From his days as a young and heroic Navy fighter pilot, to more than five years as a brutally tortured prisoner of war, and through 36 years as a member of the U.S. House and Senate, Sen. John McCain devoted his life to protecting the safety and security of America.
McCain, who died Saturday at age 81, was America’s national security senator – a true expert who understood the challenges our nation faces and the ways to meet those challenges with a strong, well-funded military that would stand firm to defend our national interest.
And few Americans had as keen a sense as McCain for making many important national security predictions that history shows were correct.
I remember the all-too-short times I was able to work with McCain and his amazing team when it came to foreign policy and defense issues. He immersed himself in the details – not relying on his staff to tell him what to say and do. His expertise was immense and he would have made a great secretary of defense or secretary of state had he been given one of those jobs over the course of his long career.
Few Americans had as keen a sense as McCain for making many important national security predictions that history shows were correct.
In the times I got to personally interact with the senator, I can only describe him as gracious with little or no ego, as someone who always went around the room and never forgot your name, and always tried to make a personal connection with you. In 2015, when I interviewed him for Real Clear Defense on national security issues, he was adamant that the Obama administration was completely underestimating the threat posed by Russia.
As my team was setting up our equipment to record, I chatted with the senator about Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, and I asked him if he thought Russia was a declining power – just using what little power it had left to grab what it could. He could tell I doubted how much of a long-term threat Russia was. Before I could even finish my sentence, he stopped me, and his face got beet red – and I knew I was in trouble.
“You’re wrong Harry, I am sorry, but you are dead wrong. Russia is a threat because it is declining, because Putin’s economy is a train wreck,” McCain told me. “When the bear feels wounded, she is dangerous. And if we don’t stand tall against Russia now, they will keep pushing, and this will only get worse. We aren’t learning from history, and I fear where this ends up. Putin’s not done.”
Even as the senator was thrashing me, he did it in the only way he could, never raising his voice, but you could feel the power in his words, the deep concern he had for America’s security, and his deep love of our country.
You could disagree with him, but it was hard to ever make a counterpoint, as his intensity on issues of life and death when it came to geopolitics was intimidating to say the least – and I certainly backed down.
And look how right McCain was. Today, Russia is clearly one of America’s top geopolitical enemies, not only trying to hack our elections and damage our democracy, but still causing trouble in Ukraine, Syria and beyond.
One can only wonder if we had listened to McCain a little more, of if he had been elected president when he ran against Barack Obama in 2008, how different the world would be today.
But that wasn’t the only time I got to get up close and personal with a John McCain foreign policy prediction. When I was part of the editorial team at the magazine The Diplomat, we had the honor of publishing his remarks on the importance on American foreign policy toward Asia.
McCain was an early supporter of making this part of the world a major focus of our national security strategy. He was very concerned about China’s military buildup in the South China Sea, and correctly predicted the dangers ahead. He said to me back in 2015 that it “could be the flashpoint of our time.”
McCain also was surely proven correct in his support for the “surge” to safeguard America’s commitment to supporting Iraq’s freedom. While it was clearly an unpopular move in an unpopular war, I would argue that the judgment of history will show McCain was correct.
Surely, the senator had doubts, as he later revealed when he said America’s invasion of Iraq was a “mistake.” However, McCain correctly understood that to leave Iraq as an open wound and terrorist paradise would be an even bigger mistake – something to be avoided at all costs. I think in his heart he understood that and it guided his policy recommendations.
And again, McCain was proven correct. Thanks to our increased military presence and the Sunni Awakening, Iraq’s future seemed to look a little brighter. And, as you can imagine, McCain was at the forefront, arguing against the Obama administration that a hasty withdrawal would be a mistake. Perhaps if America had stayed the course in Iraq ISIS might never had been born.
Clearly McCain should be recognized for far more than his sage advice on foreign policy and defense issues. But for anyone who devotes his life to studying the issues of conflict and chaos, as I do, McCain was a giant. He stood for American exceptionalism and the idea that a strong America, not afraid to take on any challenge abroad, was a safe America.
Godspeed, John McCain. You served America well and with honor.