Monday, March 5, 2012

Can John McCain Play Chess?

On the Senate floor today, John McCain called for "foreign airstrikes" (I'm quoting from this morning's Foreign Policy advance notice of his speech) against Syria, ostensibly with the intention of carving out "safe havens" for humanitarian assistance and relief.  

"To be clear: This will require the United States to suppress enemy air defenses in at least part of the country.  The ultimate goal of airstrikes should be to establish and defend safe havens in Syria, especially in the north, in which opposition forces can organize and plan their political and military activities against Assad. These safe havens could serve as platforms for the delivery of humanitarian and military assistance -- including weapons and ammunition, body armor and other personal protective equipment, tactical intelligence, secure communications equipment, food and water, and medical supplies. These safe havens could also help the Free Syrian Army and other armed groups in Syria to train and organize themselves into more cohesive and effective military forces, likely with the assistance of foreign partners."

"Increasingly, the question for U.S. policy is not whether foreign forces will intervene militarily in Syria. We can be confident that Syria's neighbors will do so eventually, if they have not already. Some kind of intervention will happen, with us or without us. So the real question for U.S. policy is whether we will participate in this next phase of the conflict in Syria, and thereby increase our ability to shape an outcome that is beneficial to the Syrian people, and to us. I believe we must."

It's difficult to fault a man for a desire to stop indiscriminate bloodshed.  In McCain's case, though, I'd wager that his motivations spring at least as much from his assertion that 

"If Assad manages to cling to power -- or even if he manages to sustain his slaughter for months to come, with all of the human and geopolitical costs that entails -- it would be a strategic and moral defeat for the United States. We cannot, we must not, allow this to happen."

Whatever his ultimate or ulterior motivations, I'd want to remind the senator (along with Senators Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman, the two other members of McCain's chest-thumper trio, who I'm sure will be heaping great praise on McCain's speech) of that shopworn yet tried-and-true "slippery slope" (a term that Stephen Walt recently applied to the Syria-intervention scenario).  I'd also ask him to learn to play chess - or, if he did know how to play that game once upon a time, summon up the kind of thinking  required to be successful . . . that is, planning several moves ahead, with an awareness that one's opponent has his own options, some of which might catch you out.

And, in this instance, senator, you're talking about chess in multiple dimensions, with many players.

On the other hand, this is the same John McCain who decreed that the US invasion and occupation in Iraq was a "victory."  The (at least) tens of thousands of Iraqis killed, maimed, and scarred - and the millions who became refugees - probably don't agree.  Sure, Saddam Hussein was eliminated.  But the cost, senator, the cost.

Now you want the US to step up and help eliminate Bashar al-Asad.  The cost, senator, the cost.

Perhaps McCain ought to consult one of his heroes, David Petraeus.  Petraeus might refer McCain to a question Petraeus asked during the Iraq campaign:

Tell me how this ends.

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