Sen. John McCain slammed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in a New York Times op-ed published Monday morning, accusing the nation’s chief diplomat of adopting a foreign policy that abandons both U.S. values and victims of oppression around the world.
McCain’s op-ed came in response to remarks Tillerson delivered last week to State Department employees, in which he said that “in some circumstances if you condition our national security efforts on someone adopting our values, we probably can’t achieve our national security goals.” Tillerson’s boss, President Donald Trump, has made a habit of offering warm words for dictators and political strongmen from around the world, including Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
“With those words, Secretary Tillerson sent a message to oppressed people everywhere: Don’t look to the United States for hope. Our values make us sympathetic to your plight, and, when it’s convenient, we might officially express that sympathy,” McCain (R-Ariz.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, wrote. “But we make policy to serve our interests, which are not related to our values. So, if you happen to be in the way of our forging relationships with your oppressors that could serve our security and economic interests, good luck to you. You’re on your own.”
The Arizona senator recalled his own experience as a prisoner during the Vietnam War, when he said his captors would often taunt prisoners by telling them that the U.S. government had forgotten about them. McCain said he and his fellow prisoners took heart to hear from new arrivals that the government had not, in fact, abandoned them. Without the knowledge that the U.S. was supporting them, McCain said, some prisoners might have “ransomed our honor for relief from abuse.”
Similarly, McCain wrote, Soviet political prisoner Natan Sharansky took strength from former U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s statements in support of Sharansky and other Refuseniks, a group named for the Soviet government’s refusal to allow them to emigrate.
Viewing Tillerson’s statement, as McCain suggested some will, “as a straightforward if graceless elucidation of a foreign policy based on realism,” would be a mistake, he said. In truth, according to McCain, human rights must remain a priority because “we are a country with a conscience” and because to ignore the oppression of others around the world only serves to “invite their enduring resentment.”
“It is foolish to view realism and idealism as incompatible or to consider our power and wealth as encumbered by the demands of justice, morality and conscience,” McCain said. Depriving the oppressed of a beacon of hope could lose us the world we have built and thrived in. It could cost our reputation in history as the nation distinct from all others in our achievements, our identity and our enduring influence on mankind. Our values are central to all three.”