Déjà Vu

John McCain’s Middle East War Drumbeat: Iraq, Libya, and Now Syria

Despite the real and growing threat posed by China, all eyes seem stuck on Syria instead, writes Lloyd Green.

Allison Shelley/Getty

This week, the distance between Barack Obama and the Republican he bested to first become president got a whole lot smaller. John McCain appears to be setting Obama’s foreign-policy agenda, and that is plenty of reason to worry.

McCain seldom does nuance, and Middle East regime change is his default mode even as less riveting, but vastly more threatening, concerns garner far less of his attention. On the heels of McCain meeting in Syria with rebel forces, The Daily Beast reported that Obama has asked for the first time to see the Pentagon’s plan for the imposition of a no-fly zone over Syria. Obama, whose initial presidential quest rested on his opposition to the Iraq War, is acting ever more comfortable with the idea of heightened American involvement. Indeed, one wonders if Obama will even bother to go to Congress to seek authorization for action.

Admittedly, Congress is not always wiser than the president. All too often, the march of folly has been bicameral, as well as bipartisan. So let’s step back and consider the threats America faces. That is, real threats to the nation and its physical integrity, as opposed to perceived slights to our values.

Yes, that means China.

On Memorial Day, The Washington Post reported that Chinese hackers breached the designs of “more than two dozen major weapons systems.” Those compromised programs include those “critical to U.S. missile defenses and combat aircraft and ships.” Referring to the Chinese cybervictory, one defense expert observed, “they’ve just saved themselves 25 years of research and development. It’s nuts.”

Yet there’s been nary a peep from Obama or his Arizona policy planner about this existential danger, as focus has instead remained on Syria. Congressional Democrats and Republicans alike have been stepping to McCain’s beat, despite widespread public opposition to deepened American involvement, according to a Gallup poll released Friday.

Back in April, McCain called on the United States to arm the Syrian rebels, attack Assad’s forces from the air, and create a refugee haven. Obama’s response was muted, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid signaled that the Senate would abdicate its war power, and roll over if Obama wanted a no-fly zone. Then, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, with McCain aboard, voted 15-3 to arm and train the rebels and impose sanctions.

McCain’s views on the region are long held and wrongheaded, as Obama should have by now deduced. During his failed 2000 presidential bid, McCain proclaimed his support for “rogue-state rollback,” which would have required America to “arm, train, equip, both from without and from within, forces that would eventually overthrow the governments and install free and democratically elected governments.” McCain also suggested that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and called for Saddam Hussein’s ouster. Like Bush 43, McCain never grasped what actually happened after the regime changed.

Bluntly, the American military—heavy with weaponry, light on foreign-language skills, and culturally ill at ease—was the wrong instrument for pacification and nation building. Over 4,400 American troops were killed, and nearly 32,000 wounded, at a price tag exceeding $4 trillion. For that blood and treasure, an elected Shia thugocracy replaced a Sunni dictatorship. Freedom? Not so much.

Our new Shia Muslim “friends” in post-Saddam Iraq are strongly supportive of Assad and the current Syrian regime. If we help the Sunni rebels, we are attacking Shia power, and few in Baghdad will like that.

Interestingly, after visiting Gaddafi in 2009, he described the meeting as an “interesting evening with an interesting man.” But once the Libyan civil war broke out, McCain shifted gears; he called for Libyan regime change, even invoking the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, seemingly put to rest by George W. Bush and Tony Blair, as justification for his shift.

Ever the starry-eyed romantic or frustrated warrior, McCain offered this paean to Libya: “The Libyan revolution inspired us all last year. Libya’s election has inspired us again today. And I am confident that Libya’s journey to democracy will continue to inspire the entire world.”

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In the end, Libya didn’t quite turn out much like how either Obama or McCain had hoped. On September 11, 2012, Islamic militants killed four American diplomats in a coordinated attack, and now France complains that Islamists roam freely in southern Libya.

As if to prove that he talks more than he reads, McCain describes Libya as the template for U.S. involvement in Syria; he even called for setting up a Benghazi-like outpost in Syria. McCain also believes in America’s ability to thread the eye of the needle, claiming that “we can help the right people” in jihadist-rife Syria.

Yet, to those driven by moral clarity, it’s all about their ever-shifting definition of morality. According to McCain, “If Assad manages to cling to power—or even if he manages to sustain his slaughter for months to come, with all of the human and geopolitical costs that entails—it would be a strategic and moral defeat for the United States.”

Meanwhile, there are the Chinese, cyberwarfare and real danger, which Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel acknowledged could well result in “quiet, stealthy, insidious, dangerous outcomes” and power grids, financial systems, and military defenses all standing in ruins.

For more than a decade, 80 percent of American political and strategic thinking has been devoted to the Greater Middle East. So now, here we are, hit by the prospect of a war that we could truly lose, standing flat-footed.