John McCain Advocates Unprovoked War Against Syria

Arizona's senior Senator want's to bomb Syria.

Senator John McCain is calling for the United States to lead an international effort to launch air strikes against Syria:

Later today, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, will become the first U.S. senator to publicly call for U.S. led air strikes to halt the violence and atrocities being committed by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“After a year of bloodshed, the crisis in Syria has reached a decisive moment,” McCain will say Monday afternoon in a speech on the Senate floor, according to excerpts obtained in advance by The Cable.

“What opposition groups in Syria need most urgently is relief from Assad’s tank and artillery sieges in many cities that are still contested. Homs is lost for now, but Idlib, and Hama, and Qusayr, and Deraa, and other cities in Syria could still be saved,” McCain will say. “But time is running out. Assad’s forces are on the march. Providing military assistance to the Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups is necessary, but at this late hour, that alone will not be sufficient to stop the slaughter and save innocent lives. The only realistic way to do so is with foreign airpower.”


“To be clear: This will require the United States to suppress enemy air defenses in at least part of the country,” McCain will say. “The ultimate goal of airstrikes should be to establish and defend safe havens in Syria, especially in the north, in which opposition forces can organize and plan their political and military activities against Assad. These safe havens could serve as platforms for the delivery of humanitarian and military assistance — including weapons and ammunition, body armor and other personal protective equipment, tactical intelligence, secure communications equipment, food and water, and medical supplies. These safe havens could also help the Free Syrian Army and other armed groups in Syria to train and organize themselves into more cohesive and effective military forces, likely with the assistance of foreign partners.”

It was just a few weeks ago that McCain was merely calling for the U.S. to arm the Syrian rebels, even though we have no real idea who these rebels are, who they’re affiliated with, or what kind of vision they have for a post-Assad Syria and its relationships with its neighbors. Now, here he is essentially calling on the President of the United States to commit an unprovoked act of war against a nation that does not pose a threat to the national security interests of the nation. It’s Libya all over again, except this time we know that the United Nations is never going to support such an effort. The Security Council can’t even agree to condemn Syria’s actions without Russia and China exercising their veto. Does anyone really think we’d get anything resembling UNSCR 1973 passed this time? Of course not, this would be a wholly unilateral unsanctioned action by the United States and/or NATO. Where, I have to wonder, is the justification for such an attack? Certainly there isn’t any version of Just War Theory that would consider it acceptable.

Even putting aside those (inconvenient for the likes of McCain no doubt) moral questions, though, there are several practical issues surrounding the kind of operation McCain advocates, largely because Libya and Syria are very different countries with different geographies, and different military’s. What would we do, for example, if an American pilot was force to bail over the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon and ended up in the hands of Hezbollah? What would Israel if Hezbollah responded to Western military action by launching rockets into Libya? Before you do this, there are several things worth thinking about:

This type of air campaign would be far more complex and difficult than advocates acknowledge, because tactical air strikes would first require establishing an NFZ and neutralizing air defense capabilities through larger strikes. Regime forces and the opposition are primarily clashing in densely packed urban areas. In contrast to Libya, there are no front lines to police, few tank convoys to destroy on desert highways and no offensives by rebel armies for which an air campaign would clear a path. Civilian casualties would inevitably result from a bombing campaign against ill-defined targets in urban areas with extremely limited human intelligence.

Then, as Daniel Larison notes, there is the small fact that any action we take against Syria will have no legal sanction whatsoever, and would technically be a violation of international law (to the extent such a thing even exists). Doesn’t ceding the moral high ground when it comes to something like taking unprovoked military action against another country mean anything? Well, I know it doesn’t mean anything to people like John McCain, who doesn’t seem to have met a military action he doesn’t approve of, but it ought to mean something at some point it seems to me. Beyond the fact that we most assuredly have the capability to do it, what right do we have to attack Syria?

