On Friday, Senator John McCain became the highest ranking American political figure to meet with the Libyan rebels. But while his declaration that "they are my heroes" doubtless was well received in by the anti-Qaddafi fighters in Benghazi, McCain's track record should give Americans good reason for concern. After all, this is the same John McCain who called Ahmed Chalabi a "patriot," offered cash and support to the Nicaraguan Contras, defended Oliver North and casually declared, "we're all Georgians now."
Two years after McCain traveled to Tripoli to meet with Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi (above), the failed Republican presidential nominee returned to the country to back the insurgents now opposing him. As the AP reported:
McCain, one of the strongest proponents in Congress of the U.S. military intervention in Libya, said he was in Benghazi "to get an on-the-ground assessment of the situation" and planned to meet with the rebel National Transition Council, the de facto government in the eastern half of the country, and members of the rebel military.
"They are my heroes," McCain said of the rebels as he walked out of a Benghazi hotel. A few Libyans waved American flags as his vehicle drove past.
Of course, McCain over the years has had many heroes. Among them were the Nicaraguan Contras.
By all indications, then Congressman and later Senator McCain shared Ronald Reagan's assessment that the rebel forces trying to overthrow the Sandinista regime in Managua were "the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers." But months before the Reagan administration ramped up the Iran-Contra operation to skirt the 1984 Congressional ban on aid, McCain was lending his name to dubious efforts to arm the right-wing fighters. As the AP explained in October 2008:
The U.S. Council for World Freedom was part of an international organization linked to former Nazi collaborators and ultra-right-wing death squads in Central America. The group was dedicated to stamping out communism around the globe.
The council's founder, retired Army Maj. Gen. John Singlaub, said McCain became associated with the organization in the early 1980s as McCain was launching his political career in Arizona. Singlaub said McCain was a supporter but not an active member in the group.
In a 1986 interview, McCain said he has resigned from the group and asked that his name be removed from their letterhead. "I didn't know whether (the group's activity) was legal or illegal," he said, "But I didn't think I wanted to be associated with them."
Perhaps, but McCain remained committed to supporting the Contras themselves. As the Washington Post reported on February 9, 1988 (via DailyKos):
Nicaraguan rebel leaders, scrambling for a survival strategy in the wake of congressional refusal last week to appropriate new aid funds, pleaded today for independent financial contributions from U.S. supporters to two private foundations based in Washington.
The contra leaders said Republican presidential candidate Robert Dole recently contributed $500 to rebel coffers, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) donated $400.
As it turns out, the biggest beneficiary of McCain's Iran-Contra largesse may have been its central figure, Oliver North.
Back in 1986 and 1987, as the New York Times noted, John McCain "defended Ronald Reagan during the Iran-contra inquiry." As a 2006 profile later detailed, that defense by the self-proclaimed foot soldier in the Reagan revolution extended to one of the scandal's key perpetrators, then Lt. Colonel Oliver North:
He empathized with his fellow Vietnam veteran Oliver North, a central figure in the scandal. "Some of these people like Ollie North," he explained to Michael Killian for the Chicago Tribune (July 29, 1987), "who saw their comrades and friends spill blood and die on the battlefields in a war that they believe the politicians wouldn't let them win--I think that leads to a mind-set which could rationalize deviating from the established rules and regulations."
Those "established rules and regulations" were also known as laws of the United States of America.
Regardless, John McCain's days of aiding his favorite insurgencies were far from over. And in the run-up to the war against Saddam Hussein, the cause was Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress.
As early as 1997, Senator McCain was pressuring the Clinton White House to set up the Chalabi's INC as a government-in-exile. And from the moment George W. Bush sauntered into the Oval Office, McCain was pushing Chalabi's cause. As ThinkProgress documented:
McCain welcomed Ahmed Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), to Washington and pressured the administration to give him money. When General Anthony Zinni cast doubt upon the effectiveness of the Iraqi opposition, McCain rebuked him at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
In 2003, McCain joined four other Republican senators and asked Bush to "personally clear the bureaucratic roadblocks within the State Department" that blocked increased funding for the Chalabi's group.
Also that year, McCain said of Chalabi, "He's a patriot who has the best interests of his country at heart."
As it turned it, that country may have been Iran. Arrested in Iraq just months after attending President Bush's 2004 State of the Union address, Chalabi was, U.S. commander Ray Odierno acknowledged in 2010, "influenced by Iran."
That embarrassment didn't prevent would-be President McCain committing another one in July 2008. Anxious to play up his supposed national security credentials, McCain jumped at the chance when Russia and Georgia came to blows.
By the time hostilities commenced in South Ossetia in August 2008, McCain's animus towards Russia, which he repeatedly pledged to eject from the G-8, was already the stuff of legend. But seeing an opportunity to capitalize on his perceived advantage over Barack Obama on national security issues, McCain moved quickly and aggressively to commit the United States to Georgia's defense.
On his campaign bus in Pennsylvania, McCain told reporters, "I think it's very clear that Russian ambitions are to restore the old Russian empire." Three days later on August 14, 2008, McCain penned the now-famous Wall Street Journal op-ed "We Are All Georgians" which opportunistically appropriated global sentiment towards the United States after the horror of 9/11:
"As I told President Saakashvili on the day the cease-fire was declared, today we are all Georgians. We mustn't forget it."
Of course, the press corps, bought it hook, line and sinker, a fawning over McCain's supposed international leadership that continues to this day. After announcing that "Georgia dominates the Sunday shows," Politico on August 17, 2008 declared, "McCain reopens the national security gap."
There was, of course, a problem with John McCain's dangerously reckless bellicosity on behalf of Georgia, "this small democracy, far away from our shores, [which] is an inspiration to all those who cherish our deepest ideals."
He was wrong.
In the fall of 2009, a report commissioned by the Council of the European Union found that Georgia "started unjustified war." While the EU analysis placed blame on both Tbilisi and Moscow for what transpired, it rejected the Georgian government's explanation that the attack was defensive. As the BBC reported:
"The shelling of Tskhinvali (the South Ossetian capital) by the Georgian armed forces during the night of 7 to 8 August 2008 marked the beginning of the large-scale armed conflict in Georgia," the report says.
It adds later: "There is the question of whether [this] use of force... was justifiable under international law. It was not."
While Georgia protested those conclusions, Commissioner Jorg Himmelreich described in the New York Times "the decisive role that the United States played before, during and after the conflict." By late 2010, revelations from U.S. diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks showed that "Washington relied heavily on the Saakashvili government's accounts of its own behavior."
Mercifully, few in the U.S. listened to McCain or his grandstanding. But in January 2010 ceremony in Tbilisi, John McCain was honored as a national hero by the country he put first - Georgia.
But that was then and this is now. And now, John McCain doubtless believes, today we're all Libyans.
(This piece also appears at Perrspectives.)