- To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.
A leading Republican candidate for president of the United States, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), has carved out a position as a strong backer of the military surge in Iraq and comprehensive immigration reform at home. A month before the presidential primary season began, McCain said Americans should plan to have a large deployment of troops in Iraq “for quite a period of time.” And he said an immigration plan involving temporary-worker provisions and settlement of illegal alien status is still necessary but not likely to be revisited until 2009.
Senator, Iraq was once considered the defining issue of this election campaign, but it’s now barely discussed on the campaign trail. Is this one of the consequences of the surge and is this a good thing?
It’s a good thing for America that we are succeeding after the Democrats had declared the war lost, [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid (D-NV) did and others. So it’s a good thing in the respect that our success has lessened the visibility of the issue. But I would make two points. One is that the [congressional] Democrats are still trying to cut off funding and force withdrawal, which then would reverse all the successes that we have achieved and cause chaos and genocide in the region and al-Qaeda would be winning again. It’s not over, al-Qaeda is on the run, they’re not defeated. And the battle goes on with the Democrats, who declared the war lost when clearly the facts on the ground indicate that we are succeeding.
In your own party, you have sparred recently with [presidential candidate] Ron Paul (R-TX) about the issue. He gets his share of cheers at debates on his noninterventionist message and call for withdrawal of forces from Iraq. Does this reflect some splintering in the Republican Party or the loss of some of your more independent backers?
Congressman Paul is very adroitly exploiting a vein of dissatisfaction amongst the American people and it has to do with corruption and spending in government. It has to do with inefficiencies in government. It has to do with the trait of isolationism, which has had an influence in this country literally ever since Teddy Roosevelt, when we decided to become a player on the world stage. And because of that isolationism we have paid a very heavy price throughout history, most notably, obviously, the rise of Hitler.
On Iraq: “It’s not over, al-Qaeda is on the run, they’re not defeated. And the battle goes on with the Democrats, who declared the war lost when clearly the facts on the ground indicate that we are succeeding.”
But he is doing a good job of tapping that vein of anger and dissatisfaction, not just about the war but about the government, about our broken borders, about the IRS [Internal Revenue Service], about a tax system that’s clearly broken. And he has got a very fervent group of followers. I don’t think it’s a very large group but certainly a very dedicated group of followers.
For how long should Americans be prepared to have sizeable forces in Iraq?
For quite a period of time, but I don’t think that will affect American support for the war. American casualties will be the key. We’ve had troops in Bosnia for a long time. We’ve had troops in South Korea, Japan, etc. Americans are perfectly satisfied with that because we aren’t losing Americans in those places. If we can get the casualty rate down and the Iraqi military taking on more and more of the responsibilities, then Americans will be at least accepting of an American presence in Iraq for a long time, but that is definitely in a support and training role over time.
Moving next to Iran, this week’s NIE findings suggest that there is, in fact, a ‘rational actor’ in Tehran that can be influenced by sanctions and international pressure. Do you agree and should we make a diplomatic effort along the lines of North Korea with Iran?
We should continue to have communications with the Iranians. There’s many capabilities for doing so, including the meetings in Iraq, [in which] the Iranian ambassador was there and our ambassador was there. I do not wish to legitimize any further or enhance the credibility of a nation that is still dedicated to the extinction of the state of Israel, that is still supporting terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas, and a country that is exporting the most lethal explosive devices into Iraq, killing young Americans. If there is establishment of negotiations that have a positive outcome, then obviously none of us would object to such a thing but I don’t want to give the president of Iran a forum to declare his rather radically extreme views particularly as regards to terrorism and the state of Israel is concerned.
So, the policy that is under way right now, you would basically stay the course at this point, the way it is moving on sanctions and limited engagement?
The reality is that you are going to see much less enthusiasm from our European friends for sanctions. It’s just a reality. They’ve already said it. That’s not conjecture on my part. I am concerned about the fact that you can enrich [nuclear] material and you can weaponize. Those are the two components of nuclear weapons. It doesn’t take nearly as long to weaponize as it does to enrich.
