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No Insurgency Is Too Flawed for McCain

CBS News reports on McCain’s comments following his visit to Syria:

Of the risk that U.S. weapons might fall into the wrong hands, McCain suggested “identifying those people who are on our side.” [bold mine-DL]

McCain’s remark sums up a lot of what is wrong with the pro-intervention argument. He starts from the assumption that there is a side in the Syrian conflict that can reasonably be described as “ours,” and then considers it simply to be a problem of locating and identifying the people that are on “our side” before funneling weapons to them. When we recognize that neither side in the conflict is “ours,” suddenly the idea that the U.S. is obliged to arm the weaker side in the conflict makes absolutely no sense.

During his visit, McCain suffered a little embarrassment when it turned out that he may have been photographed with men suspected of kidnapping Shia pilgrims from Lebanon. McCain’s spokesman insisted that he wasn’t aware of this, and presumably that’s true, but the episode illustrates how unwise McCain’s overall position on Syria is. McCain went to Syria so that he could vouch for the virtues of the opposition, but at least some of the people he wants the U.S. to arm are already engaged in sectarian and criminal behavior. The standard interventionist line is that U.S. backing for the opposition would enable Washington to discourage and prevent such behavior, but it is far more likely that it would simply make the U.S. complicit in it.

No doubt it’s also true that “no insurgencies are perfect,” as McCain said, but the problem is that the opposition’s “perfection” or lack thereof doesn’t matter to McCain. He favors regime change in Syria, and he’s evidently willing to support most anti-regime forces regardless of how “imperfect” they are. Since the mid-’90s, McCain has rarely encountered an armed insurgency flawed enough that he thought it shouldn’t receive U.S. backing. Back in the late ’90s, he didn’t care that the KLA was listed as a terrorist group by our government and was engaged in drug trafficking. He considered them to be on “our side,” too. The truth is that McCain very much wants the U.S. to be on the Syrian opposition’s side, and so we are told that they are on “ours,” but in the context of Syria’s conflict this claim is meaningless. The U.S. doesn’t have a side in Syria’s conflict, and it shouldn’t try to get one.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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