Since clinching the Republican presidential nomination, John McCain has sought to hide the forest of his neoconservative alignment with George W. Bush amid the trees of details, such as stressing differences over military tactics used in Iraq.
But the larger reality should be clear: McCain is a hard-line neoconservative who buys into Bush's "preemptive war" theories abroad and his concept of an all-powerful "unitary executive" at home.
From McCain's pre-Iraq invasion speeches to his campaign's recent embrace of Bush's imperial presidency, American voters should realize that if they choose John McCain, they will be locking in at least four more years of war with much of the Islamic world while selling out the Founders' vision of a democratic Republic where no one is above the law.
Take, for instance, an address that McCain gave to the Munich Conference on Security Policy on Feb. 2, 2002. In the speech - with the ambitious title, "From Crisis to Opportunity: American Internationalism and the New Atlantic Order" - the Arizona senator laid out the "full monte" of a neocon agenda.
In those heady days after the U.S. ouster of Afghanistan's Taliban regime, McCain hailed "a new American internationalism" designed "to end safe harbor for terrorists anywhere, to aggressively target rogue regimes that threaten us with weapons of mass destruction, and to consolidate freedom's gains through institutions that reflect our values."
To McCain, this meant that the United States had a fundamental right to invade any country on earth that was viewed as an actual or potential threat, a theory of American exceptionalism to international law that was at the heart of Bush's strategy of "preemptive war."
"Americans believe we have a mandate to defeat and dismantle the global terrorist network that threatens both Europe and America," McCain said. "As our President has said, this network includes not just the terrorists but the states that make possible their continued operation.
"Many of these are rogue regimes that possess or are developing weapons of mass destruction which threaten Europeans and Americans alike. We in America learned the hard way that we can never again wait for our enemies to choose their moment. The initiative is now ours, and we are seizing it."
McCain even presented himself as a forerunner to Bush's neoconservative policies.
"Several years ago, I and many others argued that the United States, in concert with willing allies, should work to undermine from within and without outlaw regimes that disdain the rules of international conduct and whose internal dysfunction threatened other nations," McCain said.
"Just this week, the American people heard our President articulate a policy to defeat the 'axis of evil' that threatens us with its support for terror and development of weapons of mass destruction," McCain said in reference to Bush's warning to Iraq, Iran and North Korea.
"Dictators that harbor terrorists and build these weapons are now on notice that such behavior is, in itself, a casus belli. Nowhere is such an ultimatum more applicable than in Saddam Hussein's Iraq."
McCain then reprised what turned out to be the bogus case for invading Iraq.
"Almost everyone familiar with Saddam's record of biological weapons development over the past two decades agrees that he surely possesses such weapons. He also possesses vast stocks of chemical weapons and is known to have aggressively pursued, with some success, the development of nuclear weapons," McCain said.
"Terrorist training camps exist on Iraqi soil, and Iraqi officials are known to have had a number of contacts with al-Qaeda. These were probably not courtesy calls," McCain added in the smug, sarcastic tone common to that period.
As it turned out, the "vast stocks" of chemical weapons and the prospect of nuclear weapons were non-existent. The "terrorist training camps" on Iraqi soil were hostile to Hussein's secular regime and were located outside Baghdad's control in areas protected by the U.S.-British-enforced "no-fly zone."
Evidence collected after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 revealed that Saddam Hussein rebuffed overtures from al-Qaeda, which he regarded as an enemy in the Arab world. Those contacts were not even "courtesy calls."
Rush to War
However, in February 2002, McCain was a leading voice in the neocon rush for war in Iraq, as an extension of Bush's "war on terror."
"The next front is apparent, and we should not shirk from acknowledging it," McCain said. "A terrorist resides in Baghdad, with the resources of an entire state at his disposal, flush with cash from illicit oil revenues and proud of a decade-long record of defying the international community's demands that he come clean on his programs to develop weapons of mass destruction.
"A day of reckoning is approaching. Not simply for Saddam Hussein, but for all members of the Atlantic community, whose governments face the choice of ending the threat we face every day from this rogue regime or carrying on as if such behavior, in the wake of September 11th, were somehow still tolerable.
"The Afghan campaign set a precedent, and provided a model: the success of air power, combined with Special Operations forces working together with indigenous opposition forces, in waging modern war.
"The next phase of the war on terror can build on this model, but we also must learn from its limitations. More American boots on the ground may be required to prevent the escape of terrorists we target in the future, and we should all be mindful that such a commitment might entail higher casualties than we have suffered in Afghanistan," McCain continued.
