I first met Senator McCain in 1988 in Panama. I was a mid-level diplomat at our Embassy there during the dictatorship of Manuel Antonio Noriega. The Senator had led one of his legendary Congressional visits (CODEL) to the country to examine U.S. policy and the security of the Panama Canal.
Our diplomatic presence in Panama was an odd one. The U.S. did not recognize Noriega’s regime, which had seized control of the government from the democratically elected President of Panama, who was in exile in the United States. We maintained an Embassy, but we had no formal diplomatic contact with the Noriega government. We maintained military bases there, and our forces exercised our treaty rights to move about Panama City and the rest of the country. These movements led to regular interference from Noriega’s thuggish military during which our forces often withdrew and consistently avoided the use of force.
You can only imagine what Senator McCain thought of this situation. To him, U.S. military forces in legal execution of their treaty rights do not retreat from an opponent. I agreed with the Senator and had in fact voiced my opposition to our ambivalent policy toward Noriega. After a day of meetings, the Senator addressed what he considered the commanding U.S. general’s soft approach to Noriega’s provocations. “What’s wrong with that guy?”, the Senator asked me. Despite my own frustration with our approach, I defended the general, arguing that his orders from Washington limited the scope of his response. The Senator was clearly not happy and shot me a disapproving look.
I learned a lot from that short exchange with an unhappy John McCain. I am convinced that his subsequent advocacy for a more decisive policy in Panama helped usher in the U.S. invasion of Panama in late 1989 and the arrest, conviction and imprisonment of Noriega on drug charges in U.S. federal prison. Panama then returned to democracy and full sovereignty over and responsible operation of the Panama Canal. The Senator’s typically firm position helped convince me to proceed with my formal dissent with our policy, arguing that Noriega would only depart the scene if we forced him to – three months before we invaded.
Many years later, as a senior U.S. diplomat in the Balkans, I was warned by one of my colleagues that I had a reputation in Washington as a maverick and that this would hurt my career. My initial reaction was one of concern and then I remembered John McCain, the real maverick, and decided to serve a cause greater than my own interest. It did hurt my career, but it was the right thing to do.
Today, as Senior Director at the McCain Institute for International Leadership, I have the honor of recruiting and developing character-driven leaders from all over the world to carry forward the Senator’s name and vision. They are now spread out around the globe creating positive change that will carry forward his legacy of leadership.
I came to the United States as an immigrant and this amazing country gave me the opportunity to become an American Ambassador. Thank you, John McCain for teaching me how to honor our country by serving her. You will always be my model of an American original; full of brash energy and a deep respect and love for country and the dignity and rights of all people everywhere.