Sen. John McCain, one of the last non-anguished interventionists in Washington (his Sancho Panza, fellow Republican Lindsey Graham, is another), had a very good last week.
He watched President Barack Obama decide to drop bombs on Syria, a policy McCain has long endorsed. He saw the non-interventionist wing of his party suddenly revise its views when it came under pressure from Middle East reality. He played polar bear to ex-White House flack Jay Carney’s baby seal on CNN.
When I met with McCain in his Senate office on Wednesday, I asked him about his colleague, Sen. Rand Paul, who lately has been arguing that he himself is not, in fact, an isolationist. Paul is McCain's main intraparty nemesis (of the moment, at least), and McCain’s lip curled when I brought up his name. “Rand Paul now wants to take out ISIS,” he said, referring to the Islamic State terror group the U.S. is now targeting. “Way to go, Rand, way to go!”
Paul’s endorsement of an anti-Islamic State campaign was not prompted by heartfelt shock at the beheading of two American journalists, McCain claimed. “It doesn’t take a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing,” he said, channeling a singer I didn’t think he knew existed. “He’s saying this because he’s running for president. That’s why he’s saying it.”
It is true that the winds have shifted since the American people were made aware of the bottomless depravity of Islamic State. According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released this week, more than 60 percent of respondents believe that Islamic State poses a national security threat to the U.S.
Three-quarters said action against Islamic State should consist of at least air strikes, and 34 percent said they would support the use of ground troops as well. This last number is particularly shocking, given the anti-interventionist mood that has settled over the country during the Barack Obama era.
The question is, will this new spirit survive initial contact with the enemy? If American troops are killed in this latest phase in the war on Muslim terrorism, it may not. (American boots are already on the ground in Iraq, and may soon be on the ground in Syria.) McCain, being dispositionally interventionist, believes that a fully engaged president would be able to convince wary Americans of the necessity for sustained action against Islamic State.
“U.S. leadership is indispensable here,” McCain said. “President Obama doesn’t have an ideology. He has a degree of naïveté. It’s the failure to understand the American role in the world. He fails to appreciate that when American leadership disappears, a vacuum is created and bad things happen.”
McCain’s main critique of the president’s anti-Islamic State campaign has two parts. The first is that by only gradually intensifying the fight against Islamic State, he is making the same mistake as former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara four decades ago.
“I would call Obama as naïve as McNamara was in Vietnam concerning the realities of warfare and the nature of the enemy," he said. "If you’re going to take Vienna, then take Vienna. What Napoleon meant by that was that you should not only go for your objectives, but you should do so as rapidly as possible.”
McCain's second criticism: Obama is not attacking the root cause of the Syrian war, which is the behavior of President Bashar al-Assad's regime and its supporters in Iran. He said the U.S. should be bombing government targets at the same time it is bombing Assad’s Islamic State enemies. I, too, am dispositionally interventionist, but it seemed to me that McCain was outlining not only a formula for chaos, but also a program that could not possibly be sold to the American people.
I asked him this question: “Wouldn’t the generals say to you, ‘You want me to fight ISIS, and you want me to fight the guys who are fighting ISIS, at the same time? Why would we bomb guys who are bombing ISIS? That would turn this into a crazy standoff.' ”
“Our ultimate job is not only to defeat ISIS but to give the Syrian people the opportunity to prevail as well,” McCain answered. “Remember, there are 192,000 dead Syrians thanks to Assad. If we do this right, if we do the right kind of training and equipping of the Free Syrian Army, plus air strikes, plus taking out Bashar Assad’s air assets, we could reverse the battlefield equation.”
The U.S. could conceivably wage war on two fronts against two vicious parties that are also warring against each other, on a battlefield in which another set of America’s enemies — Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps — are also fighting. But this is a much too complicated mission for any post-Iraq War American president to prudently tackle, even a president not quite so reluctant as Obama.
For those Americans who are moving toward McCain and away from Paul on crucial questions concerning the U.S.'s role in the world, I can’t imagine that they would be able to stomach such a war, either. Killing al-Qaida-style terrorists who have beheaded two of their fellow citizens is a mission most Americans are ready to endorse. Reshaping a dysfunctional Arab country is not.
The tragedy of this is that the outcome McCain seeks is the right one: The Syrian people, the main victims of both Islamic State and the Assad regime, will find peace and justice only when they are freed both from Assad oppression and jihadist terror. But it won’t be the U.S. that delivers them from these twin evils.
I suspect that the new interventionist mood that has taken hold in the U.S. is fleeting, and I hope that McCain knows this as well.
Jeffrey Goldberg is author of "Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror" and winner of the National Magazine Award for reporting. He has covered the Middle East as a national correspondent for the Atlantic and as a staff writer for the New Yorker. Read more reports from Jeffrey Goldberg — Click Here Now.
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