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Interview with Senator John McCain

Interview with Senator John McCain

By Meet the Press - June 27, 2010

MR. GREGORY: Good morning. Three hundred and eleven soldiers have died this year in Afghanistan, the latest just yesterday by an improvised explosive device in the south of the country. For coalition forces, June is now by far the deadliest of any month since the war began in late 2001. At the G-8 summit in Toronto yesterday, President Obama; the new British prime minister, David Cameron; and other world leaders agreed to set a timetable of five years for withdrawal of military forces from Afghanistan. This as The New York Times reports this morning about growing concern inside Afghanistan over President Karzai's efforts to negotiate with the Taliban and bring members of the insurgency into a power sharing agreement with the Afghan government. Here with us live from Kabul this morning, our chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel.

Richard, I want to start with that story in The New York Times and this concern about efforts to reconcile the Taliban, America's enemy in Afghanistan, with the Afghan government. Will this be job one, do you think, for General Petraeus when he comes there?

MR. RICHARD ENGEL: I think it probably will be. There is a growing consensus on the ground that there is no military solution to this conflict. And we've heard General Petraeus say that time and time again about Iraq and also about this war here. And President Karzai has made it very clear he wants a peace deal, and order--in order to do that he has been reaching out to the Pakistani government. Now, Afghans are very concerned that the United States will just sell the country to Pakistan and make a very significant deal with the Taliban and other insurgent groups that will leave other ethnic minority groups out in the cold. They don't want the Taliban to come back to power.

MR. GREGORY: Richard, you report on our soldiers on the front lines. You know the political and the military situation there. What's the impact of the firing of General McChrystal having on all of that?

MR. ENGEL: It was a shock to most of the troops, but now they have embraced it and they'd like to see changes. General Petraeus has a very good reputation, he's associated with success in Iraq, and they hope that will bring--that will come here as well. The number one concern that soldiers express to me is the rules of engagement. They feel that they don't have the adequate tools to defend themselves, that under General McChrystal it became too difficult to fight back against the Taliban. That will be the number one concern that soldiers would have and the thing they would to change most under David Petraeus.

MR. GREGORY: Richard Engel in Kabul for us this morning, thank you very much.

Joining us now, ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona.
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Senator, welcome back to MEET THE PRESS.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN (R-AZ): Thank you, David.

MR. GREGORY: So much to discuss, and I want to get to the strategy, the withdrawal timetable and all of it with you. But first I want to talk about General McChrystal. The president fired him this week, and he spoke to the nation about it. This is in part what he said.

(Videotape, Wednesday)

PRES. BARACK OBAMA: The conduct represented in the recently published article does not meet the standard that should be set by a commanding general. It undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system, and it erodes the trust that's necessary for our team to work together to achieve our objectives in Afghanistan.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: Did the president do the right thing?

SEN. McCAIN: Yes, he did, and he took the appropriate steps, in my view. I would like to say, in General McChrystal's behalf, that he played a key role in Iraq in the efforts against al-Qaeda. A lot of this is not known and will--may never be known. But General McChrystal did a great job there. The president took appropriate action, and we wish General McChrystal well in the future.

MR. GREGORY: Was this an important leadership moment for the commander in chief?

SEN. McCAIN: Yes. Yes, I think that the president realized that this was an important moment, and he made the right decision.

MR. GREGORY: What was...
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SEN. McCAIN: Again, I...

MR. GREGORY: Yeah.

SEN. McCAIN: You know, your question's what were they thinking?

MR. GREGORY: Yeah. Well, that's exactly right. What was--and not only what was he thinking, was this foolishness? Was it naivety about the press? Or was there something real here, Senator, about frustration with the policy, frustration with the civilian side of the policy, frustration with how much progress he thought was being made vs. what was expected of him?

