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Champion of military gone from the national, international stage

A void to fill

Champion of military gone from the national, international stage

As a plane carrying a congressional delegation arrived in Iraq in August 2003, the aircraft was forced to make a corkscrew landing to avoid surface-to-air missiles.

The lawmakers led by Sen. John McCain quickly realized the situation there might not be “mission accomplished.”

Forced to travel only in armored vehicles during their 36-hour visit to Baghdad, and their movement confined mostly to the protected Green Zone, their doubt grew. As the lawmakers listened to a presentation from U.S. officials, they were jolted by the thud of an explosion. A mile away, at the U.N. headquarters compound, a suicide bomber killed 22 people, including the chief of U.N. operations in Iraq.

Later, a British colonel in Basra confirmed a sobering truth to McCain: The tide was turning against U.S.-led forces in the face of deteriorating resources.

That colonel’s words belied the “mission accomplished” banner hung behind former President George W. Bush a few months earlier on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln. For years to come, it would fuel McCain’s urgent concerns, as he met with strategists and Pentagon officials and held congressional hearings.


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In 2007, McCain’s support for a troop surge in Iraq finally became a reality.

“He would speak to everyone from commanding officers to privates and you could see that not only did everyone feel like they could be straight with him, but they had to be straight with him,” said Richard Fontaine, McCain’s national security adviser in the mid to late 2000s. “And that really informed the way he thought about the wars.”

It was classic McCain.

The Arizona Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee developed a global network of contacts in his 30-plus years in Congress and unmatched influence compared to many people in the upper echelons of U.S. leadership.

In his time on Capitol Hill, McCain became a self-appointed protector and watchdog of the U.S. military and a leading expert on national security issues. As lawmaker, he battled against military funding deficiencies and wasteful spending, took Pentagon leaders to task over a wide array of concerns, helped shape servicemembers’ roles in conflicts around the world and set new standards for the treatment of war detainees.

“Sen. McCain loved to spend time with those actually on the ground, at small-unit level, as well as with senior commanders and diplomats and host nation leaders,” retired Army Gen. David Petraeus said. “And he repeatedly sought to get out to see situations ‘outside the wire’ for himself – such as in the spring of 2007 when he went on a patrol through Baghdad’s largest open-air market and talked to market shop owners, Iraqi citizens, Iraqi and US soldiers, etc.”

Fontaine said he was especially taken by McCain’s interactions with servicemembers of all ranks as they traveled to war zones around the world and how those conversations informed the way the senator thought about the wars. Sometimes, top leaders would say everything was going great, but servicemembers in the lower ranks would share a more realistic view, Fontaine noticed.

That insight was a prerequisite for getting military strategies right, he said.

In that light, the 2007 surge was a definitive move that helped stabilize security in Iraq. It also was an example of a series of moments when McCain took the less popular stand, bucking the majority and doing what he thought was right for the military, said Petraeus, who led U.S. forces in Iraq at the time of the surge.

That was apparent as McCain maintained support for the surge during his 2008 campaign for president, Petraeus noted.

“Who can forget him explaining his steadfast support for the surge in Iraq while campaigning for president and saying, ‘I would rather lose an election than lose a war,’ ” said Petraeus, chairman of the KKR Global Institute, a research subsidiary of New York global investment firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. “And who has done more to ensure that our military units and our men and women in uniform have had the resources, weapons systems, individual kit, enabling capabilities … and funding for readiness needed to be prepared for whatever has been required of them? His actions and example will long be held out as the gold standard of congressional service to, and oversight of, our military services and the Defense Department.”

Democratic ideals

Eight days after his inauguration, President Donald Trump’s tense phone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was already triggering a diplomatic crisis between the United States and one of its oldest allies.

Trump told Turnbull that a refugee plan inherited from former President Barack Obama’s administration was a “stupid deal.”

McCain quickly reached out to Joe Hockey, the Australian ambassador to the United States, to make clear that Trump did not speak for all Americans.

“Australia is one of America’s oldest friends and staunchest allies,” McCain said in a statement, pointing to a critical alliance from World War I to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. “We are united by ties of family and friendship, mutual interests and common values, and shared sacrifice in wartime.”

McCain’s call to Hockey was picked up by dozens of news reports and appeared to diffuse a tense episode with a key ally.

“It let people in Australia know that we have three branches of government and people who are invested,” said Fontaine, president of the Washington think tank Center for New American Security. “Is there another senator who could have done all that? Who would have that kind of effect? It’s a testament” to McCain’s impact.

But less than six months after the Australian incident, McCain was diagnosed with brain cancer, threatening a void in Congress that transcended his position as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Fontaine said he was reminded of such a void at a recent event in Arizona for the McCain Institute for International Leadership.

“I was talking to some folks who have been around him for a long time and I couldn’t think of another senator who has had this impact on policy in the last 30 years,” he said.

Petraeus agrees.

“Sen. McCain has been a true titan – enormously knowledgeable, a Naval Academy graduate from a family of distinguished naval officers, one with considerable personal experience and moral authority from his own time in uniform, followed by decades on the Armed Services Committee and tireless pursuit of firsthand observation through extensive travel to see our forces in combat and wherever else they are overseas,” he said. “There truly is no one with remotely the same combination of experience, expertise, firsthand knowledge, hard-edged assessments and extensive relationships around the world.”

Todd Harrison, senior fellow and director of defense budget analysis for Washington think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, said McCain’s leadership will be missed on Capitol Hill, particularly with the National Defense Authorization Act – the annual defense policy plan also known as the NDAA.

