By Jeremy Herb - 06/06/13 07:56 PM EDT
McCain, who lost to Obama in the 2008 presidential race, said he believed Obama began his presidency determined that he “was not going to be [former President] Bush, and then Obama didn’t want to get more involved in the Middle East because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
McCain has been Obama’s chief critic on foreign policy, as he’s pressed the Obama administration to do more in Syria for more than a year.
In his speech, McCain said that it was time for an alternative U.S. strategy in the Middle East, and in particular, with the two-year civil war in Syria.
“I am now more concerned than at any time since the darkest days of the war in Iraq that the Middle East is descending into sectarian conflict,” said McCain, who visited with rebel commanders in Syria last week.
McCain once again called for providing “heavy arms” to the Syrian rebels, and called for establishing a safe zone defended by Patriot missiles so the Syrian opposition could get more unified.
“No one should think that we have to destroy every air defense system or put thousands of boots on the ground to make a difference in Syria,” he said.
The Obama administration has thus far resisted calls in Congress from both parties to take steps in Syria, like arming the opposition, although it has provided nonlethal aid.
McCain also took issue with the way that the public has reacted to the conflict, as a war-weary electorate coming off a decade of wars in the Middle East is viewed as one reason the Obama administration is hesitant to intervene.
“What is more disturbing, however, is how little most Americans seem to care,” McCain said. “Most are weary of war and eager to focus on domestic issues. But some hold a more cynical view: They see the Middle East as a hopeless quagmire of ancient hatreds and a huge distraction from worthier priorities.”
In a nod to the internal fight within the Republican Party over foreign policy he’s waged with libertarians like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), McCain said that the public had to be convinced about the global importance of the Middle East.
“For those of us who believe otherwise, and who believe the United States must lead more actively in the region, we have to answer a fundamental question: Why should we care about the Middle East?” he said.
But McCain also laid the blame at Obama’s feet, citing an argument he frequently makes that the president has a unique ability to sway public sentiment on the importance of getting involved.
“Only the president can explain to the American people how high the stakes are in the Middle East,” he said. “Only the president can change public opinion and rally the American people behind him.”