Why McCain & GOP are Slamming Obama for Writing Iran re: ISIL

By Juan Cole

President Obama wrote a letter to Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on the possibility of US-Iran non-military cooperation in defeating ISIL, as a sidebar to the ongoing negotiations with Tehran over the shape of its civilian nuclear enrichment program and ways of making sure the program is not militarized. The Wall Street Journal’s leak of the letter (the fourth Obama has written to the Iranian leader) provoked rage among Republicans in Congress and on Fox Cable News. Senator John McCain was especially incensed, and speaker of the House John Boehner said he doesn’t believe that the US should bring Iran into the fight against ISIL.

Shiite Iran, being the direct neighbor of Iraq, of course, is inevitably involved in the fight against ISIL (radical Sunnis) as a matter of its own national security and as a manifestation of its friendship with the Shiite government in Baghdad. Boehner has no say in it.

The US right wing views Iran as an enemy to be overthrown, on the grounds that it rejects Israel and supports Lebanon’s Hizbullah and the al-Assad government in Damascus. Obama in contrast sees Iran as a country that could be brought in from the cold.

The US strategy for fighting ISIL, which Washington has decided is a security challenge to the US despite the remoteness of its territory in places like al-Raqqah, Syria, has two major theaters.

The problem is that strategy in each of these theaters must differ, perhaps 180 degrees.

In Iraq, the Sunni Arab cities rose up against the Shiite-dominated Iraqi central government in alliance with ISIL. Mosul is a city of some 2 million. Some 5,000 ISIL fighters coming from Syria did not militarily conquer it in a conventional military attack. They were covert agents and infiltrated neighborhoods and coordinated a mass Sunni uprising.

The Shiite-dominated Iraqi military collapsed as a result.

In order to defeat ISIL in Iraq, the US has to coordinate with the Kurds and the Shiite government in Baghdad. But since the latter’s army is dysfunctional, Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi has been constrained to depend on paramilitary forces, i.e. Shiite militias, as well as on covert aid from Iran. De facto, in Iraq the US is allied with Iran and has already given Shiite groups, at Amerli, that included Iranian special forces, close air support. The US also wants to convince Sunni tribes to join with Shiite Baghdad in helping defeat ISIL, but whether this can be done is still doubtful.

In contrast, in Syria the US has two goals, not one. Obama wants to weaken and help defeat ISIL and the Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda) in Syria. It wants the weak and disorganized “Free Syrian Army” to pick up those pieces. And it wants the FSA ultimately to overthrow the government of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. Iran, which is a de facto potential ally against ISIL in Iraq, is allied with al-Assad in Syria.

This Syria plan is a mess and has way too many moving parts. Washington cannot directly attack the al-Assad government without angering Iran and risking losing its contributions to the defeat of ISIL. Therefore it has to concentrate on bombing ISIL and al-Qaeda. But so far that bombing has not allowed the Free Syrian Army to take any new territory away from the radicals. On the contrary, the Jabhat al-Nusra just took substantial territory away from groups coded by the US as ‘moderate’ in Idlib province. Al-Qaeda power is still growing in Syria.

In the MSNBC clip below, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) goes off on Obama mainly with regard to the Syria campaign. McCain is aware that a US rapprochement with Iran would weaken ISIL, but he is still convinced that the US should pull an Afghanistan_1980s and give arms and training to the Free Syrian Army. McCain clearly fears that an improvement in US-Iran relations could have as a side effect the retention in Syria of power by the Baath government of al-Assad.

But McCain is ignoring how weak the Iraqi government is at the moment. Without Iranian support, it is not clear that the Shiite government could survive. All the Sunnis in Iraq know that the al-Abadi government has friendly relations with Iran, and that Obama backs al-Abadi. So Obama’s letter changes nothing for them. Sunni tribes are perfectly capable of taking help from Iran– the sectarian divide is less important than money and a salary.

So the US needs Iran in Iraq, but views Iran as an enemy in Syria. McCain’s reaction is mainly about Syria, not Iraq. But if you look closely at the latter country, you can see that ISIL probably cannot be defeated without Iranian help. McCain has never appeared to meditate the mistakes he made in arming Muslim radicals to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, which led in some ways to the rise of al-Qaeda.

