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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

John McCain fought for the land of the free

More than ever, US needs a voice like that of Arizona senator to unite rather than divide

John McCain at a rally in Tampa, Florida. Robyn Beck / AFP
John McCain at a rally in Tampa, Florida. Robyn Beck / AFP

With the death of US senator John McCain comes the sense that “the land of the free and the home of the brave” has lost part of its heart and soul.

McCain, who died on Saturday at the age of 81, was of the old guard, a man who fought in uniform and in politics for 60 years for the ideals that forged his country.

For him, America was the “big, boisterous, brawling, intemperate, striving, daring, beautiful, bountiful, brave, magnificent country”, whose vital creed, inscribed at the foot of the Statue of Liberty, was: “Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”.

The tragedy of McCain’s last years before his death from brain cancer was that he spent them witnessing the decline of that vision of America under the country's current divisive politics.

In his recent autobiography The Restless Wave, McCain railed against the “half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems”. America, he wrote, now feared the world it had once led and was abandoning the ideals it had advanced around the globe.

He knew that America sometimes got it wrong and made no excuses for his country’s mistakes – nor his own. The greatest of these, as he latterly acknowledged, was his support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the subsequent rise in sectarian violence.

But this did not prevent him advocating for military intervention when he believed it was the right, if not the popular, thing to do, as his efforts on behalf of the Syrian opposition bore witness.

Though both Republicans, the gulf between McCain and US President Donald Trump could not have been wider. Campaigning to ban Muslims from America, Mr Trump mocked the mother of a Muslim US soldier killed in Iraq. In Baghdad, McCain wept openly over two US soldiers, immigrants killed fighting for the country that had yet to grant them citizenship.

During the race for the Republican nomination, Mr Trump declared that McCain, a US Navy pilot who was shot down and spent five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, was not a war hero. “I like people who weren’t captured,” said the man who had dodged the Vietnam draft.

The tributes that have poured in from both sides of the aisle are a testament to the bipartisanship he espoused.

McCain was the type of politician who acted for the general good rather than in pursuit of divisive self-interest. A friend of the region who visited the UAE many times, he was a defender of the weak and of those in search of the better life America was once proud to offer those not born under its flag.

It is common upon the passing of such a man to say we will never see his like again. For the sake of America and the world at large, we can only hope that is not the case.

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