Finally, there’s the lovely question of unintended consequences. We still don’t know what Libya is going to turn into, although it certainly doesn’t look like it’s going to turn into some kind of model of Arabian Democracy. In Syria, the prospects for what is likely to happen after the Assad regime falls are grim indeed. There are unresolved ethnic conflicts that have been largely suppressed while the Assad regime has been in power, there’s the fact that Iran will no doubt be very interested in influencing what happens next in Damascus, and there is, of course, Lebanon right on the doorstep of both Syria and Israel. The number of things that could go wrong here is immeasurable. Why we would risk any of it by intervening in a conflict that we clearly don’t fully understand is beyond me.

Senator McCain’s call for action is likely to be repeated by others, perhaps even by some of the candidates for President. That’s too bad, because the further we get pushed down the path to war, the more likely it is that we’ll actually end up in one when we really don’t need to be.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Democracy, Middle East, Military Affairs, National Security, US Politics, World Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Blue Shark says:

    We did provide help to Libyan Rebels help under very similar circumstances, but under the cloak of UN sanctions.

    …That worked pretty well.

    …When is one engagement a war and another is moral military aid?

  2. steve says:

    Syria is nothing like Libya. Some people are just too eager to have a war. Read Lang.


  3. Dave Schuler says:

    It might be a big timesaver if we made a list of the Middle Eastern and North African countries that nobody here wants to bomb. So far, it looks limited to Tunisia and Morocco.

  4. @Blue Shark:

    Personally I opposed American involvement in the Libya operation

  5. Tsar Nicholas says:

    # 1, indeed, one has to question after reading the hysterical headline for this blog whether this would be deemed more or less unprovoked than Obama’s war in Libya.

    Putting that aside, and all due respect to McCain, but I have to say that I disagree with him. If we’re going to be dropping bombs in the next 3-6 months they really need to be falling on Iran’s nuclear weapons sites. Syria would be an expensive and likely a muddled sideshow. Right now we’re stretched awfully thin. Iran is the No. 1 priority. Or at least it should be.

  6. @Dave Schuler:

    It would make things simpler, would it not?

  7. Neil Hudelson says:

    @Dave Schuler:


  8. Robert C. says:

    Doug, why are you all hot and bothered about this. A large portion of the Republican base, Evangelicals, most of the Republican candidates for presidency, the majority of those attending the current AIPAC conference have been advocating an unprovoked war against Iran for the better part of a decade, heavily for the last year. And from the left?…silance. Thats what we do in America.


  9. Franklin says:

    Thank you, Doug; I assume you’re telling me I voted for the right guy in 2008?

  10. @Franklin:

    I have no idea who you voted for. But as for me, it wasn’t either McCain or Obama

  11. Hey Norm says:

    The idea that some senile old guy…who was a shitty pilot, got tortured because of it, and then voted against a ban on waterboarding…who thought Iraq posed a clear and present danger to the US…wants to go to war again is laughable.
    What did he sing? Bomb Bomb Bomb Iran?
    What a fool.

  12. anjin-san says:

    @ Tsar

    I’m curious. Have you been looking into enlistment to the armed services? Clearly you think Iran is a grave threat to our country & I know you are willing to put your own ass on the line…

  13. michael reynolds says:

    I buy the idea of a responsibilty to protect – R2P – but I temper it with pragmatism. I unenthusiastically supported – or perhaps accepted would be the better word – the Libya action. But R2P doesn’t mean we are bound to do so in every case. We have our own needs to consider, including the facts you mention, Doug.

  14. Jenos Idanian says:

    I’m just curious to hear a rationale for not intervening in Syria that 1) relies on principle, not pragmatism, and 2) doesn’t apply to the Libyan intervention. ‘Cuz, after all, if you use a pragmatic argument for not following some kind of moral absolutism, then you’re obviously a HYPOCRITE!!!!111!!! and have NO standing whatsoever to say a word about anything ever.

  15. michael reynolds says:

    @Jenos Idanian:

    Twice in my life I’ve jumped into a fight to protect a woman. In neither case did the man have a weapon.

    So is it that I had no obligation to stop a woman being beaten?

