Did Senator John McCain, a leading advocate of arming Syria’s Islamist revolutionaries, meet with members or allies of the Islamic State in al-Sham [the Levant] (ISIS) during his trip to Syria on May 27 of last year?
McCain and his defenders deny it, and McCain’s longtime advisor, Mark Salter, is accusing Sen. Rand Paul – who, in a recent interview with the Daily Beast, said McCain had met with ISIS – of "smearing" McCain and indulging in "conspiracy theories," rendering him "unfit" for the office of the presidency. The Washington establishment, unsurprisingly, is siding with McCain, one of their own: the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler, in a scathing piece, gives Sen. Paul "four Pinocchios," and regrets that’s the maximum allowed. Josh Rogin, of the reliably neoconnish Daily Beast, joined in the pile-on with his colleague Olivia Nuzzi, ex-aide to Anthony Weiner, who accused Paul of "repeating a thoroughly debunked rumor."
Now, however, it’s time to debunk the "debunking," because the truth is finally coming out – and it’s worse for McCain than even Sen. Paul imagined. It turns out the frenetic Arizona warmonger met with members of the Northern Storm Brigade – the group that handed US journalist Steven Sotloff over to ISIS as he crossed the border into Syria.
And irony of ironies, here is the very same Josh Rogin reporting on a story that proves Sen. Paul and McCain’s numerous critics were right all along – far righter than they knew at the time:
"Barak Barfi, Sotloff’s close friend and the official spokesman for the Sotloff family following Steven’s brutal murder this month at the hands of ISIS, told The Daily Beast in an interview that the group responsible for Sotloff’s detention and indirectly for his death is not only a part of the Free Syrian Army, but the same exact brigade that met with Sen. John McCain at that same border crossing only three months before."
Who or what is this brigade? They call themselves the "Northern Storm" and I wrote about them here, when this controversy over McCain’s meeting first arose. At the time, I said they were thugs whose allegiances and ideology were unclear, at best, even as the media continued to push a narrative that exonerated McCain and whitewashed the rebels. The arrogance of the "mainstream" media, and especially it’s neoconnish contingent, forbids admitting error, and so instead of acknowledging that his previous full-throated defense of McCain’s Syria trip was badly misleading, Rogin brazens it out:
"Last week, McCain was busy shooting down false reports (regurgitated by a misinformed Kentucky Senator Rand Paul) that he had met with ISIS in May 2013. McCain actually met and posed for photos with, among others, members of the Northern Storm Brigade, a rebel group that has received weapons from the United States in the past."
"Misinformed"? Only to the extent that McCain’s "mistake" was far worse, in an important sense, than Sen. Paul’s original assertion that he had met with actual members of ISIS. For McCain has been the chief Republican spokesman for the "moderate" Syrian rebel cause, and its most vocal champion in the Senate. Yet now it turns out it was the oh-so-moderate Syrian rebels who sold Sotloff to ISIS for "between $25,000 and $50,000," according to Barfi, who bluntly says:
‘"The so-called moderate rebels that people want our [the Obama] administration to support, one of them sold him for something between $25,000 and $50,000, and that was the reason he was captured.’ Mr Barfi, a research fellow at the New America Foundation, credited ‘our sources on the ground’ for the information, adding that he had seen Mr Sotloff off on the morning in March 2013, when he was kidnapped.
"’I was with Steve the morning he was kidnapped. I saw him off at about 7:30, and minutes before he was kidnapped he called me from inside Syria to tell me he was in. Somebody at the border crossing made a phone call to ISIS and they set up a fake checkpoint with many people, and Steve and his people who he went in with could not escape.’"
The facts about the Northern Storm brigade are no secret: credible sources have characterized them as, among other things, professional kidnappers: they were behind the 2013 kidnapping of 11 Shi’ite pilgrims who crossed over from Lebanon on their way back to Iran. No one but McCain seriously disputes this. That the Northern Stormers were engaged in their usual methods of funding the "revolution" when they sold Sotloff to ISIS hardly stretches credulity.
McCain’s apologists, notably Salter, his longtime confidante, prefer not to face up to any of these facts. Instead, Salter makes it up as he goes along:
"The smear seems to have originated with a Hezbollah-owned television station in Lebanon, and gained currency with various conspiracy-mongering websites, with someone manufacturing an obviously Photoshopped picture of McCain giving Baghdadi a medal."
