Sen. McCain, Reps. Ellison and Rogers on "John King, USA"

Sen. McCain, Reps. Ellison and Rogers on "John King, USA"

By John King, USA - December 16, 2010

KING: To hear Senate Democrats, Republicans are using stalling tactics to block votes on several important policy issues in this year-end congressional session. Well Republicans see it differently. They say what they're doing is demanding time for open debate and they see Democrats pushing what our next guest calls a liberal wish list designed to curry favor with Democratic interest groups.

So what will pass and what will stall in the lame duck session? Let's get the sense of Arizona senior senator, Republican John McCain.

Senator, it's good to see you.

I want to start with an issue that I know is critically important to you, and that is the new assessment of the Afghanistan war strategy that came out today. You've seen the strategy. You've been to the region many times and you heard from the president today. The president says he believes the troop surge and the idea that the drawdown will begin in 2011 is one of the reasons he thinks things are working better. I saw your statement where you say don't focus on a date, focus on progress on the ground.

I want you to listen here, though, to the vice chair of the Joint Chiefs, General Cartwright. Does this concern you?


GEN. JAMES CARTWRIGHT, VICE CHAIRMAN, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: What they've said is that at 2011 to 2014 there is a drawdown. What is being negotiated and what will be adjusted is the rate of that drawdown. Troops will come out.


KING: Troops will come out. He's adamant about that. Is that all right?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, (R) ARIZONA: General Cartwright, I don't know where he's coming from but I've always said if the enemy thinks you're leaving, they are going to wait you out. I hope that we made very clear the operative year is 2014.

KING: Let's move on to another big national security issue. The Senate is considering the START Treaty, a nuclear arms reduction treaty that the president negotiated with Russia. I know you've had some questions about the missile defense aspects of that, but I want you to listen to one of your Republican colleagues Jeff Sessions, on the floor today.

Yes, the United States would reduce its nuclear arsenal under this treaty, but I want you to listen to Senator Sessions and tell me on the other side here do you believe the cuts are so severe what he says is actually possible?


SEN. JEFF SESSIONS, (R) ALABAMA: If Iran and North Korea risk their security and their financial futures on building a nuclear arsenal today, will our example cause them to stop? I think not. Rather, I must conclude it will embolden them and could even embolden others.


KING: Is that a fair statement, Senator, in the sense that even if you have all the cuts included in this treaty, the United States would still have the largest or second largest nuclear arsenal in the world?

MCCAIN: I agree with Senator Sessions particularly in the area where I don't believe that another START Treaty would have any beneficial effect on other rogue nations that are attempting to acquire, or have developed nuclear weapons, such as North Korea or Iran.

But, having said that, I don't think it would embolden them either. I think that this treaty is going to stand or fall on its own merits. And as you mentioned my concerns are about missile defenses, both in the preamble of the treaty, the signing statement that the Russians made that any improvement that we might make in missile defenses in Europe would be grounds for them aggregating the treaty.

But, again, I don't think whether we ratify the START treaty or not is going to affect Iranian or North Korean or other rogue nations' behavior in the slightest.

KING: You have been saying in recent hours, to the Tea Partiers out there, pick up your pitchfork. So you have long been a critic of earmarks. Long before there was a Tea Party John McCain was railing against earmarks. When the Democrats brought forward this 1,900-page bill you jumped on it. You said it was an outrage. I want to be clear. There are loads and dozens and dozens of Republican earmarks in there. And my understanding of it, is any of the Republicans could have gone to the Appropriations Committee and said, look, we just promised not to have these earmarks so take mine out, yet they're still in there. Is this a bipartisan plague?

MCCAIN: It is a bi-partisan plague. And we have Republican senators who may vote in favor of this atrocity-monstrosity and atrocity. By the way, I was speaking rhetorically when I said go pick up your pitchforks. Let me make that clear.

But, look, this is really a total contradiction, an abrogation of the commitment and the message of November the 2nd. And we Republicans have got to understand, we have a second chance because of our excesses of the Bush administration and I'm not sure they will forgive us another time. And you saw the approval rating of 13 percent. You can't get much lower. If we do this to them, I don't know where it goes. Down to blood relatives and paid staffers.

KING: "Don't ask, don't tell" is a big debate on the Senate floor. It is also a bit of a debate within your own family. Your daughter Meagan was on MSNBC last night. And she said this is the civil rights issue of her generation. Can you now vote, after listening to the Pentagon, after listening to everybody else, will you now vote to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" and allow gay Americans to serve openly?

MCCAIN: John, I paid very close attention to our military leaders, as I said I would. A commandant in the Marine Corps says it will cost lives of Marines. The chief of staff of the Army said that it could cause disruption and he is opposed to doing it this time. The chief of staff of the Air Force said, at least wait until 2012. So our military leaders have spoken fairly strongly three out of the four service chiefs. They are military leaders. So what I'm hoping is we can turn this back now, look at a path in the future, that when it's right to do so, we're in two wars. And I believe that right now would not be the right time to repeal it, and that's my position, and I will hold it.

