A decade ago, on one of his seemingly countless visits to Iraq, John McCain, who was generally immune to the charms of introspection—“Stop trying to get me on the couch, you shit,” he once said, smiling, when I tried to encourage him toward self-analysis—talked about the dominion of human cowardice, and the story of Anne Frank, in a way that I found startling.
We had been discussing the American war in Iraq, which he supported steadfastly, even after everything went sideways. The cause, he said, was just. The execution, at least until the troop surge of 2007, was a disgrace, but this didn’t move him off his principles. “I hated Saddam,” he said. “He ruled through murder. Didn’t we learn from Hitler that we can’t let that happen?” His hatred of Saddam Hussein, like his hatred for all dictators, burned hot; his contempt for Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush’s first defense secretary, was ice-cold. It was Rumsfeld’s arrogance and incompetence, McCain believed, that helped discredit the American invasion. “He was the worst,” McCain said.
I offered a qualified dissent in response. I supported the invasion for more or less the same reason McCain did—I wanted to see the Kurdish people, the preeminent victims of Saddam’s genocidal fury, suffer no more. But unlike McCain, I had come to believe that the theory of the American case was no match for heartbreaking Middle East reality. I wasn’t sure that even the most perspicacious secretary of defense could successfully lead an effort to renovate a despotic Middle Eastern country. I suggested to McCain that this sort of grandiose undertaking was not necessarily a core competency of the United States. “But genocide!” he said. “Genocide!” His argument was not only concise, but morally superior. Not analytically superior, but morally, no doubt.