As Donald Trump considers his cabinet options and moves to restore relations with Russia, one powerful obstacle he will face is Senator John McCain, the Chair of the Senate’s Armed Services Committee, and one of the most hawkish figures in the US political establishment.
McCain’s extreme hostility towards Russia and its President Vladimir Putin, is well known and has continuously found expression, for example in his outspoken support for the Maidan movement in Ukraine. The origins of this hostility, which appear to be visceral, are not so clear.
McCain comes from a military family. Both his father and grandfather were four-star admirals. Famously, he served as a naval pilot during the Vietnam war when he was shot down over North Vietnam. He was captured by the North Vietnamese and by most accounts (including his own), he was severely mistreated and tortured. He continues to suffer from his war wounds to this day.
Whilst in North Vietnamese captivity – and apparently under the effect of torture – McCain made an anti-American propaganda confession. This was undoubtedly a profoundly traumatic step for an intensely patriotic serviceman such as McCain.
It is often suggested that it was McCain’s experiences in Vietnamese captivity that are behind his hostility to Russia and to President Putin. The fact the US was eventually defeated in the war may have deepened these feelings.
Why McCain should hate the Russians over torture done to him by the Vietnamese is not obvious. The USSR was, however, a key backer of the Vietnamese. Presumably, McCain feels that this somehow made them responsible for the fact that he had been tortured.
It is worth adding that McCain is not just hostile to Russia. On any foreign policy question he can be relied upon to take a hard line. He strongly supported the wars against Yugoslavia, Iraq and Libya, and has been an outspoken supporter of US military action against the Assad government in Syria.
On almost any foreign policy issue McCain can be relied upon to take the hardest possible line. Whether or not this is all because of some quest for revenge for the America’s defeat in Vietnam is ultimately irrelevant. The point is that anyone in the US who wishes to follow a more accommodating foreign policy knows that McCain will oppose it. Likewise, any foreign leader who deals with the US knows that in McCain they are up against someone who will always speak up for the US to take the hardest of lines.
Given that McCain has been a US Senator since 1986, and was previously for a short time a member of the US House of Representatives, he enjoys great seniority and authority in the Congress and in the Republican Party. In 2008 he was the Republican Party’s candidate for President, though he was defeated in the election by Barack Obama.
This puts McCain in a strong position to act as a powerful critic and opponent of any more accommodating policy towards Russia planned by Donald Trump.
The two men already don’t like each other. McCain made no secret during the recent Presidential election that he did not support Trump as the Republican Party’s candidate for President, and apparently did not vote for Trump in the election. Trump for his part had this to say about McCain
He insulted me and he insulted everyone in that room…..He is a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured….perhaps he was a war hero, but right now he said a lot of very bad things about a lot of people.
It is impossible to see how these two men can work well together, and having just won his re-election to the Senate, Trump must face the fact that McCain is not going away.
Trump must therefore reckon on McCain as a continuous critic of any steps he takes to try to moderate US foreign policy or to reach out to Russia, and as a strong potential opponent of any more dovish figure he nominates for Defence Secretary, which could be a major problem in the Senate Confirmation hearings.