No one exemplifies the extremes of favoring and denouncing Qaddafi like U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). Just 10 days after the first major national demonstrations — and violent reprisals from Qaddafi’s forces — McCain called on the Obama administration to arm the Libyan rebels. Today, with the news of Qaddafi’s demise, McCain issued a mild statement celebrating the dictator’s final fall saying, “The death of Muammar Qaddafi marks an end to the first phase of the Libyan revolution.”
But McCain was not always so clearly opposed to Qaddafi. In the mid-2000s, when the Iraq war began to fall apart and the Bush administration and its hawkish allies were looking for any silver lining, Qaddafi came in from the cold. Libya voluntarily gave up its weapons of mass destruction programs and Western companies poured money into the North African country’s abundant oil fields. By the late-2000s, the détente was in full swing, with visits to Libya by high-level U.S. politicians, including McCain. On his August 2009 visit there, McCain issued a now-infamous tweet:
And a YouTube video of AP footage broadcast on Libyan state-run television showed McCain and other senators on the trip greeting Qaddafi:
A diplomatic cable about the visit released by the transparency group WikiLeaks this year explained that in meetings with Qaddafi and his son Muatassim, Libya’s national security chief, McCain said he would help the Libyan government get non-lethal military equipment from the U.S. — something Congress had been resistant to. The cable reads:
5.(C) Senator McCain assured Muatassim that the United States wanted to provide Libya with the equipment it needs for its [a Libyan security program]. He stated that he understood Libya’s requests regarding the rehabilitation of its eight C130s [a transport plane] and pledged to see what he could do to move things forward in Congress. He encouraged Muatassim to keep in mind the long-term perspective of bilateral security engagement and to remember that small obstacles will emerge from time to time that can be overcome.
After ThinkProgress covered the cable, McCain told Foreign Policy that he had been “non-committal” on helping Qaddafi and that he “never did a single thing to follow up.” But the cable never even mentions the Libyan people or the well-known human rights abuses of Qaddafi’s brutal regime.
Nonetheless, the lengths McCain went to in order to portray himself to Qaddafi as an ally speaks for itself. Juxtaposed with his constant urging for U.S. escalation against Qaddafi since February, the 2009 visit demonstrates just how politics — and not principled opposition to tyranny — were able to guide McCain’s stances on Qaddafi and Libya.