For me, the moment that sums up John McCain’s worldview, both what made it admirable and made it dangerous, was his “We are all Georgians” speech. Almost exactly 10 years ago, on Aug. 12, 2008, McCain, a longtime backer of what he called that “brave little nation” in the Caucasus and a personal friend of its pro-Western leader Mikheil Saakashvili, addressed a rally for his presidential campaign in York, Pennsylvania. It was just after Russian troops had entered undisputed Georgian territory from the breakaway enclave of Abkhazia, turning what had been an increasingly tense border clash into the sort of full-scale international land invasion not seen in Europe in decades. McCain told the crowd:
As you know, over the past several days we’ve seen that international aggression is, tragically, not a thing of the past. We thought we put a lot of that behind us at the end of the 20th century. But now it’s rearing its ugly head in the 21st. The small of nation of Georgia has been subject to Russian attacks that threaten its very existence. Some Americans, when they read this news, may wonder where Georgia is or why we should care about the conflict between Georgians and the Russian army. It is after all a small and remote and obscure place, but history is often made in remote, obscure places.
He then said he had just spoken on the phone with Saakashvili and “told him that I know I speak for every American when I said to him, today, we are all Georgians.”
It should be said that with a decade of hindsight, McCain’s warning that Russian expansionism was a threat not just to its neighbors, but to the U.S. as well, seems much less alarmist than it did then. But in 2008, delivered at the height of the presidential campaign, it’s hard to imagine a statement less in tune with the political mood of the time. Americans, to put it simply, had little interest in being Georgians. Seven years into the war in Afghanistan, five into the war in Iraq, and with an economic crisis looming at home, the threat to Georgian democracy wasn’t high on the priority list for many Pennsylvanian voters. The remark, and the degree to which McCain fixated on Georgia that month, prompted eye-rolling and mockery at the time.
But for McCain, Georgians—not to mention Ukrainians, Kosovars, Kurds, Syrians, Libyans, and other groups he championed—were always a priority. Promoting freedom and standing up to tyranny weren’t just platitudes for him. Being a democratic superpower entailed certain responsibilities to stand behind your friends, as well as the understanding that aggression, if not confronted, would surely spread.
Often, for him, taking responsibility meant taking military action or providing arms to U.S. allies, and McCain acquired a somewhat deserved reputation as a perma-hawk who never met a country he didn’t want to bomb. He wasn’t always that way. The Vietnam veteran who understood the consequences of military action better than anyone on Capitol Hill spent his early years in Congress, more often than not, as a critic of military force. He broke with the Reagan administration to oppose extending the deployment of U.S. forces in Lebanon. He was ambivalent about the first Gulf War, saying in 1990, “We cannot even contemplate, in my view, trading American blood for Iraqi blood.” When Congress was debating sending U.S. troops to oust a dictatorship in Haiti, McCain was skeptical, saying, “there are other governments around the world that aren’t democratic that we don’t like. Are we supposed to invade those countries, too?” This is exactly the sort of argument his political adversaries would employ in years to come.
Through the Balkan wars of the 1990s, and then more so after the Sept. 11 attacks, he evolved into Washington’s foremost interventionist while at the same time becoming one of the GOP’s leading voices on foreign policy. This included, of course, his enthusiastic advocacy for the invasion of Iraq, which he only recently—and somewhat shockingly—acknowledged as a mistake. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, he pushed for U.S. military intervention in Libya and more direct support for the rebels in Syria. He pushed both the Obama and Trump administrations to provide lethal aid to Ukrainian government forces fighting Russian-backed separatists. At times, such as when he called for sending U.S. troops, without the Nigerian government’s permission, to rescue the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2014 his seeming view of every crisis in the world as a nail for the hammer of U.S. military force verged on self-parody. His long-held desire for a “league of democracies” alliance that could “act where the U.N. fails to act” and that wouldn’t require the approval of Russia or China, never gained traction.
Had he been elected president, McCain would almost certainly have involved the U.S. in yet more costly and destructive military interventions in the Middle East (remember “bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran”?) if not a disastrous superpower conflict with Russia or China. His bold rhetoric could sometimes raise expectations abroad of American hope that was not forthcoming. Even Saakashvili said a few days after the speech that McCain’s words were “very nice” but that it was time to move from “words to deeds.” But even McCain never went as far as to advocate war with Russia over Georgia.
He also had an unfortunate tendency to portray complex conflicts as simple good vs. evil struggles, with pro-American “heroes” on one side and tyrannical, usually Russian-backed villains on the other. The world is not always that simple. Saakashvili was not always the stalwart democrat his American friends portrayed him as. In recent years, McCain was criticized for posing with neo-Nazis in Ukraine and (allegedly) jihadists in Syria during visits to those countries.
While it still has adherents in some of the country’s most powerful positions, McCain’s brand of ideological interventionism is fast going out of style. Liberals and younger voters are becoming far less interventionist and are apt to see democracy promotion as a fig leaf for U.S. militarism—understandably so, given the events of the past two decades.
Donald Trump, meanwhile, represents an isolationist strain of conservative foreign policy with little interest in protecting what McCain called “an international order of peace based on freedom” and views U.S. allies as skinflint free riders on U.S. security guarantees. Worse still, the current president champions and seems to prefer the company of strongmen leaders, including McCain’s arch-nemesis, Vladimir Putin.
But just because Americans have soured on talk of promoting freedom and fighting tyranny, that doesn’t mean the country is getting less militaristic. The U.S. military footprint around the world continues to expand; the war on terrorism that began after 9/11, with all its attendant excesses and abuses, is likely to stretch into a third decade; and the president’s ability to use military force without congressional oversight continues to be normalized. John Bolton, a man who shares McCain’s enthusiasm for military action but has little patience for talk of democracy or human rights, is now national security adviser. It seems a sad but telling coda to McCain’s career that Trump this month signed a $716 billion defense bill named for the late senator but overrode language in the bill affirming support for NATO and condemnation of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
The United States, in the post–John McCain era, is a country with an overwhelmingly powerful military and a willingness to use it—as he would have wanted—but without the principle, duty to defend liberty, or sense of responsibility for America’s friends in remote parts of the world that McCain felt should accompany that power. We may be locked in a permanent state of military conflict, but it’s hard to imagine a presidential candidate of any party, today, telling a room full of Pennsylvania voters to imagine themselves as Georgians.