President Obama is reluctant to get militarily involved in Syria, where rebels in a two year long civil war are desperately fighting government forces and pleading for help. Republican Senator John McCain is a prominent advocate for U.S. military aid to the rebels. Secretary of State John Kerry, meanwhile, has been working with the Russians in delicate talks to establish international peace negotiations.
McCain sneaked into Syria recently over the border from Turkey, helped by the rebel-supporting Syrian Emergency Task Force. The senator met with rebel military leaders. On its face, it looks like McCain is interfering with U.S. foreign policy at a very sensitive time, making Obama look weak and callous while undermining diplomatic efforts on the part of the State Department.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Trips like McCain's can be hugely helpful to the administration – and in fact, such trips are even more useful if the surprise visitor is a prominent member of the opposing U.S. political party. If Kerry goes to Syria – even if a U.S. ambassador goes – every single thing that is said has heavy and lasting diplomatic weight. Anything that is said is dissected and examined, possibly raising hopes for a U.S. intervention that the White House and the American public are not prepared to make (Obama has sent food and supplies to the Syrian rebels). If a member of the administration meets publicly with Syrian rebels (a particularly dangerous mission, anyway), some sort of outcome will be expected by the Syrian people and the world – and neither option is an easy one for the president.
This is more than a classic fact-finding trip arranged by some interest group or other and including somewhat scripted side trips and visits (though those trips are also useful; in-person meetings are always, always better than written or phone communications). And McCain – who counts Kerry as a friend – isn't doing this to embarrass the president or showcase a division in foreign policy among American politicians. He's doing it for his own edification, to be sure, but the trip also takes a little heat off the White House.
McCain can serve as both an established voice of skepticism of Obama's foreign policy – getting the Syrians to tell him things honestly, and assessing clearly what is happening on the ground – and as an intelligence-gatherer for the U.S. government. He can talk with the Syrians without there being any sort of expectations – "hey, I hear you, but I'm in the minority party in the Senate" – while at the same time giving the Syrian rebels assurance that someone in the U.S. government is listening.
McCain can be a thorn in the side of the Democratic White House at times, but he is first and foremost an American. The White House says it knew of McCain's trip in advance and looks forward to hearing from him about it, and that is no doubt true. The former war hero went into Syria at enormous personal risk – and it was a patriotic move.