Great powers always have to make friends among states that are enemies of one another. The US has to have good relations with Greece and Turkey, and with Pakistan and India. Obama needs Iran in Iraq. It may be unpalatable, but the US needs Iran. Moreover, the US cannot defeat ISIL in Syria if it concentrates on bombing the al-Assad government, as McCain wants. McCain, who doesn’t usually show evidence of being capable of a nuanced or subtle foreign policy, doesn’t appreciate this need.

Obama’s last chance at a major foreign policy breakthrough is a treaty with Iran that forestalls a militarization of Iran’s civilian nuclear enrichment program. Obama brought up cooperation in Iraq in the context of those negotiations.

McCain’s policies in Afghanistan, of arming Muslim radicals and trying to destroy the Left there, left it a basket case decades later. McCain’s policies, if implemented, would end with al-Qaeda in charge of Damascus. That can’t possibly be a good thing.

MSNBC with Andrea Mitchell:

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Posted in Featured | 30 Responses | Print |

30 Responses

  1. There’s a simpler explanation for McCain’s policies – he’s an idiot.

    One example: Choosing Sarah Palin as VP running mate

    I rest my case.

  2. The high paid and often celebrity news people could at least read this column and ask McCain some tough questions.

    Which war does he want to win? How can multiple wars with multiple moving parts be won?

    Our corporate media continues to fail in its role of educating citizens.

    But is continues to do very well to divert attention from the collapse of our democracy.

  3. Thanks for the explanation. I’ve thought that I was confused by U.S. policy. Now I realize that it is the policy that is confused.

  4. Google, “Afghanistan US missing weapons’, and there is everything a US taxpayer will need to know. The proliferation of weapons along with Afghan police not being paid for months, has created a perfect storm. Due to this pay shortage there has been reported a missing 450 million dollars worth of weapons. The unpaid Afghan police have resorted to corruption, and are now selling these weapons to the Taliban. So, McCain’s wanting to always arm up these troubled areas, has it’s down side. When your only tool is a hammer, then everything turns out to be a nail. Being a diplomat doesn’t make as much money, as being a hawk advocating war. With a guy like McCain around God help us all…God help the world.

  5. The US is perfectly content to participate in, and support, any military violence that makes sense at the break of day, and move on to other strategies at dusk, in case of problems. The constant is that the indigenous populations will be subjected to this violence for a long in-determinant future. Our empathy for their misery is more difficult to find than the Red October.

    The Republicans, now in power, are more concerned about the most serious threat to American life, abortion clinics.

  6. A secret letter linking a nuclear deal to Iran’s help in defeating ISIS in Iraq puts the Republicans in a very awkward position. That’s the reason McCain spoke mostly about Syria, not Iraq. This does give the Republican led Congress an excuse to reject Obama’s authorization of the war against ISIS, but if Iranian aid helps defeat the ISIS gangsters, it will show that McCain and the Republicans were just playing politics.

    Who is really playing footsie?

  7. What does Obama have to offer Iran, especially as a lame duck whose party lost power in the legislature in the last election?

    Seeing the right gaining power in the US will probably drive Iran to accelerate their nuclear programs, not to back off.

    • Besides a nuclear deal, Obama might be trying to get Iran to join the fight against ISIS in Iraq. I would think that would offer some protection against all the warriors in the Republican party.

      OTOH, if Iran chooses to accelerate their nuclear programs, the Republicans and Israel will make them pay dearly. There is absolutely no way they can win the war that will be sure to come. Jennifer Rubin, the neocon at the Washington Post, wrote a whole column blasting Obama for contacting the Supreme Leader. McCain and Rubin going off on Obama for sending a secret letter means he hit a very sensitive spot.

      Ditto for Obama sending 1,500 military advisors to Iraq. The Republicans do not want Obama to launch an offensive, especially one with Iran, that will cause ISIS to crack and drive them out of Mosul and Iraq. That’s why McCain went on and on trying to link ISIS in Syria with Iraq.

      If Obama crushes ISIS in the next two years and Iran plays a part that would ruin all the war mongers plans.

