John McCain's latest saber-rattling: Another foreign policy problem for which "war" is the only answer

You'll never believe it, but the hawkish senator believes North Korea's committed an "act of war"

Published December 22, 2014 5:56PM (EST)

  (Jeff Malet,
(Jeff Malet,

How we got into this situation with the North Koreans, or what you'd even call this situation with the North Koreans ... I don't know. Do you? There's not much of a precedent for it. There's not much of a precedent for "James Franco and Seth Rogen made a buddy-comedy about assassinating the North Korean leader and so the North Korean government hacked Sony's computers and issued weird threats in pastebin files that caused Sony to indefinitely delay the film's release." The NatSec playbook here is several blank pages followed by a "...???"

President Obama realizes that we're in new territory here and is choosing his words carefully as he and the government weigh options for "responding proportionately." That might means sanctions, it might mean returning North Korea to the list of state sponsors of terror, it might mean leaning on the Chinese to get North Korea to cut out the funny business. It might mean hacking North Korea's computers and drawing doodles of genitals on Kim Jong-un's letterhead, who knows?

One term from the NatSec playbook that might not fully accurately describe what the North Korean hackers did is "commit an act of war." It's not nothing that they broke into Sony's system and screwed around, but it's not like, say, they bombed Sony or killed a whole bunch of people. While the government's top lexicographers develop the proper nomenclature for this ... this happening, President Obama's acting term of choice will be "cyber-vandalism."

"No, I don't think it was an act of war," Obama said on CNN's "State of the Union." "I think it was an act of cyber-vandalism that was very costly, very expensive. We take it very seriously. We will respond proportionately."

He added, "We're going to be in an environment in this new world where so much is digitalized that both state and non-state actors are going to have the capacity to disrupt our lives in all sorts of ways. We have to do a much better job of guarding against that."

"Cyber-vandalism" sounds ... fine? Accurate? With the modifiers of "very costly, very expensive" thrown in to add that this wasn't just Kim Jong-un tagging a subway train.

There are Republicans who, being Republicans, will still carp about the weakness of the president's response. Rep. Mike Rogers, the retiring chairman of the House Intel Committee, went on Fox News Sunday to play the old "[X happened] and the president goes on vacation to Hawaii??" card. Excellent commentary -- five points for Mike Rogers! But even Rogers, understanding that he is, for the next couple of weeks at least, a figure of importance in the United States government, wouldn't call the hack and accompanying pastebin threat an act of war: "You can't necessarily say an act of war. We don't have good, clear policy guidance on what that means when it comes to cyberattacks."

So here we've got two prominent figures, a Democratic president and a Republican intel committee chair, going on the Sunday circuit to throw water on the "act of war" theory. If you're a TV booker, you know just the man who'll argue the opposite, who'll describe any foreign actor drawing a fresh breath as an "act of war." He's about 400 years old and the incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and loves war -- can't get enough of it.

Sen. John McCain has been calling this an "act of war" for the past few days. As is usually the case, he was invited onto a Sunday morning television to explain his theory about how we're at war with a new country. McCain argued that President Obama just doesn't understand modern technology and the Internets and so forth. McCain said this.

"The president does not understand that this is a manifestation of a new form of warfare," said McCain. "When you destroy economies, when you are able to impose censorship on the world and especially the United States of America, it's more than vandalism. It's a new form of warfare that we're involved in, and we need to react and react vigorously."

It's always the same problem with McCain when he suggests that someone else isn't taking a foreign policy issue seriously enough. If your blanket response to every foreign policy issue is "WE MUST WAR THEM!" then you might be the one who's not taking foreign policy seriously enough.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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