Continuing to carve out distance from President Bush, John McCain is calling today for a more assertive stance toward North Korea over the reclusive regime's nuclear ambitions.
The presumptive Republican nominee takes the harder line in a speech at the University of Denver on nuclear security and in an op-ed piece co-authored with Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut in today's Asian Wall Street Journal.
McCain's speech was interrupted by antiwar protesters chanting about ending the Iraq war, who were then drowned out by supporters chanting, "John McCain. John McCain," and escorted out.
McCain took the protest in stride, then declared: "I will never surrender in Iraq, my friends. I will never surrender in Iraq. Our American troops will come home with victory and honor."
The Bush administration, which once placed North Korea in the axis of evil along with Iraq and Iran, has taken a softer line lately, relying on diplomacy to persuade the country to begin dismantling a nuclear reactor and to turn over documents.
But McCain joins with hawks who want complete and irreversible nuclear disarmament.
"North Korea pursues a nuclear weapons program to the point where, today, the dictator Kim Jong-Il has tested a nuclear weapon, and almost certainly possesses several more nuclear warheads," McCain says, according to prepared remarks from his campaign. "And it has shared its nuclear and missile know-how with others, including Syria. It is a vital national interest for the North Korean nuclear program to be completely, verifiably and irreversibly ended."
The Democratic National Committee, however, hits McCain for calling for a more bellicose policy that it describes as "a method for action that would bring us back to Bush Administration policies that didn't work with North Korea for six years and made America less safe."
McCain also cites Iran and warns of nuclear proliferation around the globe, and he declares that only US-led international pressure -- perhaps in concert with Russia and China -- will succeed.
"Many believe all we need to do to end the nuclear programs of hostile governments is have our president talk with leaders in Pyongyang and Tehran, as if we haven't tried talking to these governments repeatedly over the past two decades," he says in the speech. "Others think military action alone can achieve our goals, as if military actions were not fraught with their own terrible risks. While the use of force may be necessary, it can only be as a last resort not a first step. The truth is we will only address the terrible prospect of the worldwide spread of nuclear arms if we transcend our partisan differences, combine our energies, learn from our past mistakes, and seek practical and effective solutions."
"The United States cannot and will not stop the spread of nuclear weapons by unilateral action," McCain continues. "We must lead concerted and persistent multilateral efforts. As powerful as we are, America's ability to defend ourselves and our allies against the threat of nuclear attack depends on our ability to encourage effective international cooperation. We must strengthen the accords and institutions that make such cooperation possible. No problem we face poses a greater threat to us and the world than nuclear proliferation. In a time when followers of a hateful and remorseless ideology are willing to destroy themselves to destroy us, the threat of suicide bombers with the means to wreak incomprehensible devastation should call the entire world to action. The civilized nations of the world must act as one or we will suffer consequences once thought remote when the threat of mutually assured destruction could deter responsible states from thinking the unthinkable."
UPDATE: Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton responded: “By embracing many aspects of Barack Obama’s non-proliferation agenda today, John McCain highlighted Obama’s leadership on nuclear weapons throughout this campaign, and his bipartisan work with Richard Lugar in the Senate. No speech by John McCain can change the fact that he has not led on non-proliferation issues when he had the chance in the Senate, and that his support for a war against Iraq – which had no active nuclear program – diverted us from our efforts to secure loose nuclear materials, hampered our ability to pressure countries like North Korea and Iran, and sets back our ability to lead the world against the threat of nuclear weapons. While John McCain is raising money with George Bush to continue a third term of his failed foreign policy, Barack Obama will continue his leadership to secure the American people from the threat of nuclear weapons.”
UPDATE: The McCain camp sent out a glowing statement of praise from Lugar, and questioned Obama's claim of leadership on the issue.
“Senator McCain welcomes the support of Senator Obama – or any other legislator – in the fight against nuclear proliferation. In particular, he welcomes Senator Obama’s endorsement of Ronald Reagan’s vision for a world free of nuclear weapons. But to be successful in this critical endeavor, we must get certain facts straight. The Obama campaign insists that their candidate has ‘led the fight in the U.S. Senate for arms control.’ But the record should be clear: Senator Obama, after he entered the Senate in 2005, joined Senator Lugar and the many other members who have supported the Nunn-Lugar program and other nonproliferation programs for years. His campaign points as evidence of his leadership to a bill so non-controversial that it passed the Senate by unanimous consent. There was no 'fight' for Senator Obama to lead."
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Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.