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‘A great defender of liberty’: World leaders mourn Sen. John McCain

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World leaders are reacting to the death of U.S. Sen. John McCain. Bloomberg photo by Andrew Harrer
August 26, 2018 03:07 pm Updated: August 26, 2018 03:08 pm

BERLIN - If anyone ever doubted John McCain’s global stature, the outpouring of condolences from across the world proved the very opposite on Sunday.

To world leaders, the 81-year-old Arizona Republican who lost his year-long battle with brain cancer this weekend was a “hero,” an “inspiration to millions,” and a man “of great courage.” To democratically elected politicians across the globe, McCain embodied a U.S. role model they were able to rally behind without hesitations. But McCain wasn’t afraid of confronting illiberal regimes with facts and criticism - be it allies or foes - earning him respect in some places but tense relationships in others.

“Senator John McCain was an American patriot and hero whose sacrifices for his country, and lifetime of public service, were an inspiration to millions,” said Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. In Australia, new Prime Minister Scott Morrison - who assumed office on Friday - honored “a true friend of Australia who was committed to strengthening the alliance between our two nations. He was a man of great courage and conviction.”

Calling McCain a friend, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted that the senator’s support for Israel “sprang from his belief in democracy and freedom.”

In Europe, some condolences also hinted at McCain’s role as a vocal critic of the current administration.

“Senator John McCain stood for an America that was a reliable and close partner that - because of its strength - shouldered responsibility for others and stood by its values and principles even in difficult moments,” wrote Germany’s foreign minister Heiko Maas. “We will remember his voice.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel echoed Maas’ comments, saying, “John McCain was led by the firm conviction that the sense of all political work lies in service to freedom, democracy and the rule of law. His death is a loss to all those who share this conviction.”

While Merkel called McCain “one of the great political personalities of our time,” French President Emmanuel Macron referred to the late senator as “a true American hero.”

British Prime Minister Theresa May said in a tweet that McCain “embodied the idea of service over self. It was an honour to call him a friend of the UK.”

Britain’s former Prime Minister David Cameron bid farewell to a “brave, principled and inspiring leader.”

“The world has lost a great defender of liberty. RIP Senator John McCain. Prayers and love to your family,” wrote Cameron, who led Britain between 2010 and 2016. Frans Timmermans, the first vice president of the European Commission, echoed those remarks, writing on Sunday that McCain was a “hero and exemplary public servant. His legacy of moral courage will make his loved ones proud and should inspire all of us.”

In their condolences, European politicians cited McCain’s support for stronger trans-Atlantic ties, especially as President Donald Trump is raising questions over the future of U.S.-European economic and defense ties. After Trump’s inauguration, McCain had embarked on a trip to over a dozen countries to reassure allies. The Arizona Republican’s vocal criticism of the Trump administration’s more isolationist foreign policy approach echoed many of the concerns raised in capitals around the world.

But McCain’s legacy goes far beyond his outspokenness on the Trump administration.

His commitment to the Middle East and South Asia was lauded by officials in those regions, including by Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, who praised McCain as “a man of integrity and a champion of civility.” He said that in his role as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, McCain had “always stood for strong Pakistan-U.S. relations and a cooperative approach for promoting peace and building stability in the region. He will be greatly missed in Pakistan.”

On social media, numerous Pakistani commentators and political figures also expressed appreciation for McCain’s long-standing ties with their country. The two sides forged an alliance during the Cold War and later in the war on terror, but relations have since chilled amid accusations that Pakistan harbors extremist groups fighting against Afghanistan.

“In Sen. John McCain’s death, America has lost a bold voice against bigotry and Pakistan is deprived of a good friend,” tweeted Pakistani Sen. Mushahid Hussain.

Afghanistan’s chief executive officer, Abdullah Abdullah, tweeted that McCain was “a great friend & supporter of the Afghan nation & people throughout the years. In respect and appreciation, we pay tribute to his legacy.”

In Iraq, where McCain championed an American invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein but is widely considered the major catalyst for the expansion of al-Qaida and the birth of the Islamic State, reaction to the senator’s death was muted.

In northern Iraq, on the other hand, officials with the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government mourned McCain, remembering him as a longtime advocate for their interests. The 2003 invasion formalized Iraqi Kurds’ control over their own territory. McCain also recently broke with the State Department and the White House and most U.S. allies when he supported a Kurdish vote for full independence from Iraq last year.

“Deeply saddened to know of the death of Senator John McCain whose support for, and friendship with, the people of Kurdistan shall remain in our memory,” Masoud Barzani, who until recently had been the longtime president of the Kurdish region and remains influential in Kurdish politics, wrote on Twitter. “May he rest in eternal peace.”

There was also an outpouring of tributes and condolences from Ukraine. McCain was one of Ukraine’s strongest American supporters in its ongoing conflict with Russia. McCain’s tough criticism of Russia over the 2014 annexation of Crimea made the senator a key Western ally for Kiev.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called McCain’s death “sad news for all Ukrainian people.” On Twitter on Sunday, Poroshenko said, “We will never forget his invaluable contribution to the development of democracy and freedom in Ukraine and the support of our state ... The memory of John McCain will remain in our hearts forever.” He posted photos of McCain’s 2016 visit to troops in war-torn eastern Ukraine. The senator spent New Year’s Eve with the soldiers, telling them, “Your struggle is our struggle.”

Ukrainian Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak recalled the same visit to the frontline, tweeting it and offering condolences “for all American and Ukrainian people who knew Senator McCain.” Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman called McCain “an example of a principled politician.”

Russia’s response was more mixed. Senior Russian lawmaker Lenoid Slutsky, who was sanctioned by the U.S. over Crimea, was cited by the Interfax news agency as saying, “He was neither a friend nor ally of Russia, on the contrary, he was our ardent opponent. McCain was an outstanding American hawk.” Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the Russian Federation Council Foreign Affairs Committee and a subject of U.S. sanctions over election meddling, said McCain had failed in his efforts to “find his place under the political sun using the tried-and-tested old methods of defending America’s comely exceptionalism in front of the rest of the world.”

Prominent Russian Sen. Alexei Pushkov put out a statement similarly laced with schadenfreude. “McCain’s plans to rebuild the world under total U.S. hegemony are not going to come true,” he tweeted on Sunday. McCain’s 2011 prediction that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, whom Russia backs militarily, would not survive long has proven untrue, Pushkov noted, adding that “Assad’s overthrow and death did not wait for McCain.”

As with Russia, McCain wasn’t afraid to confront China during his trips to Asia. Last year, the senator accused Beijing of acting like a “bully” in the region, referencing the country’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.

“He never backed down from his beliefs & forever strived for a more peaceful & prosperous world,” Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen said Sunday, according to Taiwan’s official news agency, in a statement in which she hailed McCain’s commitment to pushing back against Chinese influence in the region.

U.S. partners across the region echoed those thoughts in their responses on Sunday.

“We deeply mourn the death of Sen. John McCain, a true friend of the Philippines and one of our champions in the United States Congress,” said Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano.

What Cayetano didn’t mention in his statement was that McCain was also a fierce critic of the Philippines’ government over its human rights record. Even as a politician unafraid of confronting official allies with unwelcome criticism, McCain appears to have earned their respect - in the United States and beyond.

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Ferris-Rotman reported from Moscow. Tamer El-Ghobashy in Baghdad and Pamela Constable in Kabul contributed to this report.