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War Zone Visit A McCain Trademark

In this photo provided by Mouaz Moustafa and the Syrian Emergency Task Force, Sen. John McCain, accompanied by Moustafa (right) visits rebels in Syria on Monday. McCain, who slipped into the country for a surprise visit, favors providing arms to rebel forces in Syria.
Mouaz Moustafa
In this photo provided by Mouaz Moustafa and the Syrian Emergency Task Force, Sen. John McCain, accompanied by Moustafa (right) visits rebels in Syria on Monday. McCain, who slipped into the country for a surprise visit, favors providing arms to rebel forces in Syria.

There are risks aplenty for a U.S. lawmaker who makes a surprise visit to a war zone, as Sen. John McCain recently did when he crossed the border from Turkey into Syria.

The perils to life and limb go without saying. But there are also other risks: trying to tell the good guys from the bad guys; or being victimized by disinformation from unfriendly Middle Eastern interests.

While McCain got out unscathed from Syria, where he visited rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces, he may have had less success navigating the other risks.

On Thursday, a Lebanese newspaper reported that McCain may have unwittingly had his photo taken with a rebel, Mohamed Nour, allegedly involved in the kidnapping of 11 Lebanese Shiite pilgrims last year.

It being the Middle East, however, there's always the chance that something else entirely is going on. Brian Rogers, McCain's press secretary, notes that the kidnapper claim first appeared on a pro-Hezbollah Lebanese TV network opposed to the Syrian opposition.

In a statement, Rogers said in part:

"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. 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.

"The Senator believes his visit to Syria was critical to supporting the many brave Syrians who are fighting for their lives and the freedom of their country against a brutal regime and its foreign allies that are massacring Syrian citizens on Syrian territory."

These war zone trips have become a signature for Sen. John McCain. Some senators use poster board displays on the Senate floor to make their points. McCain goes them one better and finds himself posing in dangerous places alongside wary men with semiautomatic rifles.

In Syria and Libya two years ago, McCain used the trips to raise pressure on the Obama administration and international community. He has wanted them to provide rebels with weapons and the protection of no-fly zones aimed at reducing the military advantages enjoyed by their strongmen rulers.

In Iraq in 2007, it wasn't indigenous rebels McCain visited, but American troops who had already toppled the strongman by the time McCain strolled through a Baghdad market to demonstrate the effectiveness of the U.S. troop surge at bringing stability.

"This is John McCain at his best," said Michael O'Hanlon, a national security expert at the Brookings Institution," in an interview. "This is the kind of thing he has always been very serious about, patriotic about.

"He's been willing to be a thorn in the side of his own party and the Democratic Party," O'Hanlon continued. "He's often wound up being a very important voice in whatever we wind up doing in a given conflict — the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan.

"He's not always right. And nobody should assume that just because he says it we should do it," O'Hanlon said. "But his voice is one of the most experienced. Also, at a time — and there are a lot of times like this — when presidents don't want to do anything, because they feel the whole burden of the entire domestic and international burden on their shoulders, and it's easier to hope that a problem fades away, Congress can often be a useful goad to more serious action."

That said, the ambiguities — some moral, some security-related — often seem to be shadowing McCain on these trips.

After his Benghazi visit, for instance, a blog called Human Rights Investigations reported that during a tour, his hosts took McCain past a site in Benghazi where rebels had weeks earlier beheaded a man in what appeared to be a racial lynching. (Dark skinned sub-Saharan Africans were often suspected by lighter skinned Libyans of being Gadhafi mercenaries.)

Another example: Shortly after McCain's April 2007 stroll through a Baghdad outdoor market, during which he was accompanied by Gen. David Petraeus and surrounded by a phalanx of armed U.S. troops with armed helicopters providing overhead cover, 21 of the market's workers died in a mass killing.

Providing rebels with weapons has become such a typical McCain approach that some have caricatured him for it. (Go to the 15:10 mark in this Rachel Maddow Show video.) But it wasn't always so. During the Balkans war in the 1990s, McCain's initial response was to oppose arming Muslims as they battled orthodox Serbs.

In his political memoir, Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics, Vice President Biden, then a senator, wrote:

"Talk of air strikes to halt Serb aggression and lifting the arms embargo against the Muslims in Bosnia met a lot of resistance in Washington. And one of the loudest voices against was John McCain, a former Navy pilot who had been a prisoner of war during the Vietnam conflict." Biden suggested that Vietnam had made McCain wary of U.S. action that could lead to escalated American involvement.

For a May 2008 New York Times Magazine piece, journalist Matt Bai asked McCain, who was then on his way to becoming that year's Republican presidential nominee, if it was true, as his friend Joe Lieberman said, that the genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica had changed him.

" 'I think so. I think so,' he said nodding," Bai wrote of McCain's response.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.
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