In 2010 US Senator John McCain was speaking about Iran during a session of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He held up a list of threats the US had made against Iran’s regime, and pointed out that no action had yet been taken. “George Schultz, my favorite secretary of state in all the world, once said his marine drill instructor told him, ‘Never point a gun at somebody unless you’re ready to pull the trigger.’ We keep pointing the gun. We haven’t pulled a single trigger yet, and it’s about time we did.”
In the Middle East, McCain is remembered as a principled supporter of US allies, of people’s quest for freedom from dictatorship and of human rights. Although critics point to statements like the one above, and his joking about “bomb, bomb, bomb, Iran” in a 2007 campaign rally to paint McCain as a warmonger, among many supporters of the Syrian rebels and Kurds, he is fondly remembered as a supporter who stood by those seeking more rights while opposing dictatorships.
“In 2012 when we first started advocating for Syria on the Hill, I remember that members of Congress always sent their junior staff to meet with us (if they even agreed to meet). The exception was Senator McCain,” one Syrian activist named Yasser Bittar Saad Aldeen posted on Facebook. “I swear to you, his eyes teared as he spoke of the women who were raped by Assad forces, and the massacres that we thought almost no one knew about.”
In 2016, as the regime of Bashar Assad pounded rebels in Aleppo, McCain said “the name Aleppo will echo through history as a testament to our moral failure and everlasting shame.” At every twist and turn of the Syrian conflict since the Arab spring uprising of 2011, McCain was there. “Stop Assad now,” he argued in The Wall Street Journal
, in 2016. The following year he expressed outrage at Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s comments which suggested Assad could stay in power. McCain protested on behalf of the Syrians being slaughtered by Assad’s barrel bombs, Putin’s aircraft, and Iran’s terrorist proxies. In April 2018, the Senator warned that Donald Trump had emboldened Assad by comments indicating the US might withdraw.
Kurds remember McCain as a supporter of their cause in various states in the Middle East. Bayan Sami Rahman, the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq’s representative in the US, recalled him as a “frequent visitor” to the Kurdish region. “His principled leadership inspired admiration and respect.” In October 2017, as the Iraqi central government used American-supplied tanks to roll over Kurdish positions near Kirkuk, McCain authored an article in The New York Times
calling the clashes “deeply troubling, in particular because the United States’ longstanding friendship with the Kurdish people.” Indeed, McCain wondered why Iranian-backed Shia militias were involved in attacking US allies in Iraq while Washington looked on and did nothing, giving a stamp of approval to Baghdad. “If Baghdad cannot guarantee the Kurdish people in Iraq the security, freedom and opportunities they desire, and if the US is forced to choose between Iranian-backed militias and our longstanding Kurdish partners, I choose the Kurds.”
McCain didn’t mince words regarding US allies like Turkey. In May 2017 he was asked on Fox News about Turkish security
who “beat and kicked peaceful protesters” in Washington during the Turkish president’s visit. “Throw the Turkish ambassador the hell out of Washington. Those were his people and Erdogan’s people that were sent out there. That’s not America, and it’s not allowed in the United States of America.”
In Libya, McCain was the highest ranking US official to visit the rebels in Benghazi in April 2011 after people rose up against Muammar Qadafi’s regime. A day after US predator drones began stalking Qadafi’s army, McCain spoke to people in Benghazi who had been facing a massacre just a month before as the Libyan regime closed in. He said their thirst for freedom was a “powerful and hopeful example of what a free Libya can be.” Meeting a woman he told her, “The American people support you very strongly and we know it’s necessary to help as much as we can.”
McCain also received condolences from US allies in the region. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador in the US Khalid bin Salman tweeted that McCain was an “American hero who dedicated his life to serving his country and advancing global peace and security.” Ashraf Ghani, president of Afghanistan, also recalled McCain’s support for rebuilding his country.
The legacy of the US Senator who was consistently tough on Iran and supportive of the rebellion in Syria and Kurds in the region will have lasting affects. It gained the US affection in places where Washington’s policy zigzagged over recent decades. McCain was a constant, always in support of allies who had fought and died alongside Americans, such as the Kurds in Iraq. He detested dictators such as Assad, and saw no place for mincing words about them. When the time called for action, he was always prepared to join the fight.
As a Vietnam veteran, he understood that seeing American officials in harm’s way was a moral booster to those in places like Benghazi.
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