SEN. McCAIN: First of all, there's no excuse for it, OK? There's no excuse for it. But part of it, some of it was frustration. Part of it was a group of officers who find themselves with a night off which they did not expect, having been working 24/7 in Kabul. They went out in a social environment. And I must tell you that as a young Navy pilot that on occasion at happy hour some things were said about our commanding officer that maybe we wouldn't want to be held responsible for. But that does not excuse anything. But it certainly maybe understands the--makes people understand the circumstances a little better. But, overall, you just, you just can't do those things, and we expect our officer corps to have the maturity to realize that.

MR. GREGORY: Let's talk about the fight ahead, then, and I want to get your assessment of how the war is going. And let me set this up a little bit. This is The Economist magazine on newsstands now, and here's the cover: "Losing Afghanistan." It says, "The war after McChrystal." The New York Times on Thursday reported the challenging environment that General Petraeus will go into: "At the moment, every aspect of the war in Afghanistan is going badly: the military's campaign in the strategic city of Kandahar has met with widespread resistance from the Afghan public; President Karzai is proving erratic and unpredictable; and the Taliban are resisting more tenaciously than ever." How's it going?

SEN. McCAIN: I think that that's a fairly accurate description of the situation in Afghanistan. I think that it's pretty obvious that the effort in Marjah did not achieve the elements of success certainly quickly enough. The offensive into Kandahar has been delayed--which, by the way, argues against this setting a date certain for beginning the withdrawal. A lot of the behavior that Karzai is displaying, a lot of the things that are going on right now are a direct result of the president's commitment to beginning withdrawal--whatever not turn "out the lights" means. That's an indecipherable statement. Rahm Emanuel on your program last, last Sunday reiterated the commitment to leaving middle of 2011. The president's spokesperson said, "It's etched in stone, and he has the chisel." So people in the region, they can't leave. They have to adjust and they have to accommodate. And Karzai is doing some of the things he's doing because he's not confident that we're going to stay. The troops on the ground are, are in some ways confused about what the long-term strategy would be. And I guess the best example I can tell you is a high-ranking Taliban prisoner said, "You've got the watches, and we've got the time." And that's what is, is pervading this entire environment, the fact that they think we're--that we're going to leave. And if they believe that, then they are going to act very differently.

MR. GREGORY: But, Senator, we have been there 104 months. This is a longer war--longest war in U.S. history, longer than Vietnam. We've shown a lot of staying power here without a lot of results. And my question is whether, you know, perception outpaces reality. Is it that you've got a central government in Afghanistan, led by Hamid Karzai, who basically is making, you know, side deals here with the Pakistanis and is trying to cut us out because he just doesn't think that, ultimately, we can succeed because he can look at the history of his own country and see for centuries they have repelled foreign invaders and, and foreign interference.

SEN. McCAIN: Well, first of all, it is the longest war, and the loss of any life is tragic. We've lost--just went over, tragically, the thousand mark. We lost 58,000 in the war in Vietnam. I think that perspective is important. Second of all, Karzai is acting like he is, as I said, because he is beginning to accommodate for a situation where he finds himself with Americans withdrawing. Third of all, we need a better team and coordination between the military and civilian side. We all know that. But I am also convinced that David Petraeus, who is one of the greatest outstanding leaders in American history, I think, can bring this to a successful conclusion. But we have to convince the enemy that we are going to do what's necessary to succeed, and that's why we were able to succeed in Iraq.

MR. GREGORY: I have a question that keeps nagging me about the enemy, about the Taliban.

SEN. McCAIN: Yeah.
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MR. GREGORY: The United States is engaged in working with the Afghan central government to recruit Afghan soldiers. Why do we have to recruit Afghan soldiers? Who's training the Taliban? Nobody has to recruit them. They're out there fighting for, you know, what they see as a future. Which is, by the way, is a dark, terrorist, annihilist future. Nevertheless, they don't have to be recruited, and yet we're in this position where we're trying to recruit Afghan soldiers.

