CERNOBBIO, Italy — U.S. Sen. John McCain says he is disappointed with his party's presidential candidate for sidestepping world affairs in his campaign for the White House but reserves his most scathing words for the current dweller, blaming Barack Obama for inaction while the situation in Syria and elsewhere "cries out for American leadership."
In an interview with The Associated Press in Italy on Saturday, the 2008 Republican presidential candidate criticized the man who won that election for not aiding rebels in Syria, abandoning Iraq and Afghanistan, and delaying tough decisions on Iran's nuclear program.
"In a way it's almost like watching a train wreck," he said of the apparent failure to stem Iran's nuclear efforts.
What does the senator from Arizona make of the notable absence of such talk at last month's Republican National Convention that nominated Mitt Romney and focused mostly on the economy? The famous straight-talker was cautiously bipartisan.
"Yup, it was" absent, he said. "The election is about jobs and the economy, but a failed ... national security policy over time is going to lead to significant domestic problems."
"It's the job of presidents and candidates to lead and articulate their vision for America's role in the world. The world is a more dangerous place than it's been since the end of the Cold War, and so I think the president should lead and I think candidates for the presidency should lead and talk about it, and I'm disappointed that there hasn't been more."
McCain is visiting Italy's Ambrosetti Forum, an annual gathering of political and business leaders, together with two fellow senators – Connecticut independent Joe Lieberman and South Carolina Republican Lindsay Graham – following a tour that took them through the Middle East.
On Friday, addressing the plenum, the trio of self-styled mavericks won European fans by criticizing the dysfunction in American politics, then challenged their audience with a call for far greater U.S. activism in the Middle East – particularly aiding Syria's rebels and on Iran.
McCain said sanctions almost never work, Lieberman said the "red line" should be weapons capability and not the actual creation of a weapons, and Graham said the United States should make it clear that if Iran pressed on it faced a "massive attack" from the United States and not Israel, a scenario which he said Iran's leaders know they could not survive.
McCain cut a somewhat wistful figure at the proceedings – disarmingly accessible yet gravely ominous, a smiling, hard-headed reminder of what might have been.
In the interview he was happy to detail how he would have done things differently, criticized Obama for pulling troops out of Iraq and telegraphing an intention of ending military operations in Afghanistan by 2014.
"I would have left a residual force of some 20,000 troops in Iraq," he said. "Things are unraveling" in a way that threatens to yield a "fractured state" divided among Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish regions, under the sway of al-Qaida, and out of the U.S. orbit – "all the things we predicted would happen if we pulled out completely."
He was equally dire on Afghanistan, where NATO headquarters in the capital, Kabul, was struck Saturday by a suicide bombing that killed six and was claimed by the Taliban.
"I know that the Afghan people strongly disapprove of a Taliban (return), but I think it's pretty obvious they know the Americans are leaving and they have to adjust to the post-American involvement environment and that means accommodating the certain forces that they otherwise wouldn't."
On Afghanistan "I've not heard (Obama) talk about success."
McCain said that Obama should also sidestep a paralyzed United Nations and reluctant NATO to cobble together a coalition of European and Mideast nations willing to lend a hand – arming the rebels and backing them in establishing a safe zone in the north.
"If we led, we could," he said. "It cries out for American leadership. American leadership is not there."
He also called for a resolute stance on Iran.
"Here's the conundrum. The president of the United States has repeatedly stated that Iranian nuclear weapons (are) unacceptable. Now we watch as they move inexorably down that path... Right now I don't see any exit sign. That doesn't mean I'm predicting that there will be this conflict, but at the same time I don't know a way out."
"One thing I'm pretty confident of is that that decision would not be made by the president of the United States before the November election," he added.
McCain is scathingly critical of the political process in America today, blaming outside money for driving down the level of political discourse in 2012.
"I have not seen a campaign as poisonous as this is," he said. "I have not seen candidates call each other outright liars. It has to do with money. It has to do with these outside groups... We've reached the lowest level of discourse that I've seen in American politics."
McCain said the ratings for his 2008 convention were far higher than Romney's – crediting his controversial nominee for vice president, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
"She energized our party, and the nation," he said. "And the liberal left began a vendetta against her which is still the most disgraceful and despicable thing I've ever seen in American politics. No matter what she said they were going to try to destroy her with it."
