07/24/2013 11:48 am ET Updated Sep 23, 2013

John McCain's Fantasy-Land


It has become clear that President Obama is about to make good on his plan to send small arms and weapons to the opposition in Syria that is fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad. It's a move that I and many other veterans have long opposed, for reasons laid out yesterday by Republican Congressman Rich Nugent, who said, "We want to make sure that we don't put our sons or daughters in any jeopardy particularly as it relates to arming those that we have no idea who they are." But, now, it's done. However, the president is also recognizing the reality of Syria -- a reality I predicted months ago.

Back then, of the civil war in Syria, I wrote:

Not only are there a wide array of groups involved, but the introduction of Iranian and Hezbollah forces, combined with support from Russia, provide a strong center of gravity for Assad regime support... The insurgents aren't organized, and even with weapons, would have a difficult time conducting decisive combat operations in what looks like a stalemate.

The New York Times reported the other day:

The White House began publicly hedging its bets about Mr. Assad. After saying for nearly two years that Mr. Assad's days were numbered, the press secretary, Jay Carney, said, "While there are shifts in momentum on the battlefield, Bashar al-Assad, in our view, will never rule all of Syria again."

Those last four words represent a subtle but significant shift in the White House's wording: an implicit acknowledgment that after recent gains by the government's forces against an increasingly chaotic opposition, Mr. Assad now seems likely to cling to power for the foreseeable future, if only over a rump portion of a divided Syria.

That's important, because at the same time the White House was acknowledging the strong potential for a stalemate, General Martin Dempsey, the nominee to be the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, strongly warned Congress that any military options in Syria would be "an act of war," and even if limited in scope, could easily lead to mission creep.

Of the menu of military options available, Dempsey wrote, "Once we take action, we should be prepared for what comes next. Deeper involvement is hard to avoid." He went on to sound strong warnings against use of each military option, for instance, writing that setting up a no-fly zone would cost billions of dollars and loss of American lives, while not guaranteeing any significant impact on the course of the war. In that sense, he was clearly providing cover for a White House that has realized the reality of the stalemate, and doesn't want to commit American troops to less than optimal conditions.

I'll give you one guess as to who didn't like hearing a military commander telling him that it wasn't wise to go further than we already are in Syria. Here's a hint. It's the same guy who went to meet with the Syrian opposition, and ended up taking pictures with terrorists, because we can't tell who is a "good rebel" and who is a "bad rebel" over there. It's also the same guy who wanted to surge to fight terrorists in Iraq -- many of whom were recently broken out of Abu Ghraib prison, and may run to join the Syrian rebels, thus becoming people he now wants to arm and aid.

Both in hearings and afterwards, Senator John McCain was apoplectic that a senior military commander dared warn against McCain's long-stated desire to enter another war, this time in Syria. So angered was the senator, that he threatened to hold up Dempsey's nomination to head the Joint Chiefs.

In some sense, McCain's outburst is understandable, because he clearly understood all of these warnings were preemptive arguments against him and Senator Lindsay Graham, when the duo will inevitably ratchet up their war rhetoric. Yet, at the same time, just like in Iraq, it is clear that Senator John McCain is living in an fantasy-land, where the American military alone can shape any geopolitical situation into whatever it wants, like a lump of clay.

On that point, it must also be noted that much of McCain's anger toward Dempsey goes back to the same issue that angered him over Chuck Hagel and many others -- namely the surge in Iraq. As noted in an op-ed found here, McCain still cannot let it go. His insistence to re-litigate the surge at every opportunity reeks of a man who knows he probably wasn't right about it. The danger is that so many in Washington still consider McCain a voice of authority on national security and the military. That's precisely why Dempsey (likely with White House support) launched arguments against McCain's oncoming call for more involvement in Syria.

It is still true that sending small arms to the opposition is not a wise move, and we can face blowback. But President Obama painted himself into a corner on that one, by setting up a "red line" when it came to use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. He was wrong to do so. Still, to his credit, it seems that the president is staying cognizant of the reality in Syria, and why further involvement is not advisable. Meanwhile, John McCain continues to fall further and further away from the real world.