But judging from the content of his speech, McCain is no more a realist than he is a reflective man.
Speaking of our five-year war in Iraq, McCain declares, "It would be an unconscionable act of betrayal, a stain on our character as a nation, if we were to walk away from the Iraqi people and consign them to the horrendous violence, ethnic cleansing, and possible genocide that would follow a reckless, irresponsible and premature withdrawal."Fair point. There is surely a great risk in a too-rapid withdrawal.
But if a U.S. withdrawal, after 4,000 dead and 33,000 wounded, and a trillion dollars sunk, runs the risk of a genocidal calamity, what does that tell us about the wisdom of those who marched us into this war?
What threat did Saddam ever pose comparable to the cataclysm McCain says we face if we pull out? Who, Senator, put American on the horns of so horrible a dilemma?
"Whether they were in Iraq before is immaterial," McCain warns, "al-Qaida is there now." And that is surely true.
But if al-Qaida was not in Iraq before we invaded, why did we invade? And if al-Qaida is there now, what was the magnet that drew them in, if not the U.S. occupation McCain himself championed?
Like Condi Rice, who regularly disparages the policies of every president from FDR to Bill Clinton, McCain enjoys parading the higher morality of his devotion to democracy-uber-alles.
"For decades in the Middle East we had a strategy of relying upon autocrats to provide order and stability. We relied on the Shah, the autocratic rulers of Egypt, the generals of Pakistan, the Saudi royal family. ... We can no longer delude ourselves that relying on these outdated autocrats is the safest bet."
Speaking of self-delusion, does McCain believe the "democrats" lately elected in Pakistan will be tougher on al-Qaida and the Taliban than Pervez Musharraf, who has twice escaped assassination for having sided with us?
Does McCain think this new crowd in Islamabad will be more pro-American than the general, when the people who voted them in are among the most anti-American in the Islamic world?
From Richard Nixon to George Bush I, we expelled Moscow from Egypt, won the Cold War, brought peace between Egypt and Israel, and created a worldwide alliance, including Hafez al-Assad of Syria, that drove Saddam's army out of Kuwait.
What has the Bush-McCain democracy crusade produced, save electoral victories for the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah and Hamas? And if we dump the sultan of Oman, President Mubarak, and the king of Saudi Arabia, who does McCain think will replace them?
If undermining Arab autocrats is good for America, why is that also the goal of Osama bin Laden?
McCain proposes a "League of Democracies" to unite a hundred nations for peace and freedom. "Revanchist Russia," however, is to be black-balled from McCain's league and thrown out of the G-8.
What would this accomplish other than undoing the work of Reagan in bringing Moscow in from the cold, driving Russia into the arms of China, restarting the Cold War and recreating the Beijing-Moscow axis it was Nixon's great achievement to break up?
What McCain is proposing is a re-division of the world into the forces of light and the forces of darkness. Moral clarity at last! Has he forgotten the fate of that earlier rabbit warren of the righteous, the League of Nations?
Does our "realistic idealist" think a NATO of 25 nations that has mustered a piddling 16,000 soldiers, most of them noncombatants, to stand beside us in Afghanistan is going to confront a nuclear-armed Russia?
"Nations have no permanent friends and no permanent enemies. Only permanent interests," said Lord Palmerston.
What is critical, especially in wartime, is not whether a regime is autocratic or democratic, but whether it is hostile or friendly.
Gen. Washington, at war with democratic Great Britain, is said to have danced a jig when he heard we had Louis XVI as an ally. During our Civil War, Britain built blockade-runners for the Confederacy, while the czar docked his ships in Union harbors. Russia "was our friend/When the world was our foe," wrote Oliver Wendell Holmes.
When Nixon launched his airlift to save Israel in the Yom Kippur War, autocratic Portugal let us use the Azores. Democratic France denied Reagan over-flight permission in the 1986 raid on Libya. Two brave U.S. pilots died as a result.
When McCain was in the Hanoi Hilton, British and French ships were unloading goods in Haiphong, while Ferdinand Marcos and the South Korean generals sent troops to stand with us and fight beside us.
To root one's attitude toward nations based upon their internal politics rather than their foreign policies is ideology. And policies rooted in ideologies, from Trotskyism to democratism, end up on the Great Barrier Reef of reality.