Arizona Sen. John McCain discussed "historic and tectonic change" in the Middle East during a Tuesday talk that took swipes at President Barack Obama's leadership abroad but avoided a gloves-off Republican campaign assault.
McCain appeared at the University of Tampa prior to appearances in Orlando and Jacksonville on behalf of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. The Tampa event was organized as an opportunity for UT students, particularly veterans and members of the school's Reserve Officer Training Corps, to engage with the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
McCain stuck generally to a professorial analysis of developments in the Middle East, replying to one question about a potential Obama second term with, "Next question," and concluding a response with, "That was a pretty good dodge, wasn't it?"
But his account of the Arab Spring included criticism of the president for appearing soft in conflicts in Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and Pakistan.
"Brutal dictators throughout the world and oppressive governments are not going to be able to succeed in keeping their people repressed whether they're in Moscow, Beijing or Damascus," McCain said. "This requires strong American leadership. If we show weakness, then obviously, the things that will occur may not be in America's interest ...
"In the Middle East today, we are regarded as weak," he said.
McCain criticized Obama for suspending the training of Afghan security forces and telegraphing U.S. withdrawal plans there.
"The whole object was to train Afghan soldiers to take over the responsibility as Americans left," he said. "The president of the United States goes around telling everybody that we are withdrawing. Not that we are succeeding, not that we won, but that we are withdrawing. People and nations take the lesson of us leaving and they make their own accommodations."
McCain said the "greatest threat we face" is Iran's attempts to develop nuclear weapons, adding that the U.S. and Israel should be acting together in "laying out a red line, and saying when the Iranians reach this point we will act together.
"Instead, (U.S. officials) are spending their time going over to Israel and telling them not to attack Iran. What message does that give the Iranians? And so the Iranians continue on the path that they're on."
McCain, a Navy veteran and Vietnam prisoner of war who was defeated by Obama in the 2008 presidential election, spoke for about an hour and took questions from 140 students in the Reeves Theater.
Jason Turk, an 11-year Navy veteran who hopes to attend law school, asked the senator about the hyper-partisan atmosphere in the Capitol. McCain acknowledged that polls show Congress with an 11 percent approval rating, and quipped, "When you get to 11 percent approval, you're down to paid staff and blood relatives."
He said lawmakers from both parties will be forced to sit down together on a long-term budget compromise, calling the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles Commission recommendations a "blueprint."
After the UT event, McCain told reporters he "respectfully" disagreed with a call by Rep. C.W. "Bill" Young, the Indian Shores Republican, for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan as soon as possible.
"We should remember the attacks of 9/11 began in Afghanistan, that's why we went there in the first place. The signals this president sends constantly of withdrawal encourages the enemy."
And McCain urged people to consider the context in listening to Romney's secretly taped comments at a Boca Raton fundraiser, when he was caught saying that 47 percent of Americans don't pay taxes and are dependent on the government.
"I think what Governor Romney was saying was what a lot of people have said, that sometimes it's difficult to get certain segments of the population to support his candidacy," he said. "Governor Romney put it in context this morning (Tuesday) when he said he wants every vote and he'll work for every vote."
McCain's appearances later Tuesday in Orlando and Jacksonville were more traditional pro-Romney whistle-stops, but all three events were paid for by the Romney campaign.
Turk, the UT student, said he appreciated the tone of the Tampa event.
"I'm glad it wasn't" a typical rally, he said. "I feel like there's so much partisanship that to just get a bunch of partisans in a room to bicker doesn't fix anything."