Sen. John McCain died from brain cancer over the weekend:
John S. McCain, the proud naval aviator who climbed from depths of despair as a prisoner of war in Vietnam to pinnacles of power as a Republican congressman and senator from Arizona and a two-time contender for the presidency, died on Saturday at his home in Arizona. He was 81.
McCain served in Congress for more than thirty years. In that time, he went from the Vietnam veteran who warned against an unwise entanglement in Lebanon to becoming the most vocal and predictable advocate for every bad military intervention under the sun. The longer he stayed in Washington, the worse he became. His career is nothing if not a cautionary tale to other would-be legislators. He specialized in matters of national security and foreign policy, and yet he had a remarkable knack for misjudging practically every major foreign policy issue of the last three decades.
McCain distinguished himself as a consistent proponent of unnecessary foreign wars in the name of American “leadership,” and the country was always worse off when the president heeded his recommendations. He was a leading cheerleader for the invasion of Iraq and intervention in Libya, and he was wrong about both. He was also a Kosovo war supporter and has been a steadfast defender of U.S. support for the Saudi war on Yemen. When Georgia escalated a conflict with Russia, he insanely proclaimed, “We are all Georgians” and gave the impression that he was willing to risk WWIII over a dispute that had nothing to do with us. Despite his constant demands for more “action,” the U.S. did not intervene in Syria as forcefully or as soon as he wanted. He was even once quoted praising the Saudis for their role in Syria. “Thank God for the Saudis,” he said. He was famously hawkish on Iran (“bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, Iran,” he sang), and in recent years went so far as to jump on the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK) bandwagon. This is a record of horrible judgment and even more horrible costs for the people in the countries affected by the policies he supported.
If McCain had his way, the U.S. would have been in even more wars for much longer than we already were, and even his admirers can’t deny that. For the last twenty years of his political career, McCain was an irrepressible champion of reckless U.S. meddling around the world. It was an enormous stroke of good fortune for the U.S. and the world that his 2008 presidential bid failed. If you believe that U.S. foreign policy is far too militarized, overreaching, and destructive, McCain did a great deal to make and keep it that way.
The one big thing that McCain got right in his Senate career was his opposition to torture. Because he had suffered from the use of torture as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, he understandably had no patience for the euphemisms and rationalizations of his pro-torture colleagues. This was the most significant disagreement he had with his party, and in the end it is probably the only issue where his willingness to break with his party from time to time really mattered. McCain had the ability to put principle ahead of party on occasion. Unfortunately, he did not do so all that often, and when it came to foreign policy the principles he followed were usually very bad ones.