09/13/2014 05:52 pm ET Updated Nov 12, 2014

On the 'Good Guys' in Syria, John McCain Ain't Got a Clue

On May 27, 2013, Senator John McCain secretly drove into Syria from Turkey and spent a few hours meeting with leaders of the so-called "moderate" Free Syrian Army (FSA), including Gen. Salem Idris, who was chief of staff of the FSA's Supreme Military Council (SMC). Gen. Idris was replaced on February 16, 2014 by Col. Abd al-Ilah al-Bashir reportedly due to his "ineffectiveness" as a commander.

According to a Wall Street Journal article titled "McCain Meets Rebel Leaders in Border Zone" published on May 27, 2013, "Mr. McCain chatted with rebel leaders over glasses of fruit juice and fresh cherries in an old customs house now serving as an opposition command center... "

Mr. McCain posed for a few photos with rebel leaders, including Gen. Idris and Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force based in Washington, DC. Others identified in snapshots with Mr. McCain were Mohammad Nour and Abu Ibrahim of the rebel group Asifat al Shamal, also known as the Northern Storm.

It was clear that Mr. McCain had no clue with whom he was posing. An article titled "Who Was That With McCain? Not Syrian Kidnappers, NGOs Say" published by The Daily Beast on May 31, 2013 noted that Mr. Nour and Mr. Ibrahim belong to a "group that kidnapped Lebanese religious pilgrims who were returning from Iran in May 2012." The article continued...

Northern Storm has been implicated in the alleged kidnapping of 11 Lebanese Shia men who were traveling through Syria on the way back from Iran. Relatives of the abducted men were said to have identified the two as the kidnappers from a photo of the McCain visit.

Ever since then, Mr. McCain has been pawning himself off as some sort of expert on Syria and the opposition groups fighting in the civil war there. Mr. McCain spent a few hours just inside Syria's northern border chatting informally in an old building with a few rebels leaders, sipping fruit juice and eating cherries with them, and, voilà, he suddenly became an expert on Syria and its opposition groups.

Yep, that's about the size of it.

Mr. McCain never misses an opportunity to point out his unique expertise. After all, there really aren't that many Americans who can claim this, and so Mr. McCain must figure that by insinuating he's an expert he immediately gains an edge, or at least scores a few points in any debate on Syria. It's, well... pathetic.

Most recently, Mr. McCain used the gimmick on former White House Press Secretary Jay Carney in a televised interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper. In a lively exchange regarding the relative lack of clarity on the makeup of the "moderate" rebels back in 2012 when there were calls by many Republicans to arm and train them, as well as provide them air support, Mr. McCain hit back.

"Come on Jay, we knew all about them then. You just didn't choose to know. I was there in Syria. We knew them."

The good Senator has pulled the stunt countless times during the past year in TV and radio interviews, speeches and hearings in the US Senate, and town hall meetings with average citizens. A particularly memorable example of this occurred at a town hall in September 2013 when a Syrian woman stood up and criticized Mr. McCain at length for his support for bombing Syria, warning that a lot of innocent people would be killed in the process. She related how a member of her family was killed by one of the rebel groups that would supposedly benefit from US air strikes

To his credit, Mr. McCain listened patiently for a long time before he finally got the microphone and said...

"Thank you for your passionate plea. Thank you for your very compelling and emotional statement. And all I can tell you is that I too have been to Syria, I too know people who are fighting there. I met them, I know them, and I know who they are. And I know Syria well enough to know that it is a moderate nation. It is not a nation that will embrace these foreign fighters. But to say that Bashar Assad is anything but a merciless butcher, then we have a strong disagreement."

Also last September, Mr. Mcain was challenged on Syria by investigative journalist Christopher Greene of AMtv. The reporter asked, ""Senator Ted Cruz said yesterday out of Texas that we should not act as al-Qaeda's air force. The al-Nusra Front is fighting alongside the Free Syrian Army which is directly linked to al-Qaeda. Why was the United States fighting against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, but now fighting alongside them in Syria?"

Perfectly reasonable question. But Mr. McCain didn't think so. Perturbed, he came back...

"Because your statement is totally false. Your statement could not be more false. Your statement is false, so if you want to say that it's not, I'm entitled to say that your statement is false. I've been in Syria. You been in Syria? No, you have not. I have been. Sir, your statement was false, so I don't have any response to a false statement."

But the press was undaunted. Another AMtv reporter, Topher Morrison, followed up. He asked...

"Senator McCain, what do you say about your judgment on how to pick the good and evil in Syria when you yourself were photographed? How do we trust your judgment picking the good and the evil in Syria?"

Mr. McCain responded... "Because it appears in an al-Qaeda newspaper in Lebanon?"


"It appeared in The Guardian newspaper. You obviously know what I'm talking about. How are we supposed to trust your judgment if you're photographed with known terrorists?"

Slightly taken aback, Mr. McCain responded... "I have never had anything to do with known terrorists, and I'm offended by your question."

And that was that.

Though cheap and disingenuous, Mr. McCain's debate tactic is clever enough. Claim superior knowledge and a little travel experience, and then proceed to patronize or lambaste anyone who has the nerve to disagree with him or, heaven forbid, question his "facts" and policy recommendations.

On Thursday, Mr. McCain stood on the floor of the US Senate and read a prepared speech regarding US policy in Iraq and Syria. Ready, set, go.

"I've been to Syria, I know how brave these people are, I know how disappointed they were when we failed to arm and equip them."

It almost sounds as if Mr. McCain is more concerned that he let down the "good guys" in Syria than he is about the possibility that his ideas and his judgment may be dead wrong, and that America (and the world) could pay dearly for listening to him, because, well... he's no expert. He's just nuts.

The truth is that nobody in the US government really knows who the "good guys" are in Syria. (See "Obama's Move to Arm and Train 'Moderates' in Syria Is a Feint") Not President Obama. Not the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey. Not the CIA. Not former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Not former US Ambassador to Iraq and Syria Ryan Crocker. And certainly not John McCain.

Perhaps Ambassador Crocker summed up the US dilemma best when he recently told The New York Times, "We need to do everything we can to figure out who the non-ISIS opposition is. Frankly, we don't have a clue."