Dear Partners in thought,
“A true American hero” is how John McCain is most described, increasingly so and this for many reasons. It may look excessive if not Hollywood-like, except that it’s not. America has always been a country of exception – indeed the indispensable country – often with individuals of exception at its helm, not all running it but always contributing to its destiny. John McCain is one of them and “The Restless Wave” his testimony, a book that stresses his longlasting drive I recommend reading for those who like great stories and believe in a world ran by our traditional Western liberal, not to say American, values. McCain is emblematic of a disappearing specie in our times which is that of the moderate Republican, a value- based internationalist, free trader, strong on defense and pro-capitalist individual (incidentally my political home, assuming I were to hold a U.S. passport).
The son and grandson of two Admirals (his grandfather was on the deck of the USS Missouri when Japan surrendered), McCain was nevertheless not predestined to greatness (in his very own words), having followed his recent forebears’s footsteps to Annapolis, where he graduated at the bottom of his class. We know that the Vietnam war and his extremely tough prisoner experience changed everything, later leading to a career in the U.S. Senate as first, junior, then senior, moderate, Republican Senator for the State of Arizona. This book, while reminiscing about the key aspects of his whole career and persona is really more focused on the period following his defeat against Barack Obama in the 2008 Presidential elections. McCain could have been President if not for the wind of history bringing in the first African American President and a dubious choice of running mate, which he still supports, though being aware of its weaknesses. The book is well structured and its chapters focus on key topics and people having marked America and McCain very directly over the last ten years, which I will cover broadly. After reading this book, if there was an adjective to describe McCain across the aisles, it would be “honorable” and that would be a major understatement.
In No Surrender and Country First, MacCain discusses the 2008 campaign and the men and women involved in it, among whom, also his brief primary rival, the lawyer- turned actor-turned U.S. Senator Fred Thompson (a tall, massive, easily recognisable Law & Order character, always projecting the requisite gravitas that would get him later to the U.S. Senate). While he campaigned for two years, McCain, while running, also fulfilled his duties as a U.S. Senator, his main focus at the time being supporting the Iraq surge which was unpopular and risking costing him dearly in the Republican primary where Mitt Romney, the ex-Bain Capital founder, former Governor of Massachusetts and future 2012 nominee, was his main rival then. We see him with his friend Senator Lindsay Graham of Florida (often a duo that would rise against DT’s policies years later) in Iraq. There is a notable ceremony of naturalisation of Hispanic immigrants, often illegal, who were fighting within the U.S. forces in Iraq. We see a couple of boots representing two dead soldiers that had made the ultimate sacrifice with General David Petraeus, the Roman legion strategist and fighter, first in class at West Point and the figurehead of the surge, saying: “They died serving a country that was not yet theirs”. McCain wishing “that every American who out of ignorance or worse curses immigrants as criminals or a drain on the country’s resources or on our “culture” could have been there”, wanting “them to know that immigrants many of them having entered the country illegally, are making sacrifices for Americans that many Americans would not make for them”. Going back to the race and the primary he finally secures, McCain goes into his strategy of running a McCain-Libermann ticket, with Joe Lieberman, an independent, formerly Democratic Senator, before going for Sarah Palin, whom he will select as running mate, going in great details to explain the rationale for it. McCain knows early on Obama’s strong competitive advantages based on his age, image of change at so many levels and comparative party positioning though he bets on his experience and foreign policy acumen. The polls are close but the Lehman Brothers collapse changes everything, putting Obama in the lead and making the McCain team not expecting miracles. In addition he has to fight some of his more extreme supporters’ racial slurs against Obama and defend responses that are not strong enough from him and his team, assuming they were obvious to start with. His team feels outspent, out-advertised and out-organised, expecting to lose which they do on election day. There is a feeling that, while he does not like to lose (who does?) he was stoically ready for it.
About Us is about the formal breach of American ideals in the fight against terrorism in the aftermath of 9-11. While having declared on 9-12 that “We are coming. God may have mercy on you, but we won’t”, McCain discusses the extreme measures taken since late 2001 to respond to the losses of 3,000 lives at The World Trade Center in NY, including the Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (EIT) or torture in an other name and the dilemma counter-terrorists and the military face in defending the U.S. from further attacks. McCain feels strongly it is wrong politically, intellectually and morally to torture terrorists and not applying the Geneva Convention to these enemy combatants, while branches of the U.S. government feel it can apply EIT to seized terrorists as they are not signatories to any convention. McCain believes that in doing so the application of EIT openly damages the interests, reputation and interests of the U.S. globally. We go through various cases of EIT application, including the famous one in relation to the Abu Ghraib Confinement Center. McCain calls on all Americans to live America’s ideals to remember that “we are always Americans, and different, stronger and better than those individual who wish to destroy us”. Once again, “the moral values and integrity of our nation, and the long, difficult, fraught history to uphold them at home and abroad, are the test of every American generation”. This chapter is the first of a few to focus on values, that define McCain. It is also a very hard issue to deal with, remembering 9-11 and its trauma (We all have very personal ways and memories to relate to 9-11 and the end of an era; I worked briefly on the 93rd floor of the South Tower in 1987). It is definitely a problem of conscience though I can also hear the voices in the trenches of the Len and women who protect us, doing what we don’t and don’t want to know, stressing that the end justifies the means and that in front of the most abject terror, war can only be total.
