In a discussion centering on Iran with French thinker and Middle East author Bernard-Henri Lévy moderated by Robert Kagan, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Tuesday reminded us why he is the indispensable man in the U.S. Senate when it comes to national security. He was restrained but adamant that the administration has made and continues to make a gross mistake in failing to act decisively to oust Bashar al-Assad.
He said that while President Obama's pre-election reluctance to act might have been chalked up to electoral politics, it didn’t seem that Obama was rushing to show leadership now that the election is behind him. He observed, “I’ve still not seen any indication that the United States would take the active leadership role that the entire Middle East is crying out for.” He dismissed the notion that the Russia veto at the United Nations was an actual barrier to U.S. action, casting it as an excuse for failing to lead. Levy echoed this, arguing that the United Nations is an organization “so corrupted” (which has sat idly by during genocidal wars) that we should not seek to hide behind it but rather seek other international bodies like the Arab League and NATO to act in Syria.
McCain also noted that the parade of horrible envisioned by critics of U.S. action have already come to pass — without U.S. action. However, he chose to bring the discussion back once again to what he called the “spoiler” in the Middle East: Iran. “But again we must view this situation in Syria within the context of the entire upheaval taking place in the Middle East, and in particular Iran.... We have to look at the effect of the fall of Bashar Assad on Iran.”
The lesson he gathers from Libya is not that America should stay out of upheavals, but that once it acts it should do so with determination and commitment to stay with the people for the long haul. He remarked, “We watched the deterioration in the eastern part of Libya. We saw the threats to our embassy. We saw the al-Qaeda elements coming in. We watched it happen. Because we didn’t do the things that we knew were necessary [after the fall of Gaddafi] to help them set up the first government that they’ve ever had. And we obviously paid the price for it.”
McCain is not unaware of war fatigue. He intoned with regard to Syria, "No boots on the ground, no boots on the ground.” But much can still be done, specifically with a no-fly zone that would provide a haven for rebels. (“Pilots are not going to fly into certain death—I don’t care how brave they are. They may like Bashar Assad, but they like life a little more.”)
On the broader Middle East, McCain slammed Obama’s “pivot” to Asia, saying we should instead call for “balance.” This would reflect the need for us to remain engaged in the Middle East even as we become more attentive to Asia.
McCain was in fine form and good humor. That said, he could not disguise his obvious disdain for a president who has ducked and avoided a conflict that has taken 38,000 lives and is of great consequence to our geo-political needs, shirked America’s moral responsibility and neglected its national security interests.
McCain’s challenge, like others who advocate a forward-leaning foreign policy, is to articulate what our interests are, what we can accomplish with thoughtful and well-crafted action and what the consequences of inaction are. That task is made more difficult by an administration that’s motto seems to be “Too little, too late.”
Finally, we should not ignore the possibility that Obama is not all that fond of messy democratic revolutions. Former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams notes:
It does appear that President Obama sees the Islamists as the wave of the future, the authentic voice of Arabs, and all the more authentic if they are anti-American. It is a flashback to Jimmy Carter’s policies in Latin America, which saw groups like the Sandinistas as the popular voice, and abandoned the moderates who wanted an end to dictatorships but favored moderate, pro-American governments to follow them.
What can we do for Arab democrats? It’s obvious that we cannot fight their battles for them, and that they must get far better organized. But there are two things we certainly can do: stop pretending the Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood, are democrats or moderates, and start speaking out when their governments restrict freedom of press, speech, or assembly, restrict judicial independence and the rule of law, or undermine human rights. A State Department expression of “concern” won’t cut it; the president and secretary of state must speak out strongly for American values. We cannot guarantee victory for Arab democrats, but our interests and our principles both mean we cannot abandon them during their struggle.
Certainly Obama has never been one to favor democratic activists (in Russia, in Iran, in China) over repressive regimes, with whom he is convinced he can do business. I shudder to think that Obama’s failing to act in Syria and elsewhere is not the result of incompetence, inexperience and naiveté, but is rather the natural consequence of his perverse attachment to autocrats whose interests run directly counter to ours. Let’s hope his preference for inaction, deference to the “corrupted” United Nations and disinclination to project U.S. interests and values are not permanent features of his presidency.