The Art of the Parachute

Great moments in overseas political grandstanding.

MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images; National Archive/Newsmakers; MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images; PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images; Eric Thayer/Getty Images
MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images; National Archive/Newsmakers; MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images; PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images; Eric Thayer/Getty Images
MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images; National Archive/Newsmakers; MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images; PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images; Eric Thayer/Getty Images

Last week, U.S. Sen. John McCain became the first American politician to visit Benghazi, Libya's rebel capital and the heart of the months-old uprising against Muammar al-Qaddafi. Touring the city, he declared the anti-Qaddafi forces to be "my heroes" and pressed for the United States to do more to support the rebellion. McCain's sentiments may be worthy, but his trip was also the latest in a long tradition of high-profile U.S. political visits that often seem more about keeping the visitor in the news than changing conditions on the ground.

 

LYNDON JOHNSON

Last week, U.S. Sen. John McCain became the first American politician to visit Benghazi, Libya’s rebel capital and the heart of the months-old uprising against Muammar al-Qaddafi. Touring the city, he declared the anti-Qaddafi forces to be “my heroes” and pressed for the United States to do more to support the rebellion. McCain’s sentiments may be worthy, but his trip was also the latest in a long tradition of high-profile U.S. political visits that often seem more about keeping the visitor in the news than changing conditions on the ground.

 

LYNDON JOHNSON

Country: Vietnam

Cause: Ngo Dinh Diem’s anti-communist government

Grandstanding: During his short and largely unhappy tenure as John F. Kennedy’s vice president, Johnson was known for his frequent high-profile trips, to the point that Reporter magazine described him as someone “who chases around continents in search of the duties of his office.”

Johnson relished the opportunity to get out of Washington, but was often irritated by the media coverage of his escapades. On a trip to Iran in 1961, he berated the traveling press corps, saying “What kind of bunch of goddamn pansies have I brought 16,000 miles only to have them sit around in air-conditioned rooms drinking whiskey while I am out meeting the people?”

Sometimes Johnson’s big mouth worked out in his favor: When the gregarious Texan told a Pakistani audience in 1961, “Y’all come to Washington and see us sometime,” an impoverished camel driver took him seriously and set out for America. Johnson arranged to pay for the man’s travel costs and met him at the New York airport, scoring a PR victory for Uncle Sam.

Johnson’s loquaciousness also got him into trouble, as evidenced by a stop in Vietnam earlier on the same 1961 trip. That year, the war that would come to define (and ultimately destroy) Johnson’s presidency was still in its infancy. Johnson treated his Saigon boondoggle like a campaign rally, stopping to shake hands as his motorcade made its way through the city and giving a public speech during which he called U.S.-backed President Ngo Din Diem “the Winston Churchill of Asia.”

After a private meeting with Diem the next evening, Johnson was not so confident, telling an aide “I don’t know about this fellow Diem.” Diem would lose the support of the Kennedy administration in 1963 following intense protests by Buddhist monks in Saigon against his corrupt and increasingly authoritarian government. He was assassinated in a military coup later that year.

Johnson was hardly the last U.S. politician to regret statements made during a visit to Vietnam. In 1965, Michigan governor and presidential hopeful George Romney visited the Southeast Asian country, calling U.S. involvement there “morally right and necessary.” Two years later, after coming to oppose the war, Romney described the spin he had received from U.S. officials on the trip “the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get.” Evidently, impressively blatant flip-flopping runs in the family.

 

CHARLIE WILSON

Country: Afghanistan

Cause: The mujahideen rebellion against the Soviet invasion

Grandstanding: One of the more famously bizarre episodes in the history of Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson’s years-long campaign to raise money and provide weapons for the Afghan insurgency against the Soviet Union — recounted in the book and movie Charlie Wilson’s War — was his 1983 trip to Egypt and Pakistan in the company of a Dallas belly dancer.

When Wilson first saw Carol Shannon — the ex-wife of an ultraconservative Texas state legislator — perform, he drunkenly suggested, “If you’re really serious about this belly dancing, come with me to Cairo and I’ll have you dance for the defense minister of Egypt.”

While Egypt may have been the birthplace of belly dancing, by 1983, prevailing sharia law dictated that dancers’ arms and abdomens be covered and that suggestive moves be outlawed. Nonetheless, Shannon performed a provocative, scantily clad routine for Egyptian Defense Minister Abd al-Halim Abu Ghazala while Wilson and an Israeli arms dealer convinced him to sell weapons to the mujahideen.

