The crucial questions the senator refuses to ask in his haste to arm jihadists.
Following the president’s announcement that we will provide small arms and ammunition to the rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Senator John McCain has intensified his drumbeat for war and demanded even more extensive U.S. involvement, particularly a no-fly zone. But McCain has not indicated any awareness of the risks and complications of such an escalation.
McCain’s argument is the typical one made by “responsibility to protect” internationalists like Samantha Power, Obama’s new U.N. ambassador, whom McCain supported despite her record of anti-Israel animus and doubts about America’s worthiness. But we can’t stand by and watch Assad slaughter his people, the interventionists claim. Except we have stood by on numerous occasions, in Congo, Sudan, and Rwanda, to name just a few venues of slaughter. We are standing by right now as Christians in the Middle East are being murdered, assaulted, harassed, and cleansed from lands that have been Christian for two millennia. We are standing by as al-Qaeda in Iraq slaughters its political and sectarian rivals, and we will for sure be standing by in Afghanistan when the Taliban slaughter even more enemies after we depart in 2014.
The lofty notion of “responsibility to protect” is a fraud, for the fact is we can’t protect every victim of global violence and oppression. This means that our national interests and security can be the only reasons for an armed intervention.
Of course, McCain et al. argue that our interests are at risk, and that providing weapons or even a no-fly zone offers little danger to our soldiers. An Assad victory, so the argument goes, will also be a victory for Iran and its proxies like Hezbollah. But Iran’s real achievement will be the possession of nuclear weapons, which will change the geostrategic calculus in the Middle East much more than Assad’s holding on to power. If we’re concerned about Iran, then, we should be focusing on the regime’s nuclear weapons program, which day by day relentlessly progresses to fulfillment. It’s not Iran’s proxies we should worry about, but Iran.
Nor should the apparent ease with which the U.S.––excuse me, NATO––toppled the Gaddafi regime fool us into thinking we can do the same in Syria. The odds of civilian casualties, for example, will be much greater in Syria if we attack Assad’s air defense system. Once the videos of dead children amidst the rubble hit the international media, how long will all those “allies” still be in our corner? And what about Assad’s stockpiles of chemical weapons? What if he responds by unleashing them against his enemies? And will Russia simply stand by while we bomb its ally’s assets that it provided to them? Perhaps Putin will decide to send the promised S-300 missiles after all. There are all sorts of risks and contingencies, and unless we have a plan to deal with them that puts all our assets on the table, including ground troops, we could make the situation even worse.
Equally bad, McCain doesn’t really know to whom he is eager to give sophisticated weapons. Clearly the most effective and dedicated fighters are to some degree Islamist in ideology, ranging from Muslim Brotherhood affiliates to al-Qaeda franchises like the al Nusra front, which has already pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda headman Ayman al-Zawahri. Jihadists from Europe and across the Middle East are streaming to Syria, where they are getting valuable battlefield experience. The so-called “moderate” Syrian Free Army, the force comprising mostly army defectors, has made it clear they will cooperate with the al-Nusra fighters and anybody else committed to destroying Assad’s regime. Do we really think that if they win, they will then turn their guns on their allies?
And what makes McCain think that weapons delivered to “vetted” groups––assuming that there is any way to definitively establish that they are “moderate”–– will be kept out of the hands of jihadist gangs that are sworn enemies of the U.S. and Israel? We’ve already suffered blowback in Benghazi from Gaddafi’s looted arsenals in the four coffins of dead Americans. The Syrian rebels have asked for anti-aircraft weapons, as these are necessary for countering Assad’s air superiority. So we’re going to provide weapons that can bring down commercial airliners to committed jihadists? In 1979 we hadn’t yet been sufficiently awakened to the terrorist threat from jihadists, so providing the mujahidin with the means to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan made sense. But we know now the nature of the enemy, and so should be a little more prudent.
No one pressing for intervention in Syria has confronted the fact that even if defeating Iran and its proxies is critical to our national interests, arming a congeries of different jihadist groups and imposing no-fly zones are not going to accomplish that aim. It will take a much larger, more intrusive force, including troops on the ground, to defeat Assad, secure his chemical weapons arsenals, and marginalize the jihadists. After our experience in Iraq and the failure of political nerve that has kept us from achieving similar aims, good luck reprising that experiment in Syria.
But even if Assad is driven out just by airpower and arming rebels, what sort of government does McCain think will arise out of these various Islamist factions? As Barry Rubin points out, our choice in Syria “will be one of Sunni anti-Christians, anti-Americans, and anti-Semites rather than Shia anti-Christians, anti-Americans, and anti-Semites.” Whatever it is, it’s not going to be a liberal democracy friendly to us and our interests, if what’s going on in Egypt is any indication. The most likely outcome will be Libya on steroids, with large swaths of the country available for sheltering jihadist camps right next door to Israel and Jordan.
And so live on the delusions of Middle East “democracy” promotion, a consequence of wishful thinking rather than analysis of reality. And so continues the baleful influence of John McCain on our foreign policy. His demonizing of waterboarding helped to eliminate one of the most effective tools for extracting intelligence, with the result that now we have no effective means for gleaning intelligence from captured terrorists. And his naïve faith in the magic powers of “democracy” to change a culture steeped in 14 centuries of religious intolerance, supremacism, and violence promises to repeat in Syria the empowerment of jihadist regimes we’re witnessing in Egypt. We’ll be living with the consequences of those delusions for a long time.
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