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A Conversation With John McCain

Speaker: John McCain, Member, United States Senate (R-AZ)
Presider: Margaret Warner, Chief Foreign Correspondent, PBS NewsHour
September 17, 2013
Council on Foreign Relations

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MODERATOR: Welcome, everyone, to this session of the Council on Foreign Relations. And as you know the topic tonight is Syria.

Senator McCain has offered to come and speak to us about this tonight. And of course he needs no introduction -- the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, senior senator from Arizona, presidential candidate in 2008, and a prominent voice on national security and I would say many other matters in his long and illustrious career.

So the chosen topic is Syria, and tonight's event is on the record, and without further ado, Senator McCain.

(APPLAUSE)

MCCAIN: Well, thank you, Margaret, for that long and glowing introduction...

(LAUGHTER)

... I appreciate it very much.

MODERATOR: I could say that we enjoyed many hours on the bus together...

MCCAIN: Margaret...

MODERATOR: ... in South Carolina, but...

MCCAIN: Margaret and I spent a number of hours on the Straight Talk Express, not only in the 2008 campaign, but on the 2000 -- both of which because of her coverage I lost.

(LAUGHTER)

But I've often mentioned to Margaret after I lost I slept like a baby. Sleep two hours, wake up and cry, sleep two hours...

(LAUGHTER)

And I want to -- and I want to thank -- it's nice to see old friends and enemies here...

(LAUGHTER)

... in the audience here tonight. And I appreciate the fact that the Council on Foreign Relations would allow me this invitation to speak. And it's always good for me to be back in what I believe is one of the premiere institutions on the discussion and debate in America on our national security and foreign policy. And it's an honor always to be back.

And before Margaret and I have our conversation, I'd like to say a few words about Syria. And forgive me again for if I talk too seriously with you. But it is an issue of great seriousness.

And I'd like to begin by saying I wish I could see the recent agreement between Russia and the United States to rid the Assad regime of its chemical weapons as a major breakthrough. Unfortunately, I cannot. I derive no pleasure in saying this, nor am I seeking to score political points.

In fact, I've sought to work with President Obama on Syria at every turn, and to encourage his development of a broader strategy of this growing problem. I've met with him several times recently for exactly that purpose, and I'm grateful for that opportunity.

I supported the president's call to use force against Assad's regime for its massacre of nearly 1,500 Syrians with chemical weapons on August 21 and I worked with my colleagues on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to work on a bipartisan basis the authority to use force that the president sought.

I admit to not being an expert on Syria or chemical weapons, but I do understand power and the use of power. I also understand more in the conduct of war. And the one benefit of my advanced age is the perspective that it offers. This is the basis for my deep concern of the administration's mishandling of the conflict in Syria.

Now let's recall that this Russian initiative first arose as both houses of Congress appear ready to reject the president's proposed military strikes in Syria, which called into question how credible that use of force -- that threat of force really was. So it's hard to maintain that the administration entered into this agreement from a position of strength.

No on trusts Assad's sincerity, and there's little reason to have more faith in Russia, especially when President Putin himself still insists that the Syrian opposition was responsible for the August 21 attack. That's why enforcement is so critical.

Unfortunately, the administration's claim that the threat of force remains on the table rings somewhat hollow in light of the events of the past few weeks. What's more, the administration seems to have given up on codifying the terms of this agreement immediately in a U.N. Security Council resolution under Chapter VII, let alone one that would explicitly threaten the use of force for Assad's noncompliance.

Russia has said it won't agree to either of those things. Second, it may only be willing to authorize less severe penalty in second resolution and only after Assad violates the terms of the agreement. And obviously that's a major climb-down for an administration that was ready to launch air strikes three weeks ago. And it's an even worse blow to those stalwart U.S. allies who were prepared to tact with us.

Under these circumstances, what leverage do we have to force Assad's compliance when he starts to lie and cheat and delay using every trick in Saddam Hussein's playbook? Not much, it appears. And the leverage we do have no longer appears credible.

To assist otherwise misses the basic reality of this agreement. It was not a product of this administration's strength, but of its weakness, of its inability or unwillingness to take the military action it deemed necessary against Assad. Russia sensed this weakness and led the administration, in my view, into a diplomatic blind alley.

The fact is the Assad regime will likely avoid any meaningful punishment for its use -- not just possessions, but use of weapons of mass destruction. That's why many of us are concerned that both our friends and enemies will see this agreement as an act of provocative weakness, a blow to America's credibility that will lead others to question whether we are willing and able to enforce our own stated commitments, even after the latest and greatest transgressions.

I cannot imagine a worse message to send to the rulers of Iran or the young leader in North Korea, or every other bad actor that's looking for an excuse to test the limits of American resolve. There is reason to be troubled by the terms of this agreement. But the bigger problem is what it leaves out. It says nothing about the underlying conflict in Syria, and will do nothing to resolve it.

That's the greatest threat to America's national security interest, not chemical weapons per se, but the conflict itself. It is this conflict that has claimed nearly 110,000 lives and counting, driven millions from their homes, destabilized some of our closest friends and allies in the process, emboldened Iran and its proxies, transformed large parts of Syria into safe havens for thousands of extremists, many affiliated with Al Qaida. And now it's become a regional sectarian conflict that threatens to engulf the entire Middle East.

