On Wednesday afternoon, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) was his normal warmongering self as he grilled Secretary of State John Kerry over the Obama Administration’s strategy to deal with ISIS. McCain used his time during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing to beat his chest and demand that the United States not only get into a ground war in Iraq and Syria to combat ISIS, but that the country also needs to commit to a war against the Assad regime in Syria. While House Democrats are legitimately concerned about the White House’s plan to arm and train Syrian rebels to help fight ISIS on the ground, McCain wants the President to push forward and go whole hog with the war machine.
Below is the exchange between McCain and Kerry (emphasis mine):
McCain: Secretary, today, September 17th, Secretary Gates said the following, former Secretary of Defense Gates. The reality is they’re not going to be able to be successful against ISIS strictly from the air or strictly depending on the Iraqi forces of the Peshmerga by the Sunni tribes acting on their own, gates said. So there will be boots on the ground if there’s to be any hope of success in the strategy. And I think that by containing — by continuing to repeat that, that the US won’t put boots on the ground, the president in effect traps himself. Now, Mr. Secretary, I’ve talked to so many people who are military experienced, who have been on both sides on this issue. They all agree with secretary gates’ assessment. And that’s just the reality. And there are some of us that place a great deal of confidence in the opinion of people like Secretary Gates, General Keane. So the architects of the surge. So many others.-the architects of the surge. So many others.-the architects of the surge. So many others. The architects of the surge. So many others. Is it your view that the Syrian opposition is viable?
Kerry: The Syrian opposition has been viable enough to be able to survive under difficult circumstances but they still have some distance to go and we need to help them go that distance.
McCain: The hero of this piece so far in my view is a guy who’s going to testify after you, Robert Ford, Ambassador Ford. He did a magnificent job at the risk of his own life, riding around Damascus in his support of the Free Syrian army. Here’s what he’s going to say in his testimony. The moderate armed opposition’s biggest enemy is not the Islamic State, it is the Assad regime which has killed far more Syrians than has the detestable Islamic State, and they won’t stop fighting the Assad regime even as they advance against the Islamic State. You’re saying, ISIS first. We’re going to train and equip the Free Syrian army and they’re going to be fighting against Assad who they view as their number one enemy. I agree with Ambassador Ford’s assessment. You’re saying, ISIL first. So if this — so we’re telling the young Syrian today, I want you to join the Free Syrian Army, you’ve got to fight ISIL first, and by the way those barrel bombs that are being dropped on you and these attacks from the air that of Hamas customers of so many Syrians, we’re not going to do anything about that. I think at least we owe the Free Syrian Army, negate the air attacks that they will be subjected to when they finish their training and equipping, and go into the fight. So why is it that we won’t at least news release Bashar al Assad’s air activity which has slaughtered thousands and thousands and thousands, 192,000 dead, 3 million refugees, and we’re not going to do anything about Assad’s air capabilities? And finally, ISIL first, that’s what you’re telling these young men who really view Assad as the one who has slaughtered their family members. Not ISIL. As bad as ISIL is. How do you square that circle action Mr. Secretary?
Kerry: Well, you square it this way, Senator. And first of all, let me just say a word. I think everybody knows — I had the pleasure of working with Robert Ford in the department from the day I arrived there. We worked very closely together, I have huge respect and admiration for him. And he and I worked many long hours with the Syrian opposition. And I respect his opinion, et cetera. He is correct that they won’t stop fighting the Assad regime. I understand that we understand that.
McCain: Not only won’t stop fighting, it’s their primary goal.
Kerry: Well, it is, except…
McCain: I know too many of them, John.
Kerry: I understand. It is. I’m not denying that. But they also are fighting ISIL. They’re up in Aleppo right now fighting ISIL. They’re fighting ISIL in other places. They threw them out of a province. They are engaged in fighting ISIL. And our belief is, I think — I bet you, I hope Robert Ford believes that they believe they actually get stronger as a result of ISIL being removed from the field.
McCain: Are you not going to protect them from air strikes?
Kerry: I think what we need — yes, and I think what we need — that’s a legitimate concern. And it is a concern that I would need to address with you in a classified session for reasons I think you well understand. And I think Robert ford well understands that.
McCain: I think the Free Syrian Army would like to understand, too.
Kerry: If we have a good classified session and another good things happen here, who knows. The important thing is for us to recognize that if ISIL continues doing what it’s doing — I think you know this — without being stopped and if we hadn’t stood up when we did and work with Peshmerga and help them, they were threatening Baghdad and they were threatening more. If they did that…
McCain: We’re talking about Syria. And the Free Syrian Army.
Kerry: I’m about to come back…
McCain: Thank you. I’m running out of time.
Kerry: That pertains to their capacity then to focus on Assad and it might be not the Free Syrian Army but ISIL that you see in Damascus. And ISIL bringing other people to them because of the level of their success. Clearly, many people have told us in the region, success breeds success. And many of the people who have come to ISIL have come because it seemed as if they were weren’t being opposed. We believe that transition works to the benefit of the moderate opposition, works ultimately to all of our benefit by removing ISIL from the field.
McCain: You cannot ask people to go and fight and die unless you promise them that they — you will defeat their enemy and defeat them right away. You can’t say, wait until we defeat ISIL. People will not volunteer for such things.
Kerry: I don’t believe it’s going to be ultimately a wait and see. I don’t believe, number one, that the people supporting the opposition in various parts of the region are ever going to stop until the Assad problem is resolves. Number two, I don’t believe ISIL is going — I don’t believe that the moderate opposition will obviously stop in that effort. So, therefore, there will be these two prongs.
McCain: I hope not ISIL first, if that message is not given to these brave young people.
Kerry: If we don’t stop ISIL first, there may not be much left of the other prong.
McCain: That means we can’t take on two adversaries at once that’s bogus and false.
There you have it. McCain didn’t even try to hide his cards here. He wants the United States to not only send American troops to Iraq to fight ISIS. He also wants this country to get involved in a massive civil war in Syria that is being fought on several fronts. McCain just doesn’t want to hear any crap about America not having the capability to fight multiple adversaries at once. No way, Jose! In McCain’s worldview, the United States needs to be involved with as many wars as possible.
He spent the majority of his allotted time on Wednesday afternoon pushing the idea that, while ISIS is bad and needs to be confronted, the real war we need to be fighting is in Syria and against the Assad regime. This sounded frighteningly similar to the Bush Administration in the run-up to the Iraq War, where the focus shifted from Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and to Saddam Hussein in Iraq. McCain, like any good neo-con hawk, will use any legitimate but limited use of force to justify a full-scale war with an entirely different target.