On the heels of his trip to Syria and stops in Jordan, Turkey and Yemen, Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) yesterday delivered this address at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C. on “U.S. policy in Syria and the broader Middle East”:
|Senator John McCain at Brookings yesterday|
Thank you, Martin (Indyk), for that kind introduction.
It is always a pleasure to return to the Brookings Institution, this bastion of conservative thought. It is nice to see so many friends, as well as a few enemies, in the audience this afternoon. I would like to make a few opening remarks, and then I’d be happy to respond to any comments, or questions, or insults you may have.
As most of you know, I traveled last week to Yemen, Jordan, Turkey, and Syria. This was my twelfth separate trip to the region since the events known as the Arab Spring began in December 2011. And what I can say categorically today is that I am now more concerned than at any time since the darkest days of the war in Iraq that the Middle East is descending into sectarian conflict.
The conflict in Syria is at the heart of this crisis. Last week, together with General Salim Idriss, the chief of staff of the Supreme Military Council, I met with more than a dozen senior Free Syrian Army commanders in southern Turkey and northern Syria. They came from cities across Syria, including Qusayr, Homs, Damascus, and Aleppo. Many of them were joined by their civilian counterparts. And all of them painted the same grave picture of the state of the conflict in Syria.
Assad has turned the tide of battle on the ground. His foreign allies have all doubled down on him. Iran is all in. Russia is all in. Shiite militants are flowing into the fight from Iraq. And Hezbollah fighters have invaded Syria by the thousands. They were decisive in retaking the critical city of Qusayr, and now they are leading the attacks on Homs and Aleppo. Assad is using every weapon in his arsenal, from tanks and artillery, to air power and ballistic missiles. And according to a recent U.N. report, there are, quote, “reasonable grounds” to believe that Assad’s forces have used chemical weapons. The President’s red-line appears to have been crossed, perhaps more than once, and it should come as no surprise that new claims of chemical weapons use by Assad are already surfacing, as I heard in Syria.
The result of this onslaught is that Syria as we know it is ceasing to exist. More than 80,000 people are dead. A quarter of all Syrians have been driven from their homes. The Syrian state is disintegrating in much of the country, leaving vast ungoverned spaces that are being filled by extremists, many aligned with al-Qaeda. Some now put the number of these extremists inside Syria in the thousands. They are the best armed, best funded, and most experienced fighters. And every day this conflict grinds on, these extremists are marginalizing moderate leaders like the commanders I met last week – Syrians who don’t want to trade Assad for al-Nusra.
The worsening conflict in Syria is now spilling outside of the country and stoking sectarian conflict across the region. Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey are each straining under the weight of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. Indeed, ten percent of Jordan’s population is now Syrian refugees. This would be equivalent to the entire population of Texas suddenly crossing our own border. And that number is expected to double this year. Terrorist bombings have struck Turkey, and Syrian groups are firing rockets into Shiite areas of Lebanon in retaliation for Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria. Old sectarian wounds are being reopened in Lebanon.
The situation is even worse in Iraq. The conflict in Syria, together with Prime Minister Maliki’s unwillingness to share power, is radicalizing Iraq’s Sunni population. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is back and stepping up its attacks on Iraqi Shiites. In response, Shiite militias are remobilizing and retaliating against Iraqi Sunnis. More than 1,000 Iraqis were killed last month alone, the highest level of violence since 2007. Some experts now believe that one watershed event, similar to the bombing of the Golden Mosque in 2006, could tip Iraq back into full-scale sectarian conflict.
Extremist forces are also gathering momentum elsewhere in the region. The fall of governments across the region has opened up ungoverned spaces that now stretch from the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa, across North Africa, all the way down into Mali and even northern Nigeria. Al-Qaeda affiliated extremist groups are now on the march throughout these vast ungoverned spaces. Iran is also seeking to exploit the present chaos. Indeed, every Yemeni and U.S. official I met last week in Sana’a said that Iran is a greater threat in Yemen today than Al-Qaeda.
Put simply, the space for moderate politics is collapsing as the Middle East descends deeper into extremism and conflict. A sectarian battle-line is being drawn through the heart of the region – with Sunni extremists, many allied with al-Qaeda, dominant on one side, and Iranian-backed proxy forces dominant on the other.