But could it be that Palin's seeming lack of fluency in economic affairs tipped the election by frightening voters who at that precise moment were coming to terms with the terrifying dimensions of the Great Recession, creating a political market for expertise?
McCain bristled at the very proposition.
"I know of no campaign in history that hinged on who the vice presidential candidate was, so if your theory is correct it is a major breakthrough in the history of politics," he said.
Then he added, with what seemed like either sarcasm or resignation: "But it may be true."
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Interview A Member Of The Taliban
<strong>Scenario:</strong> As a foreign correspondent on assignment in Afghanistan, you successfully contact Taliban representatives who take you to meet a mullah. After you've completed your interview and fact-finding mission, U.S. officials arrest you under suspicion of terrorism. <strong>How:</strong> Section 1021 (2) of the National Defense Authorization Act <a href="http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BILLS-112hr1540enr/pdf/BILLS-112hr1540enr.pdf" target="_hplink">grants power</a> to indefinitely detain "a person who was a part of or substantially supported al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners." You're not sure if what you did was "substantial" or really "supported" anyone. It's quite possible that nobody does, as the text of the law doesn't define these words. This could take a while to sort out. In the recent hearing on a lawsuit challenging that section of the act, Judge Katherine Forrest asked an Obama lawyer if plaintiff Chris Hedges could be assured that he would not be subjected to detention under Section 1021, journalist Naomi Wolf <a href="http://naomiwolf.org/2012/03/ndaa-hearing-notes/" target="_hplink">noted</a>. Hedges is a Pulitzer prize-winning reporter who has worked extensively in Afghanistan and the Middle East. The administration attorney suggested that the specifics of Hedge's situation would make his detention unlikely, but responded, "I cannot say that today." While the Obama administration has said you're entitled to a trial as a U.S. citizen, this won't preclude you from a protracted journey through an encumbered court system charged with figuring out -- based on secret evidence -- why you were picked up. And if it this happens during a future administration, officials might not agree with Obama on your right to a trial.
Attend A Fundraiser
<strong>Scenario:</strong> A local civil liberties group holds a swanky fundraising event and you, a wealthy philanthropist, write a sizable check. Sometime later, the group is placed on a watch list, which results in authorities arriving at your door, hauling you away. <strong>How:</strong> It's possible a portion of your money somehow got funneled to al-Qaeda or a pro-Taliban group or that somehow you became an indirect material supporter of what the National Defense Authorization Act calls an "associated force." But just what are "associated forces"? That question appeared to stump Obama administration lawyers when pressed by Judge Katherine Forrest during a recent hearing. "I don't have specifics," an attorney told her. Answering a later question about whether WikiLeaks could be construed as an "associated force," an administration lawyer suggested that it couldn't, unless there were a connection to the Taliban or al-Qaeda. If someone happens to be wrong about your case, you might sit in detention until the courts figure it out. Or, according to the act, you'll be released when officials determine it is "the end of the hostilities authorized by the Authorization for Use of Military Force."
