$500 Million Down the Drain in Syria, and McCain Keeps Flailing

Quite literally, "2015 John McCain" and "2012 John McCain" have opposing views of the Syrian rebels. I hope the media remember this when Sen. McCain gets up on his soapbox in the coming days. Sen. McCain isn't prescient. He consistently contradicts his own past statements and beliefs, depending on what's happening at any particular time.
07/09/2015 02:47 pm ET Updated Jul 09, 2016
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 26:  U.S. Sen. John McCain (C) (R-AZ) speaks during a press conference on the recent bombings by Saudi
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 26: U.S. Sen. John McCain (C) (R-AZ) speaks during a press conference on the recent bombings by Saudi Arabia in Yemen March 26, 2015 in Washington, DC. During his remarks Graham said, 'The Mideast is on fire, and it is every person for themselves.' (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

You, the American taxpayers, paid approximately $8.3 million dollars per "moderate" Syrian fighter that the U.S. could train to fight ISIS.

That's right. Yesterday, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter admitted that, despite the $500 million appropriated by Congress to find and train moderate Syrian opposition, the United States was only able to find 60 fighters they believed were ready to fight solely against ISIS, with no possibility of defecting or taking their fight to Bashar al-Assad instead. Sixty fighters. Some $8.3 million per fighter. Half a billion dollars total. You want to talk Pentagon waste? Try that one on for size.

Of course, most of the media, as the media are wont to do, will praise the "foresight" of John McCain (and Lindsey Graham), who panned the idea in January of this year. According to The Hill at that time:

"It's very weak and will not have significant impact," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told reporters following an hours long, closed-door briefing on the program.

He also criticized Defense Department officials for telling potential recruits that they could only fight ISIS and not the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, calling it the "most ridiculous thing."

"This strategy makes Pickett's Charge look well thought out," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters. He called the training effort "militarily unsound" and "immoral."

Indeed, if that's all Sen. McCain ever said, he'd be 100-percent right. The whole concept of finding Syrian rebels who purely want to fight ISIS and forget about Bashar Assad and everyone else, like Iraqi security forces, is a pipe dream. This was bound to be a failure.

But it is that exact point that unravels every other stupid argument that John McCain (and Lindsey Graham) have made about Syrian rebels and why we needed to aid them.

Namely, they aren't pure.

McCain either didn't consider that, ignored that, or was just flat-out ignorant of that when he incessantly whined about sending heavy arms to those rebels.

As early as 2012, Senators McCain, Graham, and Joe Lieberman (remember him?) were calling for arms to be shipped over to Syrian rebels via other Arab states. In a Washington Post op-ed, the trio wrote that we should "directly and openly provide robust assistance to the armed opposition, including weapons, intelligence and training. ... American help should go to those groups that reject extremism and sectarianism in both word and deed."

Take note: McCain (and Graham and Lieberman) argued not only that we should send arms and more but that it is possible to send it to those with pure hearts who won't join extremists.

About a year later, my former division commander in Iraq, Gen. Martin Dempsey, warned of the complicated nature of Syria in a letter to Rep. Eliot Engel, who was taking John McCain's position.

Gen. Dempsey, who has always refused to be bullied by McCain, wrote:

Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides. It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today, they are not.

Indeed, Gen. Dempsey had good reason to be wary. In 2013, the CIA began shipping arms. Shortly thereafter, reports began to surface that the some of the arms mistakenly ended up in the hands of ISIS. Meanwhile, other Syrian insurgents were reportedly defecting to or forming alliances with al-Qaeda's al-Nusra Front. As VoteVets.org long argued, in the region, the enemy of my enemy is sometimes my enemy.

And it pierced McCain's core argument: that we, the U.S., could actually find and help moderate groups who would never, ever embrace extremists. Here were his beloved "moderates" joining an al-Qaeda group.

All of this mess and confusion led to a very uncomfortable exchange that Sen. McCain had with Sean Hannity, of all people:

Hannity: Let me ask you about what your colleague Rand Paul said about it this morning. He said, "It's a mistake to arm them. Most of the arms that we've given the so-called 'moderate' rebels have wound up in the hands of ISIS because ISIS simply takes it from them or it is given to them and we mistakenly actually end up giving it to some radicals."

McCain: Has Rand Paul ever been to Syria? Has he ever met with ISIS? Has he ever met with any of these people?

Hannity: I'm not trying to cause a fight, sir.

McCain: No, no, we're going to have a fight because it's patently false. This is the same Rand Paul that said we didn't want to have anything to do with anything to do in the Middle East, by the way. I don't want to get in a fight with him at all, but it's not true. I know these people. I'm in contact with them all the time, and he is not. He is not.

Take note again. Right here, despite all the evidence, John McCain says it's preposterous to think that "moderate" Syrian rebels would shift alliances. He assures us that anyone who claims that is a liar.

Yet, just days before, McCain was pressed on whether we could trust that Syrian moderates would focus on fighting ISIS for us and not joining them to fight Assad. McCain said:

Obviously, there are some risks, but what's our other option here? If someone who says they ... don't want to do it, because we can't trust the Free Syrian Army, then what is your option, sir and ma'am, in how we are going to attack ISIS in an effective fashion?

That's quite a shift from the other interview!

Days later, President Obama signed a bill to arm the rebels and spend half a billion dollars to train them. Not long after, even more elements of the "Free Syrian Army" disbanded, then joined up with Islamist groups, reportedly including ISIS.

And that brings us all the way back to the beginning of this year, with John McCain grandstanding, saying it is "ridiculous" to think that you can tell Syrian moderates whom to take the fight to or, by extension, whom they should fight alongside with.

Quite literally, "2015 John McCain" and "2012 John McCain" have opposing views of the Syrian rebels. First, "2012 John McCain" swore to us that we could find rebels who would not embrace extremists. Then "2014 John McCain" swore to us that he knew these rebels, and that they would direct their fight where we needed them to -- namely, against ISIS. Then "2015 John McCain" said anyone who thinks we can tell Syrians whom and where to fight is "ridiculous."

Well, "2015 John McCain," say hello to "ridiculous" "2012 John McCain."

I hope the media remember all of this when Sen. McCain gets up on his soapbox in the coming days. Sen. McCain isn't prescient. He consistently contradicts his own past statements and beliefs, depending on what's happening at any particular time. He's a flailing mess.

All that said, this isn't a partisan issue. There are Democrats, like Rep. Engel, who unwisely join with John McCain. And there are Republicans and Democrats who consistently were against this kind of ill-conceived involvement. I recommend that the media contact them: Senators Rand Paul, Chris Murphy, Mike Lee or Tom Udall.