In a recent opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal, Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham argue that President Obama should invade Syria and overthrow Bashar Assad in order to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). For Senators McCain and Graham, it seems that no matter the question, the answer is always war.
They open the piece by stating:
“The airstrikes and other actions President Obama is taking against Islamic State deserve bipartisan support. They are beginning to degrade the terrorist group, also known as ISIS, but will not destroy it, for one reason above all: The administration still has no effective policy to remove Bashar Assad from power and end the conflict in Syria. Administration officials have called their approach ‘ISIS first.’ As for Mr. Assad, in the words of Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the administration will ‘defer that challenge into the future.’ This is not a luxury we get to choose. And Mr. Obama himself recently said he does ‘recognize the contradiction’ in his own policy—which is that by confronting Islamic State but not Assad, the U.S. may unintentionally benefit the ruler whose ouster he continues, rightly, to demand.”
Of course, a similar contradiction lies in the Senators’ own so-called plan: by confronting Assad, the U.S. would benefit the terrorist group known as ISIS, one of whose stated objectives is precisely to overthrow the Assad regime. Ignoring this obvious flaw in their own logic, they continue:
“Mr. Assad all but created Islamic State through his slaughter of nearly 200,000 Syrians, and he has knowingly allowed the group to grow and operate with impunity inside the country when it suits his purposes. Until we confront this reality, we can continue to degrade Islamic State in Syria, but Mr. Assad’s barbarism will continue to empower it.”
Again, one could argue that it was U.S. interventionism that all but created the Islamic State. Although President Obama famously backed down from his “red line” threat against Assad, the U.S. government continued to funnel weapons, money, and training to the so-called “moderate” rebels in Syria. Not surprisingly, McCain’s thoroughly-vetted “good” rebels turned out to be remarkably cozy with the “bad” rebels who formed ISIS, and many of those same weapons wound up in ISIS hands, enabling them to steamroll over two-thirds of the territory of Iraq, raping, looting, crucifying, and beheading people all along the way. Now McCain and Graham want to commit American forces to an even more profound intervention, in the vain hope that this time they will get it “right.”
They close their piece with the following paragraph:
“The reality is that defeating Islamic State also requires defeating Bashar Assad. Avoiding this reality, as Mr. Obama still tries to do, will only postpone the problem at growing risk to Syrian lives and American security. And when Syria deteriorates further, as it surely will, the U.S. will be compelled to respond once again, but our options will be fewer, worse and costlier.”
There are several problems, I believe, with their analysis (and this is by no means an exhaustive list).
To start, the Senators spend a great deal of time describing the danger Assad and ISIS pose to the Syrian people (and there should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that ISIS terrorists are unspeakably evil and that the world would be a much better place without them in it). But at no point do McCain and Graham explain how ISIS represents an existential threat to the United States, which should presumably factor somewhere into a decision by the U.S. government to invade yet another country. ISIS certainly poses a grave problem for the long-suffering people of the Middle East, but the direct threat posed to the people of, say, the American Midwest is much less clear. ISIS may boast about raising the black flag of jihad over the White House, but so far they haven’t even been able to knock Assad out of the box (although Senators McCain and Graham would like to lend them a hand).
And despite all of their handwringing, at no point do the dynamic neocon duo suggest drawing up a Declaration of War against Syria, as Congress (the branch of government in which they serve) is required by the Constitution to do. At no point do they explain how the United States government would manage a post-Assad Syria. Given the debacles of prior U.S. interventions in both Iraq and Libya (which contributed in no small part to the rise of ISIS in the first place), one might think this question would be foremost on even the most hawkish neocon mind, but McCain and Graham have shown themselves to be impervious to learning from past mistakes. Indeed, the last we heard from McCain on any post-invasion plans was an angry “I told you so moment” on the floor of the Senate, in which he blamed President Obama for pulling out of Iraq “too soon” (a mere eleven years after the initial invasion). But then again, John McCain is an expert at “truncating the antecedents,” and this latest episode is no exception. Non-interventionists can (and do) remind the neocons that they warned of the Pandora’s box that would be opened by invading Iraq in the first place (and by bombing Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya and Syria to boot). There is no reason to think another American military operation in the region would do anything to close that box.
Perhaps there was simply not enough space in the pages of The Wall Street Journal for the Senators to make a more convincing case, but after more than a decade of disastrous elective wars cheered by the likes of John McCain and Lindsey Graham, I’m afraid I’ll need a bit more justification to support yet another strategic blunder of dubious legality.