A brief history of congressional freelancing on foreign policy

After clandestinely slipping into Syria on Monday for a series of meetings over fresh juice and cherries with rebel commanders, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) became the highest-ranking U.S. official — besides the U.S. ambassador to Syria — to enter the country since the start of its civil war. According to the trip’s organizers, McCain’s visit ...

Twitter/@SenJohnMcCain
Twitter/@SenJohnMcCain
Twitter/@SenJohnMcCain

After clandestinely slipping into Syria on Monday for a series of meetings over fresh juice and cherries with rebel commanders, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) became the highest-ranking U.S. official -- besides the U.S. ambassador to Syria -- to enter the country since the start of its civil war.

According to the trip's organizers, McCain's visit was approved by Secretary of State John Kerry, but his decision to meet with rebel commander Salim Idris and engage in some foreign-policy freelancing probably won't be drawing praise from the White House anytime soon. Accused of standing by and tacitly watching Syria burn, the Obama administration is currently engaged in a diplomatic offensive to bring the conflict to a negotiated end -- a campaign that is complicated by senior American politicians traveling to Syria to gather information on the weapons systems rebels believe they need to turn the military balance in their favor.

Then again, freelancing by members of Congress is far from a new phenomenon -- especially by legislators unhappy with the sitting president's foreign policy.

After clandestinely slipping into Syria on Monday for a series of meetings over fresh juice and cherries with rebel commanders, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) became the highest-ranking U.S. official — besides the U.S. ambassador to Syria — to enter the country since the start of its civil war.

According to the trip’s organizers, McCain’s visit was approved by Secretary of State John Kerry, but his decision to meet with rebel commander Salim Idris and engage in some foreign-policy freelancing probably won’t be drawing praise from the White House anytime soon. Accused of standing by and tacitly watching Syria burn, the Obama administration is currently engaged in a diplomatic offensive to bring the conflict to a negotiated end — a campaign that is complicated by senior American politicians traveling to Syria to gather information on the weapons systems rebels believe they need to turn the military balance in their favor.

Then again, freelancing by members of Congress is far from a new phenomenon — especially by legislators unhappy with the sitting president’s foreign policy.

Rep. Charlie Wilson, the man almost singlehandedly responsible for arming the Afghan mujahideen during their fight against the Soviet army, is something of the godfather of foreign-policy freelancing by members of Congress. During the 1980s, Wilson, a playboy Democrat from Texas and staunch anti-communist, worked hand in glove with the CIA to funnel weapons to Afghan insurgents, including the anti-aircraft missiles that proved decisive in countering Soviet air superiority.

Though McCain’s embrace of the Syrian rebels carries overtones of Wilson’s support of the Afghan rebels, the Texas Democrat went to absurd lengths to secure arms for the mujahideen. In 1984, for instance, Wilson traveled with CIA agents to Egypt to inspect weapons for possible purchase and transfer to Afghanistan. At a test firing on an Egyptian range, the missile doubled back on the congressman, who had to throw himself to the ground to avoid being struck. “We decided not to buy any of those,” he gamely recalled. (Some of the individuals Wilson armed would later orchestrate the 9/11 attacks.)

In recent years, similar diplomatic initiatives have been less spectacular — if no less controversial. In 2007, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi traveled to Syria for a meeting with President Bashar al-Assad in an effort to re-engage the country after relations soured in 2003. That meeting produced little progress, and the image of Pelosi seated next to Assad is probably one she wishes she could erase.

McCain is himself no stranger to the dramatic overseas tour — even if the move hasn’t always turned out as he hoped. During the 2008 presidential campaign, he embarked on a trip to Iraq to burnish his foreign-policy credentials and paint the Democrats as intent on cutting and running from the war. But that effort backfired when the senator mixed up which extremist group Iran was supporting inside Iraq (no, not al Qaeda).

Then there’s Curt Weldon, a former Republican representative from Pennsylvania. In 2004, Weldon led a congressional delegation to Libya in support of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s decision to abandon his nuclear program. Weldon left Congress after his defeat in the 2006 midterm election. But when the uprising in Libya broke out in 2011, Weldon promoted himself as a potential broker in the conflict and traveled to Libya with the intention of convincing Qaddafi to step down. The effort failed.

Weldon could have suffered a worse fate. In 2012, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher was denied entry into Afghanistan as a result of a long-standing feud with President Hamid Karzai. Surprisingly well-acquainted with Afghanistan, Rohrabacher first traveled to the country while working in the Reagan White House during the 1980s — and in 1988 he even fought alongside the mujahideen in Jalalabad. But after launching an investigation into the Karzai family’s personal wealth as a member of Congress — one in a string of aggressive actions against Karzai and his political clique — Rohrabacher found himself less than welcome in Kabul.

By that standard, McCain’s visit this week appears to have gone pretty well.

Twitter: @EliasGroll

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