John McCain Tells Leon Panetta 'We're Not Leading' on Syria

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Sen. John McCain, a supporter of U.S. military action to bring down the Assad regime in Syria, told Defense Secretary Leon Panetta today that the United States has failed to show unilateral leadership in the crisis in Syria.  The Arizona Republican advocated earlier this week for U.S. air strikes against Syria to help end Bashar al-Assad's bloody crackdown of opposition groups.

Panetta, appearing before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing to discuss the situation in Syria, said in his opening statement that the United States was reviewing potential steps that could include "potential military options if necessary."  But he stressed that "although we will not rule out any future course of action, currently the administration is focusing on diplomatic and political approaches rather than a military intervention"

He made the point that the United States was working with international partners to build  "a consensus as to what action we do take. That makes the most sense. What doesn't make sense is to take unilateral action at this point," Panetta said.

He said that as defense secretary, he has a responsibility to make "very sure that we know what the mission is. I've got to make very sure that we know whether we can achieve that mission, what price and whether or not it will make matters better or worse. "

Panetta said the Obama administration "believes that every effort ought to be made to deal with those concerns in the international setting to try to build the kind of  international consensus that worked in Libya and that can work in Syria if we can develop that."

McCain disliked that response, saying to Panetta, "let me tell you what's wrong with your statement."  He continued, "you don't mention American leadership. Americans should lead in this, America should be standing up. America should be building coalitions, we shouldn't have  statements like we are not going to intervene no matter what the situation is, such has been up until now the statements by the  administration and the president."

He added, "in past experiences, those that I mentioned before, America has led. Yes, it has been multilateral and multinational, this is absolutely vital. We're not leading Mr. Secretary."

As he did at another congressional hearing Tuesday, McCain criticized administration statements that the United States is still trying to figure out the make-up of the Syrian opposition. McCain said Tuesday that characterizations that al Qaeda is operating on the fringes of the Syrian opposition is delaying any potential assistance to rebels whom he sees as pursuing democratic freedoms.

He continued in that vein today, saying of the opposition, "They are fighting because they want the same freedoms and rights that we guarantee in our Constitution.  I reject the argument that we, quote, 'don't know who they are.'"