LOS ANGELES – Sen. John McCain, carefully distancing himself from President Bush and seeking to sound a moderate tone, called Wednesday for stronger ties with allies and cautioned that American power “does not mean that we can do whatever we want, whenever we want.”
In his first major foreign policy speech since becoming the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, McCain told the World Affairs Council that to end terrorism and pacify Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States must lead by “attracting others to our cause” and “defending the rules of international civilized society.”
The speech showed McCain in a political pivot as he emerges from a Republican primary battle and looks ahead to a general election campaign in which he must win over independents and moderates. In his primary addresses, McCain frequently accused Democrats of waving “the white flag of surrender” on Iraq and of lacking the resolve to confront Iran forcefully.
By contrast, his address Wednesday in Los Angeles instead tapped themes bound to appeal more strongly to moderates and potential Democratic crossover voters. He said the government should close its prison for terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and “work with our allies to forge a new international understanding” on how to treat detainees. He said Americans need to be “good stewards of our planet” and urged steps to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
Recalling his military experience – and that of his father and grandfather, who were admirals – McCain declared: “I detest war. … It is wretched beyond all description.” When Americans believe military or diplomatic action is needed, he said, “we will try to persuade our friends that we are right. But we in return must be willing to be persuaded by them.”
He said the struggle against terrorism is not primarily about military force but about winning over moderate Muslims through development aid, diplomacy and trade.
McCain’s speech made unmistakable references to beliefs that long have made the Republican Arizona senator attractive to neoconservatives. He called the confrontation with Islamic militancy “the transcendent challenge of our time” and said the nation’s security could not be assured through “passive” defensive measures.
“We have incurred a moral responsibility in Iraq,” he said. “It would be an unconscionable betrayal, a stain on our character as a great nation, if we were to walk away from the Iraqi people and consign them to the horrendous violence, ethnic cleaning and possibly genocide that would follow a reckless, irresponsible and premature withdrawal.”
On Iran, McCain said the United States and allies must do “all in our power” to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons. But he notably stopped short of saying that the United States should consider using military force, as he has in the past.
Democrats, who have sought to portray McCain as a reckless militarist, charged after the speech that his embrace of diplomacy was fraudulent.
“John McCain’s empty rhetoric today can’t change the fact that he has steadfastly stood with President Bush from Day One, and is now talking about keeping our troops in Iraq for 100 years,” Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said in a statement. “His new appreciation for diplomacy has no credibility.”