WASHINGTON, June 19, 2011 -- Former Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) took aim at his party for what he called its growing movement towards isolationism, chastising the current GOP presidential field for not supporting U.S. military intervention in Libya and calling for speedy troop withdrawals from Afghanistan.
"This is isolationism. There's always been an isolation strain in the Republican party, that Pat Buchanan wing of our party," McCain told "This Week" anchor Christiane Amanpour. "But now it seems to have moved more center stage."
At the first major Republican presidential primary debate in New Hampshire last week, several candidates criticized U.S. military involvement in Libya, while on Afghanistan former Mass. Governor Mitt Romney said, "It's time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can" based on the advice of military commanders.
"I wonder what Ronald Reagan would be saying today?" questioned McCain, saying the isolationism is a stark departure from traditional Republican foreign policy positions. "That is not the Republican party that has been willing to stand up for freedom for people for all over the world."
An ABC News-Washington Post poll released last week showed that 47 percent of respondents were not satisfied with the current Republican primary candidates. While McCain said he will not endorse any primary candidate until a nominee emerges, he said he is satisfied with the candidates currently in the field, and others who may enter in the coming weeks.
"It's a tough process, but I'm confident that we will come up with a candidate that will be very competitive with President Obama," McCain said.
But he reiterated his warning against the current GOP presidential field abandoning U.S. oversees commitments.
"I do want to send a message and that is that we cannot move into an isolationist party," McCain said. "We cannot repeat the lessons of the 1930s when the United States of America stood by while bad things happened in the world."
Intervention in Libya
While McCain is best known as President Obama's rival during the 2008 presidential election, the Arizona senator and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee has been a strong proponent of President Obama's intervention against the regime of Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi, who McCain described as "crumbling."
President Obama has come under fire recently for the U.S. involvement in Libya, which is taking place without congressional approval. Although McCain criticized Obama for "leading from behind" by having NATO take charge of the operation, he encouraged Congress to pass his co-sponsored resolution with Senator John Kerry (D-MA) giving congressional authorization for U.S. military involvement in Libya, which reached the 90-day mark today.
"If we do not continue this effort in Libya, if Gadhafi remains in power, it could have profound consequences," McCain warned.
McCain acknowledged that war weariness is a factor in opposition to U.S. involvement in Libya, but he disagreed with Republican candidates like Michele Bachmann who said at last week's GOP debate that the U.S. had "no vital national interest" there.
"I strongly disagree with her and others," McCain said. "The fact is our interest are our values. And our values are that we don't want people needlessly slaughtered by the thousands if we can prevent such activity."
"We are the lead nation in the world, and America matters and we must lead," McCain added. "Sometimes that leadership entails sacrifice sadly."
Withdrawal from Afghanistan
With President Barack Obama's July deadline to begin troop withdrawal in Afghanistan approaching, McCain said the U.S. cannot give up recent gains through a swift withdrawal, saying he would support a "modest withdrawal" of five to ten thousand support troops in the coming months.
"We abandoned Afghanistan once and we paid a very heavy price for it in the attacks of 9/11," McCain said. "We do need to move into the eastern Afghanistan and finish this fight with one more season."
At last Monday's GOP debate, Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney said, "It's time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can consistent with the word that comes from our generals that we can hand the country over…" He added, however, that he believed the U.S. has "learned some important lessons" from Afghanistan.
"We've learned that our troops shouldn't off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation," Romney said at the debate. "Only the Afghanis can win Afghanistan's independence from the Taliban."
McCain disputed Romney's depiction of the war, saying, "I had never heard it described that way," adding that the U.S. military efforts should be allowed to fully succeed.
"I wish that candidate Romney and all the others would sit down with General Petraeus and understand how this counterinsurgency is working and succeeding," McCain said. "For us to abandon Afghanistan to the tender mercies of the Taliban and radical Islamic extremists, I think would be repeating mistakes we made before."
McCain even offered some political advice to President Obama, saying continued success in Afghanistan in the next year would allow for more substantial withdrawals next summer during the 2012 election year.
"Suppose the surge continues to succeed and the summer of 2012 the president was able then to announce a massive withdrawal? That would be very helpful to the president politically," McCain said. "I always try to help him as much as I can politically."