Books of The Times: In ‘The Restless Wave,’ John McCain Says America Is Still Exceptional


“My captors had, on the whole, treated prisoners more humanely than the American soldiers at Abu Ghraib treated prisoners,” he writes. (He recently called on the Senate to reject the nomination of Gina Haspel as director of the C.I.A.; Haspel oversaw a secret prison in Thailand where detainees were tortured.)

“The Restless Wave” contains a few other eruptions of unmitigated candor. McCain concedes that the Iraq War, which had his unequivocal support from the very beginning, “can’t be judged as anything other than a mistake.”

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McCain with his daughter Meghan McCain, in Arizona earlier this year.CreditMeghan McCain, via Associated Press

But his faith in his country’s beneficence remains undimmed. Exceptionalism, for him, apparently has less to do with the harsh reality of what happens when the United States wields its power abroad than the presumed goodness of its intentions. The country’s behavior, he says, should match its ideals; and when it doesn’t, the exceptionalism still holds — it’s simply a matter of getting the behavior to fall into line.

On the subject of Sarah Palin, the gun-toting populist he picked as his presidential running mate in 2008, he expresses little regret, saying he “liked her right away.” He praises her as “uncannily self-possessed,” a quick study who performed “slightly better” than Joe Biden in their vice presidential debate. (Perhaps realizing how that might be too generous, he adds: “At worst, the contest was a draw.”) The line from Palin to Trump is one he doesn’t touch, let alone contemplate.

If there’s a villain in this book it’s “our implacable foe” Vladimir Putin, an “audacious despot” who gets a steady flagellation over the course of two chapters. McCain admits to receiving the dossier compiled by the former British spy Christopher Steele, outlining Trump’s possible ties to Russia, and passing it on to James Comey, then the director of the F.B.I. Anyone who doesn’t like what McCain did “can go to hell,” though he underscores that he’s agnostic about the dossier’s contents.

Just like McCain is agnostic about Trump in general. In his cautious assessment, “it is hard to know what to expect from President Trump.” Seeing McCain strain to be optimistic is almost uncomfortable to read, as he strenuously points to “glimmers of hope” that Trump might yet take on the “moral obligation” of being the “leader of the free world.”

What McCain means by this obligation is more American involvement on the world stage, more American intervention. He’s an unabashed proponent of regime change, and a good portion of “The Restless Wave” is given over to recounting how besieged peoples from other lands have been grateful for American support.

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