Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee for president in this November's US election, arrives in Israel today. A visit so deep into the campaign season shows the importance he attaches to the US-Israel relationship. But so does the sequence; the Israel stop is between Iraq and visits to France and England.
This choice of countries signals the centrality of Israel within US foreign policy: sandwiched between the war America is fighting and the two most important US allies. It is a good opportunity for McCain, either during or after this trip - billed as a fact-finding mission with fellow Senate Armed Services Committee members - to flesh out how he would reshape US foreign policy were he to become president.
It should go without saying that a "stay the course" approach would not be adequate for the next president. While we certainly agree with McCain that the successful US strategic shift in Iraq should continue and be built upon (rather than thrown away, as his opponents seem to suggest) seeking victory in Iraq is not, in itself, a foreign policy.
McCain appears to recognize this. In a speech devoted to foreign policy at the Hudson Institute last September, McCain said, "Prevailing in Iraq and Afghanistan are critical to defeating the threat posed by radical Islamic extremists, but are not the last battle in this global challenge. We are in a long war, a war I am afraid the US government is not adequately prepared to fight." The whole speech is worth reading, as it outlines substantive ways for the US to start winning the war, such as enlarging the army, Marines and Special Forces, recreating a new version of the World War II-era Office of Strategic Services, and working to improve America's image abroad.
"The cold war was won not with a tank battle in the Fulda Gap," McCain argues, "but by winning the hearts and minds of the people that democracy was better than Communism. And so it must be in our struggle with Islamic extremism. We must win this war by convincing the world that freedom is better than rule by terror." All this is useful, as far as it goes. But America's challenge is not so much to convince people that freedom is good. The truth is that people who are deprived of freedom understand what they are missing better than do many free peoples, who often take their freedoms for granted.
What America needs to do even more is convince people that the forces of freedom have what it takes to win. Totalitarian Islamists, after all, do not emphasize that life is better under their rule, but that they are the wave of the future, that they will kill anyone who stands in their way, and that they love death more than life. Though the Islamists have sometimes been able to seem more virtuous than the corrupt secular regimes they have opposed, their main weapon against true advocates of democracy and human rights has been sheer intimidation and violence.
Similarly, on the international scale, the main American weakness is not a lack of firepower or poor public relations, but that the nations of the world see that the West is too intimidated and divided to gather the small fraction of its collective economic, diplomatic and military power necessary to face down one highly vulnerable, openly defiant regime in Iran.
It is this failure that looms largest and that McCain and the other presidential candidates have yet to coherently address. By saying, as early as January 2006, "There's only one thing worse than the United States exercising the military option; that is a nuclear-armed Iran," McCain has taken the critical step of asserting that Iran must be stopped at almost any cost. But he has not shown how he intends to bring along the "hearts and minds" of other democracies into such an effort.
This is something that McCain can and should begin to do in the context of his visits to London and Paris. Although these capitals are the strongest on the Iranian issue, they would be the right place for McCain to call for a completely united front between Europe and the US - by Europe joining the American trade embargo, not by the US joining Europe's overly head in the sand mindset.
The stark truth is that America is not currently winning against Iran, and cannot win unless there is more Western unity behind an effective policy, rather than behind empty rhetoric and weak sanctions. The great challenge facing any presidential candidate is to show how he or she will galvanize Western strength and unity to achieve victory in the war against totalitarian Islamism.