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."