    Or that I’d have been a hypocrite not to intervene if the guy had a gun?

  16. Brummagem Joe says:

    Fortunately no one is going to take any notice of him. So we can all go back to sleep. And Mikey….why are you encouraging this weirdo?

  17. @Brummagem Joe:

    You are far more confidant than I. The drumbeats of war are beating on two fronts. In fact, given the relationship between Iran and Syria, one could see someone making the case that attacking Syria is a necessary front in the “war” against Iran. The only thing that may save us from insanity is the fact that this is an election year.

  18. michael reynolds says:

    Of course we have a right to protect. That’s morally self-evident. If you see a rape occurring, or a child being abducted and you have the capacity to stop it from happening and yet fail to act you’re a coward and a sad drag on the human race.

    But it is equally clear that we have additional obligations. For example, to make sure that in protecting the theoretical abducted child we don’t start spraying bullets in all directions. Or that we don’t manage to get our own kid hurt in the process.

    I don’t much give a damn about sovereignty when it comes to crimes against humanity. The only legitimate government is that which governs by consent of the governed. The Syrian regime is illegitimate. It is not a government, it is a conspiracy of thugs. It has no more standing in my eyes than a Guadalajara drug gang.

    But all that said, we have practical issues, including the fact that the Turks are not on-board, and that Hezbollah is a problem, and that air strikes in urban areas are at the very minimum problematic. Libya was a special case because there the issue was cutting a few major roads and blowing up exposed armor. The Syrian tanks are in the cities.

    And we have the fact that we will be opposed diplomatically by the Russians and Chinese. Those are the realities.

  19. michael reynolds says:

    @Doug Mataconis:
    What will save us is that we have a smart president in Barack Obama and not the increasingly erratic Mr. McCain.

  20. Woody says:

    Though the Libyan incursion is seemingly successful (no one truly knows at this early point), an unprovoked attack on Syria is an enormous minefield:

    1. They are almost entirely Arab, rather than North African-Berber with an Arab minority
    2. They are overwhelmingly Sunni, rather than Shi’a
    3. According to Wikipedia, they are 10% Christian, a minority that may suffer direct consequences of a US attack (should these Christians suffer mob/government casualties, the US evangelicals will undoubtably scream for massive retaliation)

    The factions involved here are largely unknown, meaning we would provide a convenient scapegoat for an Islamist demagogue, and Larison convincingly notes we would be going in without allies (or cover, if you prefer). Our reputation in the Middle East would take another nose-dive while we borrow not for US infrastructure, but for foreign military adventure – what’s more, the same group calling for strikes would refuse any tax increase to pay for it.

    For the life of me, I can’t conceive of a positive outcome for the United States should we do this.

  21. Ron Beasley says:

    @Doug Mataconis: It may also be an election year in Israel and the Israeli people seem more worried about Iranian retaliation than Iranian nukes. It should also be kept in mind the the Israeli military is not in favor of an attack.

  22. @michael reynolds:

    Perhaps but even this “smart” President sees the political need to go before a lobbying organization and essentially declare a nation 10,000 miles away to be an enemy

  23. DRS says:

    I was not in favour of the Libyan involvement either, and I think Obama could have pulled out of Iraq faster, but there’s no doubt in my mind that if this guy had been elected in 2008 we would now be looking back on some truly awful decisions.

  24. PogueMahone says:

    Imagine if this guy won in ’08. We’d be mired in unspeakable shitholes around the globe. And we’d have a VP putting her thumb in it at every opportunity.

    Obama has his faults, for sure. But my gods did we dodge a bullet.

  25. An Interested Party says:

    Perhaps but even this “smart” President sees the political need to go before a lobbying organization and essentially declare a nation 10,000 miles away to be an enemy

    Obviously these kinds of things are open to different interpretations

  26. I hate watching all these innocent people screaming for help,and my heart goes out to them I just do not know what would be the best action to take Some here think they can couch coach the Presidents decision but if you have the job and the responsibility it makes it a lot harder. Also since we are not privy to all information we need to trust him.

