In a disgusting moment of ‘straight talk’ from Senator John McCain (R-AZ) this week, the former Republican Presidential nominee claimed that President Obama was “directly responsible” for the violent and deadly carnage at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. The senior Senator from Arizona quickly backtracked, offering a Washington-style apology in which he clarified that he “misspoke” and didn’t mean to imply that President Obama was “personally” responsible, simply that it was his policies that led to the death of 49 people and the wounding of another 53.
The Senator’s comments, despite his attempt to backtrack, are offensive and outrageously tone deaf at a moment when our nation needs solidarity and unity. Worse, his comments are also a distortion of the truth and must be called out for what they are: a lie.
Senator McCain’s argument boils down to the following: President Obama, by removing US combat troops from Iraq and not militarily intervening in the Syrian civil war, is responsible for the rise of ISIS, and thus the carnage in Orlando.
Let’s start with some simple fact checking. The departure of American military forces from Iraq was negotiated under the Bush Administration. When President Obama came to office, having soundly defeated Senator McCain (who famously promised to keep US troops in Iraq for 100 years), Obama actually sought to negotiate a new Status of Forces Agreement with Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki that would allow as many as 10,000 US troops to stay in Iraq. The Iraqis refused. After a decade of occupation, there was no political will or support for Iraqi leaders to keep thousands of American soldiers on the streets of Iraq, and so no agreement could be reached.
Senator McCain also believes that Obama’s refusal to violently overthrow Syria’s government — the way we had a decade earlier in Iraq — led to the shooting at Pulse. Here, Senator McCain is on stronger footing inasmuch as President Obama has in fact refused to take direct military action against Bashar al Assad and to engage in regime change in Syria. But while Daesh (also referred to as ISIS or ISIL) undoubtedly gained power in the chaos of Syria’s civil war, it owes its origins to the invasion of Iraq, of which, lest we forget, Senator McCain championed.
Daesh emerged from al-Qaeda in Iraq, which arose during the Sunni opposition to the Iraq War. It’s well remembered that, despite the lies of the Bush Administration, there was no al-Qaeda presence in Iraq prior to the US invasion. That disastrous war of choice brought al-Qaeda to Iraq, which subsequently spawned Daesh. As unpleasant as that recent history is, Senator McCain cannot be forgiven for ignoring the reality of the origins of the violent extremism he now pins on Obama’s shoulders. Daesh’s ranks are filled with those indoctrinated with hatred fueled in part by the torture of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, the dark reality of military occupation, and the brutal repression of Sunnis at the hands of the Maliki and Assad regimes, two governments openly, substantively, and recently supported by America.
If one were feeling generous, you might allow McCain a ‘half-truth’ for claiming that America’s slow response to the horrors of the Syrian revolution turned civil war. But the reality is that Sen. McCain has openly advocated for policies that had little chance to improve the situation and may have made things even worse. Let’s set aside the fact that Daesh drives American tanks and fires American guns that they looted from the $25 billion army American taxpayers built in Iraq. Sen. McCain’s argument essentially boils down to ‘Obama should have attacked the Assad regime and done more to arm and train Syrian rebels.’
The truth is that America has spent hundreds of millions of dollars arming and training Syria’s various rebels. In some cases, those forces have handed their guns over to al-Qaeda affiliates, while others have turned their guns on other rebel groups that America has also armed and trained. Sen. McCain’s argument boils down to ‘We should have done more of this and sooner.’ Not exactly compelling.
The core of Senator McCain’s argument is that we should have done more to violently overthrow the Assad regime. In particular, he is likely amongst those who believe President Obama failed when he did not bomb Assad following the alleged use of chemical weapons in 2013. Again, history tells a reality at odds with McCain’s wishes. Having been abandoned by our allies, including the British who announced they wanted to no part in a military attack on Assad, President Obama turned to Congress to authorize military action against Assad. McCain was, of course, one of the loudest supporters, even earning private meetings at the White House to discuss the plans with the President.
But here’s the thing, we live in a democracy and the American public, when asked their opinion, responded with a resounding and unequivocal ‘hell no’ to the planned war. Congress was inundated with calls 100 to 1 against bombing Syria, and, faced with such overwhelming opposition, was set to reject the requested war authorization. Confronted with this reality, President Obama dispatched Secretary of State Kerry to make a deal with Russia. In an overlooked diplomatic masterpiece, Assad was forced by his Russian backers to not only acknowledge a chemical weapons stockpile he had always denied, but to hand it over to international organizations to destroy. Within months, that’s exactly what happened.
However one feels about America’s policy towards Syria, we should all agree that the carnage and death in Syria would be far, far worse if Syria’s chemical weapons had remained in Assad’s hands, or worse, fallen into Daesh’s hands as they almost assuredly would have done as they overran numerous previous chemical weapons storehouses not long after the weapons were removed. Had the Obama administration listened to Senator McCain and intervened militarily, Daesh would have likely held and deployed major stockpiles of chemical weapons by now.
Senator McCain is wrong in his belief that we should have overthrown Assad through military force. It is hard to look at the carnage and bloodshed in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan today and see any basis for thinking that this argument holds any merit. It is far more likely that a US military intervention would have continued to fuel the same instability we saw in Iraq where Daesh was created or in Libya and Afghanistan, where it is gaining strength today. Sen. McCain’s own arguments fail to pass a basic bar of common sense, and history has shown them to be dangerously at odds with reality.
This is not to say America should not be doing more to stop the violence in Syria, including holding Assad responsible for horrific war crimes. We can and we should, but we have options for doing so that go beyond airstrikes and ground troops.
The reality though is that Sen. McCain is allowed to continue spilling lies and false history like this because of a simple fact, we lack accountability. Ironically, while Sen. McCain wants to hold President Obama accountable for his policies, it is an accounting of the consequences of McCain’s own preferred policies that is truly needed if we want to understand America’s disastrous failures in the Middle East. If John McCain wants to hold someone accountable, he should look in the mirror.
A quarter century of US military intervention in Iraq, supported by Senator McCain, has brought a failed state, brutal sectarian violence, and the fuel for a global violent insurgency. The core of McCain’s constant calls for more deployments is his belief that American troops can overcome centuries of hostility and sectarian conflict. Never does McCain explain how 10,000 troops in Iraq would have accomplished what 100,000 failed to do between 2003 and 2011. Our troops are perhaps the most amazing fighting force in history, but they’re not magical, and they cannot win wars that have no military solution.
The simple reality is that we cannot bomb our way to peace in the Middle East, no matter what John McCain thinks. And, until the Senator from Arizona wants to apologize for the disastrous consequences of the policies he advocated, he can kindly shut up. It would be disgusting and untrue to say that Senator McCain is directly responsible for the actions of a deranged young man who walked into a gay nightclub in Orlando with death in his heart. But if he wants to talk about who is responsible for the violence and chaos of the Middle East, let’s have that debate.