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John McCain on Iraq, Iran and the Middle East from Amman, Jordan

Monday, March 17, 2008
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HH: Senator McCain, welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show, thanks for joining us.

JM: Thank you, Hugh. I’m calling you from Amman, Jordan. We just came out of Iraq, where I have some very good news to report on the progress that’s being made there. Although al Qaeda is still not defeated, they’re on the run, but we’re here in Jordan, and then going on to Israel the day after tomorrow.

HH: Let’s talk about that, Senator. Has the surge succeeded? Has it met the metrics you expected for it?

JM: Frankly, it has exceeded my expectations, and most people that knew how difficult this challenge was. There’s…Anbar Province is very quiet. We were able to walk downtown in a marketplace today with security around us, but the fact is the shops are open, and people are leading pretty normal lives. There’s a big fight raging in Mosul, where al Qaeda is still trying to hold out. They have a saying in Iraq that al Qaeda can’t succeed without winning in Baghdad, and they can’t survive without winning Mosul. And General Petraeus has our people up there, but most importantly, the Iraqi Army is taking the brunt of the offensive, mainly with our support and participation, instead of us being out front. You see what I mean, Hugh, which is a great…

HH: Yup.

JM: …great indicator that the surge, in all its aspects, which was having the Iraqi military trained up and taking on more and more responsibilities, is also happening.

HH: Now you’ve been out with the troops, Senator McCain. There’s some reports here, we always here is, they’re worn down, the equipment’s not up to snuff. How’s the morale of the American military guy over there right now?

JM: Well, I was with the 3rd Infantry Division, and their reenlistment quota has been reached in the month of April for the entire year. Look, Hugh, it’s tough, it’s hard, it’s hardest on the families, as you well know, back in places like Fort Hood and Fort Bragg and Camp Pendleton, and all the places where these brave Americans are based. And the Guard is doing more things that they ever did before, but their morale is good, because they know they’re succeeding, and they know they’re carrying out their mission. And it’s very hard. It’s very, very hard. As you know, as I mentioned to you, al Qaeda is not defeated. We saw a spike up this week as twelve brave Americans were sacrificed. But overall, their morale is good, their reenlistment is good, their leadership is the best I have ever seen in observing the military for many years. And I think that General Petraeus may go down in history as one of the great generals that this nation has ever been blessed with. So it’s long and hard and tough, but it has succeeded beyond my expectations.

HH: You mentioned General Petraeus. A lot of people call him our Grant at this time. Did he indicate whether he wanted to stay as the head of the Coalition, or move to the NATO job or the Centcom job, Senator McCain?

JM: I think he, like all good soldiers, is ready to do what the country asks of him. There is going to be a vacancy there, as you know, and so I think that’s got to be sorted out. My personal view is I’d like to see him stay for some more months, and then maybe move on to either the Central Command job or the NATO job. But as you know, I don’t get into a lot of this personnel stuff, except to say that I think that wherever he thinks he can serve the nation best. But I think there’s active discussions going on about that. And by the way, I respect Admiral Fallon, and I appreciate his many years of service to the country.

HH: Senator McCain, what is it about General Petraeus’ leadership that has contributed to this turnaround so much, that’s so distinctive?

JM: Hugh, last 4th of July, Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham and I, and by the way, they’re with me now, my dear friends, were in Baghdad where 688 brave, young Americans on the 4th of July reenlisted when they could have gone home and finished their service, and reenlisted to stay and fight in Iraq. I was moved by the entire experience, but I was most impressed at first of all, the respect that they have for General Petraeus, but the outright affection that the hold for him is the kind that you see very rarely in history, that in a lot of people will respect their leaders, but to inspire their affection is remarkable. And I’ve never seen anything quite like it. And look, I’ve known a lot of very fine men, and I’m not saying he’s the finest, but I will say that he inspires a degree of affection that along with that respect, is just remarkable.

HH: Now last summer, Senator McCain, General Odierno reported that the Iranian National Guard’s Quds force was active in Iraq, and plotting harm and doing harm to Americans. Is it still going on?