  27. Carson says:

    “Release the Kraken”

  28. Jenos Idanian says:

    @michael reynolds: I got no problem with the pragmatic argument. I’ve used it myself on numerous occasions — and had it thrown in my face. For example, when I cite actual grounds for the impeachment of Obama and then note that it’s simply politically not practical to go forward, I was called a hypocrite and worse.

    And I see that no one wants to take up that challenge…

  29. michael reynolds says:

    @Jenos Idanian:
    I wouldn’t call you a hypocrite for that. Moron would be le mot juste.

  30. @Carson: And Medusa

  31. Ben Wolf says:

    I don’t think this sort of thing involves liking war, but an ego-maniacal belief in American power. McCain wants intervention because he believes we are omnipotent. It’s a disease which unfortunately runs through both parties, particularly in the D.C. echo chamber.

  32. Chefmarty says:

    @Doug Mataconis: I have to admit at being mystified by those who either withold their vote or go fringe third party in a presidential election. It was pretty darn obvious in 2008 that either Obama or McCain was going to be your next president. Your job is to make the safest, (conservative, in the truest sense) choice, which was pretty obviously Obama. McCain/Palin would’ve been an unmitigated disaster that would have been quite possibly impossible to recover from.

  33. Franklin says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Okay, but at least I didn’t vote for the WRONG guy (McCain).

  34. @Chefmarty:

    That is perhaps one way of viewing it. In 2008 it was not may way of viewing it.

  35. Franklin says:

    @Hey Norm: Whether he was a shitty pilot or just a reckless hotshot or simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, I don’t believe the correct punishment is five years of torture. Nor do I think it’s good form to suggest that he deserved it just because you (and most of us here) don’t like his maniacal passion for starting wars.

    Just my opinion.

  36. Carson says:

    @Barb Hartwell: I’ll go along with that

  37. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Perhaps but even this “smart” President sees the political need to go before a lobbying organization and essentially declare a nation 10,000 miles away to be an enemy

    And you think they are our friends?

  38. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    That is perhaps one way of viewing it. In 2008 it was not may way of viewing it.

    Naturally not Doug.

  39. Ron Beasley says:

    McCain is part of the empire building Project For A New American Century crowd. That explains it all. Bully the rest of the world into submission that’s the name of the game. Of course what they fail to realize is that we can longer afford empire. Empires and would be empires all have one thing in common – they went broke.

  40. What would Israel if Hezbollah responded to Western military action by launching rockets into Libya?

    Be both very impressed and very confused?

  41. Rob in CT says:

    This was a major reason why, even before the Palin pick, I couldn’t vote for McCain. He is hawkish even by the standards of our FP establishment (which is hawkish). Far too many people in Washington have what is essentially an Imperial outlook.

  42. Davebo says:

    I have no idea who you voted for. But as for me, it wasn’t either McCain or Obama

    A political Androgynous. Why again should we listen?

  43. Hey Norm says:

    @ Franklin…
    I never suggested McCain deserved to be tortured. I said he was tortured because he was a shitty pilot…which is pretty well documented. The fact that he then voted against a ban on waterboarding reserves him a special place in hell, I think, but that’s for someone at a higher paygrade to decide.

  44. Jenos Idanian says:

    @Hey Norm: OK, you’ve crossed the line into repeated gross stupidity bordering on slander. I presume you’re parroting the old liberal line about how “McCain crashed five planes.” It’s a lie.

    Yes, McCain did lose five aircraft during his Navy career. But apparently you never looked into the circumstances behind each:

    1) In training, he suffered an engine failure at sea and had to ditch. Investigation showed no pilot error.

    2) While training in Europe, he clipped some power lines. Pilot error, yes, but he landed the plane safely.

    3) Another engine failure. Again, not likely pilot error.

    4) The Forrestal fire incident. McCain was strapped in to his plane, which was tied down on the flight deck, when a rogue rocket from another aircraft broke loose and hit his plane. He barely escaped with his life.

