By Ian Swanson
Sen. John McCain on Thursday criticized President Obama for a “feckless foreign policy” in the Middle East.
McCain said Obama has given the impression of a nation withdrawing from influence in the region, and argued this is hurting U.S. interests.
He also joined Mitt Romney in criticizing a statement from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo as “weak,” but avoided commenting on whether Romney waged his criticism at a bad time.
The embassy statement is at the center of a political firestorm because of Romney’s criticism of it. The statement, released before protesters surrounded the Embassy, criticized an American-made anti-Islamic film for being insensitive to the feelings of Muslims.
McCain noted the statement was later withdrawn, which he said proved it was the wrong message to send out. Romney had suggested the statement represented an attack on U.S. values since it did not defend freedom of speech.
Romney’s criticism came as people learned of the death of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three others in an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Libya. Some Republican commentators argued Romney should have withheld his criticism, and Democrats lashed out at the nominee for playing politics during a time of national tragedy.
Pressed on whether Romney should have withheld his criticism given the death of Stevens, McCain said “it’s always a time to set aside politics” and then turned his attention to a critique of Obama’s handling of the Middle East.
He specifically criticized Obama for his policy toward Iran, Iraq and Syria, where he has long argued the administration should do more to help rebels fighting the Assad dictatorship.
“What this is all about is American weakness and the president’s inability to lead,” McCain said. “Iraq is dissolving. Our relations with Israel are at a tension point. I’d like to see the president of the U.S. speak out for once for the 20,000 people that are being massacred in Syria.
“There’s an absence of American leadership in the region and they are very weak,” McCain said.
In a separate interview on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," McCain said he hoped Romney would follow his lead in laying out a case against Obama on foreign policy grounds.
"In the heat of the battle you get all kinds of advice and all kinds of second-guessing," McCain said. "The fact is the United States in the Middle East is weak ... and we are paying the price for that weakness. There is a lack of leadership there and that’s what I would be talking about and I hope that Mitt Romney will be looking at the big picture."
On "Today," McCain said the United States won the war in Iraq but could end up “losing the peace,” and he said Obama should set firm deadlines with Iran to prevent it from accessing nuclear weapons.
Overall, he said, “there’s a belief in the Middle East the United States is weak and withdrawing, and that’s why you’re seeing various countries and their leaders reacting because they have to live in the neighborhood, and they believe the United States is leaving and this leadership is in a vacuum.”
This story was updated at 8:03 a.m.