Sen. John McCain’s death at 81 on August 25 was followed by effusive praise from everyone who is anyone in the Permanent State. His memorial service at Washington’s National Cathedral on September 1 confirmed that, inside the Beltway, even death is eminently political. It was the biggest gathering of the nation’s bipartisan establishment and its global associates in years, with President Donald Trump excluded at the well-advertised wish of the deceased. Gushing eulogies from Barack Obama and George W. Bush helped turn the occasion into a studied display of establishmentarian solidarity in opposition to Trump, just as McCain had intended it to be.
As for the media, the New York Times set the tone, eulogizing a “war hero” who was driven by “the conservative instincts of a shrewd military man” and the spirit of “rebelliousness.” These key themes were repeated by obituarists and pundits all over the land, and also included praise for McCain’s supposed courage, honor, decency, vision, steadfastness, etc., ad nauseam.
De mortuis nil nisi bonum should not apply to politicians whose actions directly impact the lives of millions of people. The real John McCain was not a hero, a conservative, or a rebel. He was shrewd indeed, in the sly manner of an arch-D.C. insider. Son and grandson of admirals but unfit for senior rank, he opted for politics. This enabled him to prosper in spite of an incoherent world outlook, unstable personality, limited intelligence, and low character.
To wit, McCain habitually screamed at his subordinates, red in the face and foaming at the mouth, calling them abusive names. This reflected a profound personality disorder, insecurity probably enhanced by shame about his true war record. Before that he graduated 894th out of 899 from the Naval Academy in Annapolis where he was held in studied contempt by his superiors. He lost four jets before finally being shot down over North Vietnam. Years later on the political scene, he took money from his party’s declared archenemies while simultaneously seeking that party’s presidential nomination.
There was nothing “conservative” in his infatuation with big government, which he helped quadruple in size and scope during his lifetime, or in his enthusiasm for the PATRIOT Act and Military Commissions Act. He was a pampered child of the military-industrial-security state as well as its zealous guardian, an enemy of liberty and constitutional tradition.
In global affairs, McCain’s “vision” amounted to assailing designated adversaries—meaning anyone unenthusiastic about America’s monopolar global empire—and demanding they be forced into submission by American “boots on the ground” (his favorite phrase). At the same time, he was eager to use genuine monsters—notably, assorted Islamic State and Al Qaeda jihadists—as tools of U.S. hegemony. After meeting their leaders in Syria in 2013, he called them “brave fighters who need our help.” He poured scorn on powerful countries such as Russia (“a gas station masquerading as a country”), or China (“ruthless, inhumane regime”), and on weak ones such as Serbia, where during Bill Clinton’s 1999 war of aggression he advocated bombing civilian targets.
John McCain never saw a war he did not like, or an issue for which war was not the solution. He voted for the one in Iraq and relentlessly demanded another against Iran. He supported intervention in Libya and demanded an enormously enhanced one in Syria. In a display of crass frivolity, a decade ago he hummed a riff on the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann,” “bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb bomb Iran.” In a sane country such behavior would be deemed scandalous. Not in Washington, where it is possible for a secretary of state to declare that starving half a million Iraqi children to death was the price worth paying in pursuit of a higher policy objective.
McCain revelled in the spectacle or prospect of raw violence, in the service of what his former advisor, neocon guru Robert Kagan, termed America’s “Benevolent Global Hegemony.” McCain hated Trump for many reasons personal and ideological—he was a good hater—but primarily for declaring he wanted to retreat from the lust for full spectrum dominance. McCain went to the Munich Security Conference in February 2017 to deliver—to a foreign audience—a vile ad hominem attack on the President. In 2015 he achieved his longtime goal of becoming chairman of the Armed Services Committee. He helped boost military spending to an astronomic level, $717 billion per year, but lacked a strategic vision to give such extravagance rational meaning. (True to form, the media only found it scandalous that Trump did not name the spending bill after McCain.)
Two decades ago John McCain attracted the attention of, and found a benefactor in, George Soros. The philanthropist-from-hell supports the Democratic Party, but as an astute speculator Soros was loath to limit his options. Both in 2000 and in 2008, in candidate McCain, he had a nominal Republican who was willing to pursue key points of his open-borders agenda. In the early 2000’s McCain’s Reform Institute promoted a key pillar of Soros’s agenda—open and unlimited Third World immigration—and was paid for doing so. To be fair, McCain’s position on immigration did not depend only on the cash: He was an honest amnesty enthusiast.
In Eastern Europe, McCain broke ranks with his party in March 1999 and voted for Clinton’s war against Serbia, clearly illegal after the House refused to authorize it under the War Powers Act. Elsewhere, in every post-Soviet frozen conflict he supported greater U.S. “engagement” in confronting Moscow. His Russophobia was truly obsessive. In 1999, he accused the Clinton administration of ignoring Russian “crimes” in Chechnya. In early 2008 he boasted of staring into Putin’s eyes and seeing the letters “KGB.” Very early on and without proof he denounced Russia for “interfering” in the 2016 presidential election. Last July, after Trump’s meeting with President Putin in Helsinki, McCain ranted that “no prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant.”
In the field of world affairs, John McCain had never had a reasonable or useful idea. In the saner America of yesteryear he would have been seen as a dangerous charlatan in need of tutoring. That he is posthumously initiated into the pantheon of American “heroes” is owing to his zeal for endless wars abroad and wide-open doors at home, and to his hatred of Donald Trump. But the Establishment’s theater in paying homage to McCain was impressive only to those who believe that Trump is a temporary aberration. There are many vindictive sociopaths around ready to carry his mantle, but there is also hope. The gala farewell the assorted unspeakables gave to one of their very own in Washington may turn out to be a requiem not just for a deeply flawed man but also for the system and the mindset he had embodied all his life.
America’s problems are huge but not necessarily insoluble. It is possible to control the borders and to spend no more than is earned at home. It is also possible to disengage from foreign entanglements that do not contribute to the well-being and security of the United States. It is possible and necessary to establish a realistic balance between ends and means in American foreign and security policy on the basis of the Golden Rule.
John McCain did not understand any of this because he was obtuse, deluded, and morbidly belligerent until the end. His policy preferences and his endeavors have had fatal consequences for thousands of Americans in uniform and for countless victims of U.S. interventions all over the world, illegal and unnecessary wars that he cherished with such gusto. By departing the political scene, John McCain served the American interest better than by anything he had done or said during his long political career.
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