That's the larger problem with the Russians' chemical weapon initiative. It will in no way help to bring the conflict in Syria to the negotiated end that we seek. It will not stop Assad and his forces from fighting. It will not stop Iran from sending in the Revolutionary Guard. It will not stop Hezbollah's 5,000 troops who have invaded Syria from fighting, and it will not stop Russia from continuing to send weapons and other military assistance to the Assad regime.

In fact, the more destructive Assad is in his war against the Syrian people, the more he creates conditions of insecurity in Syria that make the removal of his chemical weapons impossible. In short, Assad could render this agreement ineffective without ever violating the letter of it.

Not surprisingly, Assad and his forces are now increasing their attacks on opposition forces and civilian populations using every tool in their arsenal short of chemical weapons. Just yesterday we read in the Washington Post that Assad's fighter jets are back on the attack for the first time in weeks. And as artillery is shelling at double than normal rate the very same Damascus neighborhood that was gassed on August 21.

Indeed, the Post reports that more than 1,000 people were killed in Syria last week while a chemical weapons agreement was negotiated. Meanwhile, we also read yesterday in the Wall Street Journal that Iran's revolutionary guard are stepping up their training of Shiite recruits from across the region to go to Syria and fight for Assad. This too should surprise no one.

We cannot afford to look at Syria as a chemical weapons arsenal attached to a country. As awful as chemical weapons are, and as much as we all want them taken away from Assad, they're just one symptom of the deteriorating conflict in Syria. We need a strategy to end this war as soon as possible because the longer it goes, the worse it gets.

A strategy must degrade the military capabilities of the Assad regime, upgrade the military capabilities of the moderate opposition, shift the momentum on the battlefield and thereby create conditions for a negotiated end to the conflict and the removal from power of Assad and his top henchmen.

Unfortunately, there are real tensions between this strategy and the chemical weapons initiative that we have now undertaken. That's why Russia proposed it in the first place.

Is Assad a war criminal we seek to remove from power by supporting an army and training his opponents? Or is Assad our negotiating partner for the next nine months? It is unclear. And that's why our own partners on the ground in Syria are so dispirited.

Here's what General Idris, the commander of the Free Syrian Army, said about the recent chemical weapons initiative, "We feel let down by the international community. We don't have any hope."

This comes on top of the administration's failure for the better part of three years to provide meaningful, lethal assistance to moderate opposition forces. According to the Washington Post, the first U.S. weapons only reached the opposition earlier this month. And they reportedly only reached a very small number of people.

It's long past time to launch a significant train and equipment -- training program for moderate Syrian forces, and the Defense Department is best suited to lead this expanded mission.

Our recent debates on Syria have led some to conclude that Americans have turned isolationist and that's why the administration has not done more in Syria. To the contrary: the reluctance of Americans to do more is related in large part to the administration's unwillingness or inability to formulate a strategy on Syria and communicate it effectively.

Instead what Americans constantly hear from the administration is how awful the conflict in Syria is and how eager they're not to be involved in it, as the president said again in his speech to the nation last week. But look where we are now.

Everything the administration has said would happen if we got more involved in Syria has now happened because we have not gotten more involved. And nearly every option that the administration once criticized as reckless and dangerous, from arming the opposition to targeted air strikes, has now become U.S. policy. Is it any wonder that the American people and members of Congress are deeply confused and reluctant to be involved in Syria?

No one wants to be involved in Syria, but the reality is we are involved. We're more involved today than a year ago. We're more involved one year ago than two years ago. We're more involved two years ago than three years ago. And we most certainly will be more involved next year than we are now.

Only then the conflict will be worse and we will have worse and fewer options to address it. But eventually we will have to address it. Not because we want to, but because our interests in the security of our friends and allies require it. To insist otherwise is not some greater form of realism, but rather a profound denial of reality.

Americans need to be told clearly what's at stake in Syria. And with all due respect to the administration, it is far more than an international norm about chemical weapons, which sounds like political science.

Americans need to care about the conflict in Syria because it is becoming a failed state in the heart of the Middle East., because it is grown -- it is a growth hormone for Al Qaida and its terrorist allies, because now it is a regional catastrophe that threatens the very existence of some of our closest friends and allies who are indispensable to the safety of every American, and because it is the central front of the Iranian regime's battle to dominate the Middle East. These are the national security interests that we have at stake in Syria.

It's one thing for Americans to hear this from an old member of Congress like me. It's quite another to hear it from their president. The American people are never eager to engage in foreign policy, let alone involve themselves in foreign conflicts. And that is the healthy attitude of a democratic people.

But there are events and threats in the world that demand our attention, and from which we cannot isolate ourselves. And it is in those times that the American people rely on our elected leaders, most of all our president, to lead them, to explain to them where our interests and values are at greatest risk, why we cannot afford to remain disengaged, why further delay will only allow present dangers to turn into more dire future threats, and what we as a nation are called on to do.

No president campaigns to get America involved in foreign conflicts, and no president prefers to prioritize his time in this way. But what sets our greatest presidents apart from all the rest is that they recognize this duty when called to them and they took it up. This kind of leadership we need now more than ever.

Thank you very much.

(APPLAUSE)

Strong letter to follow.

MODERATOR: Strong letter to follow.

Let's start right out with what you are -- level as an accusation but say is essentially President Obama's mishandling of the issue, too specific. Was he wrong to say he would seek congressional approval? And when, if -- as it became clear, as you say, that he was probably not going to get that, should he just have gone ahead and struck anyway without the vote and survived politically?

