I’m all for Senator McCain laying into President Trump. But let’s be honest about what’s going on here. On the one side, there’s the guy who manifestly knows nothing. On the other, there’s the guy who quite clearly has learned nothing.
I second Professor Bacevich on all of this, and I would just add a few more observations. The occasion for McCain’s speech was an event to award him the Liberty Medal from the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. Giving such an award to someone who has consistently supported the infringement of civil liberties in the name of security would be perverse enough, but it is even more so considering how little respect he has for the Constitution when it comes to matters of war. McCain has not only never seen a foreign war he didn’t want the U.S. to start or join over the last twenty years, but he doesn’t care when those wars are launched without Congressional authorization and shows no interest when his colleagues want to vote on new authorizations. According to the center’s website, the medal is given to those “who have strived to secure the blessings of liberty to people the world over.” Whatever his intentions, the result of McCain’s efforts has mostly been to unleash death and destruction in multiple countries while the blessings of liberty usually remain elusive. Compared to other past recipients of this award, it is hard to think of someone less deserving of this honor than McCain.
As for the speech, it is difficult to square some of its contents with the record of the person delivering it. For instance, McCain warns against abandoning the “ideals we have advanced around the globe,” and says that we are “custodians of those ideals at home, and their champion abroad,” but he has played a leading part in helping to trash them. This is a senator who praises Saudi despots for their role in turning Syria into a charnel house, embraces any gang of thugs from Kosovo to Libya to Syria that happens to rise up against a government he doesn’t like, and applauds and defends policies like the one we now have in Yemen that enable war crimes and humanitarian disasters. He talks about the benefits of “international leadership,” but in practice this “leadership” frequently amounts to dictating terms to weaker countries and bombing or invading those that say no (and McCain is always one of the first to call for an attack). At the same time, McCain links every bad foreign policy idea he has with the rhetoric of freedom and “values,” so that those things are then tarnished by the association with the endless wars he supports. If we are supposed to be custodians of American ideals, McCain has been a poor one precisely because he has been so determined to have the U.S. “lead” and meddle all over the world. Americans shouldn’t have to choose between “half-baked, spurious nationalism” and the irresponsible interventionism identified with McCain over the last two decades, but instead should reject both.