John McCain’s Complicated Legacy in the Arab World

Arabs and non-Arabs alike will long debate the late Senator John McCain’s legacy as the long-term effects of the military campaigns that he supported have yet to be fully realized in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. Unquestionably, McCain, a highly influential lawmaker who was outspoken on issues concerning America’s role in the Middle East, will leave behind a controversial legacy in the Arab world.

Arabs and non-Arabs alike will long debate the late Senator John McCain’s legacy as the long-term effects of the military campaigns that he supported have yet to be fully realized in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. Unquestionably, McCain, a highly influential lawmaker who was outspoken on issues concerning America’s role in the Middle East, will leave behind a controversial legacy in the Arab world.

The scores of past U.S. Presidents, American lawmakers from both sides of the partisan divide, foreign leaders and diplomats, and former POWs who attended the late Senator John McCain’s funeral on Saturday at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. spoke volumes about how much the former Arizona lawmaker and war hero will be missed in Washington and countless other capitals worldwide. Throughout his decades-long career in the U.S. Senate, McCain was a fervent believer in America as a benign power that stood for freedom, democracy, and human rights. During years in which many American officials grew increasingly skeptical about U.S. military campaigns in the Middle East, McCain passionately saw the projection of U.S. power in the Arab world as essential for the region’s peace and security.

In McCain’s view, the gravest international challenge facing America and her Middle Eastern allies in the post-Cold War period was the Islamic Republic of Iran. The U.S. Senator constantly accused Iran’s leadership of seeking to destroy the Jewish State of Israel while wreaking havoc across a host of Arab countries from Iraq to Yemen and Syria to Bahrain. McCain strongly criticized the watershed nuclear accord that Iran and six global powers including the U.S. reached in 2015 — a hallmark of Barack Obama’s foreign policy record. The Arizona lawmaker was an advocate of U.S. support for the efforts of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (known as the MEK) to weaken, or perhaps topple, the regime in Tehran.  

Naturally, given McCain’s perceptions of Iranian behavior in the region and strong support for Arab Gulf states’ struggles to counter Tehran’s expanding and consolidating influence, the Senator was popular with the leadership in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington called McCain “an American hero who dedicated his life to serving his country and advancing global peace and security.”  He said McCain “was a great friend of the [Saudi] Kingdom, a truly respected and trustworthy statesman.”

McCain’s strong belief in the ability of America to project hard-power to advance core interests of the U.S. and its allies earned him admiration in Arab Gulf capitals. This was especially so during Obama’s presidency when the White House’s reluctance to act in Syria to turn the tables against the Tehran-allied regime in Damascus unsettled Arab Gulf states and raised doubts about the wisdom of remaining highly dependent on America as a security guarantor. That McCain largely shared Saudi Arabia’s outlook on Syria was underscored in 2013 when he met anti-Bashar al-Assad rebels in northern Syria, and then later in 2016 when he called the bloodshed in Aleppo “a testament to our moral failure.” Likewise, this view was manifest in 2017 when McCain condemned then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for implying that Washington could accept a solution to the Syrian crisis that kept Assad in power. From the Saudi perspective, McCain had a realistic assessment of Syria in that he believed that only Assad’s ouster could pave the path for peace in the country.

Ultimately, McCain’s powerful rhetoric about the moral imperative to act against the Syrian regime’s cruelty and his refusal to trust the Iranian leadership won the lawmaker much admiration from certain Arab statesmen and segments of societies that welcome a strong American military hand in the region to counter Iran and radical terrorist groups. Yet much of the instability that now plagues the region (which Iran has taken advantage of for years) is attributable to the outcome of the neo-conservative-orchestrated U.S.-led regime change campaign in Iraq which McCain began pushing for in the 1990s as a co-sponsor of the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998.

The Bush administration’s war against Iraq killed at least several hundred thousand Iraqis and sparked an international refugee crisis. More significantly for the long term, it created a dangerous power vacuum in the heart of the Middle East, and thus will remain a dark part of McCain’s legacy in the war-torn region. The price that countless Iraqis paid for the bloody chaos that ensued after Saddam Hussein fell is still being felt today across Iraq where ISIS remains a violent extremist force that has anything but vanished. To McCain’s credit, however, several months before his death he accepted some “blame” for the situation in Iraq and acknowledged that his push for the war had been a mistake.

Beyond Iraq, McCain’s support for military solutions to a number of other multifaceted crises in the Arab world will leave a lasting impact. In Yemen, where the world’s worst humanitarian disaster continues to worsen with millions on the brink of famine, McCain’s support of the Saudi-led military coalition fighting the Iranian-backed Houthi civil rebellion will contribute to his legacy. In Libya, McCain was an early advocate of foreign military action against Moammar Gaddafi in 2011, and in Gaza many will remember McCain’s strong support for Israel amid the IDF’s clashes with Hamas and other militant Islamist groups in the besieged coastal enclave.  

Some will also remember that in 2005, invoking “on a very personal basis” his own experience as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, McCain called upon Algeria and the Polisario Front to release 400 Moroccan prisoners who had been held captive for 17 years in Tindouf camps; the Polisario sent them home to Morocco later that year. 

Ultimately, McCain’s legacy in the Arab world is complicated by both his moral convictions against authoritarian regimes in Iran, Syria, Iraq, and Libya and his support for misguided U.S. policies in the Middle East that have ushered in much violent instability across the region. For the Arabs who view America as an aggressive, imperialist force, McCain will be remembered negatively not only for his hawkishness and advocacy of U.S. militarism, but also for his unflinching support for the State of Israel amid its illegal occupation of Palestinian land. Yet for others in the Arab world who believe that their countries have suffered from America’s perceived “retreat” from the region, the Arizona Republican who called for military engagement was a hero and a voice for Syrians fighting a tyrannical regime that the West lacked the necessary courage to confront.