MCCAIN: I think the mistake and unprecedented move was to announce the strikes and then announce that he was going to go to Congress. If he had announced the strikes and said, and I'm going to Congress to get the support of Congress, that's one thing. If he had struck -- some of us in this room remember one morning we woke up and Ronald Reagan had invaded Grenada.

I mean it's not unprecedented for presidents. And Bill Clinton we know obviously acted in -- well, virtually every president back to Ronald Reagan has acted at one time or another without the endorsement of Congress. So I think that was the mistake.

And I think it was a -- from what I have read and heard, to make a decision and then announce it to the national security team, rather than pose it to the national security team and have that discussion also was a technical error. So if the president was going to strike, you know you're going to say you'll take Vienna, take Vienna.

MODERATOR: But wasn't it essentially challenging Congress and the American people to step up to this challenge? And it turned out the American public didn't want to and neither did most members of Congress? Or certainly he didn't have a majority who did.

At that point, if you'd been president, would you have just said, well I'm going ahead anyway? Or at that point is he too far down the path of saying he'd seek approval?

MCCAIN: It's a very tough decision now for the president of the United States. And at this juncture I can't say exactly what he should do. I would have a tendency, if this whole chemical weapons thing fails and it turns into a fiasco, I think that he should act.

But he's going to have much greater problems because he said he was going to get the endorsement of Congress and didn't. If he'd not said anything all along, if he acted, people would be angry. We'd get the usual blowback.

So I think that if this -- if or when this thing comes apart, which I think it is...

MODERATOR: Then it'll become apparent, you think...

MCCAIN: Yes, that...

(CROSSTALK)

... Assad's dragging his feet and he's not really complying.

MCCAIN: Right. And that he's not in compliance and that there's kind of a rope-a-dope going on. I mean does it give us confidence when again Lavrov said just a few hours ago? Do we think the rebels did this attack? I mean really.

Where's the credibility of this guy when he keeps saying that it was the Free Syrian Army that conducted the chemical weapons attack? And Putin keeps stating that as well.
It's just -- and Lavrov made it very clear when he and John Kerry made the announcement. He said "we will not authorize the use of force or sanctions." He said "I want to make that very clear." So where is the leverage here, at least through the United Nations?

MODERATOR: Is part of the leverage, though, that Russia's on the hook now to deliver its client?

MCCAIN: Well first of all, I don't see how Russia is on the hook. Mr. Putin has now injected himself in a way that has not been Russian influence in the region since 1970. And Mr. Putin, who obviously from his comments about this being a rebel attack with sarin gas, is capable of saying anything. I mean what constrains him to honesty?

And so if this whole thing fails I'm sure that Putin will say, we did our best, the Americans -- I mean he'll say most anything. But what he has done is reinserted himself in the whole scenario of the Middle East again in a way since the fall of Nasser has not been possible for the Russians.

So I don't accept the premise that he's in any danger at all. He's made it very clear they would veto a resolution that authorized a use of force through the U.N. He's made it very clear that even sanctions would be something they would oppose...

MODERATOR: Or that they'd have to come back for a second resolution to get.

MCCAIN: And even then he has said there will be no -- there will -- they will veto. And you know it's interesting. The apologists for Putin say, well he's so mad about Libya. He's mad that we got rid of Moammar Gadhafi? Is that what he's angry about?

MODERATOR: No. What they're angry about...

MCCAIN: What did he expect? You know. I mean it's just nonsense to say that he's angry because they agreed on Libya. Maybe they made a mistake. But somehow then to say that's a reason for them not to do -- take action against this butchery that continues on unabated.

MODERATOR: Well, they of course -- they say they feel they signed up for one thing which was protecting the humanitarian one, and it ended up being a regime change.

But let me go back to...

MCCAIN: And could I just say a word about "regime change?" The only way that there is going to be a shift in Syria is if Bashar Assad thinks that he is -- cannot hold onto power. That means a robust Free Syrian Army that reverses the momentum on the battlefield. And then it's a negotiated departure.

It's a Geneva where he has negotiated departure, and at that time you could have negotiations about the chemical weapons at the same time. But part of his departure is a turnover of all of these chemical weapons that -- the thousand tons or whatever it is.

MODERATOR: Now let me go back to another point you made about the president, though. And you said you didn't know -- you weren't an expert on Syria or chemical weapons, but you are on power, especially on leadership and on war. Now president Obama said...

MCCAIN: I should have said I'm an expert on everything.

MODERATOR: Yes, you should have.

So, Sunday, though, he said on George Stephanopoulos's program. His quote was "My position and the U.S. position has been consistent throughout." And his position as he stated it is he basically thinks there is a distinction that the wider use of chemical weapons or preventing it in the world is of real U.S. national interest. And that getting involved in a civil war, however dreadful it is, is not.

Now is that where you part company, that you think the civil war is in fact as great a threat to U.S. national interests as the prospect that these chemical weapons would get loose? Or do you accept his...

MCCAIN: I do. No, I...

MODERATOR: ... distinction?

MCCAIN: First of all, the chemical weapons killed 1,400 people. It's terrible. It's horrible. It crossed lines, violated treaties that have been signed by 190 countries or whatever it is. So it's terrible.