What is more disturbing, however, is how little most Americans seem to care. Most are weary of war and eager to focus on domestic issues. But some hold a more cynical view: They see the Middle East as a hopeless quagmire of ancient hatreds and a huge distraction from worthier priorities, whether it is rebalancing toward Asia or nation-building at home. For those of us who believe otherwise, and who believe the United States must lead more actively in the region, we have to answer a fundamental question: Why should we care about the Middle East?
One reason is that we have enduring national interests in the Middle East that will not be diminished – not by our fatigue with the region and its challenges, not by our desire to focus on domestic issues, not by the growing importance of other parts of the world, and not even by the prospect of American energy independence. The Middle East has always been more important than oil. It still is.
The United States has friends and allies in the Middle East who depend on us for their security, and who contribute more to the defense and well-being of our nation than most Americans will ever know. But believe me, Americans will know it very quickly if global trade and energy flows, not to mention U.S. warships, can no longer transit the Suez Canal, through which approximately 8 percent of the world’s seaborne trade passes. They will know it if we lose key Arab partners, such as the Kingdom of Jordan, along with their vital military, intelligence, and counterterrorism cooperation. And they will absolutely know it if Israel becomes beset on all sides by even more hostile governments and more violent extremists.
In short, if the Middle East descends into extremism, and war, and despair, no one should think America would be able to pivot away from those threats. Our national security interests will suffer. That is an inescapable reality. It is the lesson of September 11, 2001. And to believe otherwise is not only naïve; it is dangerous.
The Middle East also matters because much of the rest of the world views it, rightly, as a test of American credibility and resolve. For decades, Presidents of both parties have said the United States will deter our enemies and support our friends in the Middle East. They have said we would not allow Iran to get a nuclear weapons capability. And they have said, as this President has said about Syria, that we would not tolerate the use or proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. If the United States now signals that it is unwilling or unable to meet its own stated commitments and enforce its own declared red-lines, that message will be heard loud and clear, far beyond the Middle East. It will demoralize our friends, embolden our enemies, and make our world a far more dangerous place for us.
But ultimately, there is a more positive reason why we have to care about the Middle East. This region is now experiencing a period of upheaval unlike any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Over the past three years, we have seen millions and millions of ordinary men and women rise up peacefully, and lift their voices, and risk everything on behalf of the same values we hold dear: freedom and democracy, equal justice and rule of law, human rights and dignity. They are doing so against impossible odds and, at times, in the face of merciless oppression and violence. These brave men and women are taking a chance on themselves, many for the first time. And they are asking us to take a chance on them – not after they have succeeded in their struggles, but now, when they need it most, when their fate hangs in the balance, and when American leadership can still be decisive.
I know some of our initial hopes for the Arab Spring have dimmed quite a bit – in part because of a lack of U.S. leadership. But these hopes have not gone out. And so long as men and women across the Middle East still harbor hopes for a future of peace, and freedom, and prosperity, the Arab Spring will remain the greatest repudiation of everything that al-Qaeda stands for. Ultimately, this is how our long fight against global terrorist groups will be won. This is how conditions of lasting peace will finally be secured across the Middle East. Not through drone strikes and night raids alone, but by helping people across the region lift up democratic governments and growing economies that offer hope.
The entire Middle East is now up for grabs, and our enemies are fully committed to winning. Moderate forces and aspiring democrats are fighting for their futures and their very lives. The only power that is not fully committed in this struggle is us. And as a result, leaders and people across the region who share our interests and many of our values are losing ground to violent extremists.
Our friends and allies in the Middle East are crying out for American leadership, as I heard again last week. We must answer this call. We must lead. We need an alternative strategy that creates space for moderate leaders to marginalize extremists and for people to resolve their differences peacefully, politically.
An alternative strategy must begin with a credible Syria policy. I want a negotiated end to this conflict. But anyone who thinks that Assad and his allies will ever make peace when they are winning on the battlefield is delusional. I know that the situation in Syria is hugely complicated, and that there are no easy or ideal options. But we have to be realistic: This conflict will grind on with all of its worsening consequences until the balance of power shifts against Assad and his allies. And the longer we wait to take action, the more action we will have to take.
