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Newsmaker: Senator John McCain

November 6, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Now to our newsmaker interview with Sen. John McCain, Republican of Arizona. He has been a maker of news the last few days, with his comments about Iraq and Russia.

Today at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld was asked about McCain’s assertion yesterday that: “The simple truth is that we do not have sufficient forces in Iraq to meet our military objectives.”

On Russia, McCain said on the Senate floor Tuesday: “A creeping coup against the forces of democracy and market capitalism is threatening the foundations of the U.S.-Russia relationship.”

Senator McCain joins us now from the Senate gallery. Senator, welcome.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Thank you, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: Secretary Rumsfeld disputed your troop statement today. He said none of commanders on the ground in Iraq have asked for more troops. Why do you think they need them anyhow?

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Well, first of all, Jim, could I mention that I was in Iraq in August and I talked to a lot of people, too, including sergeant majors and many others. At that time they warned me that things were going to get worse in Iraq unless we changed the way we were doing business in the Sunni Triangle.

And I want to emphasize at the beginning, we’re doing a lot better in the north around Kirkuk and in the south of the country. It’s the Sunni Triangle; things have gotten worse. And I respect the opinions of Secretary Rumsfeld and our military commanders but facts are facts and the following facts are true: The improvised explosive devices — up; numbers of attacks are up; number of Americans wounded are up; numbers of Americans killed tragically — up. All of the trends are in the wrong direction.

General Sanchez said that the attacks are becoming more sophisticated, so all of the indicators which are objective, complied by the Department of Defense shows that we are in a more and more difficult situation. And so in my view we need more special forces, more marines, more counter intelligence, more MPs, more of the kinds of forces that do counter insurgency work.

JIM LEHRER: Now, why then would Secretary Rumsfeld disagree with that?

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I think you probably should ask him to come on the show. I don’t know.

JIM LEHRER: You make it sound one, two, three, four, obvious, rather than a debate point is my point here.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Those are the objective facts that I read and then we get into whether sufficient number of troops are there to do the job or not. Again, I want to emphasize that the Iraqi people don’t want Saddam Hussein back. They don’t want the return of that regime. But we are losing the support of these in the Sunni Triangle because they don’t see, not only any benefit, but they are being frightened and cowed by these groups — this combustible mixture of Baathist criminals, terrorists from other countries that are really making the situation extremely difficult.

And it’s hard to get the Iraqi people to support us and to want to get rid of these people if they are not sure that we’re going to be there and if they are not sure we’re going to win.

JIM LEHRER: So your point is that if we don’t send in troops and do it ourselves, it just isn’t going to get done and it’s going to get worse in the Sunni Triangle?

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: There’s not a doubt in my mind. And the alarming facts are they have been getting worse for the last several months both in frequency, sophistication and lethality. And let me just make one other prediction to you, if I could, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: These are smart people just like the Vietnamese were smart people. I hasten that Iraq is not Vietnam. But watch February and March if we don’t see things improve. They know our election — our electoral calendar and they know that large losses or significant successes by their side could affect American public opinion.

JIM LEHRER: You also said in a speech that all of us talk about turning security over to the Iraqis sooner rather than later and things like that, and our talk about troop deployments in and out is actually sending the wrong message to the Iraqis. What do you mean?

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Well, first of all, I disagree with the statement that only Iraqis can win. Half trained military Iraqis can’t win. It takes highly trained, highly skilled Americans to win the military side. But at the same time, I would accelerate the turning over of the reigns of government to the Iraqis so that decisions are made by an Iraqi government that people believe represent them rather than the present U.S.-run government with the Iraqi ruling council having very little influence.

But we cannot win this kind of a conflict that is going on in the Sunni Triangle with half trained Iraqi military people as dedicated as they might be.

JIM LEHRER: And that by saying this, you think, we’re telling the Iraqi people something they know just isn’t right?

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Yes, and if we say we’re withdrawing then obviously that sends another bad signal. I think we should not announce withdrawal. I think we should say we’re going to do what it takes. We’re going to find out where it is that we need more people.

We have got 130,000 troops there. At any time there’s 30,000 of these on patrol — of the 130,000 that are there — because of this tooth to tail ratio that we call in the military. So we need more in that area, more active, more proactive and frankly, when Iraqi mothers are afraid to send their children to school, then I think that the bad people have attained a degree of influence, which is disturbing.

