Opinion: Did America Lose a Human Rights Activist?

The recent passing of Senator John McCain (R-A.Z.) has sparked national controversy over both his career and his legacy. While many mourn his death, there are some who are apathetic or even glad that he has passed. Media attention surrounding his death has focused on McCain’s role in human rights legislation, and many public figures, including former Vice President Joe Biden, have spoken of his “decency.” Two prominent progressives, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-V.T.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — a young Democratic candidate for the House of Representatives who will face Republican nominee Anthony Pappas in the November 6 general election — have both tweeted statements honoring the late Senator which emphasize John McCain’s dedication to human rights and human decency. This kind of extreme doublespeak is amusing; I think we ought to look at who John McCain really was during his life, and not the glorified figure he has been made out to be since his passing. McCain’s approach to foreign policy should not be understood as something outside the norms of American politics.

On March 8, 2017, John McCain wrote an op-ed for the New York Times titled “Why We Must Support Human Rights.” In the article, he draws on his own experiences as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. He remembers that Governor Ronald Reagan never forgot their cause, and goes on to criticize Rex Tillerson, the then-Secretary of State, for not holding the same standards for human rights as Reagan did. However, looking at McCain’s time as a prisoner of war would leave anyone with a functioning understanding of history rather shocked that anyone would consider the man to be a human rights advocate. At the time of his capture, McCain was “dutifully” serving his country by perpetuating the act of international terrorism that has since come to be known as the Vietnam War. During this service, McCain was captured along with other soldiers during Operation Rolling Thunder, a military campaign that killed at least 50,000 Vietnamese civilians. When McCain reflects on his time as a prisoner of war, he never considers these consequences, the victims of his actions in Vietnam. Instead, John McCain has been quoted as saying, “I hate the g–ks” in response to reporters’ questions on board his campaign bus in early 2000. It is an impressive kind of doublespeak to refer to yourself as a victim while committing acts of terrorism in a country on the path to liberation.

In the 1980s, John McCain was consistently in line with the Reagan agenda, which included amplifying the horrendous effects of Operation Condor in Latin America. After the fall of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), McCain became the chairman of the International Republican Institute (IRI). The IRI, which described its mission in a 1995 Annual Report as advancing “democracy, the rule of law, and free-market economics,” played a role in the creation of a “market-democracy” in the democratic socialist state of Mongolia. In 1997, McCain boasted of his success in Mongolia, telling Congress, “I am happy to say that the International Republican Institute played a major role in this victory by showing these parties how to mobilize their supporters and work toward victory.” In our current century, he has continued in this vein — namely, voting in favor of several acts of aggression, including the invasion of both Afghanistan and Iraq.

While this is by no means an exhaustive list of John McCain’s perpetuation of terror in the U.S. political realm, it proves that he should not be seen as an an anomaly, the paragon of decency in an otherwise corrupt Republican party, but rather understood as a man who did nothing particularly against the grain of party values. John McCain’s foreign policy showed the world that his talk of human rights was nothing more than the equivalent of hot air from a hair dryer. John McCain was someone who helped ensure that weapons contractors, manufacturers, and other players in the war-for-profit industry had their pockets lined. So, the question remains, did we really lose a human rights advocate?

Editor’s’ note: a racial slur contained in a quote by John McCain has been censored for print in the Quest.