JM: It’s better. The army, the Iraqi Army is better. The police are better. I keep emphasizing this is a very long, hard pull. This country never knew democracy, it never knew one of our fundamentals in the military, and that’s the incredibly important role that the non-commissioned officers, the sergeants and the chief petty officers play. And there is still Shiite influence in some of the police and others, but it’s improved dramatically. And so I would say as compared with a year ago, it’s night and day. But are there still problems? One of the big problems is in Anbar Province and other provinces. You know, the Sunni boycotted the last elections, so people were put in office as governors and in their parliament that weren’t representative of the Sunni people. And we had hoped that they would pass a law concerning provincial elections. To make a long story short, they haven’t done it, we need to do it, we need to have elections in those provinces, particularly that are Sunni-dominated, so they can feel that they’re part of the whole process. But if there are…the corruption is still there, but it’s much less than it was. Ethnic violence has gone down dramatically. Remember, in fact, it’s my understanding, I just arrived, but the Democrats are now still saying that this ethnic civil war is going on. It’s not. It’s not. There’s still ethnic tensions, there’s still ethnic problems, but it’s not nearly what it is. Ethnic violence is down by some 90% over a year or so ago, so…

HH: Now Senator, yesterday in Iran, President Ahmadinejad’s parliamentary party won. His hand is strengthened.

JM: Yeah.

HH: What’s the concern you have about Iran, and about, in particular, Ahmadinejad? Some people want to meet with him. He’s not on your agenda this trip.

JM: (laughing) The day I meet with the president of Iran will be the day after he announces his country no longer is dedicated to the extinction of the state of Israel, the day after they stop exporting these most lethal explosives into Iraq. Just yesterday, up in the Mosul area, they uncovered a cache of weapons, and a lot of it was these Iranian copper, high…most lethal explosives. As you know, there are al Qaeda operatives that are taken back into Iran, given training as leaders, and they’re moving back into Iraq. I think Americans should be very angry when we know that Iran is exporting weapons into Iraq that kill Americans. And so all I can say is that I think they continue to be a threat. I think one of the big mistakes that’s made recently was this NIE, which sort of relieved pressure, certainly as far as the Europeans were concerned, on Iran as far as sanctions are concerned. And so I think that Iran maintains its ambitions in the region. I think that if we leave Iraq, the Iranians will then extend that influence, along with many other terrible consequences that would take place. And I worry very much, I worry very much about the Iranian influence in the region, which I don’t see has been diminished very much recently. In fact, I think in some ways, they are more adventuresome.

HH: Last question, Senator McCain. I know you’re on a tight schedule. If Iran continues in its nuclear ambitions, and to the satisfaction of either President Bush or his successor, they’re on the bring of acquiring nuclear weapons, you’re going to be sitting with the Israelis shortly, all of them across the spectrum. What ought to be the reaction of the West to the imminent acquisition of a nuclear weapon capability in Iran? Should we strike them?

JM: Hugh, I obviously don’t want to rattle a saber, because I think there’s a lot of things we could do, including forming a league of democracies. Even the French president, Sarkozy, likes the idea to impose more meaningful sanctions. There’s many things that have to be pursued, and that can be effective. But I agree with the President of the United States that at the end of the day, Iran cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons. So I don’t want to elaborate that much more, but a country that is dedicated to the extinction of its neighbor, or a country in the region, i.e. Israel, and acquires the capability to do so, this certainly poses a threat that has to be addressed. And I don’t…again, I believe we can…many ways to be effective, and the military option is certainly the last option that anyone, any reasonable president would want to pursue. But at the end of the day, I don’t think that we can say that it’s okay if Iran acquires a nuclear weapon, not only because of the threat of Israel, but every other nation in the region, as you know, will then acquire nuclear weapons. And the situation in the region does not lend itself to stability, as you well know.

HH: Senator John McCain, thanks for your time, safe…

JM: Hugh, could I say thanks very much for having me on your program, thanks for the great work you do, and I look forward to our discussions in the future.

HH: Thank you, Senator. I look forward to them, too. Safe travel and a productive trip.

JM: Thank you, Hugh. Bye bye.

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