In the Arena

War, War not Jaw, Jaw

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Jamie Rubin makes some important points about John McCain’s knee-jerk bellicosity. In the case of Georgia, my guess is that McCain was overwhelmed by personal feelings since he had befriended the young Georgian President over the years. Such passion is great for political campaigns–see my column below–but it’s not a great way to make foreign policy.

I’m told there was some debate within the Obama campaign about whether to separate from McCain on Georgia–whether to make the argument: What Russia did was atrocious, but McCain wants to send your kids off to die in yet another war. As is so often the case with the Obama campaign, discretion proved the better part of valor…and McCain’s hyperbole went uncriticized. But this should be one of the bright lines in this campaign: McCain has rattled sabers all over the place–except, curiously, where some really concentrated kinetics were justified, on the Af/Pak border. His overemphasis on turning every foreign problem into an existential crisis is a profound misreading of what the next President should be about: getting our house in order back home.

By the way, the McCain campaign and its neoconservative allies have expanded their foolish bellicosity to Syria and are now criticizing a sometime Obama adviser for attending a bar association conference in Damascus and saying that it wouldn’t be a bad idea for the next U.S. President to promote an Israel-Syrian peace accord. Over the past few years, I’ve talked at least a dozen prominent Republican (non-neoconservative) foreign policy specialists who say that the Bush Administration’s decision to pull the U.S. Ambassador from Syria after the Hariri assassination and treat the regime there as an adjunct member of the Axis of Evil was wildly stupid, forcing the Syrians (who, unlike neoconservatives, don’t see the world in black and white) closer to Iran than they find comfortable. In this case McCain and the neocons–with their extremely warped view of Israel’s best interests–are considerably to their right of the Israeli government, which has been negotiating with the Syrians under Turkish auspices.

It seems obvious that Bashar Assad–an Alawite (that is, a member of a Shi’ite sect) with an overwhelmingly Sunni populace–has a domestic political need to be careful about, and perhaps replace, his alliance-of-necessity with Iran. There are real diplomatic possibilities here, including the possibility that Syria could reduce, or end, its support for Hizballah in Lebanon. Assad has told a succession of visitors–including me, two years ago–that he’s open to negotiations on all fronts. That may or may not mean much, but the McCain/neocon refusal to even countenance discussions is exactly what has been disastrously wrong with the Bush foreign policy these past eight years.