KING: You mentioned the commandant of the Marine Corps, Senator, I ask this next question not to be disrespectful, but because I know you as someone who takes the long trips, who does the research, who talks to the troops, as well as their bosses. You mentioned the commandant of the Marine Corps, he is against this. Your son has been in the Marines, he has served on the front lines. And this is a often a generational issue. Older Americans have a harder time with this than sometimes younger Americans. What does your son think about this?

MCCAIN: You know, my son is now out of the Marine Corps. The proudest moment of his life is having serving in the Marine Corps. His words to me, as so many thousands of others' words have been to me, it isn't broke, don't fix it.

KING: So he wants to keep it just in place as it is right now?

MCCAIN: They believe that it is working and I'm very reluctant to discuss my children's views.

KING: I understand that. I ask only because of his service, and you mentioned the commandant.

Let me ask you lastly, Senator, after the presidential election there was some talk that once the wounds healed a little bit, that you would have a relationship with President Obama, perhaps be someone he reached out to, what do the Republicans think? Perhaps help him especially on these security issues. When we come back in January, the Republicans will control the House and the Republicans will just be short of controlling the Senate. So the president is going to need some help. He will have to reach out more. What's the status of that relationship? Does he pick up the phone now and call you, and maybe we don't know about it. Do you have any sort of a back and forth that could be helpful to both of you in this new environment?

MCCAIN: Well, I did have a conversation with the president about the issue of START And how to go about it, and it was a very cordial conversation, I think. But I have not had any other conversations but I look forward to working with him. I had a meeting with his new national security adviser and we covered a lot of bases. I look forward to working with the president and his new national security adviser. As you know, I am a great admirer of the secretary of Defense so we have certainly good grounds for cooperation in a very dangerous world.

KING: Senator John McCain, as always, appreciate your time, sir.

MCCAIN: Thank you.

KING: Take care, Senator. When we return, tonight's top stories and the end of an era.


KING: The president today released an update, an assessment, of his Afghanistan/Pakistan strategy. Let's take a closer look and let's start with this. What our current U.S. troop levels are. When the president became president, when he was inaugurated, with 34,400 troops. You see the surge under President Obama, we are up to 95,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan today. That's about twice the number of troops in Iraq now as the Iraq number comes down, the Afghanistan number has gone up. Important to remember. The question is, is that troop surge working? Look at the map here and let me explain the colors for you. If you see a dark green here, this is an independent province in Afghanistan, being run by the Afghans. If you see the yellow, that means they have effective Afghan government with the help of some advisers. The orange is effective with some assistance from coalition partners. The red are the trouble spots in Afghanistan. That means effective only with coalition forces and you se it's a good chunk of the country including up here in the border with Pakistan area, over this way.

Important to keep the Taliban back is to control these areas here. The red shows you the significant challenges still ahead and, remember, as you deal with the challenges on this side of the border, a lot of it is coming across this way. And you have to deal with the stability issues in Pakistan. That's one way to look at the challenge.

Another way to look at it is this way. With the increase in U.S. Troops have also come a dramatic increase, in 2010, in the attacks there, the more troops, the Taliban fighting back to a degree. That underscores the challenge. The higher number of the attacks right here. Still, the president today at the White House saying, it's a tough road but he believes the new strategy is working.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Progress comes slowly and at a very high price in the lives of our men and women in uniform. In many places the gains we've made are still fragile and reversible. But there is no question we are clearing more areas from Taliban control and more Afghans are reclaiming their communities.


KING: So do key members of Congress share the president's assessment? And will he get their support for his plan going forward? Let's head up to Capitol Hill, we are joined by two key members, Keith Ellison of Minnesota. He is an opponent of this war. And Mike Rogers, Republican of Michigan. Next year will be the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

And because of that, Congressman Rogers, let me start with you. We heard from the president today. You have in front of you now, his assessment. Folks I've talked to in recent days essentially say this. The troop surge has gone pretty well. The troops are doing a great job to the degree they can. But Karzai is still corrupt and unreliable. And on the Pakistan side we still can't get a consistent effort against the Al Qaeda, up in the border regions. Is that a fair assessment?

REP. MIKE ROGERS, (R) MICHIGAN: Yes. It really is. I would also put in there, John, the Iranians are controlling a lot of commerce on the western side of Afghanistan, that has been pushing Karzai into the hands of Ahmadinejad here for the last probably 18 months, so you have all of those dynamics happening all at the same time. KING: And with those dynamics happening, Congressman Ellison, does the president then deserve the funding to continue this strategy, or is it time to say, it's not working?

