John McCain called today for a more cooperative foreign policy enshrined in a new League of Democracies and for closing the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay for terrorist suspects in a speech also tinged with personal history and a warning about the horrors of war.
"Our great power does not mean we can do whatever we want whenever we want, nor should we assume we have all the wisdom and knowledge necessary to succeed," the presumptive Republican nominee told the Los Angeles World Affairs Council. "We need to listen -- we need to listen -- to the views and respect the collective will of our democratic allies."
He said in a world "where power of all kinds is more widely and evenly distributed, the United States cannot lead by virtue of its power alone."
"We have to strengthen our global alliances as the core of a new global compact -- a League of Democracies -- that can harness the vast influence of more than one hundred democratic nations around the world to advance our values and defend our shared interests," he declared.
McCain, who sees foreign policy and national security as a strength versus the Democrats, appears to be responding to criticism of President Bush for a go-it-alone approach to the world, culminating in the invasion of Iraq with only the British by America's side. Democrats have criticized McCain, the most notable champion of the so-called surge of troops in Iraq.
He directly addressed the proposals of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to withdraw US troops within 16 months or so of taking office.
"I believe a reckless and premature withdrawal would be a terrible defeat for our security interests and our values," he said. "Iran will also view our premature withdrawal as a victory, and the biggest state supporter of terrorists, a country with nuclear ambitions and a stated desire to destroy the State of Israel, will see its influence in the Middle East grow significantly. These consequences of our defeat would threaten us for years, and those who argue for it, as both Democratic candidates do, are arguing for a course that would eventually draw us into a wider and more difficult war that would entail far greater dangers and sacrifices than we have suffered to date.
"I do not argue against withdrawal, any more than I argued several years ago for the change in tactics and additional forces that are now succeeding in Iraq, because I am somehow indifferent to war and the suffering it inflicts on too many American families," he continued. "I hold my position because I hate war, and I know very well and very personally how grievous its wages are. But I know, too, that we must sometimes pay those wages to avoid paying even higher ones later."
UPDATE: Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton responded: "John McCain is determined to carry out four more years of George Bush's failed policies, including an open-ended war in Iraq that has cost us thousands of lives and billions of dollars while making us less safe. Barack Obama will change our foreign policy and renew America's leadership by responsibly ending the war in Iraq, finishing the fight in Afghanistan, and focusing on the 21st century challenges that conventional Washington has ignored for too long -- al Qaeda's core leadership and nuclear proliferation, poverty and genocide, climate change and disease."
UPDATE: Clinton issued a statement that read: "While there is much to praise in Senator McCain’s speech, he and I continue to have a fundamental disagreement on Iraq. Like President Bush, Senator McCain continues to oppose a swift and responsible withdrawal from Iraq. Like President Bush, Senator McCain discounts the warnings of our senior military leadership of the consequences of the Iraq war on the readiness of our armed forces, and on the need to focus on the forgotten front line in Afghanistan. Like President Bush, Senator McCain wants to keep us tied to another country's civil war."
In the speech, McCain agreed with many Democrats on the need to ban torture and to take action on global warming.
To further the cause of freedom and democracy, McCain said, America must be a "model citizen." "We must fight the terrorists and at the same time defend the rights that are at the foundation of our society. We can’t torture or treat inhumanely suspected terrorists we have captured," he said, drawing applause. "I believe we should close Guantanamo and work with our allies to forge a new international understanding on the disposition of dangerous detainees under our control."
McCain also described himself as a "realistic idealist" about the threats the United States faces in the world.
"We cannot wish the world to be a better place than it is," he said. "We have enemies for whom no attack is too cruel, and no innocent life safe, and who would, if they could, strike us with the world’s most terrible weapons. There are states that support them, and which might help them acquire those weapons because they share with terrorists the same animating hatred for the West, and will not be placated by fresh appeals to the better angels of their nature. This is the central threat of our time, and we must understand the implications of our decisions on all manner of regional and global challenges that could have for our success in defeating it."
But he also said he hates war -- something his family knows all too well.
"When I was five years old, a car pulled up in front of our house in New London, Connecticut, a Navy officer rolled down the window, and shouted at my father, 'The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor,' " he said. "My father immediately left for the submarine base where he was stationed.... I rarely saw him again for four years. My grandfather, who commanded the fast carrier task force under Admiral Halsey, came home from the war exhausted from the burdens he had borne, and died the next day. In Vietnam, where I formed the closest friendships of my life, some of those friends never came home to the country they loved so well.
"I detest war," continued McCain, a Navy pilot who was shot down during the Vietnam War and was a prisoner-of war. "It might not be the worst thing to befall human beings, but it is wretched beyond all description. When nations seek to resolve their differences by force of arms, a million tragedies ensue. The lives of a nation's finest patriots are sacrificed. Innocent people suffer and die. Commerce is disrupted; economies are damaged; strategic interests shielded by years of patient statecraft are endangered as the exigencies of war and diplomacy conflict. Not the valor with which it is fought, nor the nobility of the cause it serves can glorify war. Whatever gains are secured, it is loss the veteran remembers most keenly. Only a fool or a fraud sentimentalizes the merciless reality of war. However heady the appeal of a call to arms, however just the cause, we should still shed a tear for all that is lost when war claims its wages from us."
The speech came a day after a major economic speech, also in California, in which McCain warned against any rush to government bailouts of banks or homeowners caught in the housing crisis and credit crunch.
UPDATE: The Democratic National Committee said McCain, in what his campaign had billed as a major policy speech, did not offer a way forward in Iraq and just repackaged old boilerplate.
"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," DNC Chairman Howard Dean said in a statement. "His new appreciation for diplomacy has no credibility after he mimicked President Bush's misleading case for a unilateral war of choice when it mattered most. Why should the American people now trust John McCain to offer anything more than four more years of President Bush's reckless economic policies and failed foreign policy?"