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Foreign Policy Brain Trusts: McCain Advisers

Author: Robert McMahon, Editor
Updated: October 3, 2008
This publication is now archived.

Introduction

Sen. John McCain's (R-AZ) presidential campaign has sought to highlight his diverse foreign policy experience derived from time as a naval aviator and later service in the U.S. Senate. Throughout the present campaign, McCain has been the strongest supporter of the U.S. military surge in Iraq. He has portrayed the Iraq war as a crucial part of a larger struggle against radical Islamic extremism that threatens U.S. security, a view shared by many top Republicans in Congress and the Bush administration. At the same time, McCain has broken with many fellow party members on issues such as climate change, immigration, and the need to ban interrogation methods characterized by many as torture. McCain's advisers include a wide range of veteran party strategists and former top policymakers. Media reports have pointed to a tug-of-war for influence in the campaign between policy pragmatists and a mixture of so-called neoconservatives and experts regarded as hard-liners over the projection of U.S. power globally. The McCain campaign strongly denies this and some experts say such depictions oversimplify the views held by McCain advisers and underestimate the candidate's own grasp of foreign affairs.

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A Big Tent or Competing Influences

The McCain campaign's foreign policy coordinator is Randy Scheunemann, a former top legislative aide for Republicans on Capitol Hill, including two former leaders of the Senate, Trent Lott and Bob Dole. Former Congressional Budget Office chief Douglas Holtz-Eakin coordinates economic policy. On national security issues, McCain receives advice from several generations of Republican strategists and former top foreign policy officials such as Henry Kissinger and Richard Armitage, often grouped in the realist camp of foreign policy, as well as William Kristol and Robert Kagan, leading neoconservative voices. The campaign lists Kagan as a leading foreign policy adviser, as noted below, along with State Department veteran Richard Williamson and former CIA Director R. James Woolsey, who advises on national security and energy issues.*

Media following the campaign have reported on jockeying for influence between the groups. The New York Times reported in April 2008 about concerns expressed by pragmatists advising McCain that more conservative Republicans and neoconservatives are gaining increasing influence. But other campaign advisers downplay any schism.

Scheunemann, Kagan, and Kristol are project directors of the Project for the New American Century, an organization formed when Democrats controlled the White House in 1997 around what many analysts say are neoconservative ideals. The project says on its website it aims to promote U.S. leadership in the world and "rally support for a vigorous and principled policy of American international involvement and to stimulate useful public debate on foreign and defense policy and America's role in the world." The organization's statement of principles says the United States needs to "increase defense spending significantly," "strengthen ties to democratic allies," "promote the cause of political and economic freedom abroad," and "accept responsibility for America's unique role in preserving and extending an international order friendly to our security, our prosperity, and our principles."

Some observers point to McCain's embrace of policy issues identified with neoconservatives dating back to his presidential campaign of 2000, when he called for a "rogue state rollback" policy predicated on aiding opposition groups that could then drive from power some regimes seen as threats to the United States. His plan for a "League of Democracies," envisioned as a group of like-minded nations that would act in lieu of the United Nations against some threats to international security, is also seen as consistent with the neoconservative aims. But Kagan, writing in World Affairs, challenges the notion expressed in a number of media that in backing such policies neoconservatives have deviated abruptly from U.S. foreign policy traditions.

Parsing a Policy Speech

Some analysts not affiliated with McCain's campaign point to the senator's foreign policy speech in Los Angeles on March 26, 2008, as consistent with his beliefs in multilateralism as well as the United States' special place as a leader in promoting freedom and global security. Others, like Newsweek International Editor Fareed Zakaria, say the speech was indicative of a "schizophrenia" in McCain's foreign policy, due in part to his call for ousting Russia from the Group of Eight industrialized nations. In the speech, McCain describes himself as an "realistic idealist" who abhors war and emphasizes the importance of respecting allies. "When we believe international action is necessary, whether military, economic, or diplomatic, we will try to persuade our friends that we are right," McCain said. "But we, in return, must be willing to be persuaded by them."

