There have only been 19 Sundays so far this year, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has appeared on one of the major-network Sunday shows 11 times, more than anyone else in the country. Why a network hasn’t just given him his own Sunday show is not yet clear.
And true to form, McCain made the most of his appearance by saying exactly what he was expected to say. He’s certain there’s a Benghazi “cover-up” (though he still doesn’t know what’s been covered up); he wants a special committee on Benghazi (though he doesn’t know why); and he insists Hillary Clinton was “in the loop” (though he doesn’t know which loop).
But what struck me as especially interesting were McCain’s comments on Syria. The Republican senator said the Assad government would be in trouble if “they move in” and if the U.S. “can give them the heavy weapons that they need.” ABC News’ Martha Raddatz asked a couple of good questions.
RADDATZ: Who’s them?
MCCAIN: I know them. I’ve met them. They’re there.
RADDATZ: But how do you pick out good rebels and bad rebels? You’ve got al Qaeda rebels running around.
MCCAIN: Martha, these are legitimate questions you’re asking, but they are there. And you put them inside Syria….These jihadists – there aren’t that many of them. They’re just so good, because they’ve been fighting all over the Middle East for all these years and they are not afraid to die…. Look, we can do this.
So, let’s review. John McCain, whom the media still perceives as a credible voice on foreign policy despite all of the evidence to the contrary, wants to vouch – personally – for the reliability of Syrian rebels. What about the inconvenient detail that many of the rebels have already pledged allegiance to al Qaeda? McCain considers that a “legitimate” question for which he has no legitimate answer.
After all, there aren’t “that many” al Qaeda allies fighting in Syria, so we shouldn’t feel qualms about giving them weapons and support. Why? Because “they are there.”
Behold, the Republicans’ top voice on matters related to international affairs.
Wait, it gets worse.
McCain also made some curious remarks about U.S. policy in Syria to the New Yorker.
In February, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee. McCain said, “I would ask again, both of you, what I asked you last March, when seventy-five hundred citizens of Syria had been killed. It’s now up to sixty thousand. How many more have to die before you recommend military action?”
“We did,” Panetta said. McCain turned to Dempsey, who also said, “We did.” They were referring to a covert proposal to supply weapons to the rebels, which was also supported by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, and the C.I.A. chief, David Petraeus. The proposal had been presented to Obama, and he overruled it. McCain told me that he was astonished: “There may be another time in history when a President’s entire national-security team recommended a course of action and he overruled them, but if there is I’m not aware of it.”
As Fred Kaplan explained, McCain’s “not aware of” a lot of things.
For a military specialist who often regards himself as aligned with the right side of history, McCain (as the song goes) “don’t know much about history.” There are in fact many instances of presidents defying the advice of their national-security teams, and probably many more instances of presidents wishing that they had done so.
Kaplan’s list is quite compelling. During the Cuban missile crisis, all of President Kennedy’s advisers urged him to bomb Soviet missile sites in Cuba, but JFK rejected their advice. Around the same time, Kennedy’s advisers supported the Joint Chiefs’ recommendation to send “combat troops” to Vietnam, and JFK ignored this, too. In 1983, all of President Reagan’s advisers opposed his “star wars” missile defense program, but he decided to pursue it anyway. In 2006, all of President Bush’s top advisers opposed the “surge” in Iraq, but he ignored them.
McCain can’t think of any modern instances in which a president overruled the judgment of his national-security team? Maybe he ought to read up on the topic.
Of course, the point isn’t that presidents or their military advisors are always right or always wrong, but rather, that there’s one Commander in Chief and he or she has the final call, whether military leaders agree or not.
And in Syria, military leaders may have advised intervention, but it wasn’t up to them.