John McCain is willing to give peace a (very brief) chance. Photographer: Julia Schmalz/Bloomberg
John McCain is willing to give peace a (very brief) chance. Photographer: Julia Schmalz/Bloomberg

Senator John McCain said today there must be a short timetable, less than 30 days, to test diplomacy in order to avoid a military strike against Syria for the use of chemical weapons.

The Arizona Republican, a strong advocate of force against the Syrian government, said the diplomatic route initiated this week by the Russians should be given a chance. But he is "deeply skeptical." He ventured that the Russians and Syrians are playing a "rope-a-dope" game of endless delays to avoid any military retribution for the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons.

McCain said it should be clear within a matter of days whether the Russian proposal is a serious initiative, certainly after Secretary of State John Kerry meets with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva tomorrow. McCain seemed willing to give the initiative a little more time, but not much, and said that in any tentative agreement inspectors in Syria "must be given free reign."

He also said, in a breakfast forum sponsored by the Wall Street Journal, that early signs are not encouraging. The Russians have rejected a French proposal for Syria to relinquish its chemical weapons and have insisted that a precondition to any deal is for America to renounce any intention of force. McCain said such a condition would be unacceptable.

McCain went on to say that President Barack Obama's speech on Syria last night was "good" although he questioned the timing and criticized the president for not voicing support for the opposition to the Assad regime in Syria.

(Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)