John McCain, 2008. Van Tine Dennis/ Press Association. All rights reserved.
I got into trouble this weekend after a media interview on John McCain. Friends and colleagues asked –where was my repudiation of McCain’s hawkish promotion of an aggressive US foreign policy, his fervent support for the disastrous invasion of Iraq, his defense of Henry Kissinger as a man of “great honor”, and his push most recently for arms sales to Saudi Arabia as it bombs and starves Yemenis?
How do you weigh a man’s life when he has just died? The scion of a military line, who proudly followed that line. And in so doing, demonstrated courage, character and humanity, alongside an abiding, fierce faith in the violent line and the country that bore him?
McCain was a public man who made two runs at leading the most powerful war machine this world has known. A machine that with abandon – verging at moments on the orgiastic – has been letting blood and abetting others’ sanguinity since its first appearance, and most especially in our lifetimes: Indians’ blood, Africans’ blood, Europeans’ blood, Asians’ blood, Latin Americans’ blood. America has been an equal-opportunity killer. McCain was himself one of the blood-letters, part of the swarm of bombers Nixon let loose on Vietnam.
McCain was himself one of the blood-letters, part of the swarm of bombers Nixon let loose on Vietnam. We have no idea, nor did he himself, how many he pulverized, burned, and maimed during his 23 Rolling Thunder runs: children, women, men, young and old. All vibrantly alive until his plane flew over them. One day he was shot down and fell into Hanoi’s White Silk lake. He would have drowned but was pulled out of the water by Mai Van On, angrily beaten and bayonetted by the villagers he had been about to bomb, and arrested.
The nearly six years he spent in jail in Hanoi ravaged McCain physically and mentally. His survival of them would come to establish his character and undergird his political career.
But those years did something else as well: they ensured he was not there when his homeland turned away in self-disgust at the savagery of its war machine. While the veteran John Kerry was testifying to Congress about the rapes, mutilations, sexual torture, and murder carried out structurally by “this [American] monster in the form of millions of men who have been taught to deal and to trade in violence,” John McCain was rotting far away. So isolated he did not know until years later that a man had landed on the moon.
McCain returned to America in 1973 only because the war was ending, without ever experiencing the shift to visceral aversion that had forced America’s politicians to end it. Quite the opposite: it was during the war, the hellish years in prison, that McCain fell deeply in love with his country – even as the war became to him a memory of the ravaging violence done to himself and other Americans rather than a history of criminal mass murder by America’s war machine.
A country that cultivates warriors will honor its warriors.
John McCain made it his life’s work to represent the American people by embodying for them, and himself, and his career, the warrior code: a soldier’s courage, strength, honor, and patriotism. Yoking principle to bellicosity as the grizzled fighter-politician. A G.I. Joe of the people, for the people.
He was also canny, pragmatic, obstreperous and conciliatory as needed. He could fight Republicans to create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented migrants, criticize the intolerance of evangelical conservatives and the racism of the Confederate flag – but then make an ad committing to “complete that danged fence [with Mexico]” the better to hold off an upstart Arizona populist breathing down his neck.
McCain argued spectacularly with Edward Kennedy in public while remaining the best of friends with him – leading the Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Kennedy’s intern at the time, to commemorate McCain as “an unparalleled example of human decency” who taught her “a lot about the power of humanity in government”.
A continent away, Colonel Tran Trong Duyet, the director of Hoa Lo Prison when McCain was incarcerated, thoroughly enjoyed arguing with him too, admiring McCain’s stubbornness and toughness while learning English from him: “Out of working hours [when one wonders if McCain’s ribs and teeth were being cracked], we considered each other friends.” In this McCain was consistent: reaching across the aisle applied to his wartime jailers as much as to Democrats in later decades.
In the 1990s, McCain approached John Kerry, a man who distrusted him deeply, the better to have him join in normalizing US relations with Vietnam. Together they charted the political path to ending economic sanctions against Vietnam and re-establishing full political relations. McCain’s motivations here remain murky. He could not forgive those jailkeepers who had brutalized his fellow soldiers and spoke of them as nothing but “gooks” to the end of his days, whatever the political cost. But there was for him a strict separation between these hated figures and the country of Vietnam.
The result of these efforts paid off: Vietnam has flourished economically since America opened its markets to it. Along the way, McCain would return more than 20 times, closely involved with everything from post-war detoxification, to supporting farmers in the Mekong Delta, to searching for American MIAs. And yet, one suspects that his efforts are likely to have been driven, as always, by the wedding of strong conciliatory desires to all too pragmatic interests: in this case, the geopolitical desire to consolidate and strengthen America’s southeastern Asian base as China grew more powerful. If, having already secured him a career in American politics, his years as a prisoner offered a pathway to making Vietnam capitalist and pro-US, McCain would use it.
Israel and Iran
Iran, however, drew very different tactics: “"Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran" McCain once notoriously sang to the tune of the Beach Boys tune Barbara Ann. Though McCain had little interest in crude Islamophobia, he was quite willing to see the fight against Iran as an existential one – on a par with the threat he perceived in violent Islamism as “the central threat of our times.”
On the one hand, there was McCain’s close friendship with the Democrat-turned-Independent Joe Lieberman – McCain’s first pick as vice presidential running mate – cemented by their shared commitment to Israel. McCain traveled so often with Lieberman to Israel that Jon Stewart would jokingly point out to him that the country already was full of Jews, he didn’t need to bring his own.
