The Buzz

McCain: Help Syria's Rebels—Before They Take Revenge

Senator John McCain’s desire to help Syria’s rebels is understandable and even commendable. But his latest case for arming them and protecting them with a no-fly zone makes little sense.

On NBC’s Meet the Press on April 28, 2013, McCain urged the United States to help the rebels, quoting a teacher in a Jordanian refugee camp, who told the visiting Senator that the children in the camp are “going to take revenge on those people who refuse to help them.” McCain himself added that “the Syrian people are angry and bitter at the United States” because of Washington’s failure to do more to aid the armed opposition to the hopefully eventual ex-president Bashar al-Assad.

First, why is there any reason to think that Syrians who are already angry and bitter with Washington would be less bitter if the United States intervenes more significantly? They will still be displaced and their friends and families will still be dead or maimed. If they blame the United States for that, would the help that McCain proposes really change their minds after two years of fighting?

Second, how could anyone possibly argue that U.S. national-security decisions should be made to avoid making anyone angry or bitter? Under McCain’s logic, supporters of the Syrian regime would become even more hostile to the United States if we support their opponents. How do we decide which bitter people are more dangerous?

Third, the teacher whom McCain quoted was specifically suggesting that the children in the camp would grow up to take revenge on the United States for failing to oust Assad. Would arms for the rebels and a no-fly zone be the best way to avoid that outcome? What about improving conditions in the camps and helping refugees reintegrate into post-Assad Syria? There are other approaches to this problem as well.

Finally, how would anyone in Syria become angry and bitter at the United States for not doing more to get rid of Assad if we had not ourselves encouraged them to think that we would? Americans did this most immediately by saying and repeating that he has to go without being ready (President Obama) or able (Senator McCain) to make it stick, but also by eagerly toppling others across the region—ironically, something that probably made at least some of them angry even as it created a context in which they would expect U.S. military assistance.

Senator McCain really seems to like the anecdote about the teacher, which he employed similarly as a call to action during then nominee John Kerry’s confirmation hearings. Someone should persuade him to stop sharing it—it helps neither him nor his cause.