McCain says we can identify the good guys in Syria -- after he unwittingly meets with kidnappers

You don’t really need more than that headline, do you?

As a metaphor for U.S. interventionism in Syria, it’s hard to do better than this:

Senator John McCain’s office is pushing back against reports that while visiting Syria this week he posed in a photo with rebels who kidnapped 11 Lebanese Shi’ite pilgrims…

“A number of the Syrians who greeted Senator McCain upon his arrival in Syria asked to take pictures with him, and as always, the Senator complied,” Rogers said. “If the individual photographed with Senator McCain is in fact Mohamed Nour, that is regrettable. But it would be ludicrous to suggest that the Senator in any way condones the kidnapping of Lebanese Shia pilgrims or has any communication with those responsible. Senator McCain condemns such heinous actions in the strongest possible terms,” Rogers said.

Of course he doesn’t condone it. The State Department doesn’t condone jihadism as an ideology either, yet in both cases we’d be asked to make common cause with it in the name of replacing a Shiite fundamentalist regime’s puppet with a Sunni fundamentalist “democracy.” Watch McCain’s interview about his Syria trip below and count how many bad arguments there are for intervention. One, at around 2:40, has him arguing that we can “handle” this because, after all, we have the world’s greatest military. That implication, that we should take this challenge on in part to show that we’re equal to it, is both very McCain-esque very unconvincing. If Russian-made Syrian missiles end up shooting down a few American planes, what’s the next step in the challenge that we’re required to accept? If we succeed in decimating Assad from the air, how do we meet the challenge of restraining Sunni fanatics from ethnically cleansing the Alawites? He says the status quo is terrible, which is true, without ever explaining how deviating from it would necessarily be an improvement.

Two, he claims that we can weed out the good rebels from the bad ones because Jabhat al-Nusra, the most notorious jihadi rebel group, represents only 7,000 fighters or so in a total force of 100,000. Even if his numbers are correct, that’s egregiously misleading. According to a New Yorker report last month, the “overwhelming majority” of rebels are Islamists even if they’re not affiliated with Nusra. Here’s another vignette from Time magazine about Libyan weapons dealers meeting with representatives of various Syrian rebel factions:

[F]irst, the Libyans wanted to know who the Syrians were exactly and which rebel group each represented. There was a representative from Jund-Allah (Soldiers of God), which operates in and around the capital Damascus; a commander from Ansar al-din (Supporters of the Faith) in Lattakia province; and most significantly a man who is one of the seven members of the political office of Jabhat Syria il-Islamiya (the Syrian Islamic Front), one of the country’s largest, most cohesive and strongest Islamist militant coalitions, led by the Salafi Ahrar al-Sham Brigades. (The extremist al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra is not part of this alliance.)

Coffee was ordered — Turkish coffee for the Syrians and cappuccinos for the Libyans. The Libyan from Zintan, wearing faded black jeans, a cream-colored shirt stretched taut across his waist and a gray sports jacket, did most of the talking. He fingered black worry beads, while his colleague from Benghazi listened. His first question was about whether the men around him recognized the FSA and its 14 provincial military councils. All said they did not. “Their commanders are failures, they are corrupt,” the Syrian from Ansar al-Din said.

“There is not even one battalion, in all honesty, that they can control,” the Islamic Front representative said. “These people [senior defectors in the FSA like the one the Libyans had met the night before] were placed as facades, in the beginning, as media personalities, but as real commanders on the ground? Not at all.”

The FSA, a.k.a. Free Syrian Army, is led by Gen. Idris. That’s who McCain met with in Syria a few days ago and that’s who he’s talking up in the clip here as some sort of tip of the American freedom spear in Syria. The FSA also happens to be the same group that, according to the Guardian, has been bleeding troops and even entire units to Jabhat al-Nusra through defections. To quote Bill Roggio, “With mass defections of FSA forces to Al Nusrah, there is no better way to ensure that US funds and weapons will fall into al Qaeda’s hands.” These are our would-be allies.

Three, he actually says at 4:40 that the rebels “are trying to achieve the same thing that we have shed American blood and treasure for for well over 200 years.” It’s one thing to believe that 10 years ago, before a series of exceptionally hard lessons in Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya and Egypt; it’s another to believe it now. It’s so surreally untrue that it eclipses McCain’s one solid realpolitik-minded argument here, that aiding the Sunni rebellion is a way to weaken Iran and, especially, Hezbollah by bleeding them in a Vietnamish quagmire of their own. We’ve spent two years watching Egypt bend towards Islamism and now here’s Maverick attempting to sell the public again on the idea that Syria’s a liberal democracy in the eventual making if we just pick the right people to empower, knowing full well that the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood probably constitutes one of the milder expressions of Islamic fundamentalism among the rebel hordes. What Syria really is is a budding hybrid of Egypt and Libya post-revolution, with some dominant Islamist group at the head of government and even more radical militias roaming the streets. In an implausibly unlikely best-case scenario, you’d end up there with some sort of socialist regime that would keep its boot on the throats of jihadists and keep the country retarded economically. The fact that he can’t sell his interventionism honestly reminds me again that he’s probably, and inadvertently, a better salesman for isolationism at this point than even Rand Paul is.