What John McCain’s secret trip to Syria really says about foreign policy

Opps: Sen. John McCain posing with Syrian rebels – and kidnappers.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) spent his Memorial Day weekend a little bit differently than most of us. He made a super secret trip to Syria to meet with rebel forces there, making him the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Syria since the 2011 uprising-turned-civil-war began. However, probably the most important take away from his trip is that the U.S. can get in over its head in Syria without even trying.

While in Syria, McCain allegedly took pictures with rebels that were involved in the kidnapping of 11 Lebanese Shiite pilgrims a year ago, a fact his spokesman called “regrettable.” Whoops. A small thing, right? It’s just a tweet. In itself, yes. But it says way more about intervening in Syria than most people may realize: we don’t know who is who.

Sen. McCain is one of the loudest supporters of arming Syrian rebels, but – as his brief weekend excursion shows – we can get mixed up with the wrong people faster than you can say “no-fly zone.” The rebels are a disconnected hodgepodge made up of political reformers to al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamists and everything in between. How do we make sure weapons get to the former and not the latter?

If this story and problem sound familiar it’s because it is. The CIA armed the Afghan mujaheddin (which counted Osama bin Laden in its ranks and eventually became al-Qaeda) in the 1980s to fight the Soviets. Short term goal? Achieved – the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989. And in the long term? We had 9/11, the invasion of Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq, and hundreds of thousands of lives lost. Though many other factors contributed to these foreign policy developments, al-Qaeda played a large role. The CIA probably did not have these outcomes in mind.

Sen. John McCain visiting a Baghdad market to show how safe it was – accompanied by 100 security guards.

Americans oppose intervening in Syria, and Sen. McCain’s brush with kidnappers demonstrates the need for an extremely cautious Syria policy and why arming the rebels would be exceptionally difficult. Probably not the point McCain was hoping to make, but it’s not the first time the Senator has traveled to a dangerous part of the Middle East only to demonstrate why his position – and reason for going there – was wrong.

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