Write A Book
This hypothetical situation comes straight from this spring's hearing on a lawsuit challenging parts of the National Defense Authorization Act, as captured by <a href="http://naomiwolf.org/2012/03/ndaa-hearing-notes/" target="_hplink">Naomi Wolf</a>: <blockquote>Bruce Afran, lawyer for the plaintiffs, presented the hypothetical of a book that did not say how to make a bomb but simply expressed support for the political goals of the Taliban, or that made the case that the Taliban's view that the US government overreaches in occupying other countries, has merit. He and Judge Forrest discussed the hypothetical that such a book could be a bestseller and be on a book tour, generating comment throughout the Middle East. Judge Forrest simplified the example to a hypothetical of a book with only one sentence, and whose only sentence read: "I support the political goals of the Taliban'. She asked the government lawyers if such a book could be read as providing 'material support' for 'associated forces" under the NDAA. They did not rule it out. Judge Forrest pushed: "You are unable to say that [such a book] consisting of political speech could not be captured under [NDAA's Section] 1021?" Obama lawyers: "We can't say that."</blockquote>
Organize A Demonstration
<strong>Scenario:</strong> Some societal injustice is prompting you to start a movement in protest. Hours after a particularly well-attended and rambunctious rally, you're approached by men in black suits who flash their badges and toss you in the back of their unmarked SUV. <strong>How:</strong> It's possible that you or one of your loosely connected crew of associates did something to make you a suspect linked to an "associated force." Or perhaps, according to another part of National Defense Authorization Act's Section 1021 (2), your actions constituted "substantial support" to a "person who has committed a belligerent act or has directly supported such hostilities in aid of [al-Qaeda or the Taliban]." Journalist and "Day of Rage" organizer Alexa O'Brien joined a recent lawsuit challenging sections of the act out of concern that she was being targeted as a potential terrorist threat. But at a hearing on the suit this spring, Obama administration officials did not alleviate such concerns, as <a href="http://naomiwolf.org/2012/03/ndaa-hearing-notes/" target="_hplink">Naomi Wolf has documented</a>: <blockquote>O'Brien produced into evidence a [Department of Homeland Security] memo that sought to link US Day of Rage to their cyberterrorism initiative. The government lawyer was given a chance by Judge Forrest to dispute the memo as fraudulent and did not do so.</blockquote>
Help Out A Friend
<strong>Scenario:</strong> A good friend whom you've lost touch with contacts you, asking for help funding his around-the-world trip. You wire money and wait for him to return. Sometime later, there's a knock on your door. The people on the other side of it have questions about a sum of money you sent abroad to someone questionable. They ask you to come with them. <strong>How:</strong> You're finding it impossible to believe that your childhood friend became a terrorist or connected with al-Qaeda, the Taliban or "associated forces." But even if he did manage to get mixed up in some sketchy business, shouldn't there be an exception for you, his well-intentioned friend who was just helping someone in need? Not necessarily. At a recent hearing, Judge Katherine Forrest tried to get the Obama administration to <a href="http://naomiwolf.org/2012/03/ndaa-hearing-notes/" target="_hplink">give an assurance that "unwitting" support</a> could be protected, noting that there was no direct reference to such language in the law. Obama's attorney was unable to provide such a safeguard, instead arguing that the new law possessed the same exemptions contained within the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists, which was passed by Congress after 9/11. The brief and broadly interpreted <a href="http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/PLAW-107publ40/html/PLAW-107publ40.htm" target="_hplink">authorization</a> makes no mention of the word "unwitting," though.
Accidentally Provide Missiles To Insurgents
<strong>Scenario:</strong> You're a flippant, billionaire playboy or -girl with a cool haircut and two Ph.D.s., one in nuclear fusion and the other in kicking ass. You get bored, so you decide to fight crime in Afghanistan and make a quick jaunt to Kandahar. In the process of taking on an encampment of Taliban insurgents, the firing mechanism for one of your missiles malfunctions, launching it thousands of feet into the air. It returns to Earth undetonated, only to be picked up by an enemy who uses it as the centerpiece of an improvised explosive device. When a U.S. mine-sweeping crew deactivates the makeshift bomb and finds your name emblazoned on the device, you're picked up. <strong>How:</strong> This appears to be a clear-cut case of "substantial support" to the Taliban or at least "associated forces" who wanted to do harm to U.S. troops. So much for your intentions of wanting to help out with a little vigilante justice. Any resulting court case could take ages.
Plan A Terrorist Attack
<strong>Scenario:</strong> You're a total jerk and not a very big fan of America, so you decide that the best course of action is to take out your anger with an act of destruction on a densely populated city. You do some planning and set up your device, but when it comes time to use it, it malfunctions, leaving you injured and going to jail on a stretcher. <strong>How:</strong> You're an American citizen, you'll get your constitutional guarantee of a trial, right? If President Barack Obama's promises are followed, yes. But that doesn't mean you can't undergo some form of indefinite detention while you await trial. During a hearing on the lawsuit challenging parts of the new National Defense Authorization Act, Obama's lawyers were unable to say for sure if the trial promised in his signing statement would be a civilian or military one. This could have a heavy bearing on the nature of your detention. And if you were to commit such actions under the administration of another president, there's no telling how a new commander in chief would interpret the act, making your fate even less certain.