Sen. John McCain stumbled badly six years ago in his presidential contest against Democrat Barak Obama, and the one-time political maverick has been trying ever since to rebrand himself as the Republicans’ unparalleled spokesman on foreign policy and defense.
In recent months, the hard-charging Arizona Republican has sharply critiqued President Obama on virtually every major facet of his foreign policy, from battling the ISIS terrorists in Iraq and Syria to countering Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of eastern Ukraine to negotiating with Iran on the future of that country’s nuclear program.
McCain, 78, can be expected to step up his demands for a more robust and combative U.S. posture in January, when he becomes chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee as part of the GOP takeover of the Senate.
The heavily decorated Vietnam War era Navy pilot and prisoner of war will share the foreign policy portfolio with Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the likely new chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the incoming chair of the Intelligence Committee.
But by dint of his forceful personality and perseverance, McCain is likely to dominate the spotlight – especially early in the new Congress, when Obama’s choice to succeed ousted Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will be grilled by members of the Armed Services Committee in confirmation hearings.
“As a general matter, we are likely to see a lot of aggressive efforts on the part of a Republican Senate to put the administration on the defensive,” said Norman Ornstein, a congressional expert with the American Enterprise Institute.
“With McCain, he’s got a lot of differences with the administration on these policies and I think he will be doing his best to put officials on the defensive,” Ornstein added. “And in some ways it’s not going to be difficult to put them on the defensive, because there are some real questions about what to do . . . in this world where it’s very hard to do things given the asymmetric threats and the limits to our power and resources.”
Experts say McCain – along with calling for a tougher stance in the Middle East and eastern Europe – will also play a key role in writing the defense authorization bill, which sets policies on everything from defense spending to weapons systems to closing military bases. .
While the appropriations committees technically control the government’s purse strings, McCain will have a big say in how the Defense Department spends its money. He’ll fight to lift artificial spending caps on defense spending to prevent what he fears might be a hollowing out of the military.
At the same time, however, he will pound away at what he views as wasteful spending on outmoded and ineffective weapons systems.
“McCain has really been tough on defense contracting and cost overruns,” said Lawrence Korb, a military analyst and senior fellow with the Center for American Progress. “He knows cost overruns are why we haven’t been able to get more bang for the buck.”
While unforeseen events are certain to shape McCain’s future positions, here is where he stands for now on six pressing defense issues facing the Obama administration, judging by his speeches and previous statements:
One: Eliminating spending caps
McCain has said he’ll lead the effort to end sequestration, which mandates automatic across-the-board spending cuts to control the long-term deficit. “I want to start an examination of our policies in the world and then find out whether we have the capability to meet these expectations,” McCain said.
Two: Granting the president new war powers
He’s prepared to give Obama a wide berth in pursuing the war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq as part of new war powers authority that Congress is likely to approve. “I would like to see an authorization that frankly does not restrict the commander in chief,” McCain said.
Three: Defeating ISIS
McCain believes Obama’s strategy for degrading and defeating ISIS through airstrikes and training and arming friendly rebel forces is woefully inadequate, especially with Obama’s pledge to avoid putting U.S. boots on the ground. McCain would provide weapons directly to the Kurdish Pershmerga freedom fighters in Iraq, create a no-fly zone in Syria, provide a more robust arming of the Free Syrian Army, dispatch more forward air controllers on the ground and dramatically increase U.S. and allied airstrikes.
Four: Standing up to Putin in Ukraine
McCain says the U.S. should provide weapons to the Ukrainian army and do what it can to repel Russian-backed rebels from the Crimea. Under Obama’s do-nothing policy, Putin is “winning,” said McCain, by provoking the slaughter of over 4,000 Ukranian soliders and dismembering a country in Europe for the first time since the end of World War II. “We won’t give [Ukraine] weapons to defend themselves,” he has complained.
Five: Resisting a weak deal with Iran over nukes
McCain is keeping a close eye on important nuclear talks with Iran about approaches that would limit that country’s nuclear stockpile and centrifuges. He views Iran’s nuclear enrichment program as a direct threat to Israel, and has called on the Senate to pass bipartisan sanctions against Iran should current negotiations fail.
“The Iranians have a long record of cheating, of concealing their nuclear capabilities,” he said. “They continue to develop the warhead and the missiles to deliver nuclear weapons.”
Six: Standing by Israel at all cost
McCain says bluntly that U.S. recognition of a Palestinian state is not in the cards, and that there cannot be peace in that region until Hamas extremists dedicated to the destruction of Israel are driven out of Gaza. “Thank God for Iron Dome [the Israeli missile defense system], otherwise we would have seen carnage in Israel,” he said.
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