No one should think that we have to destroy every air defense system or put thousands of boots on the ground to make a difference in Syria. We have limited options. We could use our stand-off weapons, such as cruise missiles, to target Assad’s aircraft and ballistic missile launchers on the ground. We could enable a provisional government to establish itself in a safe zone in Syria that we could help to protect with Patriot missiles. And we could organize a full-scale operation to train and equip Syrian opposition forces. After all, Assad is getting weapons. Al-Nusra is getting weapons. The only forces in Syria that are not getting weapons are moderate commanders like those I met last week, who said their units desperately need ammunition and weapons to counter Assad’s tanks, artillery, and air power.
Would any of this immediately end the conflict? Probably not. But could it save innocent lives in Syria? Could it give the moderate opposition a better chance to succeed? And could it help to turn the conflict in Syria into a strategic disaster for Iran and Hezbollah? To me, the answer to all of these questions is yes.
More decisive action in Syria could create new leverage to defuse sectarian tensions and counter Iran’s ambition of regional hegemony. In the Gulf, this would mean making the military threat more credible and apparent as Iran continues its pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability. And in Lebanon, this would mean making the strategic defeat of Hezbollah in Syria the centerpiece of a wider campaign to target its finances, cut its supply lines, delegitimize its leaders, and support internal opposition to its role as an armed force in Lebanese politics.
An alternative Middle East strategy must also include a greatly enhanced effort to build the capacity of security forces across the region, especially in North African. Egypt needs a new police force. Tunisia needs help with border security. Libya is trying to build new national security forces from scratch. Mali basically needs a whole new army. One bright spot is actually Yemen, which is engaged in a promising restructuring of its armed forces and internal security units. These governments, and others like them, don’t want al-Qaeda affiliates exploiting their countries any more than we do. They have a lot of will to resist these groups. They just need help with the means. The U.S. military can play this role better than any force in the world. And it is in our interest to do so far more than we are currently.
More broadly, we must renew our leadership on behalf of human rights and democracy in the Middle East. This will take different forms in different countries. In Yemen, for example, where a managed transition is proving more successful thus far than many could have expected, we must continue to provide assistance as requested. In Jordan, Morocco, and the Gulf states, we must shore up the stability of these vital partners while also urging them to continue responding to their peoples’ desires for change, including through greater political reform.
And then there is Egypt, where the high hopes that many of us, and many Egyptians, had back in January 2011 are being deeply disappointed. I am a friend of Egypt and a long-standing supporter of our assistance relationship. But after this week’s conviction of 43 NGO workers, Congress must reevaluate our assistance to Egypt. Our foreign aid budget is shrinking while the demands on it are growing. As a result, Egypt must show that it is a good investment of our scarce resources – that the return on this investment will be a freer, more democratic, more tolerant Egypt. If not, Congress will spend this money elsewhere. That is just a fact.
At the same time, we must make it clear that the United States does not align itself with any one ruler or group in Egypt. Rather, we stand for the principles and practices of democracy, for the freedoms of civil society, and for the basic rights of all Egyptians. We must not simply exchange a Mubarak policy for a Morsi policy. We need to have, at long last, an Egypt policy.
Finally, any strategy to bolster moderates in the Middle East must include an effort to seek peace between Palestinians and Israelis. As always, such an effort must be weighed against its opportunity costs. With so many urgent priorities now demanding high-level attention in the region, especially Syria, I hope the President and his new national security team are carefully considering these trade-offs.
Each of the steps I have described today is necessary if we are to have a more effective strategy to advance our interests and values in the Middle East. But none of these steps will be sufficient without one additional factor: the sustained, outspoken, and determined leadership of the President of the United States.
Only the President can explain to the American people how high the stakes are in the Middle East. Only the President can change public opinion and rally the American people behind him. Only the President can push our government to be bolder, and more imaginative, and more decisive than it is inclined to be. Only the President can pull our friends and allies together and shape their individual efforts into decisive, unified international action. Only the President can do these things. And that is what we need from him now more than ever. We need him to lead.
That is also what our friends and allies in the Middle East want from our President. They want him to lead, and they want America to lead. That is what I heard last week in Jordan. That is what I heard in Yemen. That is what I heard in Turkey. And that is absolutely what I heard in Syria. That is what people and leaders tell me again and again as I travel throughout the region. They tell me they want America to lead because they are confident that America can still be decisive in shaping the future of the Middle East. In short, our friends and allies still believe in America. What they want to know is whether we still believe in ourselves.
Renewing American leadership in the Middle East should be a Republican goal. It should be a Democratic goal. And if the President makes it his goal, he will have my full support.