But there's 110,000 that have been slaughtered using bullets and knives and clubs. I mean to somehow ignore that of these atrocities is beyond -- is staggering to the imagination. And the -- now he's stepped up the air attacks.

Now we're working, supposedly, Margaret, working with Russia to remove these chemical weapons from Syria. Meanwhile at the same airport they may be flown out of there's Russian aircraft full of weapons to kill people landing at the same airport.

How do you rationalize that intellectually, but also morally? That as long as you remove your chemical weapons then -- and obviously there's been not significant U.S. engagement then it's OK to continue the slaughter.

And by the way, the majority of the Free Syrian Army officers are defectors from the Syrian Army. And I've met with them. And their training and their indoctrination is to murder, torture so that they can intimidate the population. That's their training.

Now you'll hear it's all on the front page of the New York Times some execution of some prisoners by the Free Syrian Army. And it's horrible and unacceptable. But it also is an indication of how horrible war is.

In the war I fought we had a terrible thing that happened. It was called the Mei Lai Massacre. And it's unacceptable, and it's a stain on and a blot on the honor of the United States military forever. But these things do happen.

There's a difference between these acts of violence and cruelty and barbaric behavior that are sparked by this anger. But there's something else to have a doctrine and indoctrination of your troops, as Bashar has, to torture, rape and murder. And that is a huge difference that I just wanted to point out, and another reason why we should be helping the Free Syrian Army a lot more than we are.

MODERATOR: Now, is it your understanding, and you have spoken with the president and other members of the administration quite a lot lately I gather, that the U.S. is about to step up and overtly, not just covertly, provide "lethal aid" and that it will be through DOD, not the CIA? And if so, what is the advantage of that?

MCCAIN: I'm not exactly sure. They keep -- they told me for two years that they're making sure that they got to the Free Syrian Army and it hasn't happened. So my -- if you'll excuse my skepticism, is exactly what they're doing.

The only thing tangible that the Free Syrian Army has gotten directly from the United States is a whole bunch of MREs, meals-ready-to-eat, whose expiration date was a month later. And I'm not making that up.

So -- and the Saudis have been able to get weapons with our vetting to the Free Syrian Army, and they haven't fallen into the hands of Al Qaida or Al-Nusra. So, I have -- it has to be some proof to me, one that they're getting weapons in and two, the right kind of weapons.

They need anti-armor. They've got to have anti-armor. AK-47s don't fight well against tanks. And that armor is a big part of Bashar's capability. And they've got to have anti-air weapons as well.

MODERATOR: And that's what they tell you when you're on the ground, that they are being bombarded from the air. Is that a danger to provide even the Free Syrian Army, even if you were to accept that it's a disciplined, cohesive force, not the bad guys, isn't that a danger to start as we did in Afghanistan?

MCCAIN: I think there is no good options. And I think there is a danger. But I would point out that the air -- control of the air in that terrain and climate is critical not only for air attacks, but moving troops and equipment around Syria because they don't control certain areas. And they ship -- the plane modes full of weapons that fly from Iran and from Russia into Damascus every single day, tons of military equipment that are being flown in.

And meanwhile we're trying to, in very devious ways, to get some of this equipment to them. When you look at the disparity on the battlefield, the lack of -- the total superiority of weapons that Bashar has, it's surprising that the Free Syrian Army has done as well as they are.

And in case you missed it, there's now conflict between the Free Syrian Army and Al-Nusra and Al Qaida. And if this thing ended the right way we would have to give weapons and assistance to the Free Syrian Army because this Al-Nusra and Al Qaida grows every single day.

MODERATOR: Now, this Free Syrian Army -- and I've met with some members of it as well as you have. And it implies that it's this cohesive force. But I am told, though I could not find this today myself, but I'm told by a very reputable colleague of mine that General Flynn of the DIA said just a week ago that there's something like 1,200 militias, rebel militias.

Isn't one of the huge problems that they have not become a cohesive force, they don't have command and control, never mind they don't have weapons? They don't have effective command and control.

MCCAIN: Well, part of it is obviously that there is not the lines of communication that we want to have. Second of all, this is the same intelligence agency that has given, I think, dubious information in the past.

You know if you don't want to be involved you can always find lots of reasons not to be. Yes, there are different units around. But they have good communication amongst them. They have a chain of command that they adhere to.

But is it a cohesive army marching into battle? Of course not, and there are communications problems and there are a lot of other problems associated with it. But they fought well and they still are the majority of those who are fighting. As the extremists grow every day, a lot of them coming in from guess where? Iraq.

MODERATOR: I want to go to audience questions in one sec. So be thinking of your questions.

But -- well I have many others I'd like to ask you. But let me just ask you this.

OK. Now the U.S. is where it is. It's at the U.N. They were having a meeting this afternoon to try to hammer out some resolution. What should the president and his team do now in terms of how to make this resolution enforceable?

MCCAIN: When Lindsey Graham and I, one of our visits with the president, the president said I want to achieve three things. One, degrade Bashar Assad's chemical weapons capability. Two, increase the support to strengthen the Free Syrian Army. Three, change the momentum on the battlefield so that it leads to a negotiated departure of Bashar Assad.

The president talked to the country. When he talked to George Stephanopoulos there was no mention of the other two. The president has got to, in my view, say we need to reverse the situation on the battlefield, which would then lead to another negotiated departure of Bashar Assad, that more than anything.