SEN. McCAIN: You know, that's a very good question. And it's clear that the Taliban is a very extremist and very fanatical element, and I think this is true with all insurgencies. But I think you also find that the majority of the people in Afghanistan do not want the return of the Taliban. They're afraid, though, that when the United States leaves that there will be assassination squads going around and taking care of those who cooperated with the government and the Americans. Look, Karzai is not doing the things we want him to do. I don't think there's any doubt about that in many respects. Maliki was not doing the things we wanted...

MR. GREGORY: In Iraq.

SEN. McCAIN: ...us to do. He was perceived as very weak. The level of sectarian violence in Iraq makes what's going on in Afghanistan pale in comparison, and I'm not saying it's not going to be long and hard and tough, and I'm not saying that it's going to be easy. And I--but I am convinced of one thing, you--fundamental of warfare, you tell the enemy when you're leaving, that--then they will wait. And Ho Chi Minh certainly is an authentication of that, of that course of action.

MR. GREGORY: Let's talk about this issue of a withdrawal deadline because you're very concerned about it. And let me take everybody through it. Back in December of 2009 this is what the president told the country.

(Videotape, December 1, 2009)

PRES. OBAMA: I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: So they're surging up now, so a year from now they begin to come home.

SEN. McCAIN: Yeah.

MR. GREGORY: They won't even be at full fighting force until the fall, so they'll be fighting at full strength for less than a year. Now, Vice President Biden, interviewed by Jonathan Alter, as you well know, in the book, "The Promise," said to Alter this. "In July of 2011 you're going to see a whole lot of people moving out. `Bet on it,' Biden said as he wheeled to leave the room, late for lunch with the president. He turned at the door and said once more, `Bet. On. It.'" Seems pretty clear. Yet, yet, Senator, General Petraeus testifying just about 10 days ago on Capitol Hill, seemed to be more skeptical about that. Here's what he said.
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(Videotape, June 16, 2010)

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Keep in mind that July 2011, in the first place, is based on projections made all the way back last fall during the decision-making process, and so again I think--I--we would not make too much out of that.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: "Would not make too much out of" it. Do you think July 2011 as the beginning of a transition could move? Could that timetable move?

SEN. McCAIN: Look, I, I'm against a timetable. In wars, you declare when you're leaving after you've succeeded. And, by the way, no military adviser recommended to the president that he set a date of the middle of 2011. So it was purely a political decision, not one based on facts on the ground, not based on military strategy or anything. Now...

MR. GREGORY: All--Senator, is that fair? All of his military advisers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Petraeus, General McChrystal, they all signed onto the idea...

SEN. McCAIN: They signed onto it...

MR. GREGORY: ...of July. 2011. Well, isn't it their obligation to say...

SEN. McCAIN: It's not their idea.

MR. GREGORY: ...that this is wrong?

SEN. McCAIN: In my view it is.
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MR. GREGORY: Well, they didn't do that, though.

SEN. McCAIN: In my view it is. They didn't.

MR. GREGORY: So they were for it.

SEN. McCAIN: They didn't do it. They didn't do it, and they should have because they know better. But the point is that General Petraeus is put in an almost untenable position here. If he says it's "conditions-based," which it should be that, then he is not going directly against the president. But if he says directly what the president said and what you just quoted Vice President Biden say, then obviously he is supporting a strategy that he feels that we all know can't win. So what, what do we need? We need the president just to come out and say, "Look, this is condition-based and condition-based only. We will leave tomorrow if the conditions are--allow for it. But we're not going to set an arbitrary date for withdrawal." That's all he has to say because, believe me, the Taliban are not able to parse difference comments by different people the way that you just described different commentaries.

MR. GREGORY: But...

SEN. McCAIN: They need to have a clear signal that we are staying.

MR. GREGORY: Senator, you have said before that 18 months was an appropriate time horizon to, to realistically assess how we're doing in the war...

SEN. McCAIN: Absolutely.

MR. GREGORY: ...and perhaps change the strategy.

SEN. McCAIN: But December...

