War Stories

John McCain Don’t Know Much About History

When it comes to giving Obama advice about Syria, the senator has a shaky recollection of the past.

U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) watches his colleagues speak during a news conference following their tour of the Arizona-Mexico border in Nogales, Arizona March 27, 2013.

John McCain has expressed skepticism at Obama’s approach to Syria

Photo by Samantha Sais/Reuters

In Dexter Filkins’ otherwise probing article in the May 13 New Yorker on the problem-from-hell that is Syria, Sen. John McCain fumes over the recent disclosure that all of President Obama’s top advisers—Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, and CIA director David Petraeus—had advised him to arm the Syrian rebels.

“There may be another time in history when a president’s entire national-security team recommended a course of action and he overruled them,” Filkins quotes McCain as saying, “but if there is, I’m not aware of it.”

For a military specialist who often regards himself as aligned with the right side of history, McCain (as the song goes) “don’t know much about history.” There are in fact many instances of presidents defying the advice of their national-security teams, and probably many more instances of presidents wishing that they had done so. A few:

  • On the final day of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, all of President John F. Kennedy’s advisers urged him to bomb the Soviet missile sites in Cuba and, even more, to reject Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s offer of a Cuba-for-Turkey trade—that is, to pull his missiles out of Cuba if JFK pulled his out of Turkey. Kennedy took the offer.
  • From late 1962 into 1963, all of Kennedy’s advisers supported the Joint Chiefs’ recommendation to send “combat troops” to Vietnam. Kennedy refused.
  • In 1983, all of President Ronald Reagan’s advisers tried to talk him down from his enthusiasm for the “star wars” missile defense program—and, in 1986, they all opposed his stab at negotiating a deal with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to eliminate all nuclear weapons. Reagan ignored them.
  • In late 2006, all of President George W. Bush’s top advisers opposed the “surge” in Iraq. Bush sided with the midlevel officials and retired officers who were pushing for the surge and a change of strategy. (This is ironic, as McCain now condemns those who opposed the surge, saying that they’ve been proved wrong by history.)

This is not to say that Obama was necessarily right, or that his advisers were wrong, on the issue of arming the Syrian rebels. But it is worth noting that Obama is far from the first president to take a pass on his advisers’ suggestions. In that sense, McCain misleads when he says that Obama “overruled” them. Obama is the president, the commander-in-chief. Panetta, Clinton, Dempsey, and Petraeus were his advisers; they have no decision-making authority to “overrule.”

So was Obama right to ignore their advice on Syria? There are two standards for making these sorts of judgments: First, did he have good reasons for acting (or not acting) the way he did? Second, did he turn out to be right?

On the first standard, Obama had plenty of reasons to justify holding off arms shipments. His advisers may have assured him that they could funnel the weapons only to the good rebels and keep them out of the hands of the bad rebels. But some of the weapons supplied to the rebels in Libya had somehow wound up in the hands of jihadists in Mali.* His advisers may have argued that backing the good rebels would buy us influence in the aftermath. Maybe, but 10 years of not just arming but fighting and dying on behalf of Nour al-Maliki’s government in Iraq hasn’t had that effect. (Governments tend to pursue their interests, regardless of who installed them; hence President George Washington’s neutrality in the British-French wars of the 1790s, despite the crucial support he’d received from France in America’s own recent war against the Crown.)

On the second standard, whether Obama was right, we obviously don’t yet know. There is the awkward matter of “red lines.” Obama had after all declared, five times in eight months (not an “off-the-cuff” remark), that if Bashar Assad or elements of his regime used chemical weapons, that would cross a “red line.” It would be “a game-changer from our perspective,” there would be “enormous consequences,” Assad would be “held accountable,” and so forth.

There is still some uncertainty on the who, what, and when of this line-crossing. Assad’s soldiers seem to have fired chemical weapons, but there are reports that the rebels did, too. Is this like a “double technical” in basketball? The referees scowl at both teams, but neither gets a free shot? Maybe. For a moment, Obama wins a reprieve. But at some point, he will have to do something. The question is what.

