McCain alters a key foreign policy proposal

  • Article by: PAUL RICHTER , Los Angeles Times
  • Updated: April 26, 2008 - 4:25 PM

The Republican candidate has begun scaling back his plan for a "League of Democracies" to be organized by the U.S.


Only days after laying out his foreign policy agenda, Sen. John McCain has begun scaling back a key proposal that had been greeted with alarm by some Republican supporters and wariness by important U.S. allies.

McCain has said that, as president, he would call for creation of a "League of Democracies," which would move aggressively to tackle problems the United Nations fails to resolve, such as the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs, civil strife in Sudan and world health crises.

The idea has been a hit with McCain's neoconservative supporters, who are frustrated with a balky United Nations. But a branch of U.S. foreign policy experts who are known as "realists" have objected that such a group could damage U.S. interests by alienating countries such as China, Saudi Arabia and Russia, which are not democracies but important U.S. partners.

In Europe, meanwhile, many are concerned that McCain's idea might mask hidden agendas, such as undermining the United Nations or providing a new stamp of international legitimacy to U.S.-led military action.

McCain first proposed a League of Democracies last year, describing a formal organization that could use military force as well as economic and diplomatic pressure. It would be organized by the United States, much like NATO after World War II.

"We should form a League of Democracies that can act with great influence and power, both economically and militarily," he said on MSNBC on Oct. 16.

In an article in Foreign Affairs magazine in November, McCain called for "linking democratic nations in one common organization" that could provide a common structure for countries whose troops serve on joint missions.

McCain has continued advancing the proposal, citing it again in a speech in Los Angeles in March that marked his first major foreign policy address since becoming the presumptive Republican nominee.

Now, however, McCain says the group would not use military force and would be an informal organization in which democratic nations come together in different groupings, depending on their varying concerns.

"It does not envision military action," McCain told reporters in Dallas on April 11. He said it would "not be a formal organization; it would be a coalition of nations that shifts sometimes depending on what their priorities are."

James Lindsay, director of the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas, said McCain's recent description of his idea represented "a sharp departure from what Senator McCain said previously about creating a league of democracies."

Noting McCain's language in the Foreign Affairs article, Lindsay said that what McCain described to reporters April 11 "are ad hoc coalitions of the willing, which are something quite different, even if they draw on democracies for their main contributors."

The implications of such a group, while sounding academic, touch on some of the most controversial foreign policy topics of the past decade, such as when the use of military force is legitimate and how to deal with international institutions at cross purposes with U.S. administrations.

But the proposal offers insights into McCain's views, which, while usually conservative, can vary according to the issue. McCain is best known for his hawkish position on the Iraq war, but he has also taken a strong stand against interrogation practices he considers torture and argues that the United States needs to rely more on international alliances. Within his campaign, different camps of foreign policy experts have competed for influence.

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