It's not very convincing to say you're going to enter a conflict in order to force a nation to adhere to international norms of chemical weapons treaties. There's got to be a more compelling reason.

MODERATOR: You mean a stick?

MCCAIN: Yes. And could I just -- one brief vignette of what's at stake here. The king of Jordan says that he can't last with 15 percent of his population refugees. Lebanon is teetering on the secular conflict. Iraq is now, as I mentioned in my remarks, had more killing than since 2008.

And when you go to a refugee camp, which I wish every one of us could, and you meet these people, it breaks your heart. It breaks your heart.

But also, I'll never forget when a woman was showing me around a refugee camp in Jordan. And she said, "Senator, you see these children running around here? You see all these children?" Thousands of children, there's a million refugee children now. And I said yes. And she said, "They're going to take revenge on those they believe refused to help them and abandoned them."

You saw what happened in the Palestinian refugee camps. We are in danger of creating a million young people who will grow up hating the United States of America. We ought to think about the long-term implications of our failure to stop this butcher from massacring so many of his own people.

MODERATOR: On that note we're going to go to audience questions.

And you all know the drill. But, please wait for the microphone. We've got four circulating here. Speak directly into it. State your name and your affiliation, and stand up please. And then of course, try to keep your questions concise so we can get to many people.

And the gentleman in the back there with the red tie.

QUESTION: Thank you, senator. I'm Bill Courtney (ph). I'm a retired diplomat, American military and civilian personnel. I have a lot of experience with on-site inspection. I'm a foreign Soviet Union and other places.

If, as the media says, there are 45 or so sites with chemical weapons around Syria, in the middle of a civil war would you support sending American military and civilian personnel there as part of international on-site inspection teams?

MCCAIN: I don't think I could unless there was some guarantee of their safety which I think would be enforceable. I just don't see how you could do that without some kind of arrangement that was so ironclad that since I don't trust Assad that would be something that I think would be credible.

I just -- the one thing Americans don't want -- I think there may be disagreement on a lot of things that I've said. But I think we're in agreement Americans don't want any American boots on the ground.

Now, there's one other scenario, very quickly. Suppose that there was a negotiated departure from Bashar Assad? And as I said before, we negotiated a plan for an international -- not just Americans but an international group to go in and secure these caches of chemical weapons. I think the American people might be agreeable for that sole purpose. But you see you'd even have to do a selling job there.

And finally I'd remind you what was reported on the front page of the Wall Street Journal a couple of days ago. Bashar Assad right now is moving these chemical weapons all around Syria.

MODERATOR: Right here, sir.

QUESTION: Whitney Snideman (ph), Covington & Burling. Senator, just so I'm clear about your position, are you really -- are you advocating that President Obama should have attacked when he promised to attack?

MCCAIN: Yes.

QUESTION: And secondly, if he had, given international opinion that was against the U.S., given Congress was against him, given the American people didn't support it, don't you think we'd be in a far weaker position today than some think we are?

MCCAIN: I think whenever a president of the United States, the leader of the most powerful nation and the most influential in the world says they're going to take -- that this country's going to take certain action, particularly where it has to do with an issue such as this, you lose credibility when you don't. I mean it's just a fact.

And I hear from my friends around Europe and the Middle East who are really very skeptical about American leadership. And I think they have a right to be.

A second part was...

MODERATOR: It was just wouldn't he be weaker? I think you answered it, so.

MCCAIN: I think that once he stated that he was going to act -- oh. I know what I wanted to add. Presidents from time-to-time have had to make tough decisions -- some of the things that Franklin Delano Roosevelt did prior to World War II. Harry Truman, Korea -- his popularity just sunk down into the low 20s. Americans wanted out of Korea.

There were times when presidents have made tough decisions because that's the responsibility of commander-in-chief. Now, they have to pay for it if it's a mistake.

But to -- I just think that another aspect of this is I don't think the president made a cohesive argument to the American people when he was saying he wanted to do two things for the American people. He wanted to pause, but he also wanted Congress to authorize an attack.

I think he should have waited until the pause period was over, or just say that he was going to attack. I don't think Americans really got a strong message.

MODERATOR: All right. That's Charles Gotti (ph) right here? Yes.

QUESTION: Thank you. Charles Gotti-Scise (ph), Johns Hopkins University.

Senator, I'm sure that you have given other talks as well. And this one focused on the president's failings. I agree with most of that. But I also think that if Congress, and notably the Republicans in the Senate and the House, spoke like you did -- which they don't and haven't, they criticized the president from the other angle -- things would be different.

Do you ever go to the House to talk to your Republican friends and colleagues...

(LAUGHTER)

... to tell them what you think of them?

(LAUGHTER)

MODERATOR: You have a hard sell.

MCCAIN: Let me say your question is excellent, particularly in that the grosser (ph) subject that I think is going to be the subject of a great debate within the Republican Party. I remember when the Democrat Party in the 1970s had a very big split in their party. In fact I think it was -- you could argue that it was Bill Clinton that seemed to reconcile most elements within that party, and he did a heck of a job doing it.

We are seeing in our party a real split now, and a great debate. And on the one side there is the Rand Paul and many others who really are sincerely convinced that the United States engages in adventures and we shouldn't be involved internationally, et cetera, et cetera. And on our side it is of course the internationalists. And that debate has to be held within our party.

