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Eli Lake

John McCain, America’s Revolutionary Conscience

His life’s work was to align his nation’s foreign policy with its founding ideals.

The senior senator from Arizona in 1996.

The senior senator from Arizona in 1996.

Photographer: Ted Thai/The LIFE Picture Collection

If you want to get a sense of what John McCain meant to American ideals and American foreign policy, consider the case of a Syrian defector known as Caesar. In 2013, he smuggled out almost 55,000 photos that documented the torture and killing of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in his nation’s civil war. When Caesar traveled to Washington in 2014, one of the first people he wanted to meet was the senior senator from Arizona.

The meeting, like McCain’s trip to Aleppo in 2013, had been arranged with the help of Mouaz Moustafa. A Syrian-American activist with experience on Capitol Hill, Moustafa became an important contact for the senator as McCain pressed for the U.S. to get involved in Syria to create an alternative to Assad and the jihadists who opposed him. “The Syrians whom I speak to are grieving for McCain as if they are grieving for a family member,” Moustafa told me.