Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) was a guest on Fox News this week, where he was, of course, asked about the topic leading the headlines: Syria. McCain's words on the rebels stood out, not because he condemned them, but because he defended them.
Fox News host Brian Kilmeade challenged McCain on his long-held belief that the Obama administration should act in Syria by arming the rebels fighting against Assad. He argued that McCain's plan could put dangerous weapons in the hands of Islamist radicals and extremists.
Kilmead showed a clip of rebels cheering "Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!" as rockets blasted a Syrian fighter jet out of the sky. "I have a problem helping those people out if they're screaming that after a hit," he said as the video rolled.
Watch the full exchange below:
McCain's dismissal of claims that the Syrian rebels are radicals begins when Kilmeade suggests that General Salim Idris of the Free Syrian Army, with whom McCain met earlier this year, has ties to Muslim extremists. At :09 in the video, McCain laughs and shakes his head at the suggestion, appearing to brush off a rumor that he personally knows not to be true. He then asserts that "Allahu Akbar" is the same as an American saying "Thank God," since the phrase is mostly used in reference to Islam's supreme deity.
McCain emphasizes again at the end of the video that he has spent time with the rebels and used that time to form his opinion. "Of course they are Muslims, but they are moderates," he says. "I guarantee that they are moderates. I know them, and I have been with them."
McCain's support of rebels fighting a tyrannical government is nothing new. He often called for more American support of the Libyan rebels on the ground while drone strikes were being authorized in Libya. He argued that the drones had prevented the "worst possible outcome," but that further support was needed to ensure that the Libyans ended Gadhafi's rule and began a transition to democracy.
Both in Libya and Syria, McCain's suggestions of working with the rebels themselves instead of sending in powerful external force and then pulling out shows a greater understanding of the inner mechanisms of the countries and the steps necessary to move them towards true and lasting stability.
McCain's temperance when discussion Muslims is also nothing new. A few years back, when a debate raged over the proposed construction of a Muslim community center near Ground Zero, McCain was a voice of reason. He certainly disagreed with the placement of the mosque, but his tone was calm compared to others. Sarah Palin, for instance, took to Twitter to oppose the construction and gather support for her cause.
"Ground Zero Mosque supporters: doesn't it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate," she wrote. Made-up words aside, this language is wildly inflammatory compared to McCain's relative moderation.
Unfortunately, words like Palin's are more expected now than words like McCain's. The fact that McCain said something that could be perceived as defending Muslims should not be news. But when inflammatory words become the norm, rational speech becomes shocking.