The Evolution of an Interventionist

How John McCain became America's unofficial ambassador of leading from the front.

In the twilight of his political career, John McCain has become the Zelig of interventionism -- that is to say that he is always there. First, he gets photobombed in Syria, where he was accused of posing with Sunni rebels who kidnapped innocent Shiite pilgrims. Next, his daughter announces that she learned her father was in Syria via Twitter. And just yesterday, he took to the Senate floor to announce that the White House had determined the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against its own people, and that Washington would likely start arming the rebels -- jumping the gun on the Obama administration's own announcement of its findings.

Love him or hate him, McCain has become a surprisingly consistent voice speaking out on behalf of beleaguered citizens abroad during their worst hours. This has been particularly true on Syria. Yes, he wrote recently, he knows Americans are war-weary and there are no easy options to topple Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. But, he reminded Americans, "our interests are our values, and our values are our interests," and intervention could "save innocent lives, [and] give the moderate opposition a better chance to succeed."

It's not the first time McCain has prodded a reluctant White House into action. The senator argued early and often in 2011 that the United States and its allies needed to intervene in Libya to oust Muammar al-Qaddafi. As early as February 2011, a full month before the international community acted, he called on President Barack Obama to establish a no-fly zone and provide arms and funds to the rebels. As he put it, the situation "demands more than just public condemnation; it requires strong international action."

Where McCain's supporters see a tireless defender of human rights, many Democrats see a reckless hawk who never saw a Middle Eastern country he didn't want to invade. Exhibit A in this view of McCain is Iraq: The senator was an avid cheerleader for George W. Bush's campaign to topple Saddam Hussein, and later for the "surge" of troops into the country. Calling it the "right war for the right reasons," he pontificated in 2003 that "[o]nly an obdurate refusal to face unpleasant facts -- in this case, that a tyrant who survives only by the constant use of violence is not going to be coerced into good behavior by nonviolent means -- could allow one to believe that we have rushed to war." That humanitarian argument may have survived the test of time, but given the lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the complete mess of an occupation by U.S. forces, many would argue that the war was still not worth the cost in blood and treasure for the United States.

McCain's quickness to argue for humanitarian and other interventions, and the heavy military hand which he often argues should be deployed, certainly make it easy to dismiss him as a hot-headed neocon eager to use force at the drop of the hat. (Playfully singing "Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran," to the tune of the Beach Boys's "Barbara Ann," during a 2007 campaign appearance probably didn't help matters in that regard.)

But the caricature of McCain as a warmonger remains at odds with what seems to be his genuine regard for the little guy on the ground.

The senator from Arizona has immersed himself in the details of global conflicts large and small, weighing in on the side of American intervention whether it was a political boon or a considerable risk. In 1999, there were not many GOP hardliners lining up to say that President Bill Clinton's administration should offer logistical assistance to aid the East Timor independence movement. McCain did. Similarly, at a time when many in the Republican Party was quick to accuse Clinton of starting a war with Slobodan Milosevic in Kosovo as a supremely Machiavellian effort to change the topic from the Monica Lewinsky scandal, McCain offered full-throated support for the intervention and pushed for the use of ground troops, even when Clinton himself was unwilling to do so.

It was equally hard to make the case that McCain was hell-bent on world domination when he joined hundreds of thousands of American college students across the country in pushing for a no-fly zone over Darfur in 2006.

But what is perhaps most interesting about McCain's brand of interventionism is that it came about so late in his career. As a freshman Congressman from Arizona's first district, McCain directly broke with the man he still describes as his "hero," Ronald Reagan, in opposing the U.S. intervention in Lebanon in the early 1980s. As McCain later explained his position, "if we send Marines in there, how can we possibly beneficially affect this situation?... Unfortunately, almost 300 brave young Marines were killed."

Yes, McCain ultimately supported the 1991 Gulf War to oust the Iraqi military from Kuwait -- but he did not favor expanding that effort to deposing Saddam Hussein, and he expressed concerns about U.S. troops getting bogged down on the ground. It is also important to note that Republicans overwhelmingly supported this war, and McCain was eager to change the subject from the Keating Five banking scandal in advance of his 1992 re-election campaign.

As the Cold War ended and small, complex conflicts erupted across the globe, McCain repeatedly urged America to stay at arm's length. He advocated against U.S. troops becoming involved in Bosnia, saying that the United States risked taking sides in a foreign civil war, in which American troops would have a hard time "distinguishing between friend and foe." In 1993, he pushed to withdraw U.S. troops from Somalia, and railed against the folly of nation-building there. In 1994, he strongly opposed the U.S. intervention in Haiti, insisting that there was simply no national security interest in doing so.

But sober reflection on the cost of U.S. inaction -- measured in the deaths of thousands of innocents in conflicts across the globe -- seems to have changed McCain's tune. "I think so, I think so," the then presidential candidate replied in 2008, when asked whether the violence in Rwanda and Bosnia had fundamentally changed his thinking about America's role in the world. "And Darfur today."

McCain clearly feels he is a "realistic idealist" -- a figure intent on using American power to advance human rights, but still aware of the limitations of that power. It is an important stance for Syria today, a subject on which the voices of the realists seem to have decidedly drowned out the idealists. For McCain and others pushing for stronger action from Washington, the ultimate tipping point is fairly clear -- when both realists and idealists recognize the cost of inaction is potentially even higher than that of intervention.

McCain may be wrong as often as he is right. He may drive both Democrats and Republicans to distraction. But standing up for innocent civilians caught in the modern world's slaughterhouses is far from a sin.

Allison Shelley/Getty Images


Regime Change in Qatar

Knee-deep in Syria's civil war and surrounded by family quarrels, Qatar's emir is looking to hand over the country to his 33-year-old son.

