Senator John McCain joined me this morning:
HH: I begin this hour with United States Senator John McCain. Senator McCain, Happy New Year to you, it’s great to have you on in 2017.
JM: Thank you, Hugh, it’s great to be back with you, and congratulations on your new book. And it’s a lot of the thinking, frankly, one of the reasons why I love it, it’s a lot of the thinking that I’ve been doing in a white paper that we’ve just put out. But it places the proper emphasis, in my view, on the compelling need to rebuild our military. We have not faced a crisis like this since 1980 when, ’81, January of 1981 when Ronald Reagan came to the presidency. So it’s great to be back to you, and thanks for your thoughtful work.
HH: Thank you. The Fourth Way is about the Defense rebuild, and that’s what I want to talk to you about.
HH: Your 21 page Senate Armed Services Committee plan. But before we do that, I’ve got to remark on this. Eight years ago, President Obama beat you. But you’re still there, and you have a unique vantage point. Come Friday afternoon, you’re still guiding America’s foreign policy, military policy, in part. He will be retired. Would you assess his presidency on America’s position in the world, Senator McCain?
JM: I think, Hugh, if you take a look at a map, particularly the Middle East, but also Asia-Pacific region, you’ll see a dramatic deterioration of America’s strength, leadership, prestige, and capabilities in the world. It’s the most rapid decline that I think we’ve seen since the era of Jimmy Carter, and even those days pale in comparison. Look at what, you know, there’s certain events and incidents that kind of illustrate the situation. The Russians, who were non-existent in the Middle East five years ago are now inviting the United States to a conference to try to bring peace to Syria. In other words, they’re, they, Bashar Assad and the Iranians and the Turks are now in the ascendant position where the United States is on the outside looking in, and is getting invited to a peace talk over Syria after the Russians, who are inviting them, have committed genocide, dropping precision weapons on hospitals in Aleppo, helping Bashar Assad with his barrel bombs, which slaughtered at least 400,000 people and driven 6 million into refugee status. I can, which is putting enormous strains on Europe. We could go on and on. Look at what the Chinese are doing. All around the world, there is the perception of American weakness and a lack of American leadership.
HH: It’s truly catastrophic. Since you brought it up, you’ve stated in the past you’ve got some concerns about Rex Tillerson’s ties with Russia, and I know you’ve been asking a lot of questions of him and President Trump, and about the policy. Does it make you any more comfortable with the Tillerson nomination as Secretary of State knowing that someone like Rick Grenell, he’s a very vocal critic of Russia, is considered the likely pick for Ambassador NATO? Does that make you feel better about this?
JM: It does, and Hugh, you and I in some ways are philosophically aligned in that we believe in the unique aspect of the United States of America.
JM: And that’s a moral leadership. I’m old enough to remember very well after the then-Soviet Union collapse the thousands and thousands of people who lived behind the Iron Curtain that said I listened to the Voice of America. I listened to Radio Free Europe. It kept our hope alive. It kept us, in other words, there’s a moral dimension to America’s leadership in the world, and the reason why we are the unique nation, the reason why the 20th Century was called the American century, is because despite all our mistakes and errors and sins of commission and omission, we are the example. We’re the beacon. And when it just gets down to oil deals or who’s going to make money, and who isn’t, and taking friendship awards from a butcher like a KGB colonel like Vladimir Putin does disturb me. Now I’ve had several conversations with Mr. Tillerson, and I have a better idea, I think, of his outlook on his role as Secretary of State, and I’ve had a number of my questions answered. But I agree with you. We need a good, strong second in command there, and I think that would be a good one, the one we were just talking about.
HH: Grenell’s a great guy. If he goes to NATO, I’m very, very happy to have a good, solid, clear-eyed critic of Russia at NATO. Senator, let’s go to this report. It’s a big number.