      • Using ISIS as an excuse to launch a war of aggression against its archenemy Iran makes as much sense as using al-Qaeda as an excuse to launch a war of aggression against its archenemy Saddam Hussein. So you’re probably correct. Lather, rinse, repeat.

  8. The Republicans, as expressed by their foremost intellectual arm, the Fox News Nasties, are already enraged that Obama did not resign the Presidency as soon as the just concluded 2014 election results became clear. Obviously they see that midterm election as really having been a Presidential one, and also they have the 2008 one in mind as well, and in their eyes that means that J. McCain is now finally recognized as being the U.S. prez after all. And other mainstream media seem to be going along with that perception, judging by how often they’ve been consulting McCain lately, even if, as far back as 2008, his brain processes were already showing signs of not running at full throttle, when that media could do so much better in interviewing Professor Cole, who from all I’ve ever been able to see is second to none in being able to untangle for us all the highly complicated skeins of Middle East matters, as shown by this article.

    And so once again, if Americans don’t want to put a lot of “boots on the ground” to defeat ISIS, what better move for our actual President for the next year and a half to make than to team up with Iran (as Roosevelt did with Stalin, back in 1941)? Iran is right there in the neighborhood instead of being half the globe away and also is far from being the rogue nation that so many people see it as being. People can point to the U.S. itself, and Israel, and Britain, and Russia, and Germany, and many other nations in the West and all over the planet, as having attacked other nations, often without good reason and in many ways. But who has Iran attacked in the last several centuries, for any reason?

    It’s amazing to me how the answer to this simple question and its implications are always evaded, in deference to the common wisdom, so important is it to keep on indulging in the Netanyahu Kickapoo joy juice.

    • Well, only whites vote in midterms, and only whites are “real” Americans, so of course that was the real election.

      The problem with the logic of allying with Iran is that none of what we’re fighting over right now is in any way as relevant as 1941. In their hearts, Americans know that this is not a struggle for survival – or they would be lining up around the block to enlist, or doing scrap metal drives, or demanding a return to FDR’s wartime tax rates (94% marginal). All our wars since 1945 have been wars of colonial maintenance.

      So our choice is not between allying with Stalin or seeing Hitler obtain control over Europe & the USSR and all their decapitated colonies, half the planet, plus all the Nazi sympathizers multiplying in South America. It’s allying with a Shiite state that its own people want to reform – an event that would discredit the Islamophobe narrative, versus sending in our own troops for the purpose of always being at war with Moslems.

      And you know the latter will not mean tax hikes on the rich, because the GOP has learned to use war to assault social programs for the poor; in fact even the benefits war used to bring to our poor like better wages and more political leverage. Wars of colonial maintenance are always the right size to not demand tax hikes on the rich, the only place left to obtain trillion $ plus increases in revenue.

      My question is what veto power will be exercised over us by Saudi Arabia, which must find both these alternatives as disgusting as we do. Maybe it’s time for the Saudis themselves to stop pretending to be neutral in this war, and negotiate a practical regional settlement with Iran.

  9. Professor Cole you said Iran would be annoyed if the US bombed Syria, I’m not sure whether the US would care, however Russia has warned the US about such a move and would counter it kinetically. Some people are confused about what’s going on in the Middle East? Allow me to explain.
    We support the Iraqi government in the fight against the Islamic State. We don’t like IS, but IS is supported by Saudi Arabia, whom we do like.
    We don’t like President Assad in Syria. We support the fight against him, but not IS, which is also fighting against him.
    We don’t like Iran, but Iran supports the Iraqi government against IS. So, some of our friends support our enemies and some of our enemies are our friends, and some of our enemies are fighting against our other enemies, whom we want to lose, but we don’t want our enemies who are fighting our other enemies to win.
    If the people we want to defeat are defeated, they might be replaced by people we like even less. And all this was started by us invading a country to drive out terrorists who surely actually they’re to begin with until we went in to drive them out”. Do you understand now?

  10. The US strategy for fighting ISIL,…

    The US strategy looks like it is taking another shot with the SOP that failed in Vietnam, didn’t work all that well in Iraq (except for the turkey-shoot in Kuwait), and will very likely join the Brits in that graveyard of empires (Afghanistan).

