Senator John McCain has long been an impassioned critic of Bashar al Assad and his regime’s prosecution of the Syrian Civil War. The Arizona senator has thundered against Assad for “barrel-bombing people and slaughtering his innocent civilian men, women, and children, and driving millions into refugee status.” He’s also assailed Assad’s most integral ally, Vladimir Putin, for backing up the Syrians with airstrikes.
McCain is correct in this assessment, even if his proposed solutions—arming a Syrian rebellion that has al Qaeda at its core and establishing a no-fly zone that could foment a war between American and Russia—aren’t the best ways to proceed. Assad’s conduct has been atrocious, particularly his use of the aforementioned barrel bombs, improvised containers that are packed with explosives and shrapnel to inflict wide-ranging casualties. Of the nearly half a million people who have died in Syria’s gruesome conflict, most have been killed from the air by the Assad regime.
But there’s another dictatorship out there that’s loosing bombs from the sky, immiserating a country and slaughtering civilians. Saudi Arabia has been pummeling its southern neighbor Yemen for over a year now and the result has been calamitous.
Poorly trained Saudi pilots have been delivering their payloads from much too high an altitude, resulting in widespread collateral damage that’s killed hundreds of civilians and driven many more into the open arms of al Qaeda. A recent Saudi attack on a marketplace in the village of Mastaba left at least 97 civilians dead, and fragments of American bombs were found at the scene. Meanwhile, the Saudis have been blockading Yemen’s ports, denying that brittle little country access to essential goods. Today, it can be said without exaggeration that half of Yemen is starving to death and Saudi Arabia is to blame.
Surely John McCain is furious. Surely he’s mortified that the United States is supporting this ghastly bloodbath through intelligence sharing and arms deals. Surely he’s going to demand action—humanitarian relief for those under siege and even a no-fly zone to keep the Saudis at bay—just as he did with Assad.
Surely not. From Tyler Koteskey’s piece on Yemen yesterday (emphasis added):
Senators Rand Paul and Chris Murphy have introduced a new bill that would limit the sales of air-to-ground weapons to Saudi Arabia.
The bill is intended to protest Saudi Arabia’s conduct in Yemen as it intervenes to prop up the government of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels aligned with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. In order to purchase further weapons, the bill would require the Saudis to follow safeguards to minimize civilian casualties and target al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) as part of its air campaign. …
Senator John McCain is skeptical of limiting sales to Saudi Arabia. “The Iranian backed Houthis were about to take over Yemen, so I suggest he reevaluate,” McCain said of Chris Murphy. “We wouldn’t do anything about it, so the Saudis did.”
Incredible. It should be clear now that McCain isn’t furious with Assad merely because he’s slaughtering civilians, but because he’s slaughtering civilians while allied with Iran. Those who oppose Iran, like the Saudis, get a free pass. McCain even notes in an admonitory tone that “we wouldn’t do anything about it,” as though it should be American jets buzzing over Yemen right now. The linchpin for his outrage isn’t humanitarian catastrophe, but a set of alliances and enmities that dates all the way back to the Cold War.
Many are the times Senator McCain has encouraged the Obama administration to “send a message to our enemies.” Today, the message he’s sending is: if you’re going to rain mayhem down on the innocent and bolster al Qaeda, you’d better make damned sure you peripherally link your enemies to Iran first.