Robert Gates’ Tornado Analogy Shows Why McCain’s Syria Plan Is Crazy

Robert Gates Secretary of defence

Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham thinking attacking Syria to establish a no-fly zone will somehow stem Iranian nuclear ambitions, while Dr. Robert Gates says the whole mess is like “sticking your hand in a tornado.”

Gates, both a former Secretary of defence and a former CIA director, says involvement in Syria is a slippery slope that will only lead to deeper, riskier commitments.

“The question about the involvement in Syria is, can you put just a few fingers into the tornado? And at what point, when that fails, do the pressures to do more gradually draw you in further and further?” Gates said during a talk at the Hearst Tower Sunday.

For Gates, even arming Syrians is risky business. Certainly he would help them “indirectly” through training in Jordan and possibly Turkey. He might arm them with “antiarmor” (anti-tank) weapons, but not anti-air missiles.

“The danger of those surface-to-air missiles, mainly from Qaddafi’s arsenals, falling into the hands of the wrong rebel I think is too great,” said Gates.

There’s evidence to support his claim. Vetting these rebels is incredibly difficult, and McCain himself on recent a jaunt to Syria took pictures with a couple militants who stand accused of kidnapping Lebanese pilgrims.

Needless to say, McCain’s approach is markedly different from Gates.

McCain said to Army Radio on a recent visit to Israel, “There’s no good option. Would you rather have these weapons — perhaps some of them — in the hands of the wrong people, or would you rather have [Syrian President] Bashar Assad prevail and then encourage Iran to further their ambitions on nuclear weapons?”

McCain and Graham both claim that making good on the “red-line” promise to Bashar Al-Asad will show Iran that Washington’s threats are credible, while not doing so would encourage Iran to buck any nuclear “red-line” Washington might give in the future.

Dan Trombly, a popular conflict and strategy blogger, took to Twitter to criticise that idea, “Credibility again! We have to undertake risky war now so we can continue to make vague threats in the future.”

“Being a superpower means you get to bluff. Starting half-measure wars is not good for credibility. Airstrikes don’t ‘fill the vacuum,'” Trombly concluded.

Gates, who opposed intervention in Libya, draws upon the Qaddafi intervention to show how it’s rarely as  simple as shooting down a few helicopters or arming a few rebels.

“It’s like pretending you can stick your hand into the vortex of a tornado and pull it out whole, or not get the rest of yourself sucked into it. And we saw that happen . . . in Libya, where what began as a humanitarian mission to protect the people of Benghazi was broadened steadily day by day with broader and broader target lists,” said Gates.