President Barack Obama budding relationship with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Lindsey Grahmam (R-S.C.) came into full view Monday, Sept. 2 when he hosted the inseparable duo at the White House. Much to the distaste of Democrats, Obama had already tapped former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) to run the Defense Department, a move seen by many as sticking it to the GOP since Hagel was viewed as a turncoat during Iraq War. Now Hagel finds himself deferring to Obama’s 2008 presidential foe for his overarching defense policy, especially now running the Syrian military operation. Since the Syrian civil war began March 11, 2011, Obama has largely sat on the sidelines while Syrian President Bashar al-Assad massacred over 100,000 civilians, displacing 2 million more. When al-Assad gassed East Damacus Aug. 21, Obama could no longer sit on the fence.
During the two-and-half-year war, al-Assad has reportedly used poison gas over 10 times, prompting Obama in 2011 and 20012 to declare that chemical weapons were a “game-changer” or “red-line.” As the asphyxiated bodies pied up from Aug. 21 Sarin never gas, Obama was pushed to take a stand, formulating military response to al-Assad’s egregious violation of the chemical weapons’ ban. Unsure how to proceed, Barack fashioned a response designed to “fire a shot across the bow,” agreeing to hit al-Assad with Cruise Missiles but not seek regime change. Bringing McCain onboard has changed all that. McCain’s view hasn’t changed since he called for bombing al-Assad March 5, 2012, setting up no-fly zones to help Syrian rebels eventually topple the 47-year-old former ophthamologist. Al-Assad’s Sarin nerve gas attack asphyxiated over 1,400 civilians, including over 400 children.
Obama’s plan to punish al-Assad while not degrading his war machine landed with a thud in Congress. Asking McCain to sell a limited but focused military operation has won plaudits on Capitol Hill. “Only the United States has the capability and the capacity to stop Assad and to warn other around the world that this type of behavior is not going to be tolerated,” said House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Vir.), backing McCain’s new military plan of hit al-Assad’s command-and-control centers, air-strips, radar installation, anti-missile batteries, possibly his presidential palace, changes the plan less to “a shot across the bow” to broadsiding al-Assad with a torpedo. “I look forward to listening to the various concerns of the members who are here today. I am confident that those concerns can be addressed,” said Obama.
Obama’s deferral to McCain and Graham’s plan has made all the difference in Congress. Getting Boehner and Cantor to buy the new plan is a stunning reversal of growing opposition to Obama’s plan. Instead of framing the plan as “regime change,” the Senate-fashioned resolution addressing the need to intervene in Syria to send America’s adversaries—especially Iran—a message that the U.S. won’t sit idly by while Tehran tries to build its first A-bomb. Putting his plan into McCain’s hands admits that Barack’s plan to slap al-Assad on the wrist carried no clout. “I would not be going to Congress if I wasn’t serious about consultations and believing that by shaping the authorization to make sure we accomplish the mission, we will be more effective,” said Barack, admitting the plan was now in McCain’s hands. It’s ironic that Obama has only received GOP cooperation over war-making.
When Obama decided to bypass his national security team Friday, Aug. 31, including Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and National Security Advisor Susan Rice, he agreed to let McCain fashion a coherent response to al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons. When Barack talks now about accomplishing the mission, he’s referring to the expanded mission of degrading al-Assad’s military. McCain’s goal is to help Free Syrian Army Brig. Gen. Salim Idris topple al-Assad and install a pro-U.S. Syrian government. Lurking in some part of the Mediterranean are two Russian warships, mirroring lingering Cold War suspicions that still dog the relationship between the U.S. and Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putim doesn’t take lightly the idea of losing a Russian ally in the Mediterranean—a very real possibility if the U.S. topples al-Assad.
When Obama meets with Putin at the G20 in St. Petersburg Sept. 5, there’s going to be some added tension over the Syrian situation. Working out the details of a military response to al-Assad’s use of Sarin nerve gas won’t go over well with Putin, who’s been a shameful apologist to the al-Assad regime. While criticizing U.S. intel as too short on details, Putin didn’t like NATO Supreme Commander Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s comments confirming al-Assad’s use of Sarin nerve gas. Putin continues validating al-Assad’s denials, telling the press the U.S. has no real “proof.” McCain’s new role to oversee the Syrian operation assures that the Pentagon won’t spin its wheels or get drawn into a protracted ground war. McCain sees parallels to what happened in Tripoli, Libya, where a determined NATO bombing campaign eventually drove Col Muammar Gaddafi out of Tripoli Aug. 21, 2011.
About the Author
John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.