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McCain: Maverick or Malcontent?

June 18, 2012

The New York Times ran a story on May 29 detailing President Obama’s personal involvement in the selection of targets for drone attacks.  The Times revealed the existence of a “kill list” of people targeted for assassination-by-drone.  Then on June 2, the Times ran a story revealing American involvement in the Stuxnet worm attacks that brought down 1,000 Iranian nuclear centrifuges.  The Times reported that President Obama had directly overseen those attacks.

The two reports raised important issues.  Killing individuals who live in countries that we are not at war with, and that are not consulted about the killings, ought to be controversial.  It is a new form of warfare, and it has some “slippery slope” aspects to it that should concern us – enough at least to include the program in the realm of public debate.  Presidential involvement in the selection of targets does not change the substance of these issues, but it tells us that the executive branch of our government has resolved these issues to its own satisfaction, up to the very highest executive level we have.  It tells us that anyone aggrieved by the program has to take up the grievance elsewhere – in Congress, perhaps.

The Stuxnet attack on the Iranian nuclear program was reportedly quite effective.  Expert analysts said that the sophistication of the attack showed that it was government-directed.  Given the targets of the attacks, that government was assumed to be Israeli.

It changes things to know that the Americans had a prominent role in the Stuxnet attack.  I don’t think the main point here is that the American government has developed cyberwarfare capabilities, or even that we have deployed those capabilities.  The main point is that our government has been working with the Israeli government against Iran’s nuclear program to a significantly greater degree than we knew.

I have criticized Republican calls for military intervention in Iran, and I have endorsed patience while economic sanctions sow discontent among Iranians with their own government.  Our ability to slow the Iranian nuclear program without military intervention only adds to the reasons that sanctions are a superior approach to military attack.

President Obama has denied that his administration coordinated the leaks that led to these Times articles.  The public editor of the Times, Arthur Brisbane, revealed today that the reporter who wrote the Stuxnet story was not handed the story, but worked on it for 18 months, using American as well as other sources.

On June 5, John McCain opened up the Republican critique.  His position, which is now the Republican position, is three-fold:  the leaks were orchestrated from the top of the administration; the leaks compromised national security; and the leaks were intended to bolster President Obama’s image as a “strong leader.”

The problem with that scenario is that there is as yet no evidence for any one of those three points.  In particular, I have seen no evidence of damage to national security; on the contrary, it is entirely plausible that publication of the stories has actually enhanced our national security by enhancing perceptions of our power and our resolve.

It is more than plausible to me that publication of the Stuxnet story has enhanced Israeli security.  Some, including Congressional Republicans, have doubted President Obama’s commitment to Israel.  The mere expression of those doubts risks emboldening Israel’s enemies to act; dashing those doubts ought to sober Israel’s enemies up just a bit.

To me, Senator McCain’s accusations against President Obama had a bitter, personal feel.  Having lost the presidency to Obama, McCain wants to make sure we know we made the wrong choice.  The last thing Senator McCain can abide is a successful Obama presidency or an Obama reputation for strength.

McCain was viewed as a maverick through the George W. Bush years.  He became liberals’ favorite Republican.  He was one of Jon Stewart’s favorite guests during that time, appearing more often on The Daily Show than any other guest.

I was never persuaded of the authenticity of the maverick thing, and I think McCain’s behavior during Obama’s presidency bears out my skepticism.  My own view is that McCain isn’t so much a maverick as a sore loser.  He lost to Bush, and acted out his resentment for eight years, to the delight of Bush-hating liberals, and the irritation of Bush-loving conservatives.  (Remember the Rush Limbaugh rants against McCain during the 2008 primaries?)  Then he lost to Obama, and he redirected his resentment.  The Left is considerably less delighted with McCain now.

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