April 22, 2011— -- Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, was on the front lines in Libya today to encourage Libyan rebels fighting to end Moammar Gadhafi's 40 year rule.
In Benghazi, McCain attracted a crowd so enthusiastic that at one point he joked, "I've got to bring you to Arizona." McCain, the 2008 Republican nominee for president, is the highest-profile U.S. visitor to have met with the rebel forces.
The Senator had a blunt message for the Obama administration: increase support for the rebels or face failure. "There are great doubts that Gadhafi won't go right now because it is essentially a stalemate," said McCain.
Rebels complain that since April 4, when the U.S. handed operational control to NATO, air strikes have not done enough to help their cause.
McCain's statement comes one day after the U.S. began flying armed drones over Libya to boost NATO firepower. The Senator, who flew missions in the Vietnam War before being taken prisoner there, said there are several things that the U.S. can do to force Gadhafi out that fall short of putting troops on the ground.
He called on President Obama to recognize the rebel government, provide more air support like AC130 anti-tank and A10 ground support aircraft, get anti-tank weapons into rebel hands, train rebels on target marking technology and give the them satellite phones to aid communication. The White House said today it disagrees the U.S. should recognize the fractious rebel government, saying it was for the Libyan people to decide on their leaders.
McCain laid out his reason for providing this additional support, saying, "This is a struggle for freedom on the part of the Libyan people."
McCain's visit prompted something novel in the Arab world compared to recent years -- a pro-American rally, complete with shouts of "Thank you Obama!"
On March 30, President Obama explained the reasons for joining NATO military action in support of the Libyan rebels in a speech to the nation. "Innocent people were targeted for killing. Hospitals and ambulances were attacked," the President said. "Journalists were arrested, sexually assaulted, and killed. Supplies of food and fuel were choked off ... As president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action."
To those who say the U.S. has no vital interest in Libya, McCain says America's values are at stake. "Our interests are our values...What does happen here will be watched by other dictators who are willing to kill and brutalize its own citizens to stay in power," he said in Benghazi today.
McCain held daylong meetings with members of the Libyan opposition, and met with local leaders from rebel-held Misurata who are in Benghazi to coordinate supplies and assistance for rebels there. The rebels secured a victory in Misurata today by clearing out Gadhafi's snipers from the tallest building in town, from where they had injured and killed dozens of people in recent weeks.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.