Former Republican presidential candidate John McCain had some sharp words about President Barack Obama’s policy toward Afghanistan earlier today at a conference in Washington. Presidents should not make decisions based on political calculations, McCain said, and that has been the problem with Obama’s approach to Afghanistan. Citing Bob Woodward’s recent book, Obama’s Wars, McCain noted a revealing line: “He didn’t want to lose the left-base of his party.”

McCain’s advice for Obama: The president, when he addresses NATO next week in Lisbon, Portugal, should make clear that his intention is to “win” the war. The word “win” – indeed, the word “victory” – have not come to the president’s mouth often when addressing the war in Afghanistan. Neither word was used by Obama in his address at West Point in December 2009 in which he announced the addition of 30,000 troops to support the American effort in Afghanistan.

On public support for the war, McCain didn’t seem too concerned – at least, he wasn’t too concerned about fallout or public fatigue, though he noted attention domestically was lackluster toward the issue. “I think Americans, first of all, are still dominated by domestic, economic issues” McCain said, noting that Afghanistan, in particular, and foreign policy, in general, were largely absent from the political arguments and rhetoric leading up to the election earlier this month.

With the elections over, and with a large number of new Republican members of Congress coming to Washington, McCain took a moment to share concern he has about several of his new colleagues and the direction of his political party

McCain expressed concern about “tensions” between the party's two wings in regards to foreign policy: Those who believe we have a global responsibility to play a leading role in foreign policy, and those who believe America should isolate itself from foreign entanglements.

“I’m worried a lot about the rise of isolationism and protectionism in the Republican Party,” McCain said, firmly planting himself on one side of the debate. Arizona’s senior senator singled out one new Republican senator that he seems particularly concerned about: “I don’t know Rand Paul” but “already he’s talked about withdrawals [from Afghanistan and Iraq] and cuts in defense.” Paul is the Republican senator-elect from Kentucky.

McCain, when asked about free trade, said that presidents always mention that they’ll try to achieve free trade in speeches, but they rarely deliver the goods. Referring to Obama’s failed attempt to get a free trade deal last week on his visit over to South Korea, McCain said that the U.S. can’t let beef consumption and other minor details get in the way of the larger issue – agreeing on free trade deals that will benefit Americans.

But McCain didn’t place all the blame for elusive free trade agreements on Obama: Republicans, too, have been tempted frequently by protectionism. This remark tied into his previously shared concern of Republicans becoming too isolationist. It was, in effect, a warning to other Republicans.

McCain also tweaked President Obama’s recent trip to India. “If I had been president,” McCain started – then, after a pause, he continued, “I hate to use that phrase." The room broke into applause. But if McCain had been president, he said he would have focused the trip on emphasizing the importance of democracy.

But, of course, McCain is not president. So for now, he’s taken his place as one of the leading critics from the loyal opposition of Obama on foreign policy.

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