Crucially, McCain took on Israel’s existential framing of its conflict with Iran, describing Iran as “the most serious crisis we have faced … since the end of the Cold War.” Alongside Israel – and strongly influenced in his policies by advisers that include Kissinger, Armitage, Bolton, Robert Kagan, and Niall Ferguson – McCain fought the Iranian nuclear deal tooth and nail, and hailed Trump’s evisceration of it. When it came to Iran, all of McCain’s readiness to reach across the aisle vanished. “"Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran" McCain once notoriously sang to the tune of the Beach Boys tune Barbara Ann.
The result was a schizophrenic set of positions in line with what McCain himself called his “idealist realism.” On the one hand, McCain’s close friendship with Israel and unrelenting enmity against Iran also meant enmity towards those Iran supported, from Hamas to Yemeni Houthis to Assad. Even as McCain decried Assad’s violation of Syrians’ human rights and supported those rising in protest, he had absolutely nothing to say about the human rights of Palestinians and Houthis as they faced blockades, bombing, and incursions. Indeed, McCain loudly supported not only Israel but also the extravagantly undemocratic regime of Saudi Arabia (“thank God for the Saudis”), along with the Iranian dissident group Mujahideen-e Khalq (MeK).
MeK was notorious for a string of political murders in 1981 (including Americans), for joining Saddam Hussain in the war against Iran, and more recently for indulging in a host of aggressive cultish practices. Those who have left the group accuse it of ending romantic relationships, forcing others into arranged marriages, brainwashing, sexual abuse and torture. In short, going against all principles of social and political relation for which McCain stood. All this McCain was willing to ignore in publicly speaking with and on behalf of MeK: given the choice between democratic principles and undemocratic alliances against Iran, he chose the latter.
And yet, McCain was one of the exceptionally few American politicians to loudly break the US silence that has met President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s repressive and violent rule in Egypt – with McCain calling for an end to US aid to Egypt (while John Kerry, as Obama’s Secretary of State, shockingly hailed Sisi as “restoring democracy”). Just as fiercely, McCain personally supported the FSA in Syria – becoming the first Congressman and highest US delegate to visit (two years) after the civil war broke out – and the Kurdish independence movements.
John McCain was an American who believed fundamentally that the future of the world depended on the success of America; that the success of America depended on robustly expanding its military; and that the expansion of the US military was to deploy it aggressively in the world.
The tragedy here is the utter incompatibility between the opening and closing assertions.
For too long, too many Americans – and more generally too many in the west – have told themselves this lie: that hundreds of thousands in the rest of the world were willing to accept being politically and economically disrupted, bombed, shredded, starved, tortured and made homeless for the sake of maintaining the west’s ascendancy in the world. That this was simply a matter of being “realistic.” And that somehow that ascendency, through some miraculous alchemy, guaranteed the world’s wellbeing and its future – at the very moment whole stretches of that world were being decimated on the ground, turned into imploding politics, exploding black holes, and nameless bits of flesh.
After the Cold War and after 9/11, the United States had a choice: whether to address the immense challenge of transforming the liberal world order into what that order claimed to be or to continue as in the past: seeking to export peace, security, prosperity and democracy by all means necessary, including at times the most violent and savage.
America, notably under Bush and Obama, chose the easy route – violence – in the name of an American exceptionalism with which McCain profoundly agreed. Indeed, he wanted much more of it. For nearly two decades, McCain pushed for ever more troops to be sent to Iraq and Afghanistan. As Chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, he decried what he called the deterioration and wreckage of the US military by recent administrations, most especially that of Obama – even as the US already spends more on its military ($600 billion) than the next seven countries combined ($567 billion), which itself is more than the rest of the world combined ($514 billion).
Believing fundamentally that the only way to ensure America’s interests was through an even bigger projection of power – that is, through an ever more hegemonic global fighting apparatus – McCain called for “rebuilding” the US military. To McCain, this meant a military that could fight on three continents; could intimidate China and Russia into submission; could sustain an all-encompassing planetary counterterrorism operation; and could enhance its nuclear weapons to dominate all others. His vision was that of full-blown US global military control through (the threat of) devastating war anywhere on the planet.
In late 2017, McCain, as Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, published his outline for “Restoring American Power.” It was music to the new president’s ears. Now Trump is seeking to give McCain all that he asked, virtually to the dollar: Trump has announced that he is seeking an explosive $54 billion increase in the military budget – exactly the sum proposed by McCain in his manifest. In this regard, Trump and McCain were as one. Trump has announced that he is seeking an explosive $54 billion increase in the military budget – exactly the sum proposed by McCain in his manifest.
McCain lived in a deeply principled fashion, flaws and all, whose energetic, performative bellicosity could infuriate friends and foes nearly as much as his appeal to work together made them deeply love him.
Some publicists now write of John McCain’s passing as marking the end of an era and a liberal world order. Certainly, this marks the end of an era; but not of the liberal order as such. Rather, what this moment marks is the end of the era in which there could be a comprehensive faith that the America-dominated global order might truly achieve the ideals that it promised as a liberal order: the comprehensive rule of law, human rights and equality, dignity, security, integrity and justice.
What is true of McCain, is true more generally of the international liberal order: McCain’s values made him a man of principle but also an advocate of that mass murder which powerful states and militaries invariably impose on the world’s citizens – both their own and those of others. Like McCain, the liberal international order undermined itself most nefariously since 9/11 precisely at those moments it committed its soldiers, politicians, corporations and media to waging war, occupying countries, selling arms, and befriending violent regimes in the name of its highest irenic ideals.
The mourning we now see for John McCain in all his vibrant and profoundly serious commitment to making the world better, means mourning the violent choices he and his generation made for our world, with whose consequences we will be living – and dying – in the years to come. A capstone to a rich life, may McCain’s death also mark a commitment to doing world politics differently.