John McCain, an unlikely friend to Syrians in Washington

John McCain, an unlikely friend to Syrians in Washington
Comment: While he was no progressive, John McCain was one of the few voices speaking up for democratic change in Syria and Egypt, writes Sam Hamad.
7 min read
27 Aug, 2018
Senator John McCain departs a military briefing on US strikes in Syria, April, 2017 [Getty]
Like many of my generation, my first political encounter with Senator John McCain, who passed away on Saturday aged 81, came within the context of the 2008 US presidential election, wherein McCain was pitted against Barack Obama.

After the Bush era, and the gross malfeasance and incidents of egregious criminality and barbarism that accompanied the "War on Terror", McCain - with his support for the Iraq war - seemed to embody all of this, while Obama at least came across as the opposite.  

The Bush era was typified in the mind of most progressives by the further degradation of the already decrepit world values of human rights and international law. In this sense, McCain represented continuity with Bush as a 'war on terror' candidate, while Obama sold himself as the opposite.

But 10 years feels like more than a lifetime ago. Since then, the world has changed in explosive and dramatic ways and only the very worst have remained in political stasis. If the Iraq war defined the first decade of the 2000s, the Arab Spring and so tragically the political dynamics of counter-revolution that ensued, define this era.  

On Syria, among US and western politicians, McCain was unique in terms of the quality of his support for the Syrian revolutionaries.  He did not just support the revolution from afar, but was the first congressman and highest ranking US official to enter liberated Syria to meet such revolutionary figures as General Salim Idris, then head of the FSA, as well as fighters of the Northern Storm Brigade, who were fighting for their lives against Assad, Iran and the nascent Islamic State.  

It was due to McCain's visit that we glimpsed one of the first instances of the modern 'fake news' phenomenon, with both far-right and left-wing sources later accusing the Senator of "posing for photos with ISIS" and of "supporting al-Qaeda".  

And this is another aspect of McCain's support for Syria - it was by no means a position of conformity.

Over the course of the Syrian revolution, he met hundreds of opposition activists and he never stopped lobbying on their behalf

To most Republicans, Islamophobic and Orientalist views of Arabs and Syrians reigned supreme and helped shape a 'do nothing' policy among them.

Who could forget McCain's appearance on the Republican Party's unofficial media wing Fox News to advocate support for the rebels? He favoured military action against Assad following the Ghouta massacre and defended the rebels from accusations of being 'al-Qaeda' due to their propensity to shout 'Allahu Akbar' in celebration of hitting Baathist targets.

Read more: Syrians mourn 'stalwart ally' in US Congress John McCain 

McCain could've easily bowed to this prevailing attitude, but he never did. Over the course of the Syrian revolution, he met hundreds of opposition activists and he never stopped lobbying on their behalf. If people wonder why so many activists associated with the Syrian revolution have positive views on McCain, it's because he was one of the few that cared about it.

If people can't get over McCain's status as a right-wing Republican and his support for the Syrian cause, they ought to consider why there was no 'left-wing' version of McCain.

Instead of lambasting those who considered McCain's support for the Syrian revolution as precious, they ought to ask themselves why people they consider to be ideologically worthy of support remained in silence, or tacitly or openly supported Assad.

Having said this, there's little point in painting McCain as a hero of progressivism; in many ways, he was simply a typical Republican who held a few heterodox principles.  

His much-lauded opposition to torture, including the waterboarding widely used by the Bush administration during the War on Terror, was important, but, like most of his political ilk, he was open to compromise on these questions that often somewhat distorted his principles.  

What then, is most curious about McCain is his lack of compromise over Syria and the Arab Spring.

There are some who will simply say that McCain's stance on Syria actually emerged out of a certain tradition of US imperialism. There's no doubt there's a kernel of truth in this, though use of the word 'imperialism' might be stretching it. In his book The Restless Wave, McCain does offer an insight into the motivations behind his support for the Syrian revolution.  

Talking about a meeting with Obama in which the two discussed Syria, McCain criticised Obama's policy of abandonment in Syria as leading to a situation that "encouraged our allies to find ways to live without us, and our adversaries to try to fill the vacuums".  

McCain, recognising the threat of Trump, goes on to say that "those trends continue in reaction to the thoughtless America First ideology of his successor". He laments that Obama's policy and Trump's continuation and exacerbation of it might lead to a demise of "the American-led world order".

It is here that one might disagree with McCain, with his idea that any one power ought to determine the world order, or that the US can be a singular force for 'common good'. But I think McCain genuinely believed this.

The War on Terror era birthed, not without good cause, the idea that those of McCain's political ilk were nefarious imperialists who superficially or selectively supported democratisation. But it seems that McCain, rightly or wrongly, was a true believer when it came to the idea that US power could be deployed for good.

For while McCain's detractors might say his support for Syria is due to his alleged general status as a 'warmonger', his opposition to the Sisi regime in Egypt cannot be explained in this manner.

Sisi is a natural ally of the US, with his support for Israel, Saudi Arabia and his alleged opposition to IS, he falls in line with US interests. The general rule of 'anti-imperialists' would have us believe that McCain ought to have simply supported Sisi for these reasons, despite his mass human rights violations against Egyptians.

But McCain was essentially a lone voice in Congress in 2013 following the coup, calling for the US to suspend aid to Sisi's Egypt, due to the state terror unleashed by that regime.  

There's little point in painting McCain as a hero of progressivism

This was at a time when both his Republican peers and the Democrat president were not even calling what occurred a coup, in order to avoid contravening their own laws on supporting regimes that come to power through military coup d'état - an order that prevails until this day.

As recently as this year, the Sisi regime was desperately rebuking McCain by name. McCain had issued a statement on the seventh anniversary of the January 25 revolution, criticising Sisi's Egypt for its barbaric crackdown on civil society and political activists and invoking "the spirit of the January 25 revolution and the democratic aspirations of the Egyptian people".  

This is a situation of McCain opposing a US ally. There's no 'warmongering' involved in this dynamic. Here, McCain is advocating for - in his own words - a "lasting peace and security in Egypt" through the creation of "democratic institutions that give all Egyptian citizens a stake in the future of their nation". 

This is in contrast to the notion endorsed by Trump, the EU and Putin, that Sisi provides order and ought to be supported regardless.

As recently as this year, the Sisi regime was desperately rebuking McCain by name

I lament McCain's death not because he was a radical or was even some bastion of progress. I lament him because in a world where left and right seem to be ever more defined by supporting the politics of authoritarianism and genocide, one in which the Syrian genocide is an era-defining moment, McCain was one of the few and loudest voices opposing all of this.

As he puts it in  The Restless Wave:

"A hundred years from now, Syria will likely be remembered as one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes of the twenty-first century, and an example of human savagery at its most extreme. But it will be remembered, too, for the invincibility of human decency and the longing for freedom and justice evident in the courage and selflessness of the White Helmets and the soldiers fighting for their country's freedom from tyranny...

"In that noblest of human conditions is the eternal promise of the Arab Spring, which was engulfed in flames and drowned in blood, but will, like all springs, come again."

And who among us could disagree?  

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.