Skip to main content

McCain and the Middle East: From bombing Iran to admitting Iraq war was a mistake

Senator took a keen and often hawkish interest in foreign affairs, particularly with regard to the Middle East
McCain served as chairman of the United States Senate Committee on Armed Services from 2015 to 2018 (AFP)

Senator John McCain, the Vietnam prisoner of war turned senator and presidential candidate, died on Saturday aged 81.

McCain had been diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumour in July last year and had been undergoing medical treatment.

The Arizona senator graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1958 and followed his father and grandfather, both admirals, into the navy.

In 1967, McCain was shot down while flying a mission over Hanoi. He was imprisoned by the North Vietnamese until 1973 and was tortured during his incarceration.

A six-times senator, he stood as the Republican candidate in the 2008 presidential election, losing to Barack Obama.

He took a keen and often hawkish interest in foreign affairs and served as chairman of the United States Senate Committee on Armed Services from 2015 to 2018.

Below are some of McCain's main actions with regard to the Middle East.

'Bomb, Bomb, Bomb' Iran

In 2007, McCain joked about bombing Iran during a presidential campaign appearance in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina.

Asked by an audience member about possible US military action against Iran, McCain said: "That old, eh, that old Beach Boys song, Bomb Iran."

McCain then laughed before briefly singing - to the tune of the chorus of the Beach Boys's classic Barbara Ann - "Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, anyway, ah ..."

Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib torture criticism

In December 2008, McCain was the highest serving Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee when it released a report into detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay.

Prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay (AFP)
The report found that former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other senior US officials shared much of the blame for the abuses.

McCain's forensic questioning of Rumsfeld, who he later described as "one of the worst secretaries of defence in history", over Guantanamo Bay forced a change of administration policy.

Support for Israel

McCain was a strong supporter of Israel and backed US President Donald Trump's decision to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Scores of Palestinians were killed demonstrating against the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem (Reuters)
"I have long believed that Jerusalem is the true capital of Israel," he wrote in a statement on his website after the announcement.

The senator's backing extended to Israel's numerous offensives against Palestinians, including the 2014 bombardment of Gaza.

Call for Syrian intervention

McCain repeatedly called for US military intervention in Syria following the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011. In 2017, he championed Trump's decision to launch an attack against Syrian government forces, saying the action had "been eight years in the making".

In April 2017, the US launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles from the Mediterranean Sea into Syria (AFP)
Urging Trump to step up the air strikes, McCain and fellow senator Lindsey Graham said: "As part of a broader strategy, we urge the president to take greater military action to achieve our objectives, including grounding the Syrian air force and establishing safe havens inside Syria to protect Syrians."

They added that "there will never be a diplomatic solution as long as Assad dominates the battlefield".

Backing Libya's 'heroes'

In 2011, McCain was one of the strongest backers in Congress of US military intervention in Libya, calling on Washington to recognise Libyan rebels' transitional council as the true voice of the Libyan people and transfer frozen assets to them.

Gaddafi was overthrown in October 2011 (AFP)
McCain also called for Nato to step up its air campaign and said Western allies should provide rebels with training, weapons and command-and-control activities to help overthrow Muammar Gaddafi, Libya's longtime leader.

McCain described the Libyan fighters as "heroes".

Calls Egypt's removal of Mohamed Morsi a coup

In 2013, following a brief visit to Egypt, McCain described the removal of then Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi as a coup, in a move that contradicted the White House.

Morsi has been imprisoned since 2013 (AFP)
"We have said we share the democratic aspirations and criticism of the Morsi government that led millions of Egyptians into the streets," McCain said at the trip to Cairo in which he and fellow Republican senator Lindsey Graham met senior officials.

"We've also said that the circumstances of [Morsi's] removal was a coup. This was a transition of power not by the ballot box."

Urges US to 'choose the Kurds'

McCain was a longtime supporter of Kurds in Iraq, writing in 2017 he urged the US to "choose the Kurds" as clashes intensified between the Kurdish peshmerga, on one side, and Iraqi forces and Iranian-backed fighters on the other.

Peshmerga fighters outside Kirkuk in 2016 (AFP)
"For decades, the United States' alliance with the Kurds has protected them from attacks, both from within and outside Iraq, while furthering American national security interests,” the senator said, urging Washington to stand by "our true friends".

Speaking on Sunday, Nechirvan Barzani, the prime minister of the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq's north, said McCain's death was a loss for the people of Kurdistan.

"He was a great defender of the people of Kurdistan and our rights," said Barzani.

Iraq war was a 'mistake'

McCain was among the most hawkish Republicans in the Senate and was a staunch supporter of George W Bush's decision to go to war with Iraq in 2003 and a later US troop surge.

McCain had been one of the strongest supporters of intervention in Iraq (AFP)
In 2018, in his memoir The Restless Wave, McCain stated: "The principal reason for invading Iraq, that Saddam had WMD, was wrong."

"The war, with its cost in lives and treasure and security, 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."

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.