JM: Before we do that, can we just mention on the Chelsea Manning issue…
JM: It’s just outrageous. This individual put the lives of people who were helping us in danger. There was lists of names of people who were working for the United States of America and put their lives in danger. And the reports that I have is that some of those people were killed. This is just, this is kind of a metaphor, again, a metaphor for the entire Obama administration as far as its conduct of foreign policy is concerned. And speaking as a person who cares about those who assist the United States of America, as so many did, this sends the wrong signal, my friend.
HH: Oh, it’s feckless, and I talked to one of my colleagues from the Reagan White House Counsel’s office last night. It is not consistent with how the pardon power has been used historically. It is so wildly outside of the bounds of what presidents do that we don’t have, do you have any idea what, what is he doing with this?
JM: I don’t know, but I know we’ve got a lot of things to talk about, but I’ve been asking him for eight years, and Harry Reid joined me, to pardon a guy named Jack Johnson. I’m a big boxing fan. I was a mediocre boxer, and a guy named Jack Johnson was the first African-American heavyweight champion of the world, lived a flamboyant lifestyle, was sentenced to prison on a clearly racist environment in those days. And President Obama refuses to pardon him posthumously.
HH: I don’t get it. All right, let’s get to the Defense buildup.
HH: Because this is so important. And when I saw it come out and I saw a carrier mix, you put some very innovative stuff into this. My friend, Robert O’Brien, has written a piece about it already. Everyone’s got to read this. Do you have support to get this passed? And do you think President-Elect Trump buys into your plan to get to 355 ships, which is the key?
JM: I think General Mattis is very, very strongly in favor, but the question is that on all of these issues, as you know, is who does the President listen to? What’s his background and knowledge of the issue that you just described and many others that we try to address, challenges we try to address in the white paper? But I do know that Mattis, I know Kelly, I believe General Flynn, who I have had excellent conversations with all are solidly behind this proposal. One of our big problems, my friend, right now as you know is the members of the United States Senate who are Republicans who continue to support sequestration, which is the mindless meat axe approach which has put our military in a state of readiness that is, as I mentioned, reminiscent of 1981.
HH: But we have enough Democratic friends, do we not, Joe Manchin and other responsible Senators to remove that? It’s got to happen. There are helicopter, Marine helicopter pilots who are flying three hours a month. And then we ask them to go out and land on small surface ships in the middle of a cresting ocean. It’s crazy what we’re doing to our military, Senator.
JM: They’re flying less hours than Chinese and Russian pilots are flying per month, which people are just staggered to hear. As you know, and maybe many of our listeners do, the first thing when you cut the budget of the military that suffers is readiness and training, because that’s the easiest. Just cancel the next exercise that is planned, and then you save some money. So what has happened is our readiness and our operational capability and our maintenance. We had a squadron of B-2’s come back from Europe that, excuse me, from the Middle East, that had something like seven out of 20 of their aircraft that were flying. I mean, it’s, we’ve really let this situation of our readiness and our maintenance and our operational capabilities deteriorate rather dramatically, and we’re asking more of them when you look at the tempo of operations that are, we’re conducting in Syria.
HH: Well, the white paper is a great start. We do need a deputy at Defense. Have you talked with General Mattis and the President-Elect about getting someone like Jim Talent or someone who can move levers over there quickly, because we need a deputy?
JM: We do, and we need a person who knows how, what makes the trains run on time, and that is a guy like Rick Grenell, who you mentioned. It’s a guy like Jim Talent. It’s a number of other people who have had the experience of running things, and that frees up General Mattis to address the issues that you and I are talking about. And by the way, I’m, there’s nobody I’ve ever met in my life who is the perfect professional military person, though I’ve met a lot that I admire enormously. But I put General Mattis in the top category, don’t you?
HH: Yes, I do, and it’s very reassuring, terrifically reassuring. Senator McCain, come back early and often in 2017, great start on the 21 page paper at the Senate Armed Services Committee. People go read his strategic blueprint for rebuilding our military, put together by Senator McCain and his team. It is a great place to begin.
End of interview.