“I think Senator McCain has been a really powerful champion in the Senate for defense issues,” Harrison said during a December discussion with reporters. “And I think there’s several recent years that I think he singlehandedly forced the leadership in the Senate to move ahead on the NDAA when it might not have otherwise been a priority for the leadership. … It’s not clear that there’s anyone else in the Senate that will fill that role, that will be that champion to make sure that defense bills get pushed through.”

Longtime, staunch advocate

Kurt Volker, who runs the McCain Institute for International Leadership for Arizona State University, said McCain played a key role striking a balance between the resources and demands facing the U.S. military.

Often, the United States sends the military on a mission without resources, or a mission that is not appropriate, or throws things at them and then tries to forget about it, Volker argued.

But McCain “acted as a counterbalance to those bad tendencies,” said Volker, a former State Department official. “It’s hard to think of someone who has done more in shaping the military the way it is today because of his role on the Armed Services Committee. You think about programs, you think about budget, you think about generals and admirals that he’s interacted with. ... He has played an immense role.”

Navy Secretary Richard Spencer agreed that McCain, a former Navy pilot, had a remarkable influence on the Navy and the Marines.

"Senator McCain is a longtime and staunch advocate for a strong Navy and Marine Corps team and his dedication to our country is without question. From his time in uniform to his time in the Senate, he remains unwavering in his support and we are fortunate to have him in our corner," Spencer said. "Known for his ability to focus on meaningful issues and provide guidance, he has been a lion in championing for national security and the naval enterprise.”

McCain fought for the ideals of democracy around the world and battled oppression within dictatorships, former President George H.W. Bush said.

His legacy will continue, “by maintaining the world’s finest armed forces capable of defending the freedoms we hold so dear,” Bush said. And “by seeing more of our political leaders standing by their principles while also seeking to reach across the political aisle to get the people’s work done.”

After his defeat by President Barack Obama in the 2008 election, McCain went on to push for a new wave of military efforts and reforms, such as increased defense spending, as he and his family simultaneously launched the new McCain Institute in hopes of mentoring future leaders.

McCain’s influence is also be seen through programs at the Naval Academy and elsewhere. For example, the Naval Academy hosts an annual McCain Conference at its ethics leadership center in Annapolis, Md. And the McCain Institute hosts future leaders at its Washington home and at the annual Sedona Forum in Arizona.

Volker said the McCain Institute remains a living legacy to McCain and his family.

The center, which was launched in 2012 and has hosted events by McCain and his wife Cindy McCain, has grown to a student population represented today by more than 40 countries, Volker said. It’s also grown in studies, adding a counterterrorism program this year to existing concentrations in human rights, democracy, human trafficking and international rule of law.

“We’ve been growing like crazy,” Volker said. “The institute has become a real way of taking some of the things that have been characteristic of Sen. McCain, Ms. McCain and the McCains over generations and finding ways to pay that forward.”

No heir apparent

The annual Munich Security Conference, which draws hundreds of international leaders to Germany each year, became a traditional venue to host McCain’s critical take on the most urgent concerns facing the world. Congressional leaders on international security issues are a marque part of the conference, and McCain regularly attended.

McCain was forced to miss the conference in February, and his absence was sharply felt among his colleagues.

“How sorely John McCain is missed,” former California Democratic Rep. Jane Harman, who had traveled on several congressional delegation trips with McCain, rose to tell the panel of lawmakers. “His presence was instrumental in training generations of members of the U.S. Congress on foreign policy issues and it really feels different.”

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., agreed.

“This is the first time I’ve been here that he has not spoken to us and we miss him very, very dearly,” Whitehouse said. “He was a very strong voice, is a very strong voice for elected democracy and market capitalism. The system we defend here, the West, stands upon elected democracy and market capitalism as the two pillars.”

As McCain battled brain cancer this summer, it wasn’t clear who would take over his seat should he step down. There was talk in Arizona that perhaps McCain’s wife could be appointed in his place.

Petraeus suggests there might be members on both sides of the political aisle who could carry the McCain mission forward. Longtime McCain friend Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., who are a senior member and the ranking Democrat member for the Senate Armed Services Committee, respectively, are among the lawmakers who stand out, Petraeus said.

“Both are veterans and experienced senators who are very astute on military and defense matters and who have been indefatigable in traveling to Iraq, Afghanistan and a host of other locations where our forces are deployed to meet with our commanders and soldiers on the ground and to see things for themselves,” Petraeus said.

Other members who could help carry on McCain’s efforts include Senate Armed Services Committee members Sens. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, and Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, military veterans who have traveled on numerous trips overseas with McCain in recent years, Petraeus said.

Leaders of the House Armed Services Committee, including its chairman, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, and its ranking Democratic member, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, could also work within the McCain vision, Petraeus added. He also named a list of newer members of the committee, such as Reps. Martha McSally, R-Ariz.; Steve Russell, R-Okla.; and Mike Gallagher, R-Wisc., as rising stars on the panel.

Thornberry and Smith “are both very impressive, as well, as are several other senior members of the HASC and a number of the post-9/11 military veterans on the HASC,” Petraeus said.

Still, Fontaine worries there won’t be a lawmaker who can carry the McCain mantle forward in the same fashion. He pointed to Graham as a possibility, for example, but concedes it’s not clear who could fill McCain’s role with the same level of passion, authority and leadership.

“He’s really been the intellectual and political foreign policy leader on the Republican side for a long time, and there’s no obvious heir apparent to that. There is nobody with that kind of authority on national security matters,” Fontaine said. “He was a deal maker and he was able to routinely … bring people together to bridge some of the divide. And I am worried that we are losing one more bridge at a time when we could use it.”

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., poses with U.S. servicemembers at NATO's Resolute Support Headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan, on July 4, 2017.

PHILLIP WALTER WELLMAN/STARS AND STRIPES

By CLAUDIA GRISALES | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 26, 2018