Shannon also accompanied Wilson to Pakistan, where she annoyed the U.S. diplomatic corps by — not so convincingly — posing as his secretary while wearing skintight jumpsuits around the conservative Muslim country. The two also traveled to northwest Pakistan’s tribal regions to tour rebel training camps and a field hospital. 

 

PETER KING

Country: Northern Ireland

Cause: The Irish Republican Army

Grandstanding: Peter King certainly wasn’t the only Irish-American politician to support the republican cause during the Troubles, but he was unmatched in his outspoken support for the violent tactics of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The Long Island congressman first took an interest in the IRA’s cause during a fact-finding mission to Belfast in 1980 with Senator-elect Alfonse D’Amato. In the years that followed, King traveled to Belfast roughly twice a year, staying at the homes of senior IRA members such as Michael McKevitt, who was responsible for organizing weapons shipments from Libya (yes, Libya). King was even welcome at the Felons Club, an IRA watering hole usually restricted to those who had served time in prison for the cause. 

Back home, King became active in NORAID, the controversial group that raised money for IRA operations from the Irish-American community. During one NORAID rally in Long Island, he called the IRA “the legitimate voice of occupied Ireland.” In 1985, he declared, “If civilians are killed in an attack on a military installation, it is certainly regrettable, but I will not morally blame the IRA for it.” Statements like these got King banned from speaking on the BBC. A British judge ordered him removed from a courtroom during an IRA murder trial on the grounds that he was “an obvious collaborator” with the terrorist group.

Since the 9/11 attacks, King says he has “cooled on Ireland” because of the “knee-jerk anti-Americanism” that swept the country over the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. His IRA past came back to haunt him in 2011, however, when King organized congressional hearings on radicalization in the Muslim American community and the congressman was forced to defend his own past support for terrorism.

 

HILLARY CLINTON

Country: Bosnia

Cause: The U.S. intervention against Serbian aggression

Grandstanding: Hillary Clinton’s now infamous trip as first lady to the U.S. military base in Tuzla, Bosnia, was a rare example of retroactive grandstanding. Running for president 12 years later, Clinton brought up the trip in order to bolster her foreign-policy bona fides. “There was a saying around the White House that if a place was too small, too poor, or too dangerous, the president couldn’t go, so send the first lady. … I remember landing under sniper fire. There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.”

This account was challenged by, of all people, comedian Sinbad, who accompanied Clinton on the trip along with singer Sheryl Crow and Clinton’s daughter Chelsea, and remembered things a bit differently. “I think the only ‘red-phone’ moment was: ‘Do we eat here or at the next place,'” he told the Washington Post. Indeed, news accounts from the time make no mention of sniper fire, and there was indeed a greeting ceremony featuring an 8-year-old Bosnian girl reading a poem. Clinton said she “misspoke.”

So what actually did happen during the trip? The New York Times reported that Clinton told U.S. troops that they were engaged in “the kind of peacekeeping mission every American should be proud of and support” — foreshadowing her later support for humanitarian intervention as secretary of state. The troops weren’t all quite as enthusiastic, with one specialist telling the Times, “Unless she can get us sent back home, there’s not much she can do for us.”

 

JOHN MCCAIN

Country: Iraq

Cause: The 2007 U.S. troop surge

Grandstanding: McCain’s effusive praise for the Libyan rebels is part of a tradition of the Arizona senator framing complex world events — to put it mildly — in black-and-white terms. For instance, the senator famously told Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili “Today, we are all Georgians” during the Russian invasion of 2008.

Where McCain really gets into trouble are statements that are easy to disprove. During a 2007 visit to Baghdad, McCain confidently trumpeted the progress of the troop surge in interviews with the U.S. media. “General Petraeus goes out there almost every day in an unarmed Humvee,” he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, referring to U.S. Iraq commander David Petraeus. Except at that time, Petraeus, along with nearly every other high-ranking coalition official, traveled in an up-rmored Humvee with armed protection.

McCain also told radio host Bill Bennett, “There are neighborhoods in Baghdad where you and I could walk through those neighborhoods today,” citing his visit to a Baghdad market with Petraeus as evidence. His congressional colleague Mike Pence, who came along on the trip, concurred, saying it was “like a normal outdoor market in Indiana in the summertime.”

But McCain’s market visit was no casual shopping trip. He brought along an escort of 100 U.S. soldiers, and there were attack helicopters circling overhead. Normal business at the market was almost entirely shut down by the visiting VIPs. Not exactly Indiana.

Joshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.

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