Tuesday, May 28, 2013

(Not President) McCain goes to Syria (and undermines U.S. policy)

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Obviously, the situation in Syria is awful. According to French newspaper Le Monde, a "merciless war" is being waged on the outskirts of Damascus, with the Assad regime using chemical weapons against the rebels.

And, in general, I'm with the rebels. I'd love to see the Assad regime fall and for the Syrian people to be freed from the shackles of that brutal tyranny.

But the question isn't really which side you're on, because obviously most good and decent people want Assad to go, it's how you most appopriately respond to the current situation with the intent of supporting the rebels' goals.

The first question is easy. The second, not so much.

For warmongering conservatives like John McCain, however, it's always all so simple: Where there's a problem, as in Syria, war is the solution, and when some war isn't enough, more, ever more, is always the answer.

When they're in power, war is what we get. And when they're not, like now, they just won't shut up about it.

Yes, McCain has been leading the charge, directed with vengeful venom against the man who beat him for the presidency in 2008, for the U.S. to step up its support for the Syrian rebels as well as to get more directly involved in the conflict. He even made his way to Syria yesterday, meeting with General Salem Idris, the leader of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army, as well as with other rebel leaders.

On the ground yesterday, he was the United States. Or least he and others wanted it to appear that way. "The visit of Senator McCain to Syria is very important and very useful especially at this time," said Idris. "We need American help to have change on the ground; we are now in a very critical situation."

Yes, of course you are, but here's the thing. John McCain is not the president of the United States. And while you may be upset with what you see as lack of support from President Obama, McCain's self-aggrandizing globe-strutting isn't going to help.

In the end, the rebels may get most of what they want from Obama -- heavy weaponry, a no-fly zone, maybe some strategic airstrikes on Assad's forces, And it may be most of what McCain wants as well, though of course he'll continue to criticize the president no matter what -- you know, because of 2008, and because he thinks he knows better than everyone else.

But the situation in Syria isn't just awful, not least in humanitarian terms, it's incredibly difficult from the perspective of U.S. foreign policy circa 2013, and there's a lot that the president needs to weigh, not least the risk of the U.S. getting embroiled in yet another prolonged conflict in the Middle East.

Obama is the president, after all. He has certain responsibilities. What he does matters. Not so much with McCain, who can go and stand with the rebels and make it seem as if it's all so easy, if only he were president.

And is it not irresponsible, to the say the least, for someone like McCain, a leading opposition figure, to go to Syria instead of, say, Secretary of State John Kerry or Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel? Does it not undermine the U.S. government, with Obama at its head, as well as its policies and objectives, at a time when it is obviously trying to work out the most appropriate response, for McCain to meet with the Syrian rebels?

I'm not saying McCain should not be free to speak his mind, or even to travel internationally. But he does not speak for the U.S. government, and everyone, presumably including the rebels, knows he's one of loudest critics of the Obama Administration's Syria policy. To me, he should keep his criticism to the homefront. If he wants to go on Meet the Press and criticize the president, fine. But taking his criticism on the road to Turkey and Syria? How is that supposed to play internationally? And especially in Syria itself? How are the rebels supposed to take that? Do they think he speaks for the U.S.? If not, do they expect him go back and fight for their interests against Obama, or to sit down with Obama to work things out? Has his visit raised their expectations? Has it lowered their opinion of Obama? Going forward, has he weakened the Obama Administration's position either internationally (say, at the U.N.) or with the rebels?

These are fair questions.

Simply put, John McCain should not have gone to Syria. It's bad enough to be a pompous windbag on the Sunday morning talk shows, quite another to challenge the leadership of the president of the United States, and therefore of the United States itself, in the middle of a crisis beyond America's borders.

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