US Sen. John McCain answers a question Aug. 21 from students of the Japan-America Student Conference (JASC) at the Tokyo American Center in Tokyo. McCain says the Obama administration's actions on Syria and Egypt are damaging the United States' standing in the Middle East. (Franck Robichon / AFP)
WASHINGTON — A prominent US Senate Republican whom Barack Obama has turned to on national security issues panned the president Thursday, saying his inaction has driven America’s credibility in the Middle East to a historic low.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has huddled with Obama in recent months about national security and foreign policy issues. He and fellow GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., went to Egypt at Obama’s request.
What’s more, many experts in Washington view McCain as key to much of his 2008 presidential campaign foe’s second-term agenda. From a sequester-erasing “grand bargain” fiscal deal to an immigration-reform bill that could provide a boost for defense firms to avoiding a government shutdown, experts say Obama needs the GOP votes McCain likely could deliver.
But it is increasingly clear Obama’s surprising political ally is growing tired of the commander and diplomat-in-chief’s approaches to the crises in Syria and Egypt.
“Credible reports coming out of Syria suggest that Assad and his forces have escalated their use of chemical weapons,” McCain said in a Thursday statement that said America’s Middle East standing has “never been lower.”
“Last week marked the two-year anniversary of President Obama’s call for Assad to leave power. It has been a year since the President said that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would constitute the crossing of a red line,” McCain said. “But, because these threats have not been backed up by any real consequences, they have rung hollow.
“As a result, the killing goes on, Assad remains in power, and his use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians apparently continues,” said McCain, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees. “It is long past time for the United States and our friends and allies to respond to Assad’s continuing mass atrocities in Syria with decisive actions, including limited military strikes to degrade Assad’s air power and ballistic missile capabilities.”
McCain was referring to Obama’s declaration last year that if Assad used chemical weapons against Syrian citizens and opposition forces, it would constitute a “red line” for Washington.
“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” Obama said last August. “That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”
But it remains unclear just what “change my equation” means, and whether Obama will ever agree with McCain and other GOP interventionists that Syria is indeed enough of a US national security issue to warrant American military action.
On Egypt, McCain accused Obama and his administration of sending mixed signals to the nation’s increasingly rogue military rulers, who ousted the elected Muslim Brotherhood-aligned former president after street protests erupted.
“Threats to cut off [military] assistance to Egypt have been made and then reneged,” McCain said. “Our friends and enemies alike, both in the Middle East and across the world are questioning whether America has the will and the capacity to do what it says.”
He was referring to the $1.5 billion in military assistance Washington sends Cairo each year, giving the US leverage over Egyptian military leaders.
The Obama administration is withholding delivery of four Lockheed Martin-made F-16 fighters to Egypt and has canceled joint military exercises originally slated for next month.
Those moves came after Egyptian military forces reportedly killed hundreds — mostly supporters of ousted former president Mohamed Morsi — in an attempt to stop recent protests.
The White House on Wednesday raised eyebrows on Capitol Hill when it suggested all Egyptian aid has not been cut off over the violence, which the Obama administration has condemned.
“Providing foreign assistance is not like a spigot. You don’t turn it off and on or turn it up or down like a faucet. Assistance is provided episodically. That is, it’s provided in specific tranches,” White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest said during his Wednesday briefing.
“There are tranches of assistance that have gone to Egypt,” Earnest told reporters. “There are also some that have been stopped.”
During a Thursday morning appearance on MSNBC’s “The Daily Rundown” program, William Cohen, a former US defense secretary, predicted the Obama administration likely will ultimately resume sending aid to Egypt’s military. Cohen was a Republican senator from Maine who ran the Pentagon during the Clinton administration.
But in a sharp rebuke, McCain offered this about America’s standing in the region because of the Obama administration’s inaction on Syria and wishy-washy actions on Egypt: “American credibility in the Middle East has never been lower.”