There is a strange dynamic developing in the Syria debate. And I don’t merely mean that former presidential opponent Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is carrying President Obama over the finish line on a congressional vote or that bipartisanship has finally come to foreign policy with a mix of Democratic loyalists and GOP hawks backing the president. Rather, it is that the parts of the “yes” coalition have diametrically different views of the president’s plan and the president is doing nothing to clear up the discrepancy.
After a meeting at the White House, McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) came out of the White House sounding like the president was no longer talking about a very limited, “shot across the bow.” Graham said, “I guess the way I would term the conversation is, is, there’s a consensus being formed that we need to degrade Assad’s capabilities and upgrade the opposition, vetted opposition.” He later added, “So I am hopeful that over the coming days, we will learn more about this strategy of degrading and upgrading and that when the vote comes, we can go on the floor of the Senate and say, the administration has a plan, apart from a limited military action, that will allow us to get where we need to go as a nation, which is to deter Iran from a nuclear weapons march and to stabilize the region before it’s too late.”
McCain echoed that “we believe that there is in formulation a strategy to upgrade the capabilities of the Free Syrian Army and to degrade the capabilities of Bashar Assad. Before this meeting, we had not had that indication. Now it’s a question whether that will be put into a concrete strategy that we can sell to our colleagues and that we could agree with.”
If not exactly regime change this sounds like an action sufficient to tip the balance in the opposition’s favor. And in order to do that it is logical to assume that sufficient assets of the regime (e.g. chemical weapons, command and control operations, the air force) would need to be hit. Otherwise the stalemate continues.
This more robust version of a “limited” plan however surely isn’t what some Democrats and some Republicans have in mind. They deny we have an interest in the outcome or that we face equal dangers from an Assad government as from a rebel government. This is absurd, of course, since the emerging strategy is aimed at helping the non-jihadist rebels who are geographical distinct from the jihadis and with whom we finally have an ongoing discussion. McCain explained:
I am totally, completely, 100 percent confident that we know who the Free Syrian Army is. We know what they need. They are the preponderant force still fighting against Bashar al-Assad, while Al- Nusra and some of these other and al-Qaeda groups are spending their time trying to impose Sharia law.
There’s a definite geographic division between them. We know who they are. If they had a safe area, we would know exactly how to get these weapons to them. The Saudis have provided weapons. They have gotten to the right people. And those who say that we don’t know who the opposition are, they’re either not telling the truth and they know the truth or they’re badly mistaken.
That said, what those averse to a substantial military action are hearing is that this will be brief, narrow, limited and just about chemical weapons. Reports suggest the White House together with House and Senate Democrats are devising an amended resolution even narrower in scope that would limit the duration and/or the purpose of the strike. This may be a difference in emphasis, but it sure seems like one side isn’t reading the president’s intentions correctly.
Republican hawks should be partially encouraged if McCain has the president pegged, but discouraged by the obvious gamesmanship by the chairman of the joint chiefs. This exchange was illuminating:
QUESTION: So, bottom line, Senator McCain, is what you heard today from the president sufficient for you and Senator Graham to go out and try to gain support for the president’s plan with other members of the Senate and Congress?
MCCAIN: I think it’s encouraging.
But we have to have concrete plans. We have to have concrete details. And we have to be assured that this is a dramatic difference from the last two years of a policy of neglect, which has led to the deaths of 100,000 people, a million refugees — excuse me — a million children of refugees and a spreading of this conflict to the region.
QUESTION: Are you satisfied that the timeline is of no consequence?
MCCAIN: I am not satisfied the timeline is of no consequence.
And I’m astounded when the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff says it doesn’t matter. Anybody who understands warfare knows that Bashar Assad is moving his assets, military assets into civilian populations and civilians into military areas. It’s much harder now than it would have if we’d have acted initially.
The divergence between McCain’s view and nervous liberals’ understanding is aggravated by the president’s refusal to speak at length to the country and the Congress about what he really has in mind. That may be part of an effort to maintain strategic ambiguity against the enemy, or strategic necessity in assembling a “yes” vote from Congress. If it is the latter, it’s a mistake. A vote obtained by dishonest misdirection is worse than no vote at all.
McCain and Graham are in position to exercise some leverage with the president. They should ask (whether in the resolution or not) for a public declaration of the president’s strategic goals and an understanding that it will be paid for (i.e. the sequester will be lifted to pay for this military action). Otherwise, they will have an uphill battle trying to assemble enough GOP votes, without which I don’t think Democrats (certainly in the House) can deliver a “yes” vote to the White House.