by Adam Johnson
In a fawning editorial Saturday (7/22/17), pillar of the national security establishment Washington Post fell over itself to commend a John McCain that never existed, instead lavishing praise on a well-curated PR facsimile developed over decades.
After praising McCain for issuing a “toughly worded criticism” on Twitter of Donald Trump for allegedly ending an entirely pointless, destructive and likely illegal CIA program supporting unnamed “rebels” in Syria (the highest act of moral courage for the Post is gunrunning to CIA proxies), the Fred Hiatt–run editorial board proceeds to paint McCain as the antidote to the problem of “partisan warfare, where politicians will say just about anything at all, true or untrue, to gain an advantage.”
This is clearly meant to be an opaque shot at Trump, but the Post is too cowardly to say so outright, much like McCain was too cowardly to actually vote against any of Trump’s cabinet—aside from the OMB director who McCain only opposed because he believed he would cut defense budgets. Never mind, the Washington Post had a childhood hero to worship:
And all over this world, Mr. McCain is associated with freedom and democracy. He has championed human rights with verve and tirelessness — speaking out against repression and authoritarianism, and inviting — no, cajoling — his colleagues, both Republicans and Democrats, to bear witness with him on trips abroad. He has frequently welcomed victims of repression to the corridors of the capital, too, giving them succor and encouragement in the fight against tyranny.
One is curious if “all over this world” includes Iraq, which McCain lobbied to invade, resulting in 500,000–1 million deaths. Or Libya, which McCain passionately advocated bombing, turning it into an ungovernable bastion of extremism and slavery. Or Syria, which McCain helped rip apart by pushing for CIA-supported opposition groups for years. Or Gaza, whose destruction by Israeli forces McCain cheerled for in 2014. Or Yemen, which McCain, almost more than anyone in Congress, helped destroy by defending Saudi Arabia’s murderous war there.
The Washington Post doesn’t mention any of these countries; it simply recites platitudes about “authoritarianism” and “human rights.” The millions of Arabs whose lives McCain helped wreck simply don’t register in the Post’s moral calculus. And while it’s clear the editorial is a thinly veiled early eulogy, this does not relieve the Post of basic fidelity to history.
As for McCain’s supposed habit of “speaking out against repression and authoritarianism,” he had such an opportunity in 2015, when The Intercept’s Lee Fang (10/1/15) directly asked him about Saudi’s well-documented, US-backed war crimes in its bombing of Yemen—a siege that has since killed well over 10,000 civilians and lead to a cholera outbreak affecting nearly 600,000:
“They may be bombing civilians, which is actually not true,” McCain said, when asked about civilian casualties in Yemen.
“Civilians aren’t dying?” [Fang] asked.
“No, they’re not,” the senator replied. “Oh, I’m sure civilians die in war. Not nearly as many as the Houthis have executed,” McCain continued, referring to the Shiite militia waging an insurgency against the Sunni government in Yemen.
Asked about the recent reports of Saudi forces bombing a wedding party in Yemen, McCain said, “I’m sure in wars terrible things happen and the Houthis however are an extremist group backed by the Iranians who are slaughtering Yemenis.”
The reality is that McCain uses the rhetorical bludgeon of “human rights” as an arbitrary tool to push for war and demonize US enemies. For reasons that remain a mystery, the promotion and lobbying of war is not itself considered a human rights violation, nor does it sully one’s ability to act as an arbiter of them.
This is in stark contrast to the principles that animated the Nuremberg Tribunals. In his closing arguments, Justice Robert Jackson made clear that “the central crime in this pattern of crimes, the kingpin which holds them all together, is the plot for aggressive wars.”
If one had to sum up McCain’s political career, you could do worse than “aggressive wars”—seeing as how there’s never been one McCain didn’t promote with “verve and tirelessness.”
Nonetheless, the superficial morality being advanced by the Post—that prioritizes CNN posturing and strongly worded tweets over actual actions and voting record—seeks, above all, to promote a US NatSec mythology that positions the US as an indispensable good in the world and McCain as its most visible avatar. To achieve this marketing feat, the Washington Post must rewrite history and torture definitions to fit a childlike narrative of McCain as brave truth-teller, rather than predictable champion of war and empire who occasionally makes toothless references to human rights for the purposes of image curation.