JIM LEHRER: Senator, you have gone public with this in the last few days. You have just repeated it and expanded on it here for us. Have you said this privately to President Bush or Vice President Cheney or Secretary Powell or Secretary Rumsfeld or anybody else in the administration?

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: When I came back in August, I made public statements about the need for more troops. I talked with Dr. Rice. I talked with Secretary Rumsfeld. I talked with Secretary Powell and Deputy Secretary Armitage about this and I was very public in my comments then. I was hoping that I was wrong. But in August, which was several months ago now, I said, look, unless we change this equation, then things are going to get measurably worse.

And, time is not on our side in these things of Jim. We have a habit to a degree of treating Iraq the same way we treated Japan and Germany. We should be treating them more like Italy and France as liberated countries rather than conquered ones.

JIM LEHRER: I noticed in your list of people you did not mention the president. Have you talked to the president about Iraq recently?

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I have not.

JIM LEHRER: Do you want to? Has he invited you to, or is there any problem between the two of you on this?

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: No, the president and I have a cordial relationship. We work together on healthy forests. I attended an excellent speech he gave today at the 20th anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy but, to be honest with you, he is the president of the United States and I don’t call him unsolicited, but I have talked to everybody else on his team.

JIM LEHRER: You mentioned Vietnam. You said in your speech in fact, which I read today, that you said that all right, you said the same thing you just said — Iraq is not Vietnam, be careful about comparisons, but there are lessons to be learned. Expand on that what you mean.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: It’s not Vietnam because it’s not a nationalist movement. These people don’t have support of the majority of the Iraqi people. They’re bad people. There’s no charismatic leader like Ho Chi Min. There’s no superpower supplying them as China and Russia were doing. The train is vastly different to state the obvious. So it’s very, very different. And also our casualty levels in Vietnam were incredibly high as at least you and I remember.

JIM LEHRER: Absolutely.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: So it’s not the same but what is a parallel there are a couple. One, the reason why the Tet offensive was a military failure for the North Vietnamese but a psychological tremendous victory is because of the expectations the American people had about Vietnam. They were told the light was at the end of the tunnel and it wasn’t there.

The second aspect of this is this business of winning or losing the support of the people. I don’t think the majority of these terrorists that are coming in from outside the country are welcome. We all know the guerilla swims through the people as the fish through the ocean. The ocean is becoming more and more receptive to these people and their activities than they had in the past and that’s obviously the other parallel.

The third, will the American people maintain support? I am convinced if they are told what is at stake, as the president said today into an excellent speech, if they have told what we’re going to have to go through as it was in the leaked memo and statements the president made recently, they’ll support it. We cannot afford to lose here.

JIM LEHRER: Quick question on Russia before we go, senator. You said, there’s a creeping coup against the forces of democracy and market capitalism, and you also said the Russian government does not share our most basic values. What’s happened? What is going on here?

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I think that Mr. Putin and his KGB friends who have basically taken over the apparatus of government — they have systematically removed independent media. They have expelled those people who disagree with them who were wealthy like Mr. Gazinsky. And of course this recent arrest of Mr. Khodorkovsky –

JIM LEHRER: Khodorkovsky, right.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: — is a signal that they are not going to allow any real political disagreements. The continued blood letting in Chechnya; their continued activities in the near abroad, whether it be in Georgia or Belarus or the Ukraine, is disturbing. And I think they are headed back in the direction of the Soviet-Czarist kind of government and situation that existed for 400 years.

JIM LEHRER: Those are tough words you just spoke, senator.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: It’s very disturbing as to what’s happened. There’s not one truly independent media outlet in Russia today. Those that are “independent” are cowed by the government. That’s one of the fundamentals as we all know of a free and open society.

JIM LEHRER: President Bush has talked often about his good relationship with President Putin. What would you say to him? Forget it? Talk to him? What in the word should the United States be doing about this if you are right?

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I think the United States should not include Russia in the G-8 meetings. I think we should warn American businesses of the risks of investment there. I would instruct OPEC and other institutions not to lend money to Russia at this time and start talking about our expectations that Russia would make a transition to a free and open society.

JIM LEHRER: You are talking about a kind of Cold War part two?

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I don’t think so, Jim. I think we have got to send lessons that … the kind of behavior we would expect. But I don’t think we can threaten them frankly.

JIM LEHRER: Just lecture them?

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Well, I mean, I wouldn’t … As I say, the institutions. I wouldn’t include them in the G-8 meeting because they are basically going back to a state-run kind of Mussolini style government as opposed to that that we had hoped and expected.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Senator McCain, thank you very much.