  11. So what are the real odds of a meaningful agreement with Iran being approved by the congress, or otherwise implemented, AND, more importantly, enduring?

    Given domestic US politics, and the election in 2 years, is this all just hot air and noble gestures? Is there a scenario for a success that the US and Iran, at THEIR true core want, that I’m just not seeing?

  12. McCain has never appeared to meditate the mistakes he made in arming Muslim radicals to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan,

    Has McCain ever admitted to any of the major mistakes he has made?

    • He still won’t admit to any mistakes in the four (?) Navy jets he destroyed during his career as an aviator. One on a training exercise, one on the deck of a carrier when a bomb accidentally dropped from his plane (a serious mess), the one he was shot down in, and another training jet he lost after he returned a hero from a POW camp. I think he was almost the first Communist fighter ace to run for the Presidency.

  13. Briain-dead McCain needs to join Bush and Cheney in Leavenworth for life for thinking it was such a neat idea to destabilize the entire Middle East by attacking Iraq. No republican thinks even once before causing this kind of trouble. I don’t doubt McCain’s motives have to do with Israel. God help us if GOP steal the election for the White House in two years, they will nuke Russia because of all the Western propaganda over the Ukraine. We are all toast.

  14. Messy, isn’t it. But what is slowly emerging from the mess is that Sunnis moderates (which is the vast majority of Muslims around the world) are as much an enemy of ISIL, ISIS, IS (whatever they want to call themselves this week) and that in making an enemy of Sunni moderates in Iraq by mass murdering them as they have recently they are cutting off their noses to spite their face. They are isolating themselves from their own people. In doing so they will remain just a bunch of pseudo religious warriors whose fanatical extremism will eventually alienate even their own people who will see them as elitist outlaws.

    Obama is right; there can only be a political solution to the IS lunacy – and there can only be a political solution long-term future of Syria. Regime change at Israel and America’s whim is not a solution.

    • Obama is right that patience wears down the lunatics of other lands. But it doesn’t work when he applies it to America’s lunatics. I guess people only learn by having lunatics with guns actually ruin their lives in person, and then getting angry enough to risk their lives fighting back.

    • Obama just sent 1,500 more military advisors to Iraq because they were needed to train the Iraqi army for their spring offensive against ISIS.

      Last week, Grand Ayatollah Sistani came out in favor of arming the moderate Sunnis.

      Yesterday came word of Obama’s secret letter to the Supreme Leader of Iran.

      All of this points to a military solution to the ISIS gangsters.

      McCain and Jennifer Rubin have already blasted Obama for corresponding with Iran. They tie in ISIS in Syria with ISIS in Iraq for one reason: Syria means Assad and that leads to IRAN. Listen to what McCain says about Obama not arming the moderate Syria fighters. Bibi Netanyahu doesn’t give a rat’s a.. about ISIS. Those gangsters don’t mean squat to him.

      IRAN IS THE REAL TARGET and that’s why this letter started them HOWLING.

      Sending thousands of troops to Iraq is perfect for the neos. Iran is next door. The neocons aren’t in to little wars.

  15. So the GOP senate, according to Fox propagandists, will push for the simplest solution: go to war with everybody. Fight ISIS, fight Iran, and act aggressively against Russia and China. And they will hold up the budget and bankrupt our country to force Obama to capitulate.

    So folks, your problem with Obama was? Your alternative president Dennis Kucinich would have prevented all this how? Whoops, you let the GOP eliminate his House soapbox. We did nothing to reward ANY national politician for being less warlike than the alternative whenever a crisis occurred. We punished the Democrats who could get elected for not being pure enough, which allowed Fox to create a bullshit narrative that those Democrats were unpopular for being TOO liberal, so most voters are scared away from the midterms.

    And worst of all, we showed our contempt for the fears and patriotism for all voters, especially minority voters who still want a strong America despite everything, by refusing to propound an alternative doctrine for America’s role in the world based on our objective interests as a bunch of greedy pigs. Yes, that’s what we are, and if we don’t want to face how our hamburger gets made overseas we better specifically spell out where a delicious alternative will come from because no one is willing to sacrifice shit for our principles.

