In the Arena

What John McCain Doesn’t Know

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Senator McCain made a well-publicized trip to Syria and may have posed with extremist kidnappers.

I don’t blame McCain for this. It’s hard to advance a trip into rebel territory. A few years ago, McCain made a well-publicized walk through a Baghdad market, didn’t get shot at, and pronounced major progress in Iraq afterward. A few weeks later, I made the same walk but actually spoke to the shopkeepers—all of whom were supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shi’ite militia leader.

The point is: We just don’t know these places well enough to go over and draw grand conclusions about policy. In a way, McCain’s trip is a perfect metaphor for the problem of involving ourselves with the Syrian rebels. We may be siding with the greater evil. We may be throwing fuel on a fire that could consume the region. Our track record when it comes to such things is dismal.

It is frustrating to watch Syria unravel, especially for those of us who have great affection for the Syrian people. (Damascus is one of my favorite cities in the region.) It is possible that our involvement might tamp down the slaughter—but far more likely that it will be seen as another neo-colonial intervention that will only make things worse. (Israel, on the other hand, has a direct national interest in making sure that Assad and, especially, Hizballah, don’t receive weapons from Russia or Iran that will change the balance of power in the region.)

We may be heading for a regional Sunni-Shi’a confrontation. It could last a decade or more.  We should be prepared to involve ourselves diplomatically in an aggressive fashion. We should be ready with humanitarian assistance when necessary. But we must be very, very careful–as President Obama has been–about military involvement of any sort.