Douglas C. Foyle, an associate professor of government at Wesleyan University, calls the Los Angeles speech a reaffirmation of McCain's core neoconservative beliefs. "He's talking about idealism with realistic tendencies but he's still talking about God and destiny for the United States, which is very neoconservative," says Foyle.

Other experts say McCain's world view overlaps the agendas of a wide range of Republicans as well as some Democrats. CFR Director of Studies Gary Samore describes McCain as an "interesting mix of neoconservative, for lack of a better term, and traditional, middle-of-the road internationalist." He adds that there has been a tradition in both parties of projecting U.S. values globally. "There has been an element in American foreign policy, which has been expressed in both liberal Democratic administrations and conservative Republican administrations, for making the world in our image. That's American. It's just that the latest manifestation has been by a conservative Republican administration."

National Security and Foreign Policy

McCain cites radical Islamic extremists as the transcendent threat facing the country because of what he says is their willingness to use weapons of mass destruction against U.S. targets. McCain said in his March 26 speech in Los Angeles: "This is the central threat of our time, and we must understand the implications our decisions on all manner of regional and global challenges could have for our success in defeating it." The following are identified by the campaign as the main advisers on national security and foreign policy:

Randy Scheunemann
is serving as foreign policy coordinator for a McCain presidential campaign for the second time, first filling the role in 2000. Founder in 2001 of Washington consulting firm Orion Strategies LLC, Scheunemann has lengthy experience as a Republican legislative staffer on foreign policy issues including NATO enlargement, UN reform, and ballistic missile defense. In 2002, he founded the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, a nongovernmental group that sought to rally support for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the institution of a democratic government in Iraq.

Scheunemann has defended the surge plan in Iraq as essential to U.S. objectives in the Middle East. He told a panel at the Brookings Institution in March 2008: "We have an Iranian nuclear program we need to address. We have moderate regimes that are under threat from Iran in its desire for regional hegemony. We have Israel's security to be concerned about. We have the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan." He added: "Choosing to lose in Iraq will making achieving our goals in any of those other areas far, far more difficult to achieve" (PDF). An advocate for NATO expansion, he has spoken at campaign forums and in interviews about the need to stand up to Russian challenges on expansion. He told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in April 2008: "If anybody thought you're going to somehow placate the Russians by not giving Georgia and Ukraine [Membership Action Plans], we've seen through the Russian response that, in fact, rather than being placated, they felt emboldened."

Kori Schake
is a defense expert† who served in the National Security Council in the first term of George W. Bush's presidency, advising the president, White House chief of staff, and national security adviser on defense matters. Schake teaches international security studies at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and is on leave from her position as research fellow for the Hoover Institution.

Schake is coauthor of a 2002 book on the implications of a nuclear-armed Iran. In a 2007 article in the journal Policy Review, she laid out a detailed plan for seeking to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and how to confront if it did gain such arms. She promoted direct diplomatic engagement with the Iranian regime, writing, "Refusing negotiation makes us appear petulant and reduces our ability to make our case globally and to talk past the Iranian government to the Iranian people." In the event that Iran obtains nuclear weapons, Schake laid out military options, including the destruction of Iran's nuclear program and the elimination of the government by missile strikes and special forces operations.

In an interview with CSPAN after Russia's military defeat of Georgia in August 2008, Schake repeated McCain's call for ending Russian participation in the Group of Eight and blocking its admission to the World Trade Organization. "We need to raise the cost to Russia on what they are doing" and stand in solidarity with Georgia's fledgling democracy, she said.

