Thursday, June 13, 2013

John McCain's Thoughtless Militarism

I was reading about John McCain's views on whether or not we should intervene in Syria and couldn't help but note that he simultaneously wants to launch a massive military assault on Syria to remove the Assad regime, but without putting boots on the ground. Never mind that the Assad regime has distributed caches of chemical weapons throughout the nation, and to bomb them (assuming we can even locate them) would almost certainly involve the release of chemical clouds, causing deaths on top of those of the civilians who would be killed in the bombing raids themselves. I have no doubt that Assad has placed weapons caches in locations that all-but-ensure that a bombing raid would cause civilian deaths. I also suspect that Assad might take the opportunity to set off some explosions and chemical releases of his own, and blame them on a U.S. raid. And if we topple Assad, all those caches are up for grabs - and some very nasty weapons could end up in the hands of factions allied with Hezbollah or Al Qaeda in Iraq, among other anti-U.S. groups.

McCain's recent grandstanding, through his surprise trip to Syria, also highlights both his ignorance of the region and its actors - he wants the Obama Administration to arm "good" Syrian rebels, but didn't know the history of the factions he met with, and doesn't seem to understand that the majority of rebels want to create an Islamist state. He also doesn't seem to be aware, or perhaps doesn't care, that a rebel victory is almost certain to be followed by atrocities or (at best) ethnic cleansing of Alawites. It's also worth noting that the groups he wants to support are not uniformed forces - they're the type of forces he would eagerly label "unlawful combatants" if they were fighting the U.S. or its allies. I'm reminded of this:



I think McCain's heart is in the right place, which is to say that he's in the "peance freeance" faction of the Republican Party - those who think that the U.S. military takes the form of the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers and, once they defeat the evil overlords and their minions, peace and democracy will break out all over. The problem is, he has no apparent interest in non-military solutions, or at least doesn't seem to deem them worthy of consideration or discussion, nor does he have any particular interest in the region or its actors. Why does he confuse Sunni and Shia, why doesn't his staff ensure that he doesn't meet with factions that are opposed to U.S. goals and interests when he grandstands, why does he seem to think that if you decapitate a despotic regime the people will immediately clamor for Western-style democracy? Because, to the extent that the subject matter doesn't make things go "boom", he appears to have given very little thought to pretty much any significant foreign policy issue. His mistakes suggest that he's not even interested, even as he plays the elder statesman and lobbies for war. He shows no sign that he's willing or able to learn from our nation's history, no matter how recent and no matter what role he played in that history.

When I look back at the Bush Administration, and its colossal incompetence on foreign policy issues, I'm reminded of the opportunities George W. Bush squandered in the early months of his regime. That would have been a time to reach out to nations like Egypt (with its aging leader) and to Syria (with its new leader), to try to move the region toward democracy, encourage economic development, and push for the development of institutions and policies that would make those states less oppressive and better able to eventually transition to democracy (e.g., driving corruption out of the civil service, ensuring independent courts, pushing for better respect for human rights). But for all of the talk of Bush's "Freedom Agenda", his actions suggested something else. The "Freedom Agenda" was a cloak for realpolitik - leaders that the Bush Administration wanted to keep in place knew that they were safe, and Bush had no apparent interest in pushing for changes that might upset those leaders or in trying to create bridges to leaders of traditionally hostile nations. That is, when it involves serious diplomatic effort, developing an understanding of the region or its players, or getting up to your elbows in difficult, long-standing factional conflicts, neither Bush nor McCain have much visible interest in advancing democracy. But if you can drop some bombs and call it a "Freedom Agenda", the're all in.

Grandstanding over Syria isn't helpful, because there's no good path forward. If the U.S. intervenes and things don't improve - or worsen - it will be deemed necessary to escalate our involvement. Once we're in, we'll yet again be in a situation where our departure is all but certain to be followed by a civil war or atrocities, but those issues will likely be even harder to resolve than they were in Iraq. So we pour hundreds of billions of dollars, perhaps a trillion or more, into yet another war in the Middle East followed by another indefinite occupation. It's not enough to say "Let's do something, but not put boots on the ground", even if it plays well on Fox News. And it's never enough to view the entire world as a military target, because the only tool in your toolbox is the military. But it seems, that's about all McCain has to offer.

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