Celebrated as a hero at home, John McCain leaves disputed legacy in Middle East

In the Middle East and North Africa, McCain is remembered as a supporter of bloody US and Israeli military campaigns.

The death at age 81 of John McCain, the six-term US senator and former presidential candidate, is being marked in Washington as not only the passing of a powerful and omnipresent politician but as the end of the pre-Twitter era of politics.

McCain is being hailed as a “straight-talker” and “maverick” and honoured as a hero. In the Middle East and North Africa, he is remembered as a supporter of bloody US and Israeli military campaigns.

There is always myth-making when public figures are eulogised, although there is evidence of McCain’s heroism: When his captors in the North Vietnamese prison where he was held after his fighter jet was shot down learned that McCain’s father was a US Navy admiral, they offered to release him. McCain refused unless his fellow prisoners also were let go and thus remained imprisoned for four more brutal years.

Admirable character traits notwithstanding, any politician who served in office as long as McCain leaves a legacy of statements and congressional votes. For McCain, many of those relate to foreign policy, an area in which he specialised during his long Senate tenure. McCain’s Middle East policy record is less praiseworthy than his character.

McCain was from a family of military men and was a strong believer in US military power. He advocated the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and never questioned that decision despite the chain of disastrous consequences that war triggered.

In 2011, his only criticism of US President Barack Obama’s use of military force to help topple Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi was that it did not go far enough and was not US-led, “I would never have handed it over to NATO,” McCain said in a 2011 interview with the Cairo Review. McCain advocated killing Qaddafi. “I think we should do that,” he said, “rather than hope to get lucky and take him out in an air strike, which is a lot harder than people think.”

When civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, McCain expressed scepticism about the use of US military force, telling the Cairo Review: “I don’t see a military aspect that would be effective in Syria.”

Six years later, after US President Donald Trump ordered missile strikes at Syrian targets after the regime there purportedly used chemical weapons, McCain and fellow Senator Lindsey Graham said: "We urge the president to take greater military action to achieve our objectives, including grounding the Syrian air force and establishing safe havens inside Syria to protect Syrians." Such actions would have required a significant expansion of the US military presence in Syria and risked a confrontation with Russia.

McCain supported Israel’s 2014 war on Gaza, which led to more than 2,000 Palestinians, the vast majority civilians, being killed. Indeed, he was a consistent supporter of Israel’s hard-line government and endorsed Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem. “I have long believed that Jerusalem is the true capital of Israel,” McCain posted on his Senate website.

McCain opposed the Iran nuclear deal and supported the Trump administration’s hard-line approach to Tehran, which he saw as a threat to US interests.

McCain’s positions were not devoid of principles. He fiercely opposed the use of torture in the so-called war on terror. Having experienced torture while imprisoned, he knew that it was both inhumane and ineffective. McCain also opposed Trump’s travel ban that was clearly aimed at barring Muslims from entering the United States.

McCain was a vocal promoter of democracy and, while critical of the Muslim Brotherhood government of former Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi, he opposed his overthrow.

McCain often was at his best when taking in the big picture. During the "Arab spring" of 2011, he made this prescient observation: “This is something that none of us ever predicted, including all the experts on the Middle East. We are going to have to adapt to changing situations. We can’t judge every country the same. They are not cookie-cutter countries.

"Tunisia and Egypt are far different from Yemen… With countries like Tunisia and Egypt, that have sophisticated, educated populaces, I think there is a much better chance or opportunity… I don’t know how we solve Yemen… I’m not sure what path you take there.”

He was much less prescient about the bloody consequences of the uprisings in Syria and Libya.

In October 2017, after he had received his brain cancer diagnosis, he wrote in the New York Times: “If we keep sleepwalking on our current trajectory, we could wake up in the near future and find that American influence has been pushed out of one of the most important parts of the world. That is why Americans need to care about what is going on in the Middle East right now…”

Mark Habeeb is East-West editor of The Arab Weekly and adjunct professor of Global Politics and Security at Georgetown University in Washington.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.