In a bold bid to force President Obama’s hand on Syria, Senator John McCain made a surprise trip to Syria early this month. He met with rebel leaders, assessed the situation as grim, and returned home with a reinvigorated call for military intervention by the United States — at least to the extent of creating a no-fly zone and safe zones for rebels and refugees. French and British leaders, meanwhile, seemed in sync with McCain, announcing intentions to begin supplying arms to some rebel groups. Calls for US intervention are gaining urgency, precisely because the tyrant Bashar Assad’s prospects have brightened recently.
The Syrian government was bolstered with support from Hezbollah fighters in from Lebanon and from crack units in from Iran. Then came news of significant increases in Russian military aid, especially antiaircraft missiles and warplanes. Secretary of State John Kerry sought to initiate peace talks between rebels and the Syrian government, but those hopes have fizzled. "Bashar Assad now has the upper hand, and it's tragic," McCain said, "while we sit by and watch."
So the discussion winds back to what, actually, Obama can do. "Assad must go," was his mantra until not so long ago. McCain does not want to let Obama forget that. He wants Obama to make it happen.
The hawkish McCain is taken to be a tough-minded realist. Those who oppose him, and his knee-jerk interventionism, are taken to lack the spine for hard action. But what is tough-minded about the refusal to learn from experience? McCain and others advocate exactly the policies that have led to a series of American catastrophes from Baghdad to Benghazi, without offering any suggestion as to why this intervention would be different. In fact, McCain is not motivated by a positive assessment that any conceivable military action taken by Washington could advance order, much less democracy. On the contrary, he swats aside informed warnings, including from the Pentagon, that US military involvement could make a terrible situation even worse. Horrible as Syria is, the present conflict pales beside the prospect of an entire Middle East inflamed in a Sunni-Shiite war, with even Israel and Palestine reduced to sideshow.
No, interventionist impulses like McCain's derive not from cogent strategic analysis but from a truly weak-minded failure to grasp that, in the 21st century, barbarities like Assad's cannot be whisked away by an immaculate American air power — or even, as we learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, by full-bore American invasion and occupation. Arming select rebel groups is lovely in the abstract, but what if the group emerging as the central force in the anti-Assad opposition — Jabhat-al-Nusra — is tied to a sworn American enemy, Al Qaeda in Iraq? Casual talk of arming rebel groups ignores the dark history of mayhem — beginning with Al Qaeda itself — that has followed precisely on that tactic in the past.
McCain's failure of realism is still more evident in his readiness to ignore what may already have happened on the ground. Syria's doom as a fragmented former state may already be sealed, as three distinct political entities take shape: Assad's fellow Alawites, a Shiite sect, in one enclave; a Kurdish domain; and jihadists dominated by forces friendly to Al Qaeda. There is simply no longer any question of restoring the political, economic, or social integrity of what was known as Syria. McCain does not explain how his intervention, whatever its scope, would redraw that geography. All it would do, in fact, is offer Americans some relief from the frustration of "just sitting by and watching." That relief would be short-lived.
The effects of American power under 21st-century constraints are clearest, ironically, when that power fails. If the United States were to intervene militarily in the Syrian civil war, the vast and divergent collection of parties, including US allies, would all be drawn into a swirl around the self-declared indispensable nation. The level of killing would massively escalate. Enemies would find common ground in demonizing Americans. Allies would shirk responsibility, leaving the superpower to take the weight.
But there's the problem. In today's thicket of real-world moral breakdown, no power is super. And by presuming to declare itself the solution, Washington puts itself, in that instant, at the heart of the problem.
The United States should continue providing humanitarian relief to Syrian civilians, and should do all it can diplomatically to broker Assad's exit. But militarily, America must stand aside.
James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.