Robert Kagan
, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, served in the State Department from 1984 to 1988 as a member of the Policy Planning Staff. Kagan and William Kristol coauthored a Foreign Affairs article in summer 1996 that was seen to articulate neoconservative views about U.S. foreign policy. They called for a robust foreign policy in which the United States pursued "benevolent hegemony." They urged the vigorous promotion of U.S. principles around the world through aiding democratic and free-market reforms and in some cases "actively pursuing policies- in Iran, Cuba, or China, for instance-intended ultimately to bring about a change of regime.

In 2002, Policy Review published an article by Kagan pointing to a fundamental parting of the ways between Europe and the United States. He wrote that a decline in European military power "has produced a powerful European interest in inhabiting a world where strength doesn't matter, where international law and international institutions predominate, where unilateral action by powerful nations is forbidden, where all nations regardless of their strength have equal rights and are equally protected by commonly agreed-upon international rules of behavior." Kagan said this also amounted to a greater tolerance for threats, including from Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

More recently, Kagan writes in the New Republic about a new great power competition shaping up in the twenty-first century with Russia and China leading the challenge by autocracies to an international political system fashioned by Western-style liberal democracies.

Stephen E. Biegun
, vice president of international governmental affairs for Ford Motor Company, has served as national security adviser to former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) and was executive secretary of the National Security Council from 2001 to 2003.

An April 2007 paper (PDF) that Biegun coauthored with Jon B. Wolfsthal for the Stanley Foundation expresses concern that "we are losing control of nuclear weapons proliferation." The paper says U.S. leadership is crucial in bolstering prevention efforts, which should involve: "potential deep reductions in nuclear weapons, support for a broad set of negotiated agreements, engagement with states friendly and otherwise to achieve stated goals, and an effort to undercut the basic assumptions of why states acquire nuclear weapons and the lengths to which the United States should go to prevent their proliferation."

Biegun served as a member of the CFR 2006 Independent Task Force on Russia, which warned of backsliding on Russian democratization and urged the Bush administration to take steps to improve the relationship while affirming the U.S. right to bolster reformist nations in Russia's sphere of influence. He began serving as senior foreign policy adviser to Gov. Sarah Palin (R-AK), after her nomination as McCain's running mate in September 2008.

Richard S. Williamson
has held senior foreign policy posts under presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush. He was most recently named U.S. special envoy to Sudan in January 2008, charged with dealing with the Darfur crisis. Williamson has a long background in UN diplomacy and has been an advocate of advancing U.S. interests through the United Nations, while expressing concern about UN efficiency. He has described his failure to secure a strong resolution at the UN Commission on Human Rights against the Sudanese government actions in Darfur as one of his greatest disappointments (PDF) in twenty years of multilateral diplomacy.

Williamson has also spoken out repeatedly against Russian retrenchment of democratic reforms under former President Vladimir Putin. He told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in an October 2007 interview that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) must stand up to Russian resistance to reforms: "The Russian Federation is a [signatory] of the Helsinki Accords and a large number of subsequent OSCE commitments dealing with human rights, rule of law, and democracy, and the Helsinki process commits every one of the 56 member states to have a right to examine other countries' fidelity to those commitments and it's important that the other countries of the OSCE stand up for those standards, whomever might be challenging them."

Niall Ferguson
is a Harvard University historian and senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution known for his books on imperialism and colonialism. Ferguson has sought to make the case that liberal empires are essential for ensuring proper global governance and that currently, the United States is best positioned to carry this mantle. He added a cautionary note about imperial rivalries and shrinking global resources in a 2006 article for Foreign Policy magazine: "In our ever more populous world, where certain natural resources are destined to become more scarce, the old mainsprings of imperial rivalry remain. Look only at China's recent vigorous pursuit of privileged relationships with major commodity producers in Africa and elsewhere."

In a September 2008 analysis for the Financial Times, Ferguson wrote about "two brands of economic populism" offered by candidates McCain and Obama in response to the financial crisis: "American voters might end up with a choice between Franklin Roosevelt and Theodore Roosevelt: between a reheated New Deal in the rhetorically high-faluting style of 1933 and a rather feistier kind of economic populism that appeals more to the self-reliant individual than to the federal bureaucracy. The bottom line, however, is that neither candidate is going to be saying kind words about finance."

