When four foreign policy experts held an animated debate recently on a Washington stage over whether the U.S. can or should save Syria, it was a member of the audience who drew the most attention.
John McCain, the 76-year-old war hero, five-term senator and former presidential candidate, was watching from the seats of the U.S. Navy Memorial Burke Theater for the inaugural debate of his namesake research institute.
Started with about $9 million in leftover campaign funds, the Arizona State University McCain Institute for International Leadership gives McCain a chance to aim for loftier, nonpartisan goals to top off a long political career.
“I don’t particularly view it as a legacy,” McCain said in an interview. “You always want to try to do things that will last beyond your time.”
Creating a forum that leaves the debating to others is a switch for the Arizona Republican, who long has been a leading voice in his party on foreign policy and national security.
In the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa, McCain has been a reliable critic of the policies of President Barack Obama, whom McCain challenged for the presidency in 2008. He threatened Chuck Hagel’s confirmation as Obama’s second-term defense secretary and John Brennan’s as director of the Central Intelligence Agency to prod the White House to disclose more information about last year’s deadly attack on a U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya.
McCain rejects the notion that he’s a partisan critic.
“I did the same with a Republican president,” he said, citing his disagreements with former President George W. Bush on foreign and domestic issues.
One of his frustrations, he said, is that when he takes on fellow Republicans he’s branded “heroic,” while “I am regarded, when I criticize a Democratic president, as an angry old man.”
The institute’s second debate, “Afghanistan 2014: Should We Stay or Should We Go?” will be held tonight.
During the inaugural forum Jan. 30 two of the four panelists -- Aaron David Miller of the Wilson Center and Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma -- sided with Obama’s stance of resisting military intervention in Syria. Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution and Leon Wieseltier of the New Republic argued for more direct backing of Syrian rebels, including weapons.
The audience included Brent Scowcroft, the former national security adviser for Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush; lawmakers, ambassadors, Syrian-Americans, students and Obama advisers watching online.
Afterward, Landis and Miller said the fact that McCain doesn’t share their views on Syria didn’t color the discussion.
“It was just an honest, good debate and for my money that speaks very well for the future of this institute,” Landis said. “Obviously he knows where he wants to move the debate, but to do that he’s engaging in honest, intellectual inquiry.”
The institute “reflects a different kind of image than the one you might associate with him” and “opened up a side of him that I haven’t seen lately,” Miller said of McCain.
“We all are complicated individuals,” Miller said. “He has a political life. He has to reconcile his own past and his story. I think in an ideal world, where re-election and party politics aren’t an issue, this notion of the American national interest transcends party.”
The funding for the McCain Institute sprang from the 2008 presidential election.
Federal election law allows candidates to use leftover campaign funds for charitable purposes. McCain, who was re- elected to the Senate in 2010, had about $9 million to spend, said Kurt Volker, the institute’s executive director and a former U.S. ambassador to NATO under Bush. The McCain Institute Foundation was established, and McCain sought an academic partner. Arizona State University signed on. The institute launched last May.
Between commitments from the McCain Institute Foundation and the university’s foundation, the institute has secured annual funding of $2 million for the next five years. Fundraising will continue.
“People need objective assessments and open and honest debate without coming in with pre-planned bias,” McCain said of the mission. “It can affect our national security policy and our foreign policy.”
As long as McCain is a senator, his involvement with the institute has restrictions and is being cleared through campaign finance lawyers and the Senate’s ethics committee, Volker said.
While McCain can thank people who speak at institute events, he can’t solicit contributions. The university and institute foundation can raise money from McCain’s political backers. The institute has not disclosed its donors.
“We’re bringing in people from all sides of the aisle,” said Rick Shangraw, chief executive officer of the ASU Foundation for a New American University.
The institute’s Washington office, in the Council on Foreign Relations building near the White House, will have programs for university students and a “next generation leaders” program that draws international participants. It hosted a Burmese women’s delegation this month.
“When John McCain and his family were thinking about what they wanted as a legacy institution, the last think they wanted was a book-holding entity or a paper-producing entity,” said ASU President Michael Crow. “He was interested in anything other than the normal model.”
Crow said McCain demonstrates the duality required in modern politics: partisan fighter and policy advocate.
“When I listen to him on the radio sometimes in the heat of a political debate, that’s like the football player on the field trying to win,” he said. “This is different.”
“More than anything,” Crow said, “what he’s interested in with this institution is finding a way to produce people better than any of us now, including him.”
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