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Published on Friday, February 25, 2000 in the Miami Herald
A Foreign-Policy Quiz For McCain
by Dennis Hans

From 1967 to 1973, John McCain endured miserable conditions, many beatings and a few sessions of excruciating torture while a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. Today, fresh from victories in New Hampshire, Michigan and his home state, Arizona, the senator is a prime contender for the Republican nomination for president. He has come a long way.

A staunch conservative on most issues, ``maverick'' McCain has become a favorite of independents and even some liberals because he champions campaign- finance reform and opposes Big Tobacco. He also has won plaudits for running an open campaign and granting reporters extraordinary access.

McCain's foreign-policy positions in his 17 years in the House and Senate place him as a hard-line anti-communist interventionist. With communism waning, McCain these days is more likely to flex his muscles at so-called rogue states such as Iraq. He objects whenever President Clinton apologizes for past U.S. policies that may have contributed to genocide (Rwanda) or 40 years of murderous military rule (Guatemala). Like one of his heroes, Ronald Reagan, there is no level of brutality McCain won't condone, overlook or explain away once he has decided that a particular government, insurgency or proxy terrorist force merits U.S. support.

This suggests a foreign-policy quiz for McCain -- less tricky than the one that stumped George W. Bush, but more revealing of the senator's values:

Who would have the best chance to escape a prompt execution?

a. John McCain, shot down in 1967 while bombing Hanoi.

b. A Nicaraguan soldier who surrendered peacefully in 1983 to U.S.-backed contras.

c. A Nicaraguan literacy worker apprehended in 1984 by contras following to the letter the infamous CIA assassination manual.

d. U.S. engineer Ben Linder, discovered by contras on April 28, 1987, as he worked on a hydroelectric project in rural Nicaragua.

Who would have the best chance of survival in captivity?

a. John McCain, shot down in 1967 while bombing Hanoi and placed in a POW camp.

b. A South Vietnamese who worked for the National Liberation Front (NLF, aka Vietcong) as an informant, arrested in 1969 under the CIA-sponsored ``neutralization'' program called Phoenix.

c. A South Vietnamese who worked for the NLF as a school teacher, arrested under Phoenix.

d. A South Vietnamese with no ties to the NLF, arrested under Phoenix by thugs fulfilling their Phoenix quota.

Who would be most likely to escape mutilation?

a. John McCain, after foolishly insulting his captors in Hanoi.

b. A UNITA guerrilla officer in Angola who objected in 1995 to Jonas Savimbi's treatment of anyone who disagreed with him.

c. A Honduran dissident picked up for questioning in 1984 by the CIA-backed Battalion 316.

d. A Salvadoran rebel scout, captured in 1983 by the Treasury Police, headed by a $90,000-a-year CIA ``asset,'' Col. Nicolas Carranza.

Who would have the best chance of being alive the next morning?

a. John McCain, enduring the final hour of the worst torture session of his captivity.

b. Six Jesuit priests, sleeping on a November 1989 evening in El Salvador when the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion came calling.

c. Any of the thousands of defeated Iraqi conscripts fleeing Kuwait in February 1991 -- and posing no threat to allied forces -- on the road that came to be known, for some strange reason, as the ``Highway of Death.''

d. A human-rights investigator, labor leader or peasant activist, captured in 1999 by a paramilitary death squad operating in coordination with the U.S.-advised army of ``democratic'' Colombia.

McCain fancies himself a history buff. In truth, he's a sanitized-history buff who sees U.S. foreign policy through the rosiest of glasses. He can thank his lucky stars that he was a U.S. pilot captured by the North Vietnamese commies and not some unfortunate soul picked up by members of any number of armed groups advised, trained and sponsored by the United States -- with the enthusiastic support of McCain. It would be hard to fight the good fight for campaign-finance reform from six feet under.

Dennis Hans is a writer and pundit whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, the National Post (Canada), In These Times and online at Mother Jones, Working Assets and Z Magazine, among other outlets. He lives in St. Petersburg, Florida, where he's an occasional adjunct professor of mass communications and American foreign policy at the University of South Florida. He can be reached at


Copyright 2000 Miami Herald

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