WASHINGTON—Sen. John McCain is well-known for scorching denunciations of Democrats, who he says would raise the "white flag of surrender" by cutting off funds for U.S. troops in Iraq.
But 15 years ago, it was McCain himself who startled colleagues by proposing to cut off money for a struggling and embattled U.S. force in another perilous place: Somalia.
McCain foreign policy: In an article in Sunday's Section A about John McCain's views on foreign policy over the last 25 years, Nixon Center President Dimitri Simes was described as saying that McCain had privately assured some prominent supporters that "his more exuberant statements don't necessarily reflect his real views." However, Simes did not say McCain had privately told supporters that his public statements should not be taken literally; Simes said supporters had private meetings with McCain "which they found quite encouraging." Also, Simes' first name was misspelled Dmitri. —
On the campaign trail today, McCain is seen as an unyielding hawk. But before his first presidential run in 2000, he declared he would work with the Democratic Party's brain trust to devise his foreign policy.
And while he now describes himself as a "foot soldier in the Reagan revolution," he infuriated Republicans as a freshman congressman in 1983 by trying to thwart President Reagan's deployment of troops in Lebanon.
The presumptive GOP nominee for president, McCain -- who leads a congressional delegation to Europe and the Middle East this week -- has adopted a surprising diversity of views on foreign policy issues during his 25 years in Congress. It is a pattern that brings uncertainty to the path he would take if elected.
McCain, an ex-Navy pilot and Vietnam POW who has built his campaign around his national security expertise, has advanced views on Iraq and Iran that are tough and assertive, and that seem to put him squarely in the neoconservative camp.
Yet McCain has on many occasions resisted calls for use of U.S. troops. Even now, he adopts positions that are closer to those of traditional, pragmatic Republicans than the more hawkish neoconservatives.
One sign of the internal contradictions in his views is growing friction between rival camps of McCain supporters -- between neoconservatives and those with more traditional views, widely called "realists." Both sides believe they have assurances from McCain that he would largely follow their path, and that like-minded allies would have key roles in the new administration.
The conflicting signals have caught the attention of foreign policy experts. "Who is the real John McCain?" asked Dmitri Simes, president of the Nixon Center, a Washington think tank and stronghold of the realist thinkers.
Simes said McCain, one of the Nixon Center's advisors, has privately assured prominent supporters in the traditional foreign policy camp that "his more exuberant statements don't necessarily reflect his real views."
"John is a traditional national security guy," said retired Adm. Bobby Ray Inman, a former top intelligence official who is listed by the campaign as an important supporter. If McCain reaches the White House, Inman predicts, "there's going to be a lot of disappointment on the neoconservative side."
In forming his views on national security, McCain has always relied on a large circle of outside advisors and a handful of trusted aides, say former staffers and others who know him. But he has typically worked out his own conclusions. And taken as a whole, they seem quirky and a la carte, rather than developed from a single philosophy.
From his father, an admiral who served in World War II, he inherited the view that the United States must take care to preserve its image of strength and greatness, not backing down in the face of lesser opponents.
At the same time, McCain's beliefs have been colored by his time as a Navy aviator, when he and his buddies became convinced that civilian leaders in Washington were dangerously mishandling the Vietnam War. Even while he wants to extend American authority, McCain as a lawmaker has regularly bucked the Republican establishment.
The Lebanon vote was an example. In 1983, McCain voted against a bill to extend Reagan's deployment of U.S. troops there. Reagan wanted more time to strengthen the fragile Lebanese government, but McCain worried that the American force was too small and that U.S. interests did not justify the risk.
In a similar vein, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, McCain initially wanted to limit the response to an air war.
"To start putting American troops into that kind of meat grinder I just don't think is a viable option," McCain said in a televised interview at the time. But he quickly changed his view, voting five months later to join an international effort to push Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.