It sounded so perfect. The hawkish Republican war hero John McCain visiting rebel-held Syrian territory to show the locals that not all US politicians are lily-livered liberals who have doubts about arming the Syrian freedom fighters. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, of which McCain is a member, even voted to give the rebels weapons and to train vetted rebel groups.
The problem with McCain's view is that you lose control over the weapons once you sign them over, and a vetting procedure that cannot use the full resources of a state will be somewhat sub-optimal. And when you're talking about equipping and training people to use deadly force in a situation where self-discipline has been lacking on both sides, then sub-optimal ain't going to cut it.
McCain's visit has ended up being a wonderful metaphor for exactly the problems that his hawkish policy stance would face. Essentially it showed why we shouldn't trust people's guarantees when it comes to sectarian civil wars. His photo op with members of the rebel forces may have unwittingly included two people who were involved with the kidnapping of 11 Lebanese Shi'a a year ago. One of the two Lebanese released so far claimed that he recognised them from the photos released after McCain's visit.
McCain's office went into damage control, saying that no one had identified themselves by the names the kidnappers were known by and, if true, the incident was regrettable. McCain has subsequently claimed that the story wasn't true and was concocted by a Lebanese television station.
Now, either McCain put himself in a situation where he was inadvertently photographed with two members of a sectarian kidnapping group, or the claim is false and designed to embarrass McCain by showing he has no idea who he is associating with. Either way, when you're advocating the arming of people to go out and kill other people based on the idea that you can trust a vetting process in the middle of a sectarian civil war and you may or may not have been photographed with kidnappers but don't really know because no one identified themselves, it says something about how well judged your policy is.
McCain's photographic faux pas has simply reinforced President Obama's and General Martin Dempsey's point that you can't trust an organisation that you don't understand. Still, better to be caught out through a simple photographic error than by handing over weapons without any clear system of control.
Photo by Flickr user World Economic Forum.