MR. GREGORY: So at what point should we look at what's happening and say, "This isn't working"?
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SEN. McCAIN: There's going to be a review in December.

MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

SEN. McCAIN: I think there should be constant reviews. And that review, by the way, will show that we have not seen the pace of success. And, by the way, we have not seen our allies contribute the 10,000 troops that were part of this overall strategy of 40,000 troops that would be engaged in this surge. But I am for constant review. That's different from saying, "We will begin a withdrawal," OK?

MR. GREGORY: But we...

SEN. McCAIN: We may need more troops. We may need more as we did...

MR. GREGORY: But did we do that in Iraq? Didn't we set a timetable...

SEN. McCAIN: After.

MR. GREGORY: ...after we surged up...

SEN. McCAIN: After we succeeded, after we were succeeding, yes indeed. And we should.

MR. GREGORY: Do you think we'll be more--do we think we need more troops in Afghanistan?

SEN. McCAIN: I don't know. But I, I think that there--it's clearly there's a shortfall from the 10,000 we expected to get from our allies. And, again, I know that we can succeed and we can withdraw. But to--again, you cannot sound an uncertain trumpet. No one follows an uncertain trumpet.
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MR. GREGORY: But, Senator, to challenge that I spoke to White House officials this week who said, "Wait a minute, the withdrawal timetable means a beginning of a process." And by the way, there will still be more forces fighting in Afghanistan properly resourced, even when the transition begins that there ever were in the history of this conflict starting in 2001. Isn't that important?

SEN. McCAIN: Well then, let's have the president of the United States stand up and say, "It's conditions-based. We will not withdraw a single troop unless we think it's necessary to do so, and we may even add troops if we think it's necessary to do so." Let's hear that. That sends a message to our friends and enemies alike, and I guarantee you it would have a significant impact on our enemies and friends alike.

MR. GREGORY: Do you get troubled when people come up to you, and I talk to people as well, who say, "You know, what is it exactly we are fighting for? It just doesn't seem clear. This is like Vietnam. I don't know what the endgame is here." Do we have a clear achievable objective in Afghanistan?

SEN. McCAIN: Oh, I think clearly the goal is that Afghanistan does not return to a base for attacks on the United States and our allies. Clearly, that is a strategy which means you have governmental control, you have the support of the people, you have a relatively stable environment, realizing it'll be long and hard and difficult. And also look at the consequences of failure in Iraq and the consequences in the region. They are significant.

MR. GREGORY: What are the consequences of success? Tom Friedman wrote in his column this week something very poignant, and I'll put it up on the screen. "What do we win if we win? At least in Iraq, if we eventually produce a decent democratizing government, we will, at enormous cost, have changed the politics in a great Arab capital in the heart of the Arab Muslim world. That can have wide resonance. Change Afghanistan at enormous cost and you've changed Afghanistan-period. Afghanistan does not resonate."

SEN. McCAIN: Well, I have the greatest respect for Tom Ridge, I think both books...

MR. GREGORY: Tom Friedman.

SEN. McCAIN: Excuse me, I'm sorry, Tom Ricks I have the greatest respect for.

MR. GREGORY: Yeah.

SEN. McCAIN: Mr. Friedman was wrong about Iraq. He said we couldn't succeed in Iraq. He said we'd fail, we had to withdraw. Enough said.

MR. GREGORY: The question still stands, though. What do you win if you win? How does it resonate?
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SEN. McCAIN: What you win, what you win is stability in the region, you win a reduction in the threat of radical Islamic extremism, you win the elimination of a goal for attacks on the United States of America. Clearly, Taliban and al-Qaeda would be working together if we were able to succeed. And you don't send a message of an American defeat, which would reverberate throughout the region and the world. And, again, I am confident with the right kind of military and civilian team in Kabul that we can succeed, and it's going to be long and it's hard and it's tough. But...

MR. GREGORY: Do we stick it out at any cost?

SEN. McCAIN: ...you know--and I sound, I sound a little tough to you. But I just talked...