And I go back, look prior -- after World War I when it was Republicans who had kept us out of the League of Nations, Republicans and Democrats but also heavy Republicans prior to World War II, the America Firsters. After World War II the clash between the Eisenhower wing and the Taft wing of the Republican Party. I could go on and on and on.

There's always been this tension within the Republican Party. And the isolationist wing on occasion has had the ascendency. And right now the American people obviously, as was stated earlier, the American people are incredibly skeptical. It has to do with Iraq and it has to do with the length of Afghanistan and other things. But the American people are very skeptical, and they're playing to that audience. And I don't blame them. I say with respect for their views, not with disrespect.

MODERATOR: But this -- you said at the end of your remarks that there're occasionally world events that occur that we simply cannot isolate ourselves from that we must get involved in. And there used to be some centrist bipartisan...

MCCAIN: Yes.

MODERATOR: ... consensus on that point from Republicans and Democrats. Do you think that is really dissolved in a profound historical sense?

MCCAIN: I think that due to the economy to some degree, the length of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, a confluence of forces, the polarization of the political environment. Let's face it. There are many members of the House of Representatives now that have lifetime seats, or at least until the next census. And this is one of the biggest problems we had with immigration reform.

How many of those who don't want to act on immigration reform have an overwhelming majority of citizens that are not Hispanic in their districts? So they're listening, obviously, not to the better angels of our nature.

But so I really think that this debate is going to be one which I welcome. I welcome the debate. And I want to be having to do with candidates and programs and platforms. But the debate has to take place. And I am confident that the American people will do the right thing at the end of the day if they're led with inspiration.

MODERATOR: Question over here. Yes, sir, right on the aisle.

QUESTION: Hi. I'm Bob Litan from Bloomberg Government.

My question goes back to the credibility issue. And you obviously make a correct point that the president having uttered the statement about the red line and then not following through lost credibility. Would you have issued a red line statement? Or would you have said basically something I'm going to keep my options open?

MCCAIN: Two years ago I would have accelerated the supplies to the Free Syrian Army and it would've been over. Bashar Assad was on the run and the momentum was on the side of the Free Syrian Army until about a year ago.

That's when about the 5,000 Hezbollah came in. That's when the Iranians started the Revolutionary Guard training and equipping and increasing in equipment. And that's when the Russians really started flying in planeload after planeload of weapons.

So I would have given the assistance that we didn't give about two years ago. And a year ago I would've done the same thing. And I would do it now.

But I have to admit, it's much more complicated. The good options are gone. Now we have to choose the least dangerous option of all. And I'd like to say again, and I meant to mention this earlier. Americans are war weary. I understand that.

I would like to point out two things. One, we do have an all-volunteer force. We're not forcing anybody into the military. And when you join the military you think there's a possibility you might be involved in conflict.

And the second point is do you think those million refugee kids aren't war weary? Do you think the women who have been gang raped that I met in a refugee camp in Jordan aren't war weary?

There's -- the United States of America -- this is almost shameful in a way that we have not helped these people more. And it isn't just that humanitarian moral side. It's the regional conflict that the Mid East is now becoming and being engulfed by.

MODERATOR: Then why weren't more Mid East countries -- why didn't they step forward and publicly endorse...

MCCAIN: Because Americans have to lead, number one. And number two is Qatar, Saudis, others have been sending weapons and doing things. But their populations are small. Their military capabilities are not great. But they have been assisting and significantly.

MODERATOR: But I mean when President Obama said he was going to strike...

MCCAIN: Because they don't know if he's serious. They don't know if he's serious. And maybe their skepticism was justified because he said he was going to strike and then obviously didn't.

And suppose if this chemical weapons treaty comes through completely done where we have removed the chemical weapons from Syria. But what about the red line that said that if he massacred people with the use of chemical weapons that he was going to pay? What is he paying?

MODERATOR: Well, might there not be ultimately be a case -- anyway, I don't want to keep going, and many others. There're two gentlemen right in the back and then the woman on the aisle there.

QUESTION: Haji Sahrawi (ph) with Al Jazeera.

Senator, you stressed the need for a political solution that will lead or see the departure of al-Assad. What would be your vision for the post-Assad Syria that would prevent the balkanization of Syria given the complex situation and also the parties involved: Iran, Hezbollah, Al Qaida, Al-Nusra and what have you, and also the dysfunctional opposition?

MCCAIN: Well, thank you. And you raised a really important question, and one of the reasons why I said there's really no really good options. There's only some that are more preferable than others.

Number one, we have to have the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Council comply with the commitment that they've made that they will secure and get rid of chemical weapons.

The second thing is that they have to commit to human -- the respect of human rights. And we have to be a very big player in that, especially when it comes to the inevitable conflict between all these jihadists that are there and the Free Syrian Army. We're going to have to assist the Free Syrian Army.

Third of all, we're going to have to have commitments about protection of Christians and Alawites because we cannot unleash once that Bashar collapses a bloodletting -- or bloody massacre of these people.

As you know, right now Bashar, one of his strategies is to establish that crescent along the coast there. And that is a real possibility that that could happen, particularly with the Russians continuing to help him. By the way, one shipload into the Russian port, which comes in regularly, is six months' worth of supplies brought in the way that we're bringing them into the Free Syrian Army.

