Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is right: The White House is talking too much.
All of these leaks — when the strikes are going to take place, what’s going to be used — if I were Bashar Assad, I think I would declare tomorrow a snow day and keep everybody from work. . . . Now this is the same president that two years ago said that Bashar Assad must leave office, and so where is America’s credibility?” McCain said. “Where is our ability to influence events in the region? And I promise you that those who say we should stay out of Syria do not understand that this is now a regional conflict.
There is a lot there so let’s unpack it. First, there is a difference between signaling that you intend to take action by consulting allies and Congress and leaking to the media that the president isn’t going to try to knock out Assad or do anything more than a few focused volleys. The latter gives Assad assurance, precisely what he should not be given. Moreover, why not put the Syrian army and his supporters in fear of their lives? Some might defect. This is play-acting, not a serious strategic response.
McCain also catches Obama in a contradiction (I know, it’s pretty easy these days). If Assad must go, but we don’t want to do anything effective that might bring around the result (and have engaged the Russians to plead for a negotiated peace), then how do we propose he’ll go, if for example the rebels are only able to achieve a stalemate? Does Assad then get to stay? Does he become the recognized leader of a northern mini-Syria?
McCain’s last point is perhaps the most important. We are not looking at simply who wins in Syria. We are not talking only about atrocities so large as to defy imagination. (This is why a thousand deaths strikes us more deeply than 100,000.) At stake is torrent of refugees who now destabilize surrounding countries. And it is a definitive message to Iran and to our allies in the region as to whether, to put it bluntly, everyone is on their own.
In the last two days two different colleagues traveling in Israel have remarked that Israelis have in essence accepted a post-American Middle East. No doubt the Sunni states feel the same, and Iran is convinced it can behave with complete impunity. If Iran is determined to go nuclear, Israel understands responsibility will fall on the Jewish state to do something. Likewise, the Saudis and other Gulf states will get cracking on their own nuclear weapons programs. Neither the Egyptian military nor the civilian leadership need to pay much attention to us. Our “support” is hardly worth the bother.
Post contributor and Brookings scholar Robert Kagan recently wrote a book, making the case that decline is a choice. Obama unfortunately has chosen. The result is a chamber of horrors in the Middle East that will only get worse.