MR. GREGORY: Yeah.

SEN. McCAIN: ...on the phone to a young man named Todd Nicely, quadruple amputee. I met him at Walter Reed, and he's now at Bethesda. I'm, I'm not prepared to say that--to these young men and women who are putting their lives and their families on the line that we are going to leave it at date certain, which means we are pursuing a strategy that I think is doomed to failure. We owe it to their families.

MR. GREGORY: So how long is too long? Do we stick into it forever?

SEN. McCAIN: It's, it's gauge--no, no. It's, it's again, like other counterinsurgencies, and this is a counterinsurgency based on the same principles but very different conditions than we had in Iraq. And that means that gradually we will clear, hold, make the people that support the government and against the Taliban, which they already are, an Afghan army--and, by the way, they are very excellent fighters that is functioning, and the corruption is a huge problem. You and I could spend the rest of the program going over a list of the problems.

MR. GREGORY: Sure.

SEN. McCAIN: Number one, being the corruption situation in Afghanistan. But we can succeed there, and it is in our vital national interest to do so. And the consequences of failure are catastrophic in my view.

MR. GREGORY: Before I let you go, I want to get you on...

SEN. McCAIN: Sure.
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MR. GREGORY: ...another piece of news, and that is tomorrow Elena Kagan begins her hearings to be the next Supreme Court justice. Back in 2008, you laid out a standard for evaluating such nominees, and, and you explained why you supported President Clinton's nominees to the High Court. Let me play that for you.

(Videotape, May 6, 2008)

SEN. McCAIN: ...for the simple reason, the simple reason that the nominees were qualified. And it would have been petty and partisan and disingenuous to insist otherwise. It's part of the discipline of democracy to respect the roles and responsibilities of each branch of government, and above all, to respect the verdicts of elections and judgment of the people.

(End videotape)

MR. GREGORY: Based on that standard...

SEN. McCAIN: Eloquent.

MR. GREGORY: Right, right. Based on that standard, will you support the nomination of Elena Kagan?

SEN. McCAIN: I want to look at--watch the hearings. The hearings, I think, are always very important. But I'll tell you one thing I'm disturbed about was her obvious steadfast and even zealous opposition to military recruiters, to the presence of military on the campus of the most prestigious university, in, in the view of many, in America. That's disturbing to me.

MR. GREGORY: Is that disqualifying?

SEN. McCAIN: I--we--as I say, I want to watch the hearings and let the process go forward. But it is very disturbing.

MR. GREGORY: Is immigration reform in a comprehensive way possible this year or in this term?
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SEN. McCAIN: Not until we get the borders secure. By the way, on that issue, why is it that Phoenix, Arizona, is the number two kidnapping capital of the world? Does that mean our border's safe? Of course not. Why is it that the police chief in Nogales reported that his police officers are being told they're going to be murdered by the drug cartels on the other side of the border? The, the rise of violence and the influence of the drug cartels and the human smugglers have made our government put up signs in the southern part of the state of Arizona warning them that they are in a drug smuggling and human smuggling area of this country. That's not, that's not how America should...

MR. GREGORY: Do you agree with the governor of Arizona who says that most people who come across the border illegally are actually drug mules?

SEN. McCAIN: No. I think that there's a large number and I think she's right in that the drug cartels movement has dramatically increased and the violence. Twenty-three thousand people, Mexicans, have been killed in the last three years in Mexico.

MR. GREGORY: Do those kinds of comments make the debate harder, make it, you know, a hotter debate?

SEN. McCAIN: I, I think the governor of Arizona has done a good job in this whole debate. She--I may not agree with one sentence that she uses, but she's standing up for Arizona. And, and I think that the people in my state deserve a better environment of security than the one they're getting from the federal government now, and a federal responsibility.

MR. GREGORY: All right. Senator McCain, thank you, as always. Appreciate it.

SEN. McCAIN: Thanks for always for having me on, David.

MR. GREGORY: All right.

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