    • Principles? And those are? And who is “our,” out of the 315 million or so USans? There’s just been another demonstration of who owns what passes for legitimacy, and hence the power to rule, here. Now another Natural Unit of Troops, which for some reason has now become 1,500, is on the terrain to “train” another passel of Gunmen, and arm them, so they can likely do just what, again? “the centre cannot hold,” and for a little more literature, there’s Matthew Arnold’s dark vision, “Dover Beach,” the one that ends

      Ah, love, let us be true
      To one another! for the world, which seems
      To lie before us like a land of dreams,
      So various, so beautiful, so new,
      Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
      Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
      And we are here as on a darkling plain
      Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
      Where ignorant armies clash by night.
      link to poetryfoundation.org

      Of course for the few of us, our lives in our lifetimes can become increasingly splendiferous, and hey, after we’ve shuffle off this mortal coil, who gives a rip? What are the mopes, drowning and starving and killing each other in a rat-scrabble fight for a few more breaths of air, a litre of potable water, an uncracked can of lima beans, going to do to the Blessed, once They have departed? Us humans seem to be able to imagine and do “better,” but… The “content” and comments at Youtube and Facebook and the MSM and even “liberal progressive blogs” tell me, at least, that there ain’t no stinking principles but “gimme iMore.” Sad…

      • Your post is an incoherent mess.

        >1,500, is on the terrain to “train”

        Theres no need to put in exclamation marks, the available evidence clearly shows that training and intelligence gathering are the main goals here.

        >so they can likely do just what, again?

        Are you seriously unaware?

        They are to become ground opposition to isis. Whether or not this is to be successful remains to be seen but this is the goal. This again is clear by looking at the available evidence.

        >and for a little more literature, there’s Matthew Arnold’s dark vision, “Dover Beach,”

        You could post some literature which hasnt been presented time and time again .

        >They have departed? Us humans seem to be able to imagine and do “better,” but… The “content” and comments at Youtube and Facebook and the MSM and even “liberal progressive blogs” tell me, at least, that there ain’t no stinking principles but “gimme iMore.” Sad…

        This piece is exceptionally weak, it ignores the reality that most people on sites like facebook are decent, hard-working individuals who support the improvement of the world and that many of them take actions to bring this about.

        Youre basically creating a caricature and loftily wagging your finger against this made up entity to make yourself appear enlightened.

        • Thanks for reciting the Narrative points regarding that one tiny part of the military investment of Messupotamia.

          No, I’m not “unaware.” Nominal “goals,” for the 1,500 additional avowed Troops, might be stated as training and intelligence, and that’s been the stated mission and tactics in many past rounds of inserting Advisers onto the Game board: link to mtholyoke.edu. But “the available evidence,” in light of the groups and loyalties in the Area of Operations and the total and very expensive failure (by comparison to the Narrative selling points) of just about all such previous missions, says that is just smoke and mirrors. “Investing in Junk Armies: Why American Efforts to Create Foreign Armies Fail,” link to commondreams.org, and more broadly in the Iraq context, link to foreignaffairs.com. And even our vaunted Generals, pre-justifying the next FUBAR, say that scarce and faulty intelligence (which will NOT be rectified by Spec Ops troops) is “impairing the robustness of the operations.”

          Glad you’re willing, from a safe distance, to let the next set of ground truths “remain to be seen.” This enlistee volunteer veteran of the Vietnam idiocy thanks you for your support, and look, a shiny new benefit, link to army.mil for those who “preserve our freedoms” by trying to train the Iraqi SHIA army, and “moderate terrorists” who have shown a disconcerting tendency to take money and weapons from “us” and then shoot up both our troops and traditional and newly conjured opponents, and dammit, not play according to the script…

          Yes, there are a lot of “decent, hard working people” plying the Facebook space and Twitterverses, but there’s a huge raft of ugly doorways into the dark, hateful, violent id of a massive part of our Imperial populace (and of course there’s the ugly ISIS ant “other extremist” web presence, too, for balance). The Empire’s rulers, to gin up the minimal support needed to continue their profitable enterprise, know very well how to play to and deploy that destructive energy.