No, the "smear" originated with the Sotloff family, via its spokesman: and I have never seen a picture of McCain giving Baghdadi a medal, Photoshopped or otherwise. Salter endlessly repeats the charge that Sen. Paul is "conspiracy"-minded, but this rather spectacularly misses the whole point of what Paul is saying. It’s "ludicrous to believe," as the Senator put it in his floor speech opposing the Obama administration’s plan to arm the Syrian rebels,
"That we know where all of the money, arms and ammunition will end up, or who will end up benefiting from these shipments.
"Why? Because we don’t know for sure who the groups all are. Even when we think we do, loyalties shift and groups become amorphous, with alleged moderates lining up with jihadists. And finally, moderate groups have often sold their weapons or had them seized by the jihadist elements led by ISIS.
"According to the Carnegie Endowment, There are no neat, clean, secular rebels groups. They don’t exist."
McCain’s meeting with those who arranged for the kidnapping – and execution – of Sotloff has nothing to do with any "conspiracy" – except, perhaps, for a conspiracy of errors on McCain’s part. Those errors were made possible – indeed, inevitable – by his inability to grasp the knowledge problem and its significance in the making of foreign policy. Paul’s point is that we don’t know and can’t know who is a real Syrian "moderate," and who’s faking it for the funding. Syria has over 1,000 rebel militias: is the Pentagon really capable of "vetting" them all when they can’t even audit their own spending?
What on the surface may seem like a spat between two temperamental politicians in fact cuts to the very heart of the debate over US intervention in the Middle East, and not only in Syria. Did the Bush administration "vet" Ahmad Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress, those infamous "heroes in error" who lied us into war with the help of a complicit media? Probably about as well as the Obama administration is going to "vet" the rebels it intends to shower with US taxpayer dollars – and as well as McCain’s staff vetted the Northern Storm Brigade.
McCain chose the Northern Storm brigade to visit and have his picture taken with them precisely because he considered them model "moderates," and was no doubt led to believe this by the rebels’ US supporters, who accompanied him on the trip. That he wound up endorsing a gang of Islamist thugs who aided in the kidnapping of an American who was then publicly executed in a grisly manner just underscores Sen. Paul’s point: "We don’t know for sure who the groups all are."
What we do know about the Northern Storm folks is that they have been cooperating with ISIS for money – and haven’t really taken them on militarily, either, as this piece from Syria Comment points out:
"What has not been widely reported is the nagging reluctance within the NSB to engage in combat against ISIS, even after ISIS had begun to assassinate its leaders. While one senior commander in the NSB says he was suspicious of ISIS during the battle for Menagh and warned other brigades about them, within the rest of the group this conviction appears to hardly have been universal.
"Two activists tell of a meeting in a local mosque that occurred shortly after the incident with the German doctor, where dozens of members of the NSB and locals debated the escalating clashes with ISIS. The room was divided, says one of the men present at the meeting, but eventually those present agreed that they should avoid further conflict if possible and seek a mediated solution. The rationale behind this was not based on the fact that the NSB felt they were not powerful enough to take on ISIS; rather, it was founded on a hesitation to fight with their ‘Muslim brothers.’"
Sen. Paul is right: there are no "moderates" in Syria, but McCain and the neocons can’t afford to lose this one, which is why they’re persisting even in the face of all the evidence.
Salter fumes that Paul is "either a fool or despicable," but he is merely projecting McCain’s – and his – problem onto the junior Senator from Kentucky. Because you have to be a fool to think that US intervention in Syria and Iraq is going to work out any better than it did under George W. Bush. Over 4,000 Americans killed and tens of thousands horribly wounded – and for what? So that McCain can cavort with the known terrorists of the Northern Storm Brigade and appear on the Sunday talk show circuit giving us his toothy grin while he demands war, and yet more war?
When it comes to describing the game McCain and Salter are playing – with American lives – "despicable" is pure euphemism.
There’s nothing I wouldn’t give to see one of McCain’s future challengers put together a nice little television ad showing the old warmonger embracing Sotloff’s kidnappers, accompanied by an informative voiceover. That would end McCain’s Senate career, pronto. It would relegate him to the sidelines, where he’s always belonged, yelling at little boys who wander unknowingly onto his lawn and warning us every time peace breaks out that we’re on the verge of "another Munich."
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.