounts how McCain, once bored by a briefing on the complexities of domestic and international finance, asked his briefer, "So, who's the villain?" And it takes a particularly acute us-versus-them sensibility to turn on your political opponents as anti-American--to characterize Obama as not being one of us because he "worked closely with domestic terrorist Bill Ayers...who killed Americans," as a robocall he approved put it.

By contrast, Obama's attitudinal emphasis is on cooperation. That hardly makes Obama a dove, as his support for anti-terrorist incursions into Pakistan and his moderate views on withdrawing from Iraq show. But it does signal a recognition that the transnational problems of the twenty-first century--terrorism, nuclear proliferation, global warming--cannot be solved absent significant international coordination. This will involve negotiating with enemies like Iran and North Korea, working with competitors like Russia and China, and involving ourselves in international organizations like the United Nations, which are by their nature institutions of compromise. Obama is an American exceptionalist, but in his view that exceptionalism translates into leadership, not simply dominance of friends or isolation from enemies. It's a key--if not the key--distinction between the candidates. It's shocking that Meacham has missed it completely.

--Peter Scoblic