In the Company of Heroes deals with McCain’s natural, close, involvement with the U.S. troops on the ground in both Afghanistan and Iraq (he will have gone more to Afghanistan) and his admiration for the military leadership and tactical brilliance of Generals Petraeus and Odierno as well as the new ways to fight insurgency led by “Team of Teams”‘ General McChrystal, the latter who was removed from command by President Obama following the ill-famous Rolling Stones interview on how the U.S. could win the war in Afghanistan, outside the traditional chain of command. It is palpable that McCain relates vividly to these soldiers away from home, fighting for their country as he did in another life. Arab Spring unsurprisingly covers the seismic regional power shifts initially triggered by the self-immolation of Tunisian fruit trader Mohamed Bouazizi that was followed by home-made leadership and regime changes in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, the dreadful civil war in Syria and the internationally-led elimination of Muammar Qaddafi and his regime in Lybia. McCain goes in detail about each key zone of change and spends time on the attack of the Benghazi mission resulting in the death of Special Envoy Christopher Steven, whom he knew and admired for his “all in” trademark attitude, that would have long repercussions including in the campaign of the 2016 presidential elections. McCain also covers in detail the Syrian conflict and its many vivid ramifications in terms of migrations and political and human consequences within the EU. In Fighting the Good Fight (with and against Ted Kennedy), McCain focuses on immigration, legal and illegal, and narrates his many bill efforts and working most of the time with the senior Senator of Massachusetts to craft bipartisanship solutions until his death from brain cancer in 2009. It is also about the old bipartisanship, of the kind I mentioned in “The Hellfire Club” among veterans, even if Ted (another “great” I was fortunate to meet in 1982 in Boston) was not. Then comes Russia and Putin, the latter’s McCain’s primary foe in Nyet (know thine enemy) where he goes through the change in relationship with the Kremlin since the advent of President Putin and a gradually more nationalistic foreign policy in the mid-eighties, focusing on Georgia and the slow descent to war as well as the Magnitsky Act and its related sanctions following the death in jail of Russia-based asset manager Hermitage’s Bill Browder’s lawyer. As a sequel, McCain covers in Know Thyself (defending the West) the invasion of Crimea and the Ukraine conflict in Kiev and in the east, the killing of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, as well as the attempts to destabilise Montenegro following its desire to join NATO and the EU. As MacCain concludes: “China is the challenge of the century but Putin is the clear and present danger…”. In deference to my Russian friends and while Russia has had a very unilateral, nationalistic, foreign policy, at times using the widest range of tools at its disposal to compensate for its relative strength status, one should never forget the Russian trauma associated with the loss of empire, the way it may not have been treated afterwards and the utter need for respect as a key international player. While being aware of McCain’s rationale, there may indeed be merits in engaging with Russia so as to gradually make it change its approach and perceptions in order to work with her in the concert of nations. In this respect, events like the World Cup, an organisational and sporting success for Russia may be one the early steps toward normalisation, even if the hybrid war may perdure for a while as my expert friend Dmitri Trenin recently wrote for the famed Carnegie Moscow Center.
In Part of the Main (American Exceptionalism) is a key chapter. McCain quotes Saint Exupery, the famed author of The Little Prince, expressing during WWII when flying with U.S. forces, the inextricable link between American interests and the global progress of American ideals. McCain believes that the U.S. has a special responsibility to champion human rights “in all places, for all people, at all times”. Because “it is who we are” (incidentally, I used that one often lately). He is not shy of proclaiming: “I am a democratic internationalist, a proud one and I have been all my life”. He goes on to focus on Burma and his involvement in making changes happen in that country ruled by the military.
Always respecting Obama as a man and a President, he briefly mentions his foreign policy record. He defended the Libyan intervention but was appalled at too early a withdrawal on the ground of avoiding another Iraq quagmire, coining the “leading from behind” approach. He was angered by the refusal to provide Kiev with weapons to protect its sovereignty. He was sad when the Obama administration did not uphold the red line after the use of chemical weapons in Syria, naming it the biggest mistake of his presidency, hurting American interests and values. While he never doubted Obama’s sincerity, he regretted that Obama did not make the hard calls when needed, confounding allies, encouraging enemies and having many good people stranded, starting an American leadership withdrawal in fact if not in name. However McCain never doubted that Obama shared the 75 year old bipartisan consensus that American leadership of the free world was a moral obligation and a practical necessity.
