McCain’s rantings against Obama lack of Middle East strategy. Understanding his urgings in context
This past week, Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain took advantage of the fall of Ramadi to attack, once again, President Obama’s foreign policies in the Middle East. He was especially critical of the ad hoc nature of our responses to instability in that region. He called for increased U.S. military presence in Iraq.
Three points should be understood: 1) McCain rarely passes up an opportunity to attack President Obama, often with quite personal attacks, 2) He has called for more military involvement in every Middle Eastern crisis since the Arab Spring–and generally elsewhere as well, 3) Criticisms of American Foreign Policy as reactive, and not embracing some grand strategy, have been made throughout the past century, encompassing administrations of both parties.
Let’s take a look at each of these three points. The first one involves some personal vendetta, perhaps a carry over from the 2008 Presidential campaign in which he was defeated by Obama. To understand fully the personal nature of his attacks on the President would involve more psychological analysis of Senator McCain than I have either the data or skills to embark upon. So let’s just note the phenomenon and move on to the second point: Senator McCain’s sequential criticisms of our lack of more direct military involvement in the Libyan revolution against Qaddafi, in the Egyptian popular uprising that led to the fall of Mubarak, and before ISIS advanced in Iraq last year, in the civil war in Syria to overthrow Assad. In Libya, factionalism based on tribal and religious affiliations has rendered most American military alliances fraught with dangers of backfiring. In Egypt, giving more support to Mubarak, as McCain urged, would have pitted us against the people. Ironically, even if successful, the result would not have been much different than the current situation in which the military runs the government—only at considerable cost to us. In Syria, though we were opposed to Assad, the radical nature of some of Assad’s enemies, including the al Nusra front and ISIS made giving military supplies problematic.!
As for the lack of some “grand strategy,” the situations we faced in Viet Nam, and we have seen in the Middle East, involved a number of unique factors, and thus do not lend themselves to “grand strategic” thinking. For example, the contain communism “domino” theory led to our long and very costly, in terms of both treasure and lives, involvement in Viet Nam. After all of those costs, Viet Nam fell to our opponents there, and they didn’t move on into Thailand or the Philippines. The dominos didn’t fall and we learned that at a horrible cost. Dating from the mid-90s Henry Kissinger, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Perl and Dick Cheney, had been publicly urging an invasion of Iraq and overthrow of the dictator Saddam Hussein. Writing as “Towards a New Century” they urged the administration of Bill Clinton to invade Iraq. The “grand strategy” was based on the Balance of Power model that was so much in vogue in the pre-nuclear world. This model fit the facts of early twentieth century European wars fairly well and was learned by Henry Kissinger many years ago. It is almost useless in today’s Middle East, where power is not easily ascertained, involving such “soft” variables as “will to fight,” and tribal power. Despite having witnessed Vietnam unravel, Kissinger was still adhering to the Balance of Power model, and he argued that with the fall of The USSR, a power vacuum existed in the Persian Gulf. In that theory, the most powerful countries either moved to fill the vacuum or they would lose their power. Kissinger and the others mentioned above, saw the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein as keys to securing much Middle East oil and the Gulf in which to transport that oil. So we invaded Iraq, replaced that dictator, and were left with a sectarian war. This in turn permitted the invasion by ISIS, and the quick fall of key cities in Iraq. Our horse in the sectarian race, the low experienced, Iraqi mostly Shia army who seemingly are very good at retreating from the front while leaving their U.S. provided weapons for ISIS to harvest. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton and George Herbert Walker Bush ignored the Balance of Power policies, and chose not to get into a sectarian mess in Iraq. But Kissinger and Cheney had their grand strategy, and a willing student in George W. Bush. As a direct consequence, we now are faced with ISIS, a much more dangerous opponent than Saddam Hussein ever was. To say nothing of the very real threat of Iran’s gaining influence over Shia controlled Iraq.
So much for Senator McCain’s rantings. Imagine, if the administration were to have listened to McCain, how many dozens of fronts our soldiers would be fighting in, and how many troops it would take? All with the ever present threat that if we ever tried to withdraw from these many fronts, which also would reduce our ability to take strong stands elsewhere, today’s sectarian mess would be repeated.