Max Boot
is a CFR senior fellow for national security studies. A prolific writer on defense issues, Boot has most recently authored books on the U.S. Marine Corps and modern-day warfare. In his 2006 book War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of Modern History, 1500 to Today, Boot called for a military restructuring to better position the United States for assymetric warfare against terrorists. "Some of the most expensive weapons systems being purchased by the United States and its allies are irrelevant to fighting and winning the war against terrorism," he wrote. "And the combination of moral restraint and bureaucratic sluggishness that defines America's military culture may leave the U.S. at a comparative disadvantage against nimble, networked, nihilistic enemies like al-Qaeda, who will deploy whatever weapons they have with urgent brutality."

Boot has been a strong proponent of the U.S. military surge in Iraq that began in 2007. He wrote in a May 2008 Online Debate with CFR Senior Fellow Steven Simon:

"The impression I've formed from all the available evidence-including my visits-is that while substantial problems remain (and I've written extensively about them), the situation has gotten markedly better over the past year and will continue to improve as long as we don't withdraw prematurely."

Richard R. Burt
, a former diplomat and an arms control expert, serves as managing director at Kissinger McLarty Associates, a consulting firm for international markets. He is also senior advisor to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank. A veteran of nuclear arms-control talks with the former Soviet Union, Burt from 1989 to early 1991 was chief negotiator of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). Previously, he had served as U.S. ambassador to Germany, after two years as assistant secretary of state for European and Canadian affairs. Like Biegun, Burt served as a member of the 2006 CFR Independent Task Force on U.S.-Russia relations. In reaction to then-Russian President Vladimir Putin's January 2007 speech attacking U.S. foreign and defense policy, Burt called the comments a "message of traditional Russian paranoia, victimization, and strong desire to be taken seriously by the West."

At an event sponsored by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in February 2008, he spoke of a merging of the problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan, adding that Pakistan's "northern frontier territories are now arguably the most dangerous geography on this planet." He said one legacy of the Bush administration is the difficulty Washington faces in trying to mount multilateral responses to some of the security challenges in the world. "Given the decline, slippage of U.S. standing around the world, even governments that would like to cooperate with us, would like to engage with us in dealing with these problems, can't get the necessary public support to do so," he said.

John F. Lehman
served as secretary of the Navy for six years in the Reagan administration and was a member of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. He is chairman of J.F. Lehman & Company, a private equity investment firm, and of OAO Technology Solutions. Lehman has served under former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on the National Security Council, as delegate to the Force Reductions Negotiations in Vienna, and as deputy director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.

In a National Journal interview in July 2008, Lehman discussed defense budgeting reforms and modernization in a McCain administration. He said: "The entire approach to defense planning will be effectively rebooted. He believes strongly that the current defense procurement system-the whole agglomeration of layers and layers of bureaucracy and agencies and committees and subcommittees on the Hill-has created a chaotic and dysfunctional system for procuring our weapons systems, and that has to be fundamentally reformed." He added: "We're talking about restoring a clear, accountable line of authority, which will once again enable rational decision-making to take place in both [the legislative and executive] branches."

Sen. Joseph Lieberman
(ID-CT), a senator since 1988, has increasingly aligned his foreign policy and national security views with Republicans, especially McCain, his colleague on the Armed Services Committee. Lieberman and McCain have cosponsored legislation on tackling climate change, among other issues, but the two have been especially close in their support of military action in Iraq, particularly the decision to introduce a military surge in 2007. Lieberman's support of strong military action in Iraq led to his estrangement from the Democratic Party; he most recently won reelection as an independent after losing in the Democratic primary in Connecticut. Lieberman has also said increasing Democratic wariness on free trade agreements contributed to his move away from the party.

