John McCain’s June 18th speech at the American Enterprise Institute was a useful reminder of why we didn’t elect him president. While fulminating about President Barack Obama’s reluctance to intervene militarily in Syria, the senior Senator from Arizona displayed the kind of rhetorical disingenuousness that convinced a majority of Americans that he couldn’t be trusted. Posturing as a neo-Wilsonian idealist, McCain exhorted Obama learn from the experience of former President Bill Clinton, who “finally summoned the courage to intervene and stop the killing” in Bosnia. However the McCain who was giving foreign policy advice back in the 1990s didn’t sound much like an idealist. This is what he said in 1994 prior to Clinton’s military intervention to end state terror in Haiti: “I don’t think our vital interests are at stake. In Haiti, there is a military government we don’t like. But there are governments around the world that aren’t democratic that we don’t like. Are we supposed to invade those countries too?”*
While McCain’s foreign policy recommendations about the Syrian tragedy can be dismissed as nonsense, the rhetoric that he deploys merits attention because it is the narrative that the permanent war party is using to hustle Americans into yet another war in the Middle East. The secret to successful warmongering lies just as much in what you DON’T talk about as what you do talk about. Here are the rules for this narrative:
First, don’t talk about geopolitics. That the United States military must police the entire Middle East sounds absurd when you say it in public and it threatens to alert people that Iran is next on your hit list. Instead, talk about humanitarian concern. Highlight any story in which children are victims of atrocity. McCain says he is haunted by stories of children being tortured that he heard in a Syrian refugee camp. Remember that the stories don’t have to be true to be effective. German soldiers never tossed Belgian babies in the air with their bayonets in the First World War and Iraqi soldiers never threw Kuwaiti premature babies out of their incubators in the Gulf War. All that matters is that the stories are so shocking that they shut down critical thinking.
Second, other than the suffering of refugees and atrocities, don’t talk about human rights. Although the secular Arab nationalist government of Bashar al-Assad is authoritarian, women and members of religious minorities – including more than two million Christians – have long enjoyed greater civil rights and personal liberty in Syria than their counterparts in Saudi Arabia and the other oil rich Arab monarchies hat are underwriting the Islamist insurgency.
Third don’t mention Saudi Arabia and the other monarchies by name. McCain demonstrated this rule in his speech by referring to Russia by name nine times, to Turkey five times, to Iraq, Lebanon and Libya three times each, and to Iran twice. He even dares to mention Israel, if only once. However, McCain only refers to Saudi Arabia and the other monarchies with the euphemism “our partners in the Gulf.” Such circumspection might reflect a conservative urge to grovel before enormous wealth but it also probably has something to do with the last time the U.S. and Saudi Arabia teamed up to sponsor an Islamist insurgency: How the Reagan administration gave birth to al-Qaeda is still a taboo topic among Republicans.
Fourth, don’t talk about the Islamist character of the insurgency. Instead, describe it as the ‘opposition’ and pretend that its membership consists of liberal democrats. The Syrian government describes the rebels it is fighting as “terrorists.” That is also the term that the U.S. military uses to describe their counterparts in Afghanistan. McCain, however, rebrands the Syrian insurgents as members of “armed opposition groups.”
Fifth, ignore the legitimacy of the Syrian government. Instead, treat it and the insurgents as equals. McCain does this by complaining that the war in Syria is asymmetrical. “Clearly,” he says, “this is not a fair fight.” To understand the silliness of that comment, try to imagine him saying that about the war between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
Sixth, avoid drawing parallels. Express horror at the use of helicopter gunships by the Syrian Army but save your praise for the use of attack drone aircraft by the United States Air Force and C.I.A. for a different speech on foreign policy.
Finally, don’t talk about what might happen if the ‘Syrian opposition’ wins. The insurgents are unlikely to look kindly on Syria’s religious minorities which supported the government of Bashar al-Assad. Perhaps McCain’s professions of humanitarian concern could be taken a little more seriously if they were accompanied by the offer to resettle the approximately two million Syrian Christians who might be ethnically cleansed to the United States. Perhaps to Arizona!
The war narrative described by those rules need not necessarily prevail. Public opinion polls show that a majority of Americans oppose military intervention in Syria. What recent history has taught us is that we will pay for each new war with the deaths and broken bodies of their sons and daughters in uniform, with either more taxes or more national debt, with diminished public services and with increasing economic inequality. Many of us have also realized that another high tech military intervention solves nothing in a region that appears condemned to interminable conflict by geography, geology and religion. The last time it was Libya. Before that it was Iraq. Before that Afghanistan. Were any of those wars worth the price paid? Here is what really haunts McCain and the rest of the warmongers: If we say ‘no’ to war with Syria this time, then we also say ‘no’ to the next war that they are planning against Iran.
* Steven Greenhouse. “Lawmakers Oppose an Invasion of Haiti Now.” The New York Times. July 10,, 1994.