The key bit comes at 4:30, a few minutes after he talks about working to remove Assad and ISIS at the same time. Old and busted: Two-front wars. The new hotness: Two-front wars within the same country.
Marco Rubio made this same lame point about the same Rex Tillerson comment that McCain is thinking of and got called out on it by Tillerson himself this weekend, as Ed mentioned earlier. Tillerson said on March 30th that it was for the Syrian people to decide whether Assad remains in charge (and doubled down on that position yesterday), a notable break from Obama’s “Assad must go” policy. The Senate’s superhawks were aghast; regime change must be the goal. When the gas attack in Idlib followed Tillerson’s comments on April 4th, Rubio floated a little cause and effect: It was because Tillerson had showed provocative weakness by suggesting Assad might remain in power, he insinuated, that the regime felt emboldened to use sarin in Idlib. To which Tillerson rightly replied, how do you explain Assad’s previous gas attacks then?
Now here’s McCain echoing Rubio’s point, essentially blaming the Trump White House for a Baathist lunatic’s use of WMD because Tillerson wouldn’t say categorically that Assad must go. There are better theories than “provocative weakness” to explain why Assad chose gas in Idlib, but you don’t need to parse battlefield strategy to see the flaw in the argument. If President McCain had said “Assad must go” and a gas attack followed not long thereafter, why wouldn’t doves be just as entitled to blame McCain for needlessly provoking the monster in Damascus into a show of chemical defiance as hawks are in blaming Tillerson for showing weakness? You could just as easily argue that dangling the possibility at Assad that he might remain in power as part of a peace deal would make him less likely to use WMD as it would to make him more likely. If he thinks he’s fighting for survival, he might go all out with every weapon in his arsenal. If he thinks there’s a chance he might hang on and rule over an Alawite rump state after Syria is partitioned, he might be inclined to tone things down to improve relations with western peace brokers. I emphasize “might” because there’s no telling what incentives would be most effective with him, really. He was a monster to begin with and now he’s a monster hardened by six years of war. It’s anyone’s guess what combination of carrots and sticks might get him to ease off on WMD attacks. If doves aren’t warning McCain that his tough talk is antagonizing Assad into behaving more aggressively, though, why should McCain be demagoging Tillerson about not talking tough enough? I don’t get it.
Exit question: If Assad uses chemical weapons after Trump’s airstrike, will McCain concede that belligerence isn’t as effective a deterrent as he thought?