John McCain, America’s Revolutionary Conscience

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- If you want to get a sense of what John McCain meant to American ideals and American foreign policy, consider the case of a Syrian defector known as Caesar. In 2013, he smuggled out almost 55,000 photos that documented the torture and killing of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in his nation’s civil war. When Caesar traveled to Washington in 2014, one of the first people he wanted to meet was the senior senator from Arizona.

The meeting, like McCain’s trip to Aleppo in 2013, had been arranged with the help of Mouaz Moustafa. A Syrian-American activist with experience on Capitol Hill, Moustafa became an important contact for the senator as McCain pressed for the U.S. to get involved in Syria to create an alternative to Assad and the jihadists who opposed him. “The Syrians whom I speak to are grieving for McCain as if they are grieving for a family member,” Moustafa told me.

Sometimes this aspect of McCain’s legacy is expressed in universalist language: He was a defender of human rights. Sometimes it is presented in a less flattering way: He simply loved war.

McCain believed in human rights and knew force was sometimes necessary to defend them. But his beliefs were grounded in a more straightforward impulse: patriotism. McCain’s support for Syrians, Iraqis, Bosnians, Kosovars, Ukrainians, Georgians, Burmese and free Russians was very American. McCain was driven by a reverence for the American republic’s revolutionary obligation as expressed in the Declaration of Independence.

It’s a tradition that goes back to Thomas Jefferson’s campaign to get President John Adams to support the French Revolution. It’s the spirit that drove abolitionists to send arms to Kansans fighting slavery before the Civil War. It is what animated both FDR’s war against fascism and Ronald Reagan’s campaign against communism.

McCain took up this mantle in the late 1990s, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. He broke with many in his party to support military interventions in the Balkans to halt ethnic cleansing there. In a 1999 speech outlining this new post-Cold War internationalism, McCain rejected the “false dichotomy between policies that are intended to protect our security interests and policies intended to promote our political values.”

Randy Scheunemann, who was McCain’s national security adviser in his 2000 and 2008 presidential campaigns, remembers that speech as the essence of McCain’s worldview. “It’s standing with the underdogs, promoting freedom while promoting American interests and understanding that American values are American interests.”

Just a year later, of course, a man with far more cautious views won the Republican nomination and then the presidency. George W. Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, famously told the 2000 Republican convention that “America’s armed forces are not a global police force. They are not the world’s 9-1-1.”

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush eventually came around to McCain’s view. His second inaugural address was a kind of tribute to McCain: “The survival of liberty in our land,” he said, “increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.”

That speech followed the invasion of Iraq. McCain supported that war, but not blindly; he broke with the Bush administration early on and demanded a new strategy and the firing of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. McCain understood that America would need to be in Iraq for the long haul and that its strategy needed to take seriously an insurgency that was largely ignored in the war’s first years.

In his last book, released this year, McCain admitted that he was mistaken to vote for the invasion of Iraq because the regime was not compiling weapons of mass destruction. Yet he did not view the war as a crime or an indelible stain on America’s reputation.

The campaign to replace a ruthless dictator such as Saddam Hussein with a rudimentary democracy was “a just cause,” McCain wrote. “And the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have risked their lives to achieve those ends are owed the eternal gratitude of Iraqis and Americans for the sacrifice they made for people who were strangers to them.”

McCain wasn’t always right. But he never lost his belief in America’s obligation to make the world more free. He lived that creed as a young pilot shot down in Vietnam and later as a senator, lending his voice to the American cause of fighting tyranny all over the world. He will be missed by all of us who hold that cause sacred.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

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