“There is no moral equivalence,” an angry John McCain told the Senate in February, referring to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, “between that butcher and thug and KGB colonel and the United States of America, the country that Ronald Reagan used to call a shining city on a hill.” To “allege some kind of moral equivalence between the two,” he continued, “is either terribly misinformed or incredibly biased.”
The Arizona Republican senator’s remarks came in response to an exchange days earlier between Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly and President Donald Trump. When, after Trump reiterated his “respect” for Putin, O’Reilly noted that “Putin’s a killer,” Trump retorted, “There are a lot of killers. We have a lot of killers. Well, you think our country is so innocent?”
McCain’s outrage comes to mind amid news that the legendary senator and Vietnam War hero is suffering from an aggressive form of brain cancer that felled his former Senate colleague, Ted Kennedy, and that generally gives sufferers 12 to 18 months to live.
McCain’s departure from the Senate – whenever it comes – will be a huge loss for the nation under any circumstance. But his illness and future are particularly painful to contemplate at a time when America’s global leadership and the so-called liberal order over which it presides face such strains. In fact, in defending America against skeptics at home and abroad, reassuring U.S. allies on his trips overseas and sparring with Trump over U.S. policy toward Russia and Syria, McCain may now be doing his most vital work ever.
For starters, McCain is proudly championing America’s values of freedom and democracy on the world stage – a task that such presidents as Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush considered an integral part of their jobs, but one that our more recent presidents have de-emphasized.
President Barack Obama sought not just to “reset” relations with an increasingly authoritarian Russia, but also to nourish warmer ties with autocratic leaders in Turkey, Iran and, before its civil war, Syria. He and his top aides also disparaged Israel, a close U.S. ally and the Middle East’s only democracy, in increasingly harsh terms.
Trump, however, has gone much further. Along with his strange reluctance to accept the finding that Russia meddled in our presidential election, he called China’s President Xi Jinping a “great guy” and has refused to condemn human rights crackdowns in Russia, China, Turkey, Egypt and elsewhere.
McCain is also raising alarms over the implications of a U.S. refusal to defend the liberal order of economic relationships and diplomatic ties that emerged after World War II and that has served us well ever since, promoting the freedom and prosperity from which America and its allies benefit.
Of fears that the West may not “survive,” McCain told the Munich Security Conference this year. “If ever there were a time to treat this question with a deadly seriousness, it is now.” With top Trump administration figures in attendance, he relayed concerns that “America is laying down the mantle of global leadership.”
McCain has been particularly concerned about U.S. ties to its allies after Trump’s personal attacks on some Western leaders and the president’s public skepticism about NATO and other U.S. commitments. In response, McCain has assumed the role of assurer-in-chief, meeting with leaders around the world and delivering high-profile speeches. By early June, he had flown more than 75,000 miles, to more than 15 countries on three continents, this year alone.
“I come to Australia at a time when many are questioning whether America is still committed to [Western] values,” he told an audience that included Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, which whom Trump has clashed. “And you are not alone. Other American allies have similar doubts these days. And this is understandable.”
Of McCain, who reassured the Australians that Trump’s security team is committed to U.S. leadership, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said, “He is a reassuring figure around the world … As a face of Congress around the world, he would be the prime minister of Congress.”
McCain has faced far bigger personal challenges over the years. A prisoner-of-war for nearly six years in Vietnam, he suffered two shattered arms and a shattered leg when his plane crashed; he lost consciousness when his captors beat him; he shrunk to 100 pounds while surviving on watery pumpkin soup and bread scraps; he spent time in solitary confinement and suffered more broken bones when tortured; and he was forced to teach himself anew how to walk.
But while his will to prevail is unquestioned, this warhorse turns 81 next month and faces the challenges of an aggressive cancer. So the next time you’re worrying about America’s future, say a prayer for John Sidney McCain III.
Lawrence J. Haas, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, is the author of, most recently, Harry and Arthur: Truman, Vandenberg, and the Partnership That Created the Free World.