    5) The shootdown. McCain knew he was being targeted and could have taken evasive action, but instead pressed the attack and accepted the risk of being shot down (which did happen). He was given the Navy Cross for that.

    And after the war, he was given command of a training squadron. Some “shitty pilot” — put in charge of training new pilots.

    Just because you don’t like the guy, Norm, doesn’t mean that he’s awful at everything. That’s lazy thinking. McCain, whatever else you say about him, was a skilled pilot and a very brave individual. I got my own issues with him, but I recognize his abilities.

    Flying combat jets ain’t rocket science, but it’s pretty damned close. It takes a high level of brains, courage, and skill to do so successfully. Which is why the slams against those who’ve flown combat jets — McCain, George W. Bush, etc. — so laughable.

  45. Moosebreath says:


    “Why again should we listen? ”

    Because people who amalgamate into rounding errors in the national discourse are far more important than majorities.

  46. An Interested Party says:

    Just because you don’t like the guy, Norm, doesn’t mean that he’s awful at everything.

    Really? That’s the standard you use against the President…

  47. matt says:

    Just a FYI engine failure can occur as the result of pilot error.

  48. Jenos Idanian says:

    @An Interested Party: Weak sauce.

  49. Jenos Idanian says:

    @matt: Yes, it can — but the investigations didn’t hold McCain responsible, as his career continued apace. Of course, that could have been out of deference to Admiral John S. McCain Jr., but officially he wasn’t judged responsible and continued to be entrusted with aircraft.

    The European accident was clearly his fault. The shootdown that Norm attributes to “shitty” skills was clearly not incompetence, but a conscious decision to ignore the incoming missiles and continue with his bombing run. The Forrestal incident was a horrific tragedy that had nothing to do with McCain — the rogue rocket was on another plane, and he was literally in the wrong place at the wrong time. Only a complete idiot (like Norm) could say that it was “shitty pilot skills” that led to McCain’s plane being consumed by a fire while it was strapped to the deck, and he was strapped in to the seat.

  50. Davebo says:

    Jenos Idanian

    Are you familiar with the term “Black Ace”?

    The first event in off Corpus Christi had nothing to do with engine problems. He simply missed the carrier and splashed. Other than the Forrestfire incident and the obvious missile shot over Vietnam it was pure pilot error regardless of what his father’s reports claimed.

    Would he have been accepted to the academy were it not for his father? Would he have been trained for tactical aviation, despite his pathetic record at the academy were it not for his father?

    Hell at least Dubya managed to fly one of the most difficult aircraft around without becoming a black ace. Even if only part time.

  51. Jenos Idanian says:

    @Davebo: I’m not familiar with that term, and neither is Google — the only relevant reference I found was to Bob Dornan, and it was dismissive of the concept.

    I just re-read the stories of McCain’s five plane incidents, and general career. And the conclusion: he was a mediocre pilot who improved greatly with practice.

    1) Corpus Christi: Pilot error, overfocusing on instruments and losing track of altitude.
    2) Spain: Assing around, recklessness.
    3) Chesapeake Bay: Final investigation ruled likely mechanical problem.
    4) Forrestal incident: Absolutely not his fault; defective rocket on another plane started the fire.
    5) Shootdown over Hanoi: Ignored warning signals, pressed the attack consciously.

    So, Norm is — as usual — talking out of his ass when he said “The idea that some senile old guy…who was a shitty pilot, got tortured because of it” and “I never suggested McCain deserved to be tortured. I said he was tortured because he was a shitty pilot…which is pretty well documented.” I trust you’ll agree with that?

  52. al-Ameda says:

    The situation in Libya is not similar at all to that in Syria. Libya had an armed rebel army, that was geographically isolated from Qaddafi’s control, therefore easier to logistically support; while Syria has nothing like that. Supporting the Syrian opposition presents many more problems.

    Also, McCain wasn’t too happy with Obama’s actions to support the Libyan rebels, now all of a sudden he’s principled? I think he just wanted to be first with the idea.