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McCain may have been a hero, but he was, above all, a man of war

Sep 05,2018 - Last updated at Sep 05,2018

Last Saturday, three ex-presidents, law makers, soldiers and select members of the public attended the funeral service in Washington for senator John McCain, who was lionised for fighting in a war the US lost and most citizens want to forget and for playing the maverick during his years in Congress.

McCain, 81, who died on August 25th from brain cancer, was eulogised for courage and willingness to stand by principle by former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush. Both used the occasion to criticise the current occupant of the White House, Donald Trump, who was not invited to attend the funeral and went golfing instead. Bush was particularly forthright when he spoke of McCain's detestation of the "abuse of power”, “… bigots and swaggering despots".  McCain detested Trump who detested him in turn.

The son and grandson of US navy admirals of the same name, McCain fought in Vietnam as a navy pilot, was captured by the North Vietnamese and spent five and a half years in prison where he was tortured. He served two terms in the House of Representatives and five terms in the Senate. He was a conservative rather than a moderate Republican, who generally followed the party line but occasionally broke ranks and became known as a "maverick". In 2000, he stood against Bush for the Republican presidential nomination and lost; in 2008 he won the nomination and lost to Democrat Barack Obama.

In that race, McCain chose as his running mate Alaskan governor Sarah Palin, a know-nothing radical right politician belonging to the so-called "Tea Party" wing of the Republican Party. By this action, McCain legitimised the faction she represented and, some commentators contend, paved the way for Trump's take-over and victory in 2016. Although McCain expressed regret later over the highly unsuitable Palin, he should have never chosen her. He did so only to win the votes of extremists.

Palin was not the only "mistake" McCain made. As a military man himself, he believed in war and the armed forces. He either backed or called for US military intervention in Bosnia, Kosovo, Georgia, North Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, Sudan, Mali, Ukraine and China. That was quite a diverse collection of potential interventions for the US, a country normally averse to putting its servicemen and women in harms’ way.

Like most members of both houses of the US Congress, McCain's views and actions on this region were coloured by total support for Israel. While a naval officer, he made his first visit to Israel in 1978 in the company of senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, a hawkish Democrat and ardent friend of Israel.

While McCain pledged "absolute commitment" to peace between Israel and the Palestinians, he, reportedly criticised the Obama administration for, US ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro, said "devoting too much time to doomed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks".

McCain was evasive on the internationally-supported "two-state solution", involving the emergence of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. McCain warned that if the UN Security Council voted on a resolution demanding Israel agree to this proposition, "Congress would have to examine our funding for the UN."

He castigated the December 2017 Council resolution ruling illegal Israeli settlements in the 1967 occupied territories but, contradicting his pro-Israel line, slammed Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital and said it should be resolved in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations he dubbed "doomed".

McCain was preoccupied with Iran due to its opposition to Israel. In 2007, during the contest for the Republican Party's presidential nomination, McCain said the "real problem" in the region was Iran. He argued Iran is "dedicated to the destruction of Israel". He opposed the 2015 deal for dismantling Iran's nuclear programme in exchange for lifting sanctions. He considered the US-Iran rift the worst crisis since the end of the Cold War.

McCain's identification with Israel and antagonism toward Iran led him to back insurgents in the Syrian conflict. In 2013, he crossed from Turkey into northern Syria where he met with "rebels".  Two of the fighters he was photographed with were, Beirut's Daily Star reported, Muhammad Nour and Abu Ibrahim who had abducted 11 Lebanese Shiite pilgrims travelling in Syria in May 2012 and held until November 2013.

McCain's office replied if he had posed with kidnappers, the encounter was "regrettable". McCain claimed US officials could tell the difference between "rebels" and radicals, although Washington found fighters it had trained and armed surrendered to or joined takfiri groups.

While the Syrian army battled insurgents in eastern Aleppo, McCain said the "name of Aleppo will echo through history as a testament to our moral failure and everlasting shame". He urged, "Stop [Syrian President Bashar] Assad Now." McCain rejected any US agreement that left in office Assad and opposed Trump's call for US troop withdrawal from Syria.

McCain supported the 1991 US war on Iraq but castigated the George H.W. Bush administration for failing to occupy the country. In early 1998, McCain signed the notorious letter to then president Bill Clinton calling for pre-emptive wars to project US world power. McCain began to promote a war on Iraq, proposed by Paul Wolfowitz, who became deputy defence minister during the George W. Bush administration. Trump's National Security Adviser John Bolton and other leading figures, defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and vice president Dick Cheney were also involved in this effort, dubbed Project for the New American Century (PNAC).

In 1998, McCain co-sponsored the Congressional Liberation of Iraq Act, drafted by PNAC, which proposed "regime change" in that country and donated $97 million to the Iraqi National Congress, led by Ahmad Chalabi, who provided the false information that led to the disastrous US invasion and occupation of Iraq. In 2017, McCain said the Iraq war was a mistake and admitted his share of responsibility for the debacle.

In 2011, McCain campaigned for US intervention on the rebel side in the Libyan civil conflict. In 2013, while supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood protesting the overthrow of president Muhammad Morsi clashed with Egyptian police and security forces, McCain met with senior Brotherhood figures in Cairo. He urged them to halt violence and negotiate with the government, advice they did not take. The fact that he and fellow Republican Senator Lindsey Graham met with them was seen by the authorities as support for the brotherhood.

In 2014, he backed Iraq's Kurds against Daesh. In 2015, he extended support to the Saudi-led coalition's war on Yemen, and in June 2017, McCain campaigned to kill Congressional legislation barring Trump's sale of $510 million worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia.

McCain may have been a hero of the lost Vietnam war and a sometime Congressional maverick, but he was, above all, a man of war.

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