SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

September 10, 2013

Crisp: Old warriors McCain and Graham push old strategies for Syria

John M. Crisp
The Salem News

---- — While our nation wonders whether to do anything at all about Syria, Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham propose to do much more than the limited strikes that President Barack Obama wants to inflict on Syria’s President Bashar Assad as punishment for and deterrence against the use of chemical weapons.

Both Republican senators support a military response stout enough to make a difference in how the Syrian civil war turns out, including robust missile strikes against Assad and weapons for the Free Syrian Army, whom McCain and Graham believe to be moderates.

This plan sounds risky, but among the limited range of options, including doing nothing, the arguments in favor of it sound about as reliable as those supporting any other plan.

Still, it’s presumptuous of the senators to imply, as they have done frequently, that we wouldn’t have this problem today if only Obama had taken these actions two years ago, when the unrest was just beginning.

Perhaps. But this feels like 20/20 hindsight, which, in the Middle East, is just about the only kind of sight that can be employed with any clarity and certainty. You’ll never go broke by betting on unpredictable consequences of our policies in that troubled region.

In fact, the only two Middle Eastern policies of the last six or seven decades that have been reasonably successful are our support for Israel and our diligent courting of the House of Saud, which has served as a dependable source of the petroleum that we depend on.

But neither of these policies is an indisputable success. The 9/11 hijackers — virtually all of them Saudis — were largely motivated by the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia and our undiscriminating support for the Saudi monarchy.

This history of doubtful policies should induce caution, which may explain some of Obama’s tentativeness in the Middle East. But it doesn’t explain his willingness — and McCain’s and Graham’s — to resort to measures that have done little to improve matters in the past. High-tech missiles fired at Muslims from a safe distance have ordinarily created as much chaos as they’ve resolved.

Since the old strategies haven’t worked very well, one wonders if new approaches aren’t possible. We could start by refusing to be pushed around by our own worries about our “credibility.” We are, by far, the world’s most powerful nation — economically, culturally and, certainly, militarily. We are strong enough that we can afford to look weak, if “weak” means that we’re willing to prudently consider negotiation, compromise and conciliation before military action, especially when they serve a strategic interest.

Let’s not underestimate other powerful, nonmilitary influences. If “shame” can goad us into making risky military decisions, maybe it will work on others, as well. In a column last week in The New York Times, Thomas Friedman promotes the power of shame for changing world opinion. When it comes to killing children with chemical weapons, at present we have a firm footing on the moral high ground. Others may be shamed into joining us. Once the missiles begin to fly, our position becomes a lot less secure.

Of course, by the time you read this, Obama may have already delivered his speech on Syria, scheduled for today. Congress may already have voted to authorize or reject the use of force against Assad. An attack on Syria could be imminent or it may already have been launched.

If so, it represents a victory for old, generally unsuccessful strategies. An apt image for this traditional approach cropped up last week when McCain was caught playing Internet poker on his mobile phone as Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Wolf Blitzer opened his story on this with “On a much lighter note. ...” I’m not sure why this was a lighter note. Once again, the old and powerful are preparing — a little too casually — to send the young into war.

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John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Email jcrisp@delmar.edu.