Again, I think there's a grave danger of Syria dissolving into different pieces, as you know. And that is something where it's going to require real significant involvement on our part in assisting the Free Syrian Army, but also international pressures to bring about a -- part of a negotiated settlement in my view would have to do with chemical weapons and cease fire. And that cease fire could be enforced.

MODERATOR: I know I said I'd go back to you, but right here. Yes.

QUESTION: Elisa Massimino, Human Rights First.

Thank you, Senator McCain, as usual, for your insight and blunt speaking. You've mentioned several times the Russian arms shipments. And I wonder what can we be doing in the United States as this is playing itself out at the U.N. to make it more costly for Putin to be supporting Assad?

Are you convinced we've done everything we can in terms of sanctions on Russian banks? We should have at least as much as we have on the Iranians. What else can we be doing to make Russia pay a price for being Assad's patron?

MCCAIN: That's an excellent point. And I wish that we would say to Putin/Lavrov that there's got to be a cost to this continued all-out assistance to Bashar al-Assad. And I think we ought to talk about that. And I think we ought to talk about resolutions that the U.N. General Assembly doesn't care about at least an expression through the General Assembly of -- in condemnation of the Russians.

But Putin, I think we have to understand him. Putin has visions of the restoration of the Russian empire. Putin believes that the rightful place for Russia is as a major player in the world.

And he believes that democracy is kind of something that is for other countries. And he's going to hang onto power. And he's going to do what's necessary to hang onto power. It doesn't mean that he's going to have a program or a massacre of people, although certainly Chechnya, as you well know, is incredibly brutal.

But I think we have to identify him for what he is, an autocrat that cracks down on media, cracks down on human rights, puts a guy like Khodorkovsky in jail, is responsible for the death of Sergei Magnitsky. And at least portray him for what he is rather than this grand illusion that we are somehow going to have this real fine and wonderful relationship with him.

We have to have a relationship with Russia, but it has to be an honest relationship, one free of illusions. Not one that wink, wink, nod, nod, tell Vladimir that if I'm re-elected I'll be more flexible. That's not the way to approach Vladimir Putin.

And the Snowden thing was just a sign of disrespect. It was a sign of disrespect for the United States of America that they gave asylum to Mr. Snowden.

MODERATOR: In the back. There were two people right on the aisle.

QUESTION: Kevin Sheehan at Multiplier Capital.

Senator, you're known to be a supporter of lethal assistance to the Free Syrian Army. But of course the opposition currently consists of about 100,000 people, 1,000 to 1,200 groups -- maybe 50 percent of them are moderate. How is General Idris going to...

MCCAIN: That is not true. Not true. Not true. We disagree.

QUESTION: Excuse me.

MCCAIN: We disagree on the percentage. Go ahead.

QUESTION: I'm quoting the IHS Jane's report. But it's clear there's lots of jihadists and there's lots of groups.

How will General Idris achieve unity of command within the moderate factions? And will that call for any level of cooperation with any of the factions on the religious side?

MCCAIN: Well, first of all, two years ago there was none of them. I think no matter what organizations you talk to, that was the case.

Second of all, frankly I just disagree. There's about 70 percent still who are the Free Syrian Army. But there are jihadists going in, not just from the Middle East, but the French ambassador told me there's a couple hundred French citizens that have gone to Syria to fight on behalf of the jihadists -- 5,000 Hezbollah, 5,000 Hezbollah.

The point I think that you and others are missing, Syria is a moderate nation. Syria has the highest literacy rate of any nation in the Middle East. They are not going to submit to a jihadist or Al Qaida group governing them. They will not.

Right now in some areas where Al Qaida is they're demonstrating against them because Al Qaida is trying to impose sharia law. And that's really a convenient cop-out to say oh we don't know who they are. I know who they are. I was in Syria and I met them. I know who they are.

And to somehow say that there's this group out there and it's so disorganized, yes, there's 1,200 units. There's about 1,200 battalions in the United States Army. Does that mean that they're not connected to each other? Of course not.

So, it is -- if you don't want to intervene you can always find reasons to do so. Is it a done deal? Is it easy? Was it a lot easier two years ago? Yes. But it's very, very difficult. ,

But I guess my answer back to you I say with respect is the status quo. Satisfactory is the status quo? Satisfactory where the people are being massacred and the jihadists are flowing in, and the weapons are being flown in and the 5,000 Hezbollah. Good fighters. Good fighters these Hezbollah are. They're not afraid to die.

There's 5,000 that came from southern Lebanon. Doesn't that give us some kind of pause as to what the connection here is between Iran, Syria and Hezbollah? And the -- what happens if Bashar Assad stays in power? What's the message throughout the Middle East?

MODERATOR: The young lady on the end there.

QUESTION: Thank you. My name is Janine Huynh (ph) with Voice of Vietnamese Americans.

First I'd like to thank Senator McCain for your service in Vietnam. And I think that's a huge lesson. I think then if we did not let go of the victory in Vietnam then we would not have to deal with the situation now in the Asia-Pacific Ocean. And I think right now there was a suggestion that you would write an op-ed and put it on the Pravda for Vladimir Putin, or whatever you just said.

MCCAIN: Could I just mention on that real quickly. There's two Pravda's. And don't ask me -- I still don't quite understand it. One of them is online and one of them is a hard-line communist. And so we're submitting it to both Pravda's.

QUESTION: And the one to the CCC (ph) as well.