Here John McCain’s favorite subject, History, might be invoked—specifically, another anecdote from the Cuban missile crisis. On what turned out to be the final day of the crisis, Oct. 27, 1962, President Kennedy and his national-security advisers received a report that one of their U-2 spy planes, flying over Cuba, had been shot down by a Soviet surface-to-air missile. The plane had crashed; the pilot was dead. On the tape that was secretly recording the deliberations, Kennedy is heard saying, “This is much of an escalation by them, isn’t it?”

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara says, with some exuberance, “Yes, exactly. We ought to go in at dawn and take out that SAM site, and we ought to send the surveillance aircraft in tomorrow, and we ought to be prepared to take out more SAM sites.”

At the group’s meeting four days earlier, Kennedy had agreed to do just that if a U-2 were shot down. But now that it had happened, he decided against it. “I think we should wait,” he says, and turned back to what he’d been discussing before the news came in.

What he’d been discussing was Khrushchev’s offer to end the crisis through a Cuba-for-Turkey missile-trade. As noted above, all of Kennedy’s advisers opposed the trade. JFK insisted on taking it (“To any man at the United Nations or any other rational man,” he says, “it will look like a very fair trade”), and later that day, the crisis ended.

Now this isn’t a parallel with the crisis in Syria. For one thing, JFK’s remark about taking forceful action if a Soviet SAM shot down a U-2 plane was made in a closed meeting with his advisers; Obama’s remarks about treating the use of Syrian chemical weapons as a red line were made in public, several times. A lot of people around the world, friends and foes, are curious to see how the president follows up.

Still, the U-2 incident is instructive. Kennedy knew he had to get the Soviet missiles out of Cuba, but he didn’t want to launch air strikes and send in troops—as the Joint Chiefs had suggested doing, beginning two days later. He worried that the Soviets would respond by grabbing West Berlin (which was pretty much undefended at the time) and that the conflict would escalate from there, perhaps to all-out war. He was looking for a diplomatic alternative from the third day of the 13-day crisis, and in Khrushchev’s deal, he found it. (The deal was kept secret, as he knew that any sort of compromise with the Soviets, in those Cold War days, would have set off a political storm. Kennedy told nobody outside his seven closest advisers; his vice president, Lyndon Johnson, who might have done well to know about it in his own upcoming crises, was not among them. The secret deal wasn’t made public until 20 years later.)

The Kennedy–Khrushchev showdown was a lot more perilous than any confrontation one might imagine between Obama and Assad. Still, there are some common elements. Obama, clearly, would rather steer clear of the civil war in Syria. The rebels, whom he’s under pressure to arm, are a fractious lot, infested with jihadists. Assad can’t be allowed to stay, but if he’s overthrown by force, his successor might be morally as bad and geostrategically worse. And while escalation might resolve the war more quickly, it might also broaden the fighting throughout the region.

It’s understandable if Obama is seeking a diplomatic solution; and it’s also understandable if he’s placing his hopes on Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent mission to Moscow. The Russians seem to be getting nervous about the state of things in Syria as well. Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov told the Itar-Tass news service today that, contrary to earlier reports, Russia was not selling Syria advanced S-300 surface-to-air missiles (the presence of which would make it harder for the United States to mount air strikes or enforce a no-fly zone, should Obama decide to do any of those things). Talks are being scheduled. Kerry told reporters that if the talks halt the fighting, there might not be any need to arm the rebels. He even suggested the possibility of a political settlement that leaves Assad with some power, perhaps as part of a coalition.

This whole enterprise might be a pipe dream. For Kerry even to talk this way is bound to infuriate some of the rebels and might embolden Assad still further. It’s possible that Lavrov and Russian president Vladimir Putin are engaging in deception, keeping Obama at bay with vague talks of peace and compromise, while stretching out the war long enough for Assad to prevail.

In short, this might be a really bad idea. But it might also be a way to wind down the war—a war that the American people have no desire to get sucked into, a fact that Obama seems to understand more than some of his advisers and political opponents. If Obama does get sucked in, and things go badly, all of his opponents—who had been pressuring him to dive in—will walk away from their earlier advocacy and hold Obama entirely to blame. The president is the one who’s always left holding the bag, and properly so. Obama seems to understand this, too.

Correction, May 10, 2013: This article originally and incorrectly suggested that the United States sent weapons to Libya during the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi.