I've never been a big fan of those alternative-history novels in which Hitler wins World War II or Richard Nixon becomes president for life, but recent events have me pondering a hideous prospect: What if John McCain had defeated Barack Obama in 2008? The answer, as indicated by McCain's recent posturing, is that we'd be struggling with a lot more than an economic downturn; we'd probably be in costly and unwinnable wars not just in Afghanistan but in Syria and Iran.
McCain has not only forgotten the lessons of his own generation's war in Vietnam, he's forgotten what this generation learned in Iraq. He is eager not just for Israel to bomb Iran, which would set off a devastating regional conflict likely to drag in the United States, but for Washington to bomb Syria. On Monday, he became the first U.S. senator to call for air strikes on that country, and during a Senate Armed Services Committee meeting Wednesday, he admonished Defense Secretary Leon Panetta for failing to show leadership by "focusing on diplomatic and political approaches rather than a military intervention."
Panetta didn't take this sitting down; he said the administration was working to build international consensus, as it did in Libya, rather than taking unilateral action, and that as Defense secretary he has to know "what the mission is. I've got to make very sure we know whether we can achieve that mission, what price and whether or not it will make matters better or worse."
That's the part McCain either doesn't understand or doesn't care to discuss. U.S. military intervention in Syria in any form -- whether airstrikes or arming rebels -- would be extraordinarily risky. Syria is a powder keg of ethnic and sectarian factions with networks in neighboring countries; foreign intervention there would set off a proxy war that would further destabilize the entire Middle East.
To name just a few of the complications: In Lebanon, the politically powerful and heavily armed Hezbollah is committed to upholding the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and it's not unrealistic to think that a broader civil war in Syria could spread to its fragile neighbor. If Assad should fall, it would almost certainly lead to reprisals, and likely atrocities, against Syria's minority Alawite community, the regime's most important domestic backers. The Syrian opposition that U.S. hawks would like to arm is an unknown quantity made up of Islamic fundamentalists and other groups that aren't necessarily sympathetic to U.S. interests. Taking out Syria's air defenses would be nowhere near as simple as taking out Libya's and would require a massive U.S. military commitment; it also presents risks that it would prompt Assad to use his country's stockpile of chemical weapons, which is said to be 100 times the size of Libya's.
I could go on, but I doubt I could say it better than the International Crisis Group, which wrote in a recent report:
Frustrated and lacking a viable political option, Western officials and analysts have toyed with a series of often half-baked ideas, from initiating direct military attacks to establishing safe havens, humanitarian corridors or so-called no-kill zones. All these would require some form of outside military intervention by regime foes that would more than likely intensify involvement by its allies. Even if they were to provoke the regime's collapse, that in itself would do nothing to resolve the manifold problems bequeathed by the conflict: security services and their civilian proxies increasingly gone rogue; deepening communal tensions; and a highly fragmented opposition.
McCain's hawkishness is starting to turn off most of his fellow Republicans, and even if he had won the White House, he might not have been able to fulfill his neocon nation-building fantasies. Fortunately, it will take an alternative-fiction writer, rather than a journalist, to imagine the harm he could have done.
Photo: Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) talks to the press Monday after calling for air strikes on Syria. Credit: J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press