| ST. LOUIS
ST. LOUIS Republican candidate John McCain set plans on Monday to visit Israel, Britain and France next week in a trip likely to play up the national security credentials he hopes will carry him into the White House.
McCain, the likely nominee to represent his party against the Democratic candidate in the November election, will start his trip on March 18 with a visit to Jerusalem to discuss the Middle East, which he said he would focus on if elected.
"Absolutely, particularly given the level of tensions, the exchange of fire across Israel's border aimed at innocent people. There's Hamas, a terrorist organization now governing Gaza, ... considerable unrest in southern Lebanon. There's very big issues that need to be addressed," he told reporters in Phoenix.
He will visit London on March 19 and 20 and go to Paris on March 21, said his Senate office in Washington.
The Arizona senator will be joined by two stalwart Senate supporters, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Democrat-turned-Independent who was the Democrats' vice presidential nominee in 2000, and South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham.
McCain has clinched the Republican presidential nomination and is free to travel abroad while his Democratic rivals, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, fight over the Democratic nomination. The presidential election is on November 4.
The 71-year-old McCain, who said he got a clean bill of health from his doctor after a physical checkup on Monday, is staking his claim on the presidency on his national security experience, and his foreign trip will play into that theme.
McCain told reporters on his flight from Phoenix to St. Louis that he would like to see more NATO participation in Afghanistan.
"But I don't intend to berate our European friends. I don't think that's appropriate. I hope that we can have a process of consultation. As I said, I have talked with European leaders about these issues for many years. And I intend to continue that dialogue with them," he said.
Talking to reporters on his plane, McCain did not criticize President George W. Bush's handling of foreign policy. Many Democrats have criticized Bush for not having pursued diplomacy more, a charge the White House rejects.
McCain said on the Middle East peace process, for example, "maybe you could make an argument that maybe he should have been more heavily engaged early on, I don't know about that."
Bush began a major effort to negotiate a peace between Israelis and Palestinians late last year, an initiative critics said should have started much sooner.
McCain said he felt there has been a "pretty strong effort" by Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to try to move the Middle East peace process forward despite an "incredibly difficult environment" there.
(To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/
(Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor in Phoenix; editing by Mohammad Zargham)