But Lieberman has retained his chairmanship of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, with oversight of actions of the Department of Homeland Security, a body he helped create in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Lieberman's Senate website says he remains committed to the panel's "ongoing investigation into the roots, causes, and solutions for extreme Islamic radicalization."

In August 2008, he coauthored an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), urging a more vigorous U.S. and Western role in shoring up Georgia's defense capabilities.

Sen. Lindsey Graham
(R-SC), a former military lawyer, has joined with McCain in the Senate Armed Services Committee to oppose Bush administration efforts that sought to reinterpret the Geneva Conventions to strengthen interrogation techniques seen in some quarters as torture. Graham told Newsweek in a 2006 interview why he opposed legalizing torture, even for suspected top terrorists: "Every military lawyer I've ever met believes that [banning torture] is vital for the safety of our troops," he said. "I can give you dozens of example of cases involving captured Americans where abuse stopped at a certain point because the people doing it were afraid of being prosecuted as a war criminal."

Graham, a colonel in the Air Force Reserve who has served in Iraq in short stints, has been critical in the past of U.S. war strategy in Iraq and has expressed concern about losing control in the country. But he has strongly backed the surge and opposes a mandatory timetable on troop drawdowns, which he says would undermine efforts to provide the security environment needed for political reforms to take place. He coauthored a Wall Street Journal op-ed with Lieberman in August 2008 calling for reconstruction and security aid in Georgia.

Editor's Note: Peter W. Rodman, listed initially as a leading national security adviser, died on August 2, 2008.

Energy Policy

McCain has identified a reformed U.S. energy policy as a national security imperative, in particular noting the dangers of relying on autocratic regimes for oil supplies. McCain has opposed positions favored by a number of Republicans, such as U.S. drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and subsidies to bolster U.S. ethanol production. Here are McCain's top advisers* on energy policy:

R. James Woolsey
was CIA director from 1993 to 1995 and is now a vice president at consulting company Booz Allen Hamilton. In 2001, he served on CFR Independence Task Forces calling for sweeping reforms of the State Department and for improvements in U.S. public diplomacy efforts against terrorism.

Woolsey was a strong proponent of toppling Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, saying his weapons of mass destruction programs and hatred of the United States made him a chief threat. In the weeks after 9/11, he pointed to likely ties between al-Qaeda and Iraq (WSJ), including Saddam's courtship of Sunni Islamists and reports of Iraqi contacts with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Woolsey has focused increasingly in the past ten years on what he has called the "strategic vulnerabilities of the U.S. energy system" and the need for a new policy based on bolstering alternatives to fossil fuels. If such a policy were achieved, he wrote in a piece he coauthored with Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-IN) in the January/February 1999 issue of Foreign Affairs, "U.S. diplomacy and policies in the Middle East could be guided more by a respect for democracy than by a need to protect oil supplies and accommodate oil-producing regimes." Woolsey encourages what he calls a "portfolio of approaches" to supplanting oil's dominant role including strengthening fuel efficiency and providing incentives for making hybrid and other fuel-efficient cars.

*Editor's Note: One energy adviser originally listed, Eric Burgeson, was dropped in mid-May because of new lobbying requirements adopted by the campaign. Burgeson lobbied the federal government for energy clients.

The Economic Team

McCain has expressed strong support for expanding free trade agreements, stressing the importance of trade in building democracy and strengthening U.S. alliances from Asia to Latin America. In campaigning in states increasingly uneasy about the impact of trade and globalization, McCain's campaign has emphasized the need to boost U.S. competitiveness through a combination of education, retraining, and trade adjustment assistance. Here are McCain's top economic advisers:

Douglas Holtz-Eakin
has been long active in public policy, serving as chief economist for the president's Council of Economic Advisers and director of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO). His academic research has tended to focus on the effect of taxes. While at the CBO, he introduced "dynamic analysis," a way of examining how changes in taxes affected overall economic growth as well as consumer and business behavior. The CBO under Holtz-Eakin delivered a series of thorough reports on the costs of the Iraq war, recruitment and retention challenges for the Army (PDF), and the mounting costs of replacing and repairing military equipment in Iraq (PDF).