          Care to articulate or identify the “principles” that our investment, in blood and treasure, are supposed to be serving?

        • @JTMcPhee

          >No, I’m not “unaware.”

          Again, no need for exclamation points, its silly at this point.

          Also your post post show that you were.

          >inserting Advisers onto the Game board: link to mtholyoke.edu.

          Certainly something to note however the situations are very different, broad generalisations and comparisons arent useful, are finer more detailed analysis is needed which takes into account the various variables.

          >of just about all such previous missions, says that is just smoke and mirrors.

          Again the “available evidence”, as you put it, doesnt show this, it does show that the goals of the us are aimed towards hindering Isis due to the belief that they are a significant geo-political threat to its allies in the region rightly or wrongly.

          Asserting its smoke and mirrors may convince some conspiracy theorists but most people would like some convincing evidence that this is the case.

          >“Investing in Junk Armies: Why American Efforts to Create Foreign Armies Fail,” link to commondreams.org, and more broadly in the Iraq context

          You should read your links, none of them contradict my comments, they merely highlight that its possible that the assistance efforts may fail which i already pointed out above.

          >Glad you’re willing, from a safe distance, to let the next set of ground truths “remain to be seen.”

          When did i come out and say that i supported the intervention, please avoid using straw-man arguments.

          >This enlistee volunteer veteran

          So you certainly claim.

          >Yes, there are a lot of “decent, hard working people” plying the Facebook space and Twitterverses, but there’s a huge raft of ugly doorways into the dark, hateful, violent id of a massive part of our Imperial populace

          Theres also those on other sections of the internet who are willing to put others down just in the vain attempt to try and make themselves look better than most.

          >Care to articulate or identify the “principles” that our investment, in blood and treasure, are supposed to be serving?

          Im on the fence in regards to the issue but for those supporting the conflict they likely would claim that humanitarian principles are being served by hindering isis from attacking certain areas.

          Whether they are right or wrong in their assessment remains to be seen.

          I doubt someone like yourself though could provide an answer, again that would require detailed analysis of the available information and not just exclamation marks.

        • @slim: “Theres also those on other sections of the internet who are willing to put others down just in the vain attempt to try and make themselves look better than most”

          Out of the mouths of ad hominem babes… Maybe one of us will owe the other an apology on the substance, in a few years or months. Though the flux will long since have moved on to other “issues.” Those are quote marks, indicating skepticism and disbelief.

  16. Every time McCain opens his mouth, he should be reminded that he is a US Senator and has the express right, under the US Constitution, to propose a bill declaring war any time he wants to. All he has to do is copy one of the previous war declaration bills (or use my outline below) and throw it into the hopper and have his fellow congress critter vote on it. If a majority agrees, then we are legally and unambiguously off to the races.

    Until McCain is willing to put forth a war bill, he should be told to shut up and the media should ignore him. If he does not have the guts to put forth a bill, he is just a worthless bag of hot air.

    I expect that any war declaration bill would have several parts:

    – Declaration of war naming who our latest victim is (this shouldn’t be all that hard since we do it all the time).

    – FULL funding for all the cannon fodder, war toys and long, long term veterans medical and benefits. If we are going to war, lets be up front about the cost.

    – Universal draft – EVERY 19 to 25 year old human in the USA would be drafted with NO EXCEPTIONS for religion, education, family situation, gender or wealth. if we are going to war, every 19 year old should have an equal opportunity to be killed or maimed. The more rich, white boys and girls that get killed the shorter (and less expensive) the war.

    – Tax increases comparable to WW2 taxes so the war is funded real time instead of running up the debt. If we can’t have debt to ensure old people have a decent life (SSA), we sure can’t have debt to pay for wars.

    So there it is for senator McCain – the outline of a simple war bill – he should just fill in the details and submit it to congress instead of filling TV with hot air.

  17. The Administration has had to fight to keep the Iran nuclear negotiations on that issue only. The Kirk-Menendez bill tries to bring human rights etc. into the equation. I think Obama’s link between the nuclear issue and ISIL in the letter could be used by supporters of the bill as a ‘precedent’ on linkage.

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