Hero Summit

McCain: Obama Mishandled Egypt, Abandoned Libya and Syria

At The Daily Beast’s Hero Summit, Sen. John McCain tweaked President Obama’s foreign policy. By Josh Rogin.

Scott Henrichsen/The Daily Beast

Egypt is now returning to its dark days of military dictatorship and will face a new insurgency and terrorism—and President Obama’s policies have contributed to the downward path there, Sen. John McCain said Thursday.

“We’re going to suspend some aid but not other aid. What is the message to [Egyptian] General [Abdul Fattah] al-Sisi?” McCain asked during an interview with editor-in-chief Tina Brown at The Daily Beast’s Hero Summit, reacting to Wednesday’s news that the Obama administration decided after a lengthy review to stop some military deliveries to the Egyptian military as a response to its brutal crackdown on protestors and the Muslim Brotherhood. “We should abide by our rule of law. But we didn’t do that.”

Throughout Egypt, posters of al-Sisi wearing dark glasses abound, which is reminiscent of Gamal Abdel Nassar, Egypt’s longtime dictator who died in 1970, McCain said.

“I’m afraid we may be seeing a return to that kind of government,” McCain said. “I promise you will see, if they keep going the way they are today, an insurgency in Egypt and terrorism, because they are not able in Egypt today to keep people down.”

The Obama administration has neglected America’s responsibilities throughout the Arab Spring, McCain said, including in Libya, where the situation has deteriorated so badly only two years after the NATO-led intervention that the prime minister was briefly abducted Thursday by armed militants.

“Leading from behind, we left the whole situation alone and it has deteriorated dramatically. This administration did not go in and help them [after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi],” said McCain, who added that he has a cordial relationship with the president. “What we did was hands off, leading from behind, and now we see this situation in this crisis ... And this situation is going to be chaotic for some time.”

For example, McCain said, he pressed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to send a U.S. military hospital ship to Libya following the war to help treat the tens of thousands of wounded, but Panetta refused.

“Panetta said it would take five weeks to get a hospital ship there and I said it didn’t take that long for Columbus to cross the ocean,” McCain said.

In Syria, the Obama administration has neglected the Free Syrian Army, pushing them to seek money and support from outside extremist groups that are not working in the interest of the Syrian people, McCain said.

“I can’t tell you how demoralized the Free Syrian Army units are and that’s why some of them are turning to the al Qaeda groups, because they feel abandoned…I know the Libyan people and I know the Syrian people, they are not extremists,” McCain said. “In the 1930s we sat by and watched things happen that we later paid a very high price for.”

He also said that the U.S. should only negotiate with the new Iranian government based on a set list of demands, first of which should be that Iran suspend all enrichment of uranium.

“Don’t trust, but verify,” McCain said, paraphrasing a Ronald Reagan maxim.

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Talking about the current government shutdown, McCain assailed the infighting inside his own Republican party and predicted that the shutdown would have grave consequences for both the GOP as well as for America’s credibility and standing abroad.

“The approval rating of the republicans is 28 percent, an all-time low since Gallup has been taking polls. It’s crazy,” McCain said. “I do worry about the Republican party. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen Republican senators running ads, raising money that is used to attack other incumbent Republican senators. I’ve never seen that in my life. It’s terribly wrong.”

The business community is hurting badly due to the shutdown and the threat of an impending default as America crosses its own debt limit, McCain said. But there is also a lasting negative impact on America caused by the current political crisis, he said.

“What we’re doing long term is we are really shaking people’s confidence in government and that has long term consequences,” said McCain. “What they are not appreciating is the signal that sends to the rest of the world.”