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McKeon, House Cautious on Syria

Buck McKeon, Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, says the military’s intervention in Egypt was the right thing to put Egypt’s democratic transition back on track.

The Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, in an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor at his Capitol Hill office, said that he opposes cutting off US military assistance to Egypt and that Egypt's armed forces are “doing the right thing” to support democracy in Egypt.

In contrast to Sen. John McCain and others who have called for stopping military aid to Egypt because of its armed forces’ role in deposing former President Mohammed Morsi, Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, who has been chairman of the committee since January 2011, said that Egypt’s military has been a “stabilizing influence” and its actions were necessary to put Egypt's democratic transition back on track. 

Those who support cutting off military aid to Egypt argue that US foreign assistance provisions require ending assistance in the event of a military coup.

McKeon, however, considers the military intervention as welcome and worthy of US support, not punishment.

While Morsi benefited from the Muslim Brotherhood’s superior organization to win election in June 2012, McKeon said that Morsi's policies soon took an anti-democratic turn, provoking the massive popular protests.

“I appreciate what the military did and I think they also understand that they need to keep their rule very short,” McKeon said. “They need to get back to democratic elections and I think that’s what they will do. They are not looking to run the country, they want to run the military, but they want the country to be democratic and that means in the full sense of the word.”

 “I think we have to be very careful to not do anything to disrupt their movement toward getting back to democracy,” he added.

On Syria, McKeon said that US lethal aid to Syrian rebel forces is “too little, too late,” and unlikely to be decisive in the war.  

But McKeon, who represents California’s 25th district, was cautious about a deeper US military engagement in Syria, in contrast to his counterpart, Carl Levin, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee who has proposed a US no-fly zone and consideration of limited US military strikes on Syrian targets.

“If the president came to the House asking for authority to go in Syria, I don’t think he could get the vote on either side of the aisle,” McKeon said. “These people understand America, and right now they don’t want another war. We’ve been fighting the longest war in our history [in Afghanistan]. I think people would like the time to take a breath, so they’re not looking for another one.  If they were, say Americans were instead of 70% against going in [Syria], they were 70% for it, then there might be some reason to bring it up in the House.”

“The Armed Services committee would have some questions about how we were going to pay for it, and are we ready, and how many casualties are you willing to accept, and how far are you willing to go,” he added.  “When we up the ante and Iran, Russia and others come in and up the ante further, are we going to pull back? What does that do to us? We’ve already suffered [the loss of] prestige around the world big time.”

House Armed Services Committee legislation known as the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014 — which passed the House of Representatives on June 14 — includes a “Sense of Congress on the Conflict in Syria” that reads in part, “Should the President decide to employ any military assets in Syria, the President should provide a supplemental budget request to Congress.”

McKeon, who was first elected to Congress in 1992, said he considers Syria a battleground for a broader Islamic, sectarian war. He said “there is no good solution in Syria,” agreeing with the assessment of possible military options provided by US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey to  Levin and McCain on July 22.

“As bad as the humanitarian situation is, the strategic interest is the neighborhood,” added McKeon. “You’ve got Lebanon, you’ve got Jordan and Israel is totally alone. It is just a really bad thing.”

McKeon warned that the danger of escalation is magnified by the presence of weapons of mass destruction in the region, including the US finding of chemical weapons in Syria, and this is especially a threat to Israel.

“Israel will do whatever they have to do if it means their existence,” he said.

McKeon said that the proposed Geneva Conference on Syria may be the best option to prevent the conflict from spreading, but it will require close coordination with Russia, whose actions in Syria and elsewhere in the world should give the US pause.

The chairman added, however: “There is no advantage to Russia in trying to blow up the Middle East. I think they have made their point. It would be advantageous to them and to us to get to the table sit down and work this thing out because otherwise it can spin out of control where nobody has control.”

On Iran, McKeon is pessimistic that diplomacy will convince Iran not to pursue a nuclear weapons option, even with the election of Hassan Rouhani, a perceived moderate, as president.

“We talk, we talk, we talk, and they keep building a nuclear capability,” he said. “They put another guy up front but the real power has not changed. They’re not going to change their focus, they know where they’re heading, and the longer they can keep us looking here while they are moving here, better for them.”

“I think we have to be a lot more realistic,” said McKeon. “I mean, why would they have to go under a mountain to do their nuclear stuff if it was just to build a power plant? They could open that up and show the world. How dumb do they think we are? And we just played right into it. … I hope that I’m wrong and that everything just works out right, but I think that you need to be a little hardheaded about these things and I think we’re just like kids watching men play.”

McKeon criticized the Obama administration for not completing a status of forces or basing agreement with Iraq before the US withdrew all its forces in 2011.

“You don’t have to be a prophet, all you have to do is look at a little bit of history,” he said. “We dropped the ball. We pulled everybody out. And now look. All of our efforts there are pretty much down the tubes. … You think that the Abu Ghraib prison escape would have happened if we were still there? It’s just a tragedy.” 

McKeon, whose committee has oversight of US defense policy and military operations, lamented that a lack of clarity and leadership by the Obama administration, as well as painful budget cuts, have cost the United States both prestige and military readiness to deal with crises in the Middle East and around the world.

“I wish that we had some real leadership,” he said. “The world is not a safe place and we’ve cut this huge amount out of our military budget and then just expect us to be ready to go at the drop of the hat anywhere we decide to send them?” 

Andrew Parasiliti is editor & CEO of Al-Monitor.

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