Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) speaks to reporters during a hearing in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 4, 2015.
Photo by Bloomberg/Getty

What McCain considers a ‘shameful’ chapter in US history

Back in February, reflecting on U.S. policy towards Ukraine, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said, “I’m ashamed of my country.” Those are pretty strong words, which if uttered by others, might even cause a controversy.
But BuzzFeed reports today that McCain isn’t done expressing his outrage about this specific aspect of American foreign policy.
“But, let me just say that one of the most shameful chapters in American history is our failure to provide the Ukrainians with weapons to defend themselves while Vladimir Putin dismembers their country,” the Arizona senator said on the John CATS Roundtable Radio Show on Sunday.
McCain further added the failure to arm the Ukrainians was “disgraceful.”
This is pretty aggressive rhetoric, too. The nation has had its share of shameful chapters – slavery and the Trail of Tears, among others – but as far as McCain is concerned, failing to provide heavy weaponry to Ukraine apparently belongs on the same list.
The senator’s word choice seems excessive, though the underlying point is worthy of debate. As we talked about earlier in the year, the policy McCain prefers has some understandable appeal – Putin has picked a dangerous fight; Ukraine has asked for additional support from the West, and while we’re hardly prepared to intervene directly with U.S. forces, we can support Ukraine’s efforts.
Are we prepared to confront Russian aggression directly? Probably not. But doing so indirectly is a separate question. McCain is describing a policy in which we effectively facilitate a Ukrainian campaign.
If you’re thinking this is probably more complicated than McCain makes it sound, this Kevin Drum piece from February is worth revisiting.
Generally speaking, providing arms is a very long-term strategy. We have to get the arms over to Ukraine. We have to train the Ukrainians to use them effectively. The Ukrainian army needs to up its game. This takes at least a year, and probably a good deal more. In the meantime, the risk is that Russia will react to the flow of arms by deciding that it needs to stop pussyfooting around and just send in its own troops before it’s too late.
Unfortunately, Ukraine has been an inept kleptocracy for over a decade, and that makes them a lousy ally. We can provide them with arms pretty easily, but training them to use those arms effectively is a whole different story. We learned that in both Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade, and if we go down this road we might just learn it all over again in Ukraine.
We still don’t know if a full-scale Russian invasion would be the result of Western intervention, and we don’t know how we and the world would respond if Putin did exactly that. We also have no idea whether military aid would improve conditions and/or how long progress might take.
But here’s hoping policymakers debate the merits of a proxy war with Russia carefully before taking McCain’s advice.