As head of CFR's Center for Geoeconomic Studies, Holtz-Eakin expressed concern at Congress's reaction to the Dubai Ports World purchase of operations at a number of U.S. ports. He urged prudent reforms of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, warning against protectionism for the sake of national security. He has also talked increasingly about the virtues of a cap-and-trade policy that curbs greenhouse gas emissions and observes free market practices (USNews).

John B. Taylor
is a Stanford economist known for devising the Taylor Rule, a guideline for monetary policymakers on how to set short-term interest rates as economic conditions change. As Treasury undersecretary for international affairs from 2001 to 2005 he was on the front line of some major efforts in financial diplomacy. They included efforts to guide Argentina after its massive debt default. Taylor later wrote in an April 2006 op-ed for the Wall Street Journal: "We should steer clear of a new interventionism and instead concentrate on improving the IMF's new advisory role." Taylor was also charged with pressing China to move toward floating its currency so it would appreciate, thereby easing the U.S. trade deficit with China. He wrote in a 2005 Hoover Digest article of the importance of avoiding "isolationist legislation" and encouraging "rational policy decisions-rather than hysterical China-bashing-on important foreign investment issues such as the recently withdrawn CNOOC bid for Unocal."

Kenneth Rogoff
is a Harvard economist and research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. He served as chief economist and director of research for the International Monetary Fund from 2001 to 2003. In a 2003 article in Foreign Policy, Rogoff issued a defense of the fund, writing "Blaming the IMF for the reality that every country must confront its budget constraints is like blaming the fund for gravity." He said the IMF still has a role in the changing global financial environment, chiefly as a global economic forum. "The current patchwork system of exchange rates seems too unstable to survive into the 22nd century. How will the world make the transition toward a more stable, coherent system? That is a global problem, and dealing with it requires a global perspective the IMF can help provide," he wrote. He has also called for financially restructuring the World Bank as a grant-making agency rather than as a bank, pointing to the "absurdity" of making loans to countries like Russia and China, "both of whom have hoards of reserves and extensive access to private markets" (PDF).

Ike Brannon
joined McCain as a senior adviser after holding a series of top economic jobs for the Bush administration and Congress. Most recently, Brannon was senior adviser for tax policy at the U.S. Treasury. In an article for Regulation magazine critiquing Wisconsin's Unfair Sales Act, which required retailers to mark up products a certain percentage over wholesale price to discourage undercutting the prices of smaller stores, Brannon said his research found the act inhibited competition in the retail gasoline market (PDF). Brannon has written about the politicized atmosphere in seeking appropriate regulatory practices for agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency. "It is an intensely political game, needless to say. During the last years of the Clinton administration, virtually no regulations proposed by federal agencies were ever returned by OIRA [Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs], abrogation of duties that the administration defended by saying that they let the agencies know early on what would be acceptable to them" (PDF).

Selected Writings

John McCain, "An Enduring Peace Built on Freedom," Foreign Affairs, November/December 2007.

John McCain, "America Must Be a Good Role Model," Financial Times, March 18, 2008.

William Kristol and Robert Kagan, "Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy," Foreign Affairs, July/August 1996.

Robert Kagan, "Power and Weakness," Policy Review, June/July 2002.

Douglas Holtz-Eakin, "Open Markets Start at Home," washingtonpost.com, August 17, 2006.

Kenneth Rogoff, "The IMF Strikes Back," Foreign Policy, January/February 2003.

Richard G. Lugar and R. James Woolsey, "The New Petroleum," Foreign Affairs; January/February 1999.

Kori Schake, "Dealing with a Nuclear Iran," Policy Review, April/May 2007.

Julie Ginsberg and Holly Fletcher contributed to this report.

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