Which country is most actively throwing its weight around in Syria and Egypt? It's not the United States (population: 316 million) or Iran, Saudi Arabia, or even Russia. Rather, it's the small Persian Gulf state of Qatar (population: 2 million). In Syria, Qatar is showering money and arms on anti-Assad militia groups and is competing with Saudi Arabia as the opposition's primary patron. It is also the largest funder by far of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy's government, providing $5 billion-plus in loans -- without the conditions for reforms that the International Monetary Fund would have demanded.

Why is Qatar so involved in Egypt and Syria? Good question. Part of the answer is certainly because, in the absence of the United States, Qatar perceives a vacuum -- and therefore a new opportunity to raise its international profile.

Qatari foreign policy has been based on the whims -- or more politely, the vision -- of Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, who is currently serving as prime minister and foreign minister. The two leaders' personalized control has produced a decisiveness lacking in their larger allies. On a visit to Doha, the Qatari capital, in March 2011, at the time of the international intervention in Libya, a Qatari friend laughed as he showed me a cartoon in London's the Independent, depicting a fighter jet with British Prime Minister David Cameron and then French President Nicolas Sarkozy fighting over the controls, while U.S. President Barack Obama dozed in the back seat ("leading from behind"). Riding the aircraft's nose was the Qatari emir, holding up his finger to see which way the wind was blowing. The caption of the cartoon, which you would never get away with in the United States, was "FU-2 Infighter Jet."

But now, the team that has overseen Qatar's growth into a regional powerhouse is changing. Arab and Western diplomats reported this week that Emir Hamad, 61, is soon going to replace the prime minister with his son, the 33-year-old Crown Prince Tamim, and would then abdicate power himself in favor of Tamim. The news prompted an almost audible "OMG" across major world capitals, and among Qatar's neighbors -- a novice leader at a time of tension and great flux, after all, seems enormously risky.

Why now? One thought is that Emir Hamad's health has taken a turn for the worse. He is said to have only one functioning kidney -- though it is not known whether it is his own or a transplant he received in 1997. If one compares a 2009 photograph of him with Obama in New York City with one taken in the Oval Office this April, it is clear he has lost a prodigious amount of weight. A Qatari friend denies there is a health issue, claiming instead that this is a well-planned transition for which Tamim has been groomed for several years.

Transitions in Qatar rarely go smoothly. Emir Hamad himself seized power from his father in 1995 while the latter was at a sanatorium in Switzerland. Indeed, it is hard to identify a trouble-free change in power in the last 100 years. Over those years, there have been roughly eight transitions -- the exact number depends on your definition of "transition" -- but all are based on the theme of forced abdication. The result is a history of family antagonisms within the Al Thani clan, which numbers at least several thousand.

Qatar is not a democracy -- the Thanis are the country's only real political constituency. But clan unity has been strained since Emir Hamad's deposition of his father, whose own elevation in 1972 upset parts of the family because he was seen as outmaneuvering a rival. Family members are said to bear grudges and have long memories. Tamim will be forced to navigate this snake pit while many veteran political hands closely watch how the young emir performs.

Tamim is Emir Hamad's fourth son and is the second to have the title of crown prince. Of the emir's two eldest sons, a former ambassador in Doha told me, "One partied too much; the other prayed too much." When I asked the same ambassador what happened to Tamim's elder brother Jassim, the third eldest son who lost the title of heir apparent in 2003, he responded, "Oh, he listened to his Palestinian advisors too much."

Tamim, it seems, has managed to avoid all those pitfalls for a Qatari heir apparent. He was trained at Britain's Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and has a reputation for diligence. But his crucial advantage may well be that he appears to be a favorite of Sheikha Moza, Emir Hamad's second and highest-profile wife.

It is still unclear how this political changing of the guard will work in practice. Will his father stay on in Doha, effectively undermining Tamim's authority? Emir Hamad's own father lived in exile for many years, until his resentment at being overthrown had burned out. The elderly father has now returned to Qatar, and apparently to political irrelevance.

And what about the prime minister and foreign minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, known to diplomats as "HBJ"? At a ceremony held by the Brookings Institution this April, he was presented with a huge plaque and eulogized by the great and good representatives of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment as essentially irreplaceable. Perhaps he is -- there are no names yet in the frame for who will take over from him as foreign minister. HBJ will remain in charge of the Qatar Investment Authority's estimated $200 billion portfolio, but may well decide to reside in London, where the Shard, the British capital's tallest and newest building, is Qatari-owned.

Once the handover is complete, Tamim will be in charge of guiding Qatar's intervention in Syria against President Bashar al-Assad's regime, as well as maintaining Qatar's influence across the Arab world. With the revenues received as the world's largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, he is not going to be short of cash. He can also buy advice and assistance, which has been a Qatari specialty in the past: After all, roughly 1.7 million residents of the peninsula, the vast majority of the population, are not citizens but hired help.

But will he continue to be the biggest financial backer of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt? Will he still back what are probably the most extreme, albeit effective, jihadi fighters in Syria? And will Iran, which lies 100 miles north and with which Qatar shares the world's largest natural gas field, seek revenge for losses in Syria by challenging the neophyte? What about Qatar's Sunni Arab rival, Saudi Arabia, where the now-deceased Crown Prince Sultan used to refer to Emir Hamad contemptuously as a "Persian" for what was perceived to be the less-than-pure Al Thani bloodline?

For the soon-to-emerge Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the quarrelsomeness of his own family may present a challenge as equally daunting as the turbulence in the Middle East. For years, Qatar has been punching above its weight. Now, some may just try punching back.