"The most compelling defense of war is the moral claim that it allows the victors to define a stronger and more enduring basis for peace. Just as September 11th revolutionized our resolve to defeat our enemies, so has it brought into focus the opportunities we now have to secure and expand freedom."
McCain's full embrace of this neocon global theory - both in its grandiose substance and its grandiloquent rhetoric - marked the over-the-top hubris that contributed to the suppression of any serious pre-Iraq War debate in the United States and then to the ill-considered rush to invade Iraq.
As the war in Iraq turned sour and anti-Americanism swept the Middle East, McCain began criticizing the Bush administration not for its imperial overreach but for not reaching even farther. McCain began advocating a larger U.S. expeditionary force to pacify Iraq, a policy that gave rise to the "surge."
"League of Democracies"
Despite these tactical differences, McCain has shown no sign of rethinking his vision of an alliance of "willing" nations going around the world challenging and replacing disfavored governments. Indeed, he has made this neocon concept a centerpiece of his presidential campaign.
The presumptive Republican presidential nominee has proposed a "League of Democracies," which would apply economic and military pressure on "rogue states" when the United Nations Security Council refuses to do so.
Though McCain has dressed up his League of Democracies in pretty language about respecting international law and spreading freedom, its essence is to make permanent Bush's "coalition of the willing" concept used in Iraq.
McCain insists his League won't supplant the Security Council, but it would do just that, fulfilling a long-held neocon dream of voiding the international system that U.S. leaders fashioned after World War II to enforce the Nuremberg principle that aggressive war was the "supreme" international crime.
McCain's League would create for the U.S. President a standing organization for engaging in aggressive war against "rogue regimes" whether they are an immediate, potential - or imaginary - threat.
The irony is that when McCain and Bush talk about the danger of "rogue regimes" operating outside international law and threatening other nations, that is exactly what their neocon theories have made the United States: a country that - along with a few allies - becomes a law onto itself.
Similarly, McCain and Bush share the view that the President of the United States should embody and personify these new imperial powers. Just as the U.S. government can act in any way it sees fit under these neocon theories, its Commander in Chief also can do whatever he wants without legal constraints.
That was spelled out by a top McCain adviser, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, declaring in a letter to the right-wing National Review that McCain agreed with Bush's assertion that the President may override laws that he deems an impediment to fighting the "war on terror."
Holtz-Eakin said McCain supports Bush's program of warrantless wiretaps despite the Fourth Amendment's protections against unreasonable searches and a 1978 law requiring the Executive to gain approval from a special court for intelligence-related wiretaps inside the United States.
"Neither the administration nor the telecoms need apologize for actions that most people, except for the ACLU and trial lawyers, understand were constitutional and appropriate in the wake of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001," Holtz-Eakin wrote in describing McCain's position.
Article II Powers
Holtz-Eakin further cited Article II powers of the Constitution in explaining how McCain would act as President, suggesting that McCain - like Bush - would exercise virtually unlimited executive powers for the duration of the indefinite "war on terror."
McCain also has announced that he would appoint Supreme Court justices like Samuel Alito and John Roberts who - along with Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas - represent four votes in favor of reinterpreting the Constitution to grant the President the broad powers claimed by Bush and McCain.
If a President McCain gets to replace one of the five other justices with another Alito or Roberts, the new court majority could, in effect, rewrite the rules of the American Republic to declare the imperial presidency "constitutional."
If that happens, the American people would no longer possess "unalienable rights," as promised by the Founders and enshrined in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The President would possess what the neocons call "plenary" - or total - power.
That means the President would have the authority to arrest anyone as an "unlawful enemy combatant," deny the person the right to a lawyer or a trial by jury, and subject the individual to any treatment that the President sees fit, from indefinite imprisonment up to torture and death.
This neocon vision also holds that the President - on his own authority - could take the nation to war anywhere in the world for whatever reason.
In essence, the United States would cease to be a democratic Republic with citizens guaranteed fundamental liberties and with an Executive possessing limited authority constrained by the Legislature. All meaningful power would be invested in the President as a modern-day monarch.
John McCain may criticize President Bush on the edges of neoconservative policies, such as failing to prosecute the Iraq War more aggressively, and he may differ with Bush on the efficacy of torture, given McCain's own mistreatment as a Vietnam prisoner of war.
But there should be no doubt that a McCain victory would give the neocons another four-year lease on the White House. And, after those four years, there might be no feasible way back for the great American Republic.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, "Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush," can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, "Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq" and "Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'ProjectTruth'" are also available there.