WASHINGTON — US Sen. John McCain on Thursday pressed President Barack Obama to launch a more active Middle East policy, including using the military to aid rebel fighters in Syria.
The Arizona Republican used an afternoon speech at the Brookings Institution here to sharply criticize Obama for, as McCain sees it, his lack of leadership in the volatile region.
“Where there is a vacuum, someone is going to fill it,” McCain said, adding that too often Washington has failed to be that someone.
“Our friends and allies in the Middle East are crying out for American leadership, as I heard again last week,” McCain said, referring to his recent swing through the region. “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.”
The new strategy envisioned by McCain, a member of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, would focus heavily on getting directly involved in the bloody Syrian civil war. The reason, McCain said, is that the years-long struggle is “spilling over” into a “sectarian” war that spans the region.
The Syrian civil war’s effects are being felt in Turkey and Jordan, and involves regional players — and US foes — such as Iran and Hezbollah, McCain said.
McCain called for, as has Obama and other world leaders, a “negotiated end” in Syria. But he believes Bashar al-Assad can only be ousted from power militarily.
“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,” McCain said. “And the longer we wait to take action, the more action we will have to take.”
McCain reiterated his call for Obama to establish a no-fly zone over Syria and safe zones where America and regional nations could assist the rebels.
And he slammed comments by Obama administration and Pentagon officials that a US-led military operation based mostly on air power would be too difficult.
“Why are we spending about $800 billion on defense if we can’t take out Syria’s air defenses?” McCain asked rhetorically during the question-and-answer session. If that’s the case,” he quipped, “you’re being ripped off, my friends.”
The interventionist Republican urged Obama to step up efforts to help Washington’s Middle East allies develop security and military forces. And McCain wants the president to use the US military to do it.
“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 Africa,” he said, pointing to Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Mali and also Yemen
“These governments, and others like them, don’t want al-Qaeda affiliates exploiting their countries any more than we do,” McCain said. “They have a lot of will to resist these groups. They just need help with the means. The US 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.”