KEITH ELLISON, (D) MINNESOTA: I remain very skeptical, John. I mean, I have been from the beginning. I do think that what our policy should be to focus on disrupting, destroying Al Qaeda. We hear today that they're further deteriorating and a year ago we heard there were only 100 of them in the country. I think what we need to do is to have a counterterrorism strategy there. And to join with the international community to try to help Afghanistan build its own country up. But we have to see Afghanistan in the picture in a larger global picture, and as we fight terrorism, and I think our military presence there may not be contributing positively to the larger fight going on around the world.

KING: Does that mean end the military presence there as soon as possible?

ELLISON: I'm not a supporter of the military presence there. I'm a supporter of our troops there and I agree with Congressman Rogers that, yes, if you tell our soldiers to clear out an area, they will clear it out. They're good at what they do. But how does it figure into the larger picture trying to suppress terrorism in many places around the globe, including the United States.

KING: Congressman Rogers, here is the problem, I guess, as least in my take, and tell me if you disagree. You still do have the Taliban trying to come back into power. You still do have some Al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan, more across the border in Pakistan. So, you see the reason for the mission there, obviously, and yet what confidence do you have in the next several years? The president wants this all over by 2014, that we will somehow be able to make the progress with good governors, with training the Afghans that we have been unable to make the past nine years?

ROGERS: Here is, I think, the bigger problem, John. The political effort, the diplomatic effort and the military effort are not aligned yet. That has caused a tremendous amount of problems. You are right, you go tell the military to go take Kandahar, they will take Kandahar, and they will hold it as long as you tell them to hold it. And they will do a phenomenal job. But if the diplomatic effort and the political effort, both here at home, and there, aren't aligned, those troops will never be successful. And I argue that they have not aligned all three of those efforts, at the same time. And I do believe that if they do, you can probably have a smaller troop footprint that targets Al Qaeda. That targets the areas of the cross border operations where Taliban finds safe haven in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

And I would argue you'll still have to have a pretty aggressive engagement with Iran when it comes to their efforts in the western part of Afghanistan. They're up to no good there. And by setting this artificial timeline, which is a political equation, you tell Karzai, gee, we're going to be gone soon. Who's your biggest friend in the neighborhood? It is Iran, right on their border. So all of these conflicting problems between the political and the diplomatic and the military are causing us I think a delay in a successful mission in Afghanistan.

KING: What would your solution then, sir, be with the problem of Iran? How do you deal with it?

ROGERS: Well, on the Iranian problem-first of all, let me back up. You need to stabilize the Taliban efforts in Iraq. I argue you can do that with a smaller footprint. You need to encourage Pakistani efforts in the tribal areas, and we need to be aggressive about that border region, the Duran (ph) line, where the Taliban does find safe haven, where the Shira (ph) council meets in Quetta (ph), all of those things need to be aggressively pursued. And at the same time you need to tell Karzai, and it is broader than Karzai, tell the people of Afghanistan, we're not going to walk away in July, or whatever it is, just because that's the timeline. We are going to leave when you're ready to take over and build your own country.

And until we get all of that lined up, you will have problems. It is confusing. They don't know if when we're gone the Taliban isn't going to be large and in charge. Certainly on the western part of Afghanistan, the only commerce, the only place to get 24-hour electricity because the Iranians run it across the border. All of those allegiances are incredibly important to people who are trying to make it in a pretty tough neighborhood.

KING: Congressman Ellison, you just heard Congressman Rogers say you can't have an artificial deadline. We have to get this done, work at it as hard as we can, as quickly as we can, but don't set a date on the calendar. Come out when it is working. The president said today he thinks the progress has been because of his commitment to start a withdrawal next year, a draw down next year, ultimately get out in 2014. And one of your Democratic colleagues, Jane Horman, who is usually a lot more hawkish, than Congressman Ellison, I would say, she said this, "We need a clear public timetable to end our military mission in Afghanistan responsibly and soon." Sounds like she wants to go more quickly than the president. Who is right?

ELLISON: I think Jane is right on this, and I think 60 percent of the American people agree with her. The fact is, is there are people in Afghanistan who would like us to be there forever so the American troops can do their fighting for them. Afghanistan is a sovereign nation. They need to stand up quick. They need to deal with corruption, deal with developing their country and they need to deal with their security.

And on the issue of diplomacy, I'd also like to add that one of the things that I hope we begin to do is we begin to engage India more constructively on this equation. We shouldn't just have an Af-Pak policy, we need an Afghanistan-Pak-India, so that we can really get all the players in the region, and include Iran to try to bring real stability to this region, otherwise it's a sinkhole, it is a quagmire. And as many writers have famously said, it's a graveyard of empires, and I don't want my country going down that hole.

KING: Congressman Rogers, Congressman Ellison, appreciate your time today, Sirs.

ELLISON: Thank you, John.

KING: Thank you both.

ROGERS: Thank you.


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