The complex legacy of John McCain

The Arizona senator, who died on Saturday, has many detractors. But others, especially Syrians, will remember him for his compassion.

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It should probably come as no surprise that a man who divided opinion so much in life would continue to do so in death. While tributes have poured in from across the political divide in remembrance of senator John McCain, who died on Saturday evening, a backlash of equal emotional magnitude has also inevitably played out.

Some of it is indisputably fair. McCain’s history of supporting the use American military power around the world earned him the reputation of being the neo-conservative’s neo-conservative. But McCain was a complicated man and is far from the caricature he is painted out to be by those cynically mocking his death for Twitter clicks.

A perfect example of this is the clip of John McCain at a 2008 campaign rally, in response to one of his own supporters saying that Obama was an “Arab”. McCain snatched the microphone out of her hand and said “no ma’am, he’s a decent family man.”

Even a moment that can be replayed over and over again has caused a massive division of interpretation. As an Arab, when I first heard those words in 2008 I was angered by his response, his failure to address her comment for what it was seemed like a tacit endorsement of racism towards Arabs. But as someone who vehemently opposed the Iraq War and was horrified by the prospect of a McCain-Palin administration, I was never looking for complexity.

Looking back on that moment now, especially considering the events that have followed in American politics, I see a man clearly confronting racism, not condoning it, even if the wording was less than appropriate.

Nonetheless, considering the disastrous cost to human life the war in Iraq brought, it is understandable why so many people hold McCain in contempt. It will also probably come as little solace that in his final book he said that the Iraq war “can’t be judged as anything other than a mistake, a very serious one, and I have to accept my share of the blame for it.”

It seems perhaps fitting that McCain, who picked Sarah Palin for his vice-presidential running-mate in 2008, acknowledged his role in the deteriorating state of public discourse. He said in 2011: “Our political discourse should be more civil than it currently is, and we all, myself included, bear some responsibility for it not being so.”

McCain was clearly a man who was capable of deep self-reflection, which in truth only makes his support, for example, for arming Saudi Arabia, and his defence of the Israeli bombing of Gaza, so galling.

But the debate surrounding how Sen. McCain should be remembered is, in truth, not a debate about the memory of a man. It is about the concept of America itself.

For those that see America as unquestionably a force for evil in the world, McCain will always be anathema. But the world is not black and white, it is complicated and overlapping shades of gray, and Senator John McCain was perhaps the grayest shade of them all.

Perhaps the most startling difference in how McCain is being remembered is by the outpouring of tributes from Syrians.

At a time when Syrians living under daily bombardment by the Assad regime could count on one hand the senior international politicians fighting to give them a voice, John McCain took the unprecedented decision to visit the FSA in Syria in 2013.

At a time when the Obama administration was abandoning Syria, McCain was the loudest voice in congress holding him to account.

There have been many shameless cartoonish propagandistic depictions McCain agitating for war in Syria that have unsurprisingly emanated from Kremlin aligned far-left and the far right.

But McCain’s support for Syrians was sincere. In 2015 McCain spoke at an event at the US Holocaust Museum, where evidence was presented of the Assad regime’s systematic extermination campaign as exposed by former military photographer codenamed Caesar. McCain said he kept a copy of the Caesar photos on his desk so that he was “reminded every single day of the horrific crimes that have been committed” by the Assad regime.

This sincerity was expressed in social media tributes by Syrian activists.

“I remember that members of Congress always sent their junior staff to meet with us (if they even agreed to meet). The exception was Senator McCain,” said Syrian activist Yasser Bittar Saad Aldeen in a post on Facebook. “his eyes teared as he spoke of the women who were raped by Assad forces, and the massacres that we thought almost no one knew about.”

“When you have seen your people forsaken for so many years by the international community, a word of truth, a demand for justice, is gold,” she said.

Founder of the underground publication from inside the former capital of ISIS Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently Abdulaziz Alhamza said McCain “left many people cheering for him not only as an American hero but as global hero, he visited Syria and encouraged people to keep fighting for freedom.”

Syrian activist Mohamed Ghanem also shared perhaps the most stunning of revelations about the late Senator. In 2016, while Aleppo was under heavy bombardment, McCain reached out to Syrian activists to try and get into the city. Speaking of the conversation he had warning McCain of the risks involved in visiting Syria, Ghanem described of McCain’s response:

“I am ashamed of my country’s inaction in Syria. And if that’s what it takes for my country to wake up and recognize the gravity of the threat from Putin and do something to stop the senseless massacre of Syrian civilians, I do not mind getting killed by a Russian jet in Syria.”

Of the conversation Ghanem said: “We were speechless; utterly speechless, and I struggled to choke back tears.”

On some of the great questions of our time, especially in Iraq, McCain undoubtedly failed. But where so many of his detractors fell short, McCain’s steadfast and unwavering support for Syrians under fire was moving and heartfelt.

McCain’s legacy will rightly be questioned over his many flaws and mistakes, but his profound commitment to confronting the 21st century’s most prolific mass murderer at a time when most of the world looked on in silent complicity has guaranteed that his name at the very least will be remembered by Syrians for generations to come.

Oz Katerji is a writer, filmmaker and journalist with a focus on the Middle East, and former Lesvos coordinator for British charity Help Refugees.​