While discussing American exceptionalism, McCain starts clearly distancing himself from DT (even if he would vote for some of his legislative proposals like the tax cuts but not others like the repeal of Obamacare). McCain clearly stresses how appalled he is about DT’s style in communication and overall tactics and his disdain for American values, the global progress of democracy and the rule of law abroad. He finds disturbing DT’s “lack of empathy for refugees, innocent, persecuted, desperate men, women and children” and finds abhorrent his mention of welfare or terrorism being for him their only reasons to come to America. He cannot condone DT’s absence of interest in the moral compass of world leaders and their regimes. He lambasts DT’s attacks on free media and his use of “fake news to discredit unflattering news stories. He cannot stand DT’s showing with praise the world’s worst tyrants. His criticism goes far beyond DT, when he attacks former State Secretary Rex Tillerson who warned State Department employees not to condition relations with nations “too heavily” on their adoption of values “we’ve come to after a long history of our own” (to his credit, RT’s VMI Commencement address last May, heavily reported, shows his regrets and clear adherence to traditional American values). There is no doubt that McCain is appalled at the treatment by DT of allies, be it in relation to NATO, trade or the G7, regardless of the necessary changes that the U.S. may wish in striking more balenced relationships. There is a long, emotional address to the U.S. Senate that MacCain gave on the occasion of the health care debate that transcends it, focused on the role of the Senate itself, going to the core of American history and values, which is particularly moving in our challenging times. This speech also underpins the need for enhanced civility and cooperation in politics and society, two features which have been seriously damaged lately, also given the example provided by those who should lead by example at the top.
McCain is fighting brain cancer, knowing the odds, but keeping hope that he will be around for a bit longer to contribute a few more times. (If I may say, even if mine was non-cancerous, I relate more than others to the unfairness of the affliction and the powerlessness attached to it, feeling his approach all the more admirable). He looks forward and is simply grateful. Grateful for 50 years of service to his country and having lived so long – he is 81 -, contributing so much. I am sure this American hero knows that tough times, also for countries, don’t last, and that tough countries do. In one sign of control over his own destiny, he sent the clear message to DT that he should not attend his funeral. After you have read his book, you will feel that McCain, whom you would have liked to have known more earlier, whilst being an American hero, is also like founding father Thomas Paine, a citizen of the world.
Merci, Monsieur McCain.
PS: If I may I would like to provide you with a tailored excerpt of the powerful words of his prologue. Written only a few years ago, they would have seemed mundane, if not quaint. Written in 2018, they sound reminiscent of a distant golden era while pushing us to go back to it.
(America is) “the most wondrous land on earth, indeed. What a privilege it is to serve this big, boisterous, brawling, intemperate, striving, daring, beautiful, bountiful, brave, magnificent country. With all our flaws, all our mistakes, with all the frailties of human nature as much on display as our virtues, with all the rancor and anger of our politics, we are blessed. We are living in the land of the free, the land where anything is possible, the land of the immigrant’s dream, the land with the storied past forgotten in the rush to the imagined future, the land that repairs and reinvents itself, the land where a person can escape the consequences of a self-centred youth and know the satisfaction of sacrificing for an ideal, where you can go from aimless rebellion to a noble cause and from the bottom of your class to your party’s nomination for President.
We are blessed, and in turn, we have been a blessing to humanity. The world order we have built from the ashes of world war, and that we defend to this day, has liberated more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history. This wondrous land shared its treasures and ideals and shed its blood to help make another, better, world…We have sought to make the world more stable and secure, not just for our own society…To fear the world we have organised and led for three- quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is unpatriotic. American nationalism isn’t the same as in other countries. It isn’t nativist or imperial or xenophobic, or it shouldn’t be. Those attachments belong with other tired dogma that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.
We live in a land made from ideals, not blood and soil. We are custodians of these ideals at home, and their champions abroad. We have done great good in the world because we believed our ideals are the natural aspirations of all mankind, and that the principles, rules and alliances of the international order that we superintended would improve the prosperity and security of all who joined with us. That leadership has had its costs, but we have become incomparably powerful and wealthy as well. We have a moral obligation to continue in our just cause, and we would bring more than shame on ourselves if we let other powers assume our leadership role, powers that reject our values and resent our influence. We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We wouldn’t deserve to.
All is said.
Serge Desprat – 11 July, 2018 (Boston)