On Iran: “I am concerned about the fact that you can enrich [nuclear] material and you can weaponize. Those are the two components of nuclear weapons. It doesn’t take nearly as long to weaponize as it does to enrich.”
I want to look under the hood of this new model. I want to see what intelligence indicates what changes had taken place in Iran and I want to know what is happening on the enrichment side [in which enriched uranium can be easily converted to weapons-grade material] to construct a nuclear weapon. I just don’t know enough about it, but I continue to be concerned about Iran’s overall motives and ambitions.
Barring a major international crisis with Iran or someplace else in the neighborhood, the issue of the U.S. economy is emerging as a top electoral issue if not the top one. Voters are frustrated over immigration, free trade agreements, the loss of entitlements. How do you stay as a champion of trade and globalization in such a climate?
I make sure that we have a Displaced Worker Program that is viable and will address the reeducation and retraining needs of displaced workers. We continue to create jobs, at a much slower pace, but the fact is that we are not taking care of those workers who have been displaced. We need to go to the community colleges to design education and training programs for displaced workers and we even need to compensate displaced workers for a dramatic drop in income as they have to change jobs. We have federal programs for displaced workers; none of them work.
The 110th Congress is ending its first year at real loggerheads between the parties and between Congress and the president over a long list of issues, especially foreign policy issues—the Iraq war funding, energy, farm bills. Does this speak to a deep divide in the country that will pose challenges for the next president?
There is a deep divide in the country. I know how the system works. Harry Reid and I came to the House together in 1983. I know how to work with these people, I’ve worked with all of them on various issues, and I can sit down and negotiate with them and ask the American people to negotiate with me. Politicians crave approval. If we can get something done, I will give them all the credit. And I will sit down with them to do the hard things and there is ample precedent for that. And they know that the American people highly disapprove of Congress and the way we do business. I’ll show them the way to regain the approval of the American people, at least to some degree.
The issue that seemed to dominate the last couple of Republican debates is immigration. Republicans seem to be hammering each other on it. Does the failure of the president to achieve comprehensive immigration reform, which you supported this past summer, does that mean that this issue is just not resolvable in the near future whether by a Republican or Democrat?
On immigration: “It’s very unfortunate, it’s very sad, the level of dialogue is not helpful to coming together as a nation. These are God’s children. And I hope we could address this issue in terms of national security but also in a humane and compassionate fashion.”
It’s going to be at least 2009. We got the message, those of us who favored securing the borders and a temporary worker program and an approach to the twelve million people who are here illegally. The American people want the borders secured first and as president I will do that. You still need a temporary worker program, with biometric tamper-proof documents and we still need to address the issue of the twelve million people. And not give them any advantage over people, and make them get in line behind the people who have come here legally. It’s very unfortunate, it’s very sad, the level of dialogue is not helpful to coming together as a nation. These are God’s children. And I hope we could address this issue in terms of national security but also in a humane and compassionate fashion.
The country still by all appearances remains a magnet for workers both on the high-educated end and the low-skilled end, but inside the country there’s this frustration and fear. The next president should have to have a sort of calming influence.
One of the ways you do that is convince people that you will have secure borders before you move on to other issues. Look, I got the lesson from this last debate. People don’t trust or believe in us. So when we said we’d secure the borders along with the other components, they didn’t believe us. In 1986, we said we’d secure the borders and gave amnesty to a couple million people and we ended up where we are now. So you’ve got to secure the borders and convince people that you’re now prepared to move on to other issues, and hope that we understand that only solving all aspects of the problem will finally resolve it. And the result, because of the federal failure, as we know, is a patchwork quilt of different laws and sanctuaries and ordinances, which has confused the issue even further.
Securing the borders means different things to different candidates. Is what you are talking about a kind of high-tech program, a combination of walls, high tech, and better policing?
A combination. In the urban-populated areas you need walls, in the trackless desert areas the best and most effective way is to use sensors, vehicle barriers, cameras, a number of other high-tech ways. Because if you’re a border patrol, it’s tough out there in the desert, in the middle of the summer in 120-degree heat. So, you want to use as much high tech as possible. But in the populated areas you are going to have to use walls and man walls.