A Little-Known Story About John McCain and His Fantasies of Benevolent U.S. Foreign Policy

What McCain believed was an example of America's shining goodness and generosity during the Yom Kippur War in 1973 was actually gruesome realpolitik.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 25: Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) looks on during a brief press conference before an Armed Services conference committee meeting on the National Defense Authorization Act on Capitol Hill, October 25, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, looks on during a brief press conference before an Armed Services conference committee meeting on the National Defense Authorization Act on Capitol Hill, October 25, 2017 in Washington, DC. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

As the encomiums and hagiographies about John McCain trend across the internet, it’s a good time to remember a small story about him — one that illustrates his extremely dangerous misunderstandings about the United States and the world.

In 2006, McCain spoke at Columbia University in New York City and delivered a small homily on the importance of friendship across bitter political divides:

I had a friend once, who, a long time ago, in the passions and resentments of a tumultuous era in our history, I might have considered my enemy. He had come once to the capitol of the country that held me prisoner, that deprived me and my dearest friends of our most basic rights, and that murdered some of us. He came to that place to denounce our country’s involvement in the war that had led us there. His speech was broadcast into our cells. I thought it a grievous wrong and I still do.

A few years later, he had moved temporarily to a kibbutz in Israel. He was there during the Yom Kippur War, when he witnessed the support America provided our beleaguered ally. He saw the huge cargo planes bearing the insignia of the United States Air Force rushing emergency supplies into that country. And he had an epiphany. He had believed America had made a tragic mistake and done a terrible injustice by going to Vietnam, and he still did. But he realized he had let his criticism temporarily blind him to his country’s generosity and the goodness that most Americans possess, and he regretted his failing deeply.

The friend to which McCain was referring was David Ifshin. In 1970, Ifshin, then a student at Syracuse University and a prominent anti-Vietnam War activist, traveled to Hanoi. There, he delivered a speech condemning the war which was carried on Hanoi radio and broadcast in the Vietnamese prison in which McCain was being held.

During the 1980s, Ifshin, by then the general counsel for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, apologized to McCain, and, as McCain said, they become friends. Ifshin then served as general counsel for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. McCain defended Ifshin when Ifshin’s Vietnam speech was used to attack Clinton, and spoke at Ifshin’s funeral when he died at age 47 in 1996. All in all, it’s a pleasing tale about the humanity of both men.

The problem is that the core of the story doesn’t make any sense.

McCain and Ifshin’s reconciliation was possible because, in McCain’s words, Ifshin had an epiphany when “he witnessed the support America provided our beleaguered ally” Israel during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Before then, Ifshin had been blinded to “his country’s generosity and the goodness that most Americans possess.” But afterward, Ifshin understood what McCain had always known, creating the basis for their later warm relations.

But if Ifshin and McCain knew anything at all about America’s actions during the Yom Kippur War and our rearmament of Israel — called Operation Nickel Grass — they would not have understood it as a shining example of U.S. goodness and generosity. Rather, America engaged in some fairly gruesome realpolitik — intentionally allowing Israelis to die because that served our preferred ends.

To begin with, U.S. policy during the Yom Kippur War was carried out by President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, then the secretary of state. Neither man is renowned for their goodness and generosity, in foreign policy or anything else. Kissinger himself, in a memoir, writes about how Americans — Americans like Ifshin — foolishly interpret our foreign policy “in legal and idealistic ways.” While in office, Kissinger told aides, “This is not an honorable business conducted by honorable men in an honorable way. Don’t assume I’m that way and you shouldn’t be.”

The specifics of the Yom Kippur War show that Kissinger definitely wasn’t kidding.

The war grew out of a previous Arab-Israeli conflict, the Six-Day War, in 1967. During the Six-Day War Israel attacked first, crushing the Arab militaries and seizing the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza (from Egypt), the Golan Heights (from Syria) and the West Bank (from Jordan).

Beginning in 1971, Egypt offered full peace to Israel several times on the condition that Israel return to its 1967 borders — i.e., what was required under the relevant United Nations resolutions. Israel ignored the offers, tensions rose, and Egypt made clear that the alternative to negotiations was war.

Neither the U.S. nor Israel took this seriously, generally seeing Arabs as incompetent peasants. Kissinger’s main concern at the time was pulling off a difficult balancing act. On the one hand, the U.S. wanted to turn Israel into a client state, but Israel was recalcitrant and difficult to control. On the other, we needed good relations with the Arab world because it had one weapon we did respect: a potential oil embargo, something much more serious in 1973 than it would be today. Therefore, as war appeared more and more likely, Kissinger repeatedly urged Israel not to attempt a repeat of its 1967 success with a pre-emptive strike — with his last warnings coming in telephone calls just hours before the war began on October 6, Yom Kippur.

Egypt and Syria’s goal was not to destroy Israel, but simply to recapture Sinai and the Golan Heights, respectively. They therefore did not attack Israel itself, concentrating on the occupied territories. During the first days of the war, both Egypt and Syria stunned Israel with their military effectiveness. The Israeli government panicked, with some, such as Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, believing Israel was going to be conquered. To make matters worse, Israel was quickly running out of war matériel, and desperately needed to be resupplied by the U.S.

This is where America’s goodness and generosity came in. Kissinger did not want to anger the Arab oil states. Nor did he want Israel to triumph outright, since he hoped for a post-war settlement in which Israel would be amenable to returning some of the territory from the Six-Day War. Nixon was also being lobbied by U.S. petroleum companies not to come in heavily on the side of Israel, since, the companies told Nixon, this might cause the oil states to start working with “Japanese, European, and perhaps Russian interests, largely supplanting United States presence in the area.”

Kissinger thus dragged his feet on sending Israel supplies. His goal, as a top U.S. official described it, was to “let Israel come out ahead, but bleed.” Other officials have been quoted with similar perspectives, saying that America wanted an outcome in which “Israel won, but had its nose bloodied in the process.”

But Israel then forced the issue, arming numerous missiles with nuclear weapons — something it certainly knew the U.S. would detect. Some reporting states that Israel directly informed the U.S. that it was preparing to use them.

The degree to which Kissinger and Nixon worried that Israel would actually do this remains unclear. They also were certainly motivated by a large-scale shipment of arms to Egypt by the Soviet Union. But in any case, the U.S. began an enormous airlift of weapons to Israel on October 12. Kissinger’s plan was for the planes to arrive at night, so the Arab states would be less likely to know what was happening. But weather forced delays that caused some to arrive in broad daylight. This is why Ifshin was able to witness the arrival of “huge cargo planes bearing the insignia of the United States Air Force.”

Israel was then able to regroup and counterattack. By the end of the war, several weeks later, Kissinger’s diplomacy was aimed at making sure Israel didn’t obliterate a large section of the Egyptian army.

What’s the moral of this story? If you’re an admirer of Israel, like McCain, it should be that America’s actions had nothing to do with any purported “generosity and goodness.” Rather, they show that our foreign policy is like that of all other countries: driven by the perceived self-interest of the people who run it, indifferent to the lives of others, and generally quite squalid. And indeed, this is how more sophisticated supporters of Israel look at it.

But McCain couldn’t see this obvious reality staring him in the face. The ugly facts about America were transformed in his imagination into a shining demonstration of our honor and glory.

And this, of course, is what McCain always did where America and its wars were concerned — in Vietnam, in Iraq, in Yemen, and all around the world. That’s why this story is worth remembering, and why his constant, vain folly was so dangerous.

Top photo: Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., looks on during a brief press conference before an Armed Services conference committee meeting on the National Defense Authorization Act on Capitol Hill, Oct. 25, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

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