The Unbearable Emptiness of a New York Times Op-Ed

John McCain and Lindsey Graham want Obama to confront ISIS now. They don't specify how.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

I have my concerns about President Obama’s foreign policy. But nothing eases them like listening to his Republican critics. There’s an onion-like quality to the arguments GOP politicians often deploy against Obama’s policies in the Middle East. Peel away the layers of grave-sounding but vacuous rhetoric, and you’re left with almost nothing intellectually nourishing at all.

Take Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham’s op-ed on Saturday in The New York Times. It starts with a lie: that Obama said “we don’t have a strategy yet” to deal with ISIS. In fact, Obama was speaking solely about ISIS in Syria. (“Do you need Congress’s approval to go into Syria?” asked a reporter last Thursday. “We don’t have a strategy yet. … We need to make sure that we’ve got clear plans, that we’re developing them. At that point, I will consult with Congress,” Obama replied.)

When it comes to Iraq, by contrast, the Obama administration does have something of a strategy: It is launching air strikes to protect imperiled religious groups, bolstering the Kurdish Peshmerga even though that may embolden Kurdish leaders to seek independence, and using the prospect of further air strikes to encourage Iraq to form a government that includes Sunnis in the hope this will convince them to abandon ISIS. Later in their op-ed, McCain and Graham call for Obama to “strengthen partners who are already resisting ISIS: the Kurdish pesh merga, Sunni tribes” and push for “an inclusive government in Baghdad that shares power and wealth with Iraqi Sunnis.” In other words, they call on Obama to pursue the same strategy in Iraq that he’s already pursuing, while simultaneously twisting his words to claim that he’s admitted to having no strategy at all.

What Obama was really saying in response to the reporter was that he doesn’t want to intervene militarily in Syria—where, as opposed to Iraq, the government is hostile and our allies are weaker—without a well-thought-out plan deserving of public support. McCain and Graham endorse that caution: “The president clearly wants to move deliberately and consult with allies and Congress as he considers what to do about ISIS. No one disputes that goal.” Then, two sentences later, they dispute that goal, slamming Obama for not displaying a “far greater sense of urgency.”

It’s a wonderful illustration of the emptiness of much Beltway foreign-policy-speak. McCain and Graham want Obama to act both “deliberately” and “urgently” because they’re both happy words. (As opposed to “lethargically” and “rashly,” which are nastier synonyms for the same thing.) But when you translate these uplifting abstractions into plain English, you see how contradictory McCain and Graham’s demands actually are. You can either demand that Obama not bomb Syria until he’s ensured he has a plan likely to win international and congressional support, or you can demand that he bomb as soon as possible. You can’t demand both.

One reason Obama isn’t bombing in Syria yet is that he’s not clear on what the goal would be. McCain and Graham are. “ISIS,” they write, “cannot be contained.” Why not? Hasn’t the U.S. been containing al-Qaeda—ISIS’s estranged older brother—for more than a decade now? But the two senators don’t pause to explain. “It must be confronted,” they declare. What does that mean? If the U.S. is bombing ISIS in Iraq, aren’t we confronting the group already?

McCain and Graham later clarify: The goal is to “defeat ISIS.” Excellent—how do we do that? 1) “It requires an inclusive government in Baghdad that shares power and wealth with Iraqi Sunnis.” OK, Obama just toppled a prime minister in service of that goal. But there are those decades of dictatorship, brutality, and sectarian slaughter to overcome. 2) “Mobilize America’s partners in a coordinated, multilateral effort.” OK, but those “partners”—which include pro-Muslim Brotherhood regimes like Turkey and Qatar and anti-Muslim Brotherhood ones like Egypt and Saudi Arabia—are jockeying fiercely with one another for influence across the Middle East. Not to mention the fact that they don’t listen to us all that much anymore. 3) Bring “an end to the conflict in Syria.”

Let’s pause on number three for a moment. Last year, when George Washington University’s Marc Lynch surveyed scholars of civil wars, he found that “most contributors are … deeply pessimistic about the prospect for ending Syria’s civil war any time soon” because “Syria has among the worst possible configurations [of any civil war]: a highly fragmented opposition, many potential spoilers, and foreign actors intervening enough to keep the conflict raging but not enough to decisively end the war.” McCain and Graham don’t explain how to overcome all this. They simply note, in passing, that defeating ISIS will require ending Syria’s civil war. It’s like writing an op-ed that demands the United States “defeat” climate change and mentioning that, by the way, one of the prerequisites is the elimination of fossil fuels.

Any serious proposal for expanding American military involvement in Iraq into Syria must do one of two things. 1) Explain, in some detail, how bombing ISIS will strengthen the moderate Syrian opposition rather than other Sunni jihadist groups (for instance, al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s affiliate) and/or Bashar al-Assad. Or 2) explain why it’s worth bombing ISIS even if we strengthen other Sunni jihadist groups and/or Bashar al-Assad.

McCain and Graham don’t even try. Instead, they end their op-ed by suggesting that Obama take courage from past presidents who have changed foreign-policy direction. They cite Jimmy Carter’s decision to abandon détente with the Soviet Union after Moscow invaded Afghanistan, Bill Clinton’s decision to intervene in the Balkans, and George W. Bush’s decision to implement the “surge” in Iraq. What do these cases have in common? They’re the best examples McCain and Graham could find of when a president chose military escalation and it worked (sort of).

Notice the historical examples the senators didn’t choose: Harry Truman’s decision to fire Douglas MacArthur rather than expand the Korean War into China, Dwight Eisenhower’s decision not to intervene to save the French at Dien Bien Phu, John F. Kennedy’s decision not to launch a preventive military strike against Soviet missiles in Cuba, Ronald Reagan’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Beirut after they were blown up by Hezbollah, George H.W. Bush’s decision not to march to Baghdad at the end of the Gulf War.

Sometimes history vindicates presidents who choose war. At least as often, it vindicates presidents who don’t. That’s part of the reason Obama’s decision in Syria is hard. Of course, if you ignore the times when war has brought disaster—and you ignore the most difficult questions about war in Syria—then Obama’s decision doesn’t seem that hard at all.