Arizona senator John McCain recently criticized Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for statements about sometimes setting aside American values in foreign policy. Tillerson said in an address to the State Department on March 3rd, that "if you condition our national security efforts on someone adopting our values…it really creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests." McCain responded in the New York Times by writing that "we are a country with a conscience….our values are our strength and greatest treasure. We have long believed moral concerns must be an essential part of our foreign policy, not a departure from it."
McCain is absolutely right that all of our foreign policy decisions should be based on universal values of liberalism – freedom, equality, and a belief in the inherent dignity of all people. The problem is that McCain himself represents the worst in American foreign policy, and has championed some of the most inhumane foreign policy decisions of the last 30 years.
McCain was a cheerleader for the invasion of Iraq and the ousting of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Believing that Iraq was a training ground for al-Qaeda terrorists in the aftermath of 9/11, and that Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction, he was a leading supporter of the proposed war effort. Of course, time would show that there were no WMDs, and that there was no tenable connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda. Thanks to McCain and his neo-conservative ilk, Iraq became embroiled in a civil war and did eventually develop a small but distinct al-Qaeda. presence, one that was not there before the US occupation. Even after all of this, and despite the many thousands dead or displaced because of it, While he was running for president, McCain commented that he was comfortable with a US military presence in Iraq for 100 years.
McCain was also a stalwart of the Obama administration’s effort to oust Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi from power. To his credit, he was against deploying ground troops, but he favored the bombing campaign which would eventually tip the balance in favor of the rebels and lead the country into a chaotic state ruled by rival militias. President Obama called the Libya intervention the worst mistake of his presidency.
McCain is now calling for the Trump administration to re-escalate the fighting in the Afghanistan War, even after 16 years of conflict. McCain seems to think that simply more troops and more resolve will solve the problems of a war-torn nation where more than a third of the country remains outside the control of the central government.
It is correct to view Tillerson’s statements about separating values from our foreign policy with skepticism and alarm. But McCain’s views on what constitutes a moral foreign policy are clearly skewed. He has spent his career advocating for the foreign policy that has effectively accomplished the opposite of what he claims to value in his New York Times column – one that has left a long trail of devastation and destruction in its wake. Acting as the "shining city on a hill" does not mean you use force to make other cities like you. It’s about setting a dignified example of what a free society looks like, not imposing the example on others.
McCain claims that the US has always seen "the world as it was and we made it better." His foreign policy record would suggest then that his idea of our values requires the US to be an aggressive force in the world, shaping it in our image. But, what is made "better" by toppling governments and sending nations into civil war? Until McCain recognizes the harm that his foreign policy views have caused, particularly in the Middle East, he has no business claiming any insight into what makes a moral foreign policy.
Jerrod A. Laber is a non-profit program manager living in Northern Virginia. He is a Young Voices Advocate.