John McCain, American Crassus

The Arizona senator isn't the first soldier-statesman to seek glory in the sands of Syria.

Marcus Licinius Crassus was a colossal figure during ancient Rome’s transition from republic to empire—military hero and then statesman. In his later years, seeking to reclaim the martial glory that now eluded him in old age, Crassus fielded an army that he marched to Syria to conquer the Parthians. The expedition ended in disaster at the Battle of Carrhae, where the Roman consul was captured and killed.

Historian Donald Dudley, summarizing Plutarch’s account of Crassus’ adventurism, wrote that “one gets the sense of a great force stumbling on under incompetent leadership to a terrible doom.” Plutarch himself speculated that “reckless ambition,” not “the fickleness of fortune,” had driven Crassus to his wretched end in Syria. His ignominious fate would extend well beyond his death: The Parthians poured molten gold into Crassus’ mouth and used his head as a prop in a performance of Euripides’ Bacchus for the Parthian king. Mercifully, the consequences for hubris are rarely so dramatic today as they were in antiquity—at least for soldier-statesmen.

One sensed America stumbling toward doom when Senator John McCain flew to the Middle East to meet with Syrian rebels in late May. McCain posed for photos with men who Lebanon’s Daily Star claimed were the same rebels who had kidnapped Lebanese Shiite civilians on pilgrimage in Syria. A McCain spokesman quickly addressed the issue, saying in essence that many rebels had asked for photos and the senator had complied; if one happened to be a kidnapper, then that was “regrettable.” Presumably, the systematic violence that has been perpetrated against Syria’s Christians and the predominance of Al Qaeda affiliates among the rebels are likewise regrettable.

An internecine war between Al Qaeda and the Free Syrian Army has since erupted on the rebel side, which underscores a reality apparently beyond McCain’s grasp: Arab politics is not merely local but tribal. “Egypt is the only nation-state in the Middle East,” an Arab diplomat famously told Charles Glass. “The rest are tribes with flags.” U.S. policymakers, conditioned to think in nation-state paradigms, have been slow to note that Syria no longer exists in any meaningful way and likely cannot be reconstituted as a nation-state without protracted violence and possibly genocide.

While McCain met with Syria’s rebels, pressure mounted on Obama to intervene directly in the conflict. (The administration had been covertly arming the rebels for more than a year.) Most of the arms shipped into Syria, according to a 2012 New York Times story, found their way into the hands of Islamic militants. Obama eventually acquiesced with a vague commitment to back Syria’s Al Qaeda-linked rebel faction. McCain first applauded the announcement, but as the details became murky, he called it insufficient. Obama mastered the art of leading from behind in Libya, following calls from McCain and others to intervene there. He has been content to lead McCain from behind in Syria—less a rapprochement between old foes than political shrewdness on Obama’s part. For the moment, McCain is the face of American intervention in Syria, including the decision to arm Al Qaeda.

But intervention in Syria to reconstitute a nation-state that scarcely exists even in the mind of Syrians is folly; it is most certainly unpopular in the United States. The Senate has younger voices, more in tune with both reality and the views of the American people, but the bellicosity of the Senate’s oldest soldier shows no signs of fading away.

At the time of McCain’s trip, I happened to be in Egypt. A Coptic Christian friend expressed his exasperation with American policy in the region. “America has made many bad choices, supported extremists in the Middle East and here in Egypt,” he said, referring to America’s support for the regime of the Muslim Brotherhood. “It is playing with fire.” Since the June 30 Revolution in Egypt, McCain has condemned the secular liberal rebels and defended the deposed government of Muhammad Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. He recently called for the suspension of foreign aid to Egypt. Why? Not for Egypt’s mistreatment of religious minorities or for the abuses of an Islamist regime, but because of Egypt’s failed commitment to procedural democracy—even if that means the election of a despot.