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Whitewashing McCain’s Support for the War on Yemen

Josh Rogin uses the Senate’s 63-37 vote on S.J.Res. 54 earlier this week to make a very strange claim:

The Senate’s stunning bipartisan rebuke of President Trump’s handling of U.S.-Saudi relations shows that the internationalist, values-based foreign policy of the late senator John McCain still holds significant weight in both parties [bold mine-DL].

At the end of his career, McCain was one of the foremost defenders of U.S. involvement in the war on Yemen. I suppose it was fitting that he capped off a long career of supporting unnecessary and illegal wars by proudly supporting a truly indefensible one. When U.S. support for the war began in 2015, he and Lindsey Graham chastised Obama for not doing enough to help the Saudi coalition. Needless to say, he was an early and eager supporter of the intervention. When McCain was asked about the coalition’s bombing campaign and the civilian casualties that it was causing, he denied that there were any. “Thank God for the Saudis,” he once said, praising the kingdom for its role in fueling the war in Syria.

I commented on McCain’s support for the war on Yemen in a post last year:

In addition to dismissing the civilian casualties caused by the indiscriminate coalition bombing campaign, McCain has reliably recited Saudi propaganda to provide cover for the war while completely ignoring the catastrophic humanitarian crisis that their campaign has done so much to cause.

McCain was the champion of a particular strain of aggressive interventionism that relied on moralizing rhetoric to justify unjust actions. His foreign policy was “values-based” in the sense that he would use “values” language to rally support for attacking certain regimes, but when it came to applying the same standards to U.S. allies and clients McCain frequently became mute or turned into a cynical apologist on behalf of states aligned with Washington. That is certainly how he acted when it came to the Saudi coalition war on Yemen. Back when there were very few critics of the war in the Senate, McCain was one of their loudest opponents:

McCain incredibly described the Saudis as a “nation under attack” because of incursions into Saudi territory that were provoked by the Saudi-led bombing campaign. Graham portrayed the Saudis as victims of Yemeni “aggression,” which has everything completely and obviously backwards. It requires swallowing Saudi propaganda whole to argue that the Saudis and their allies have been acting in self-defense, and that is what McCain and Graham tried to do. Both repeatedly asserted that the Houthis are Iranian proxies when the best evidence suggests that Iran’s role in the conflict has always been negligible, and then justified their complete indifference to the consequences of the Saudi-led war by complaining about Iranian behavior elsewhere. Needless to say, the humanitarian crisis brought on by the Saudi-led bombing campaign and blockade never once came up in their remarks, but I’m sure if they ever do mention it they’ll blame it on Iran somehow.

McCain used many of the same cynical and dishonest arguments then that Trump administration officials use now. The senators that voted for S.J.Res. 54 were not following McCain’s example and they were definitely not embracing the kind of foreign policy he supported. On the contrary, the success of the Sanders-Lee-Murphy resolution this week was as much a rebuke to McCain’s foreign policy legacy as it was a rebuke to Trump’s shameless Saudi First behavior. Opposition to the war on Yemen was something that McCain vehemently rejected, and it is simply and obviously wrong to credit McCain’s foreign policy views for the antiwar victory that Sens. Sanders, Murphy, Lee, and their colleagues won this week. For the last twenty-five years, McCain never saw a U.S.-backed war he couldn’t support, and that included the war on Yemen. When the Senate voted to advance S.J.Res. 54 on Wednesday, they were voting against the war that McCain had vocally backed for years.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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