MCCAIN: We'll see which one accepts it, which one doesn't.

QUESTION: And (inaudible) one to the PLA (ph) as well.

Well, my question is, I feel that the strength start at home. And you said that President Obama was not very strong.

I believe and I applaud President Obama for everything that he's done because I think he stayed involved. He stayed engaged. He now got the United Nations involved, Russia involved, 30 more countries involved behind us. And he's still trying to degrade the capacity of Assad in the chemical weapons with the support of nations.

But would you, from your point of view, to get us stronger, would you get back to the Republicans and work with the debt ceiling, the sequestration and the budget? Because I believe with all that we'll be stronger.

MODERATOR: Thank you. I think we're getting about four questions, but let me...

MCCAIN: Very briefly, I don't know what's going to happen because the bill -- the Constitution says spending bills originate in the House of Representatives. So I really don't know what's going to happen. I do know I've seen the movie before of shutting down the government.

That renowned liberal Charles Krauthammer said that this idea of demanding the repeal of Obamacare was a suicide note on the part of the Republicans, and I agree with Charles Krauthammer.

But back on -- look, this president and I have a relationship that I value. We worked together on immigration reform. We worked together on trying to get the debt issue under control. I supported him on the initial action in Syria.

There is no ill -- not only no ill will, I have a cordial relationship with the president of the United States, and I think that's important. I view myself as a loyal opposition. The loyal opposition disagrees when they disagree, and they agree when they agree. And that's how I think we should function.

So -- and I have a lot of respect for the president of the United States in many, many ways, including his ability to communicate with the American people as he proved in his reelection campaigns.

But right now, as I have articulated, I think we are on the wrong path that could be very damaging not only now, but for the rest of his presidency. And I don't want that to happen. I do not want a president of the United States that is weakened. This is too dangerous a world we live in.

MODERATOR: I think this is...

MCCAIN: Can we do one more?

MODERATOR: One more. Great. OK. The last brief question.

I want to remind everyone that this was on the record. And Senator McCain has to zip away to something else. So I've been asked to have everybody just wait in their seats after. And I'm going to call on...

MCCAIN: For about a half hour while the Secret Service...

(LAUGHTER)

MODERATOR: Yes, your great entourage.

And the lady all the way in the back with her hand up.

QUESTION: Thank you, Senator McCain. My name is Soni Short (ph) and I am with Regulars Americas (ph).

I was wondering if you can tell us what is the U.S. has learned from past military actions, for example in Iraq and Afghanistan and from the situation in Egypt. Thank you.

MCCAIN: Thank you very much. I take lessons from Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo and other conflicts in which we have been involved which we have succeeded.

In Bosnia and Kosovo we did what I want us to do -- well, actually yes to some degree, in Syria where we bombed and sent air activity without sending in American troops. And after 78 days Mr. Milosevic decided to fold. And we did so in the name of human rights.

Mr. Milosevic didn't pose any particular threat to the United States of America, but he was slaughtering people right and left. And so the United States intervened and we saved I don't know how many thousands of lives.

So when I look at Afghanistan and we knew -- we forget. We forget, unfortunately, that we knew that Al Qaida and the people who perpetrated the atrocity of 9/11 came from Afghanistan. What would any president do? Any president would have done what President Bush did and said turn these people over and get rid of them and bring them to justice. Taliban refused to do so. We had no choice.

Now, was it mishandled? Was it -- could we have done it better, done it differently? That will be a subject for historians.

On the issue of Iraq, I think that it will go down in history as a cardinal error to accept whatever evidence there was and turn it into an argument that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, which we know now he did not. But the secretary of State went to the United Nations Security Council, convinced all of us in Congress, and the American people and others.

I do believe that thanks to David Petraeus and the surge, we won the war. And in the words of my friend General Keane, we lost the peace because we should've left a residual force behind, which the president didn't want to do. And so we are now seeing, unfortunately, a resurgence of Al Qaida in Iraq, Al Qaida moving into Syria to help Bashar Assad. And -- excuse me, to enter the fight, not on Bashar Assad. And so we are seeing a turmoil there that I think could have been avoided in the long-run.

Are we a perfect nation? No. Have we made mistakes? Yes. We were just -- this young lady was just talking about Vietnam. But we learn from our mistakes.

We are now friends with the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese are now friends with us because they're scared the daylights out of China.

By the way, there's a ship, the Destroyer, is named after my father and grandfather. It paid a port visit to the Port of Danang not too long ago. That shows you that if you live long enough...

(LAUGHTER)

... anything can happen in the world.

So, have we made mistakes and errors in judgment? Yes, we have. But that goes with being the exceptional nation we are, and the reason why the 20th Century was called the American Century.

We made mistakes, but the world, I believe, is a far better place because of American leadership and the American people who have sacrificed so much on behalf of other people's freedom as well as our own. I believe in the greatness of America and the responsibilities of world leadership.

And I often ask my friends at town hall meetings, if you don't want America to lead, who do you want to lead? Somebody's got to lead.

But I know we've made mistakes and I know we're a very imperfect nation. But I don't think there's been a better experiment invented yet. And I'm proud to be invented and have a small opportunity to serve it.

I thank you, Margaret, for having me...

MODERATOR: Thank you, Senator McCain.

MCCAIN: And I thank you all for coming

MODERATOR: That was perfect.

(APPLAUSE)

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