John McCain: An endangered breed of Mideast hawk

WASHINGTON – Few American senators have experienced war firsthand like John McCain, who as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese suffered through debilitating torture. But armed with that experience, the late senator from Arizona grew into a hardened advocate for the use of US military power in nearly every theater of conflict in the Middle East for decades to come.

He passionately supported US intervention in Syria against Bashar Assad, in Libya against Muammar Gaddafi, in Iran against its regime’s race toward nuclear weapons technology, in Afghanistan against the Taliban and in Iraq against Saddam Hussein – one critical position he later wrote he had come to regret. His support always tracked with traditional American allies; he believed that military might can help the tangible spread of American values – of individual liberty and democratic governance – around the globe.

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Even when McCain stopped short of supporting direct US military involvement, he never wavered in his support for the actions of allies he believed were on the right side of history. He strongly supported Israel’s repeated clashes with Hamas in Gaza and recently defended an offensive against Houthi rebels in Yemen led by Saudi Arabia. And he supported Kurds in their fight for freedom and sovereignty despite the strategic challenges it would pose for the reconstruction of the region.

His was a belief system that has grown increasingly rare on Capitol Hill – especially within a Republican Party that traditionally supported the idea that military force could be used as a tool for democracy promotion. After years of failure, quagmire and Pyrrhic victories throughout the Middle East, few in the American political establishment were left around McCain toward the end of his life that supported this conviction of his – that America’s military could be deployed to better the world.

To McCain, the alternative was bleak and manifested in the forms of two men: Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Despite having a basic level of respect and admiration for the man that defeated him in 2008, McCain battled Obama on foreign policy for over a decade, repeatedly calling on the Democratic president to consider humanitarian interventions against the Arab world’s worst dictators.

His world view was not confined to the Middle East nor were his criticisms specific to Democrats: He staunchly defended Georgia and Ukraine in light of Russia’s invasions and harshly criticized George W. Bush and Obama for their lackadaisical responses.

And yet, while McCain repeatedly criticized Obama for abandoning America’s closest allies in the Middle East, he held a special contempt for Trump, who he considered a disgrace to the traditions that have made America a beacon to the world. He lamented the president’s disregard for the rebel causes in Syria and Ukraine, where Trump has suspiciously acquiesced to Russian President Vladimir Putin. When, fittingly, the National Defense Authorization Act for this coming year was named in honor of the dying senator, Trump refused to acknowledge him upon signing the bill into law.

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McCain’s strong and reliable support for Israel was not exceptional in the Republican Party – his absence will not be felt in that regard. But his belief that good could be accomplished with American might in an undemocratic, tribal corner of the world might have died with him.

In a farewell statement released after his death, McCain warned of a future without American leadership of a type that, on occasion, would require the armed defense of freedom.

"We are citizens of the world’s greatest republic, a nation of ideals, not blood and soil," he said. "We are blessed and are a blessing to humanity when we uphold and advance those ideals at home and in the world. We have helped liberate more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history."

"We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe," he continued. "We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been."

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