Straight Talk on the Arab Spring

John McCain's views on the revolutionary upheaval in the Middle East are more similar to the Obama administration's than either side might care to admit.


"First of all, let me say something that I shouldn't," Sen. John McCain began. "I'm not sure they should put Mubarak on trial."

"First of all, let me say something that I shouldn’t," Sen. John McCain began. "I’m not sure they should put Mubarak on trial."

In a wide ranging-interview with Foreign Policy today, McCain made the case that prosecuting the former Egyptian president for killing unarmed protesters, as the new Egyptian government has promised to do, would encourage the Arab world’s other embattled dictators to cling to power rather than risk the consequences of stepping down. He also weighed in on how the United States should support democratic transitions throughout the Arab world, and blasted cuts to funding for Title VI and other international educational programs as a "short-sighted" move that could weaken American diplomatic capabilities and, over time, create a "hollow diplomatic corps." 

On Syria, McCain urged moral support for protesters, but offered a surprisingly strong warning against leading them to believe that any foreign military intervention might be forthcoming.  He called for the United States and Europe to work quickly in support of the democratic transition and economic rebuilding of Egypt — but warned that we shouldn’t call it a "Marshall Plan." And the former presidential candidate expressed cautious optimism on Libya, calling on the administration to recognize the National Transitional Council.

McCain criticized President Barack Obama for moving too slowly at key moments, saying that the administration has been "a step behind" events in Egypt, Libya, and Syria. But quibbles over timing aside, his thoughts on the region were surprisingly close to those of the Obama administration — a remarkable convergence given the toxic political arguments that usually characterize Washington these days, not to mention the heated rhetoric of the 2008 presidential campaign. Extending this bipartisan comity even further, McCain is co-sponsoring a bill with Foreign Relations Committee chairman Sen. John Kerry in support of U.S. intervention in Libya.

McCain gave an impassioned defense of the importance of supporting democracy in the region — even when anti-Israeli or anti-American voices appear as a result. "There’s every likelihood that, in the open political campaigns that take place in Egypt and other countries, the anti-Israel issue will be raised by some candidates," he said. "I know these politicians, I know some of the people who are going to be running, and they hate Israel."

But that did not deter him.  Asked whether he still believed that Arab democracy was an American interest, he responded forcefully: "[I]f we don’t believe that democracy is in our interest, we are somehow very badly skewed in our priorities and our inherent belief in the rights of everybody." Acknowledging that this could be a tough sell, especially when it came to finding funds to support these transitions, McCain said with emphasis that "we’ve got to convince people that it’s in our interest to see [the Middle East] make this transition."

McCain sees job creation as key to a successful democratic transition (I didn’t ask if he felt the same way about the Obama administration’s efforts to do just that for the American economy). He’s gravely concerned about the dismal economic situation in Egypt and Tunisia. "We were at the pyramids [in Cairo] three weeks ago, not a soul there," he said. "We stayed in a hotel in Tunis, Joe [Lieberman] and I were the only people in the whole hotel. I mean, they have really been decimated. [Tourism] is 10 percent of their GDP." 

He went on: "What we need to do to these young people is say: We’re going to give you an opportunity to get a job. That’s the key to this."  With a raised eyebrow, he also offered up a commentary on a country which did not appear in Obama’s recent Middle East speech: Saudi Arabia. "Look at what the Saudis have done: They’re just buying people off. They’re distributing money."

Given his stance on human rights, McCain’s argument against trying Mubarak may come as a surprise. He anticipated that it would be controversial with human rights groups. But McCain presented it as a pragmatic necessity, one which had proven vital to successful democratic transitions in other parts of the world.  The message sent by Mubarak’s trial — and possible execution — would be that dictators have no incentive to step down from power peacefully, and should instead fight to the death.  

With NATO escalating its bombing campaign of Tripoli, McCain defended the intervention in Libya, of which he has been an outspoken advocate. He described the intervention, which he maintained should have come earlier and been more overtly American-led, as a humanitarian necessity and an integral part of the wider Arab story of change. Like many observers, he had been profoundly struck, while traveling in the Middle East, at how intensely Arabs were focused on Libya. 

He chuckled ruefully about his "interesting conversation with an interesting man" tweet following his encounter with Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi in August 2009.  Reflecting on that "bizarre" encounter — during which, he said, Qaddafi told him that he would have won the election had he promised to withdraw from Iraq — McCain claimed that he had emerged convinced that Qaddafi could not be a real partner for the United States. While he said he was extremely impressed with the Libyan opposition leadership, and dismissed concerns about the presence of Islamists or even al Qaeda in the ranks of the rebels, he warned that an extended stalemate could open the door to radicalization and deepening foreign involvement in the country. 

In one of the most intriguing parts of the conversation, McCain complained about the Obama administration’s tentative message on Syria and demanded that the United States show "moral support" for Syria’s protesters. But he acknowledged frankly that it would be "difficult" to actually do much to shape events there. Unlike Libya, the protestors control no territory and lack even a ragtag military force. When pressed on what the United States could do beyond rhetoric, McCain responded, "Let’s tell them that we are with them — but we’re not going to tell them that we’re going to intervene militarily, because we do not have a viable way of doing so." That is a welcome dose of reality in often overheated debate. 

Finally, I asked McCain about the recently announced massive cuts to Congressional funding of Title VI, Fulbright-Hays, and other international education programs that support language training and area studies.  He responded bluntly and powerfully that the cuts were "short-sighted" and that such programs "pay off enormously." Echoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s warnings about a "hollow army," McCain warned that cutting language training and area studies budgets could create a "hollow diplomatic corps," depriving the United States of a generation of effective diplomats like Ryan Crocker and William Burns. McCain sees the national interests at stake in such programs more clearly than many in this Congress, I fear — and I hope that on this, at least, they value his experience.

The convergence between McCain and the Obama administration on so many of these issues was quite remarkable. For all the quibbles about timing and execution, McCain and Obama both seem to see the Arab spring in much the same way. They see the opportunities for the United States in the empowerment of Arab publics and the spread of democracy, and the inevitability of change. They saw the importance of intervening in Libya at a time of potential disaster, and they both recognize that every country is different. And while McCain continues to bemoan the failure to back Iran’s Green Movement in the summer of 2009 as "the greatest mistake of the 21st century" (I might have gone with the invasion of Iraq), McCain openly warns against a military intervention in Syria.   

I only wish that I had the gumption to have asked him whether that meant that he now stood with Obama against the hyper-interventionist, neo-isolationist, or Islam-bashing attacks by the current crop of GOP presidential contenders … including, perhaps, even a certain former vice presidential nominee.

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark

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