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McCain blasts Europe's approach to Ukraine conflict 'a joke'

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McCain blasts Europe's approach to Ukraine conflict 'a joke'

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Maverick is often the term used to describe American Senator John McCain, the famously straight- talking, no-nonsense politician who ran for the US Presidency in 2008, losing out to Barack Obama. Today he is still a political force to be reckoned with. Global Conversation presenter Isabelle Kumar, spoke to him at the Halifax International Security Forum in Novia Scotia, Canada.



Who is John McCain?

  • John McCain followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather entering the US military.
  • He served in the Vietnam War and was held prisoner from 1967 – 1973 during which time he was brutally tortured.
  • After his release he went into politics and served as Republican Congressman and Senator for the state of Arizona.
  • In 2008 he was nominated by the Republican Party to stand against Barack Obama and lost the election.
  • Following the Republican’s recent midterm success he is expected to be appointed to the key defence policy post of Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

IK
In our part of the world you are still very much remembered for your 2008 presidential bid, six years later would you say that experience has been a hindrance or a help?

JMC
I think it was helpful that I ran for president of the United States, but I also have to say that after that election night I certainly didn’t think that the world would look like it does today. There’s been a drastic deterioration of the security situation and certainly a profound diminution of American influence.

IK
We’ve asked our online audience to send in questions and one recurrent question is will you be standing again (for president)?

JMC
No

IK
Absolutely not?

JMC
No, I think twice is enough of a lesson from the voters

IK
Within the Republican Party there aren’t very many strong frontrunners, but if you were to name three contenders, who you would throw your weight behind, who would they be?

JMC
I’m not going to throw my weight behind anyone until I see what kind of campaign they’re going to run, and all that, but clearly former Florida governor Jeb Bush is a very possible candidate. My dear friend Lyndsey Graham is also one of the most knowledgeable people on national security issues in America. Marco Rubio of Florida is a very impressive rising star.

IK
So, what do you think are the big issues this election is going to be fought on?

JMC
If it was six months ago we’d be talking about the economy, we’d be talking about energy – and we still are, off course – we’d be talking about healthcare. But now the issue of national security and foreign policy has gone up dramatically. I think this ISIS, Muslim extremist, Islamic extremist movement is going to be with us for a long time so I think national security, foreign policy is going to be one of the two or three major issues in this upcoming presidential campaign.

IK
And on a lighter note we’ve received this question from Dom Lundo who asks: “Do you still dream of the White House?”

JMC
Do I still dream? No, no I don’t dream of the White House. The best cure for defeat is to get busy, and I went right back to the senate and got as busy as I possibly could. To have the honour of the nomination of party for president was something, frankly, when I graduated fifth from the bottom of my class at the naval academy, that was certainly not anticipated by my company officer.

IK
And in terms of your choice of running mate, obviously there was some controversy over that. Do you stick by your choice of having Sarah Palin as your running mate.

JMC
She energised our, she energised our base, she move us up in the polls. She was fiercely attacked by the liberal left and that’s the way things are in American politics. But, still, the attacks on her were probably the most unfair thing I’ve seen in America politics.

IK
The situation in Washington is vitriolic, toxic, to say the least, especially now that it’s been exacerbated by President Barack Obama’s decision on reform of immigration. How bad is the situation going to get in Washington?

JMC
I think it’s bad. But I also know that Republicans understand that we can’t get mired in a tit-for-tat with President Obama. We have now majorities in both houses. We have to show the American people we can govern. But we can’t get mired down in just being the ‘party of no’. The American people want the ‘party of yes.’

IK
We’ve received this question from Abel Alemeke who said: “Under what circumstances would you support a shut-down?”

JMC
No circumstances. There are no circumstances that I can see that would justify another shut-down of the government, which I opposed at the time, when we did it before.

IK
There are members of your party who are advocating it…

JMC
But I don’t think they’re in the majority. Our Republican leadership said there won’t be a shutdown. Last time we had a shutdown 600,000 tourists, many of them European, were not allowed to visit our national parks and the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

IK
The result of these midterm elections does mean that you’re very, very likely to become the next Army Services Committee Chairman. You’re going to have a key foreign policy role, but what are your foreign policy priorities? What are your defence priorities?

JMC
First of all we have to, in my view, repeal, this so-called sequestration, which are these automatic cuts in defence spending as well as other spending. We’re decimating our military, and I get that from all our military leaders, it’s not just my personal opinion. The second thing we have to do is do everything we can to restore American leadership – that means to lead. In other words we have to have a robust policy to give the lesson, one, to Vladimir Putin that he can’t just move across Europe. And the second is that we have to defeat ISIS, the president says we have to defeat ISIS but he has no strategy to get there. So we will be working very hard to force a strategy to degrade and eventually defeat ISIS.

IK
Well, we’re going to talk about all those issues but what do you say about your detractors who describe you as a hawk? I think you were recently described by former President Jimmy Carter as a warmonger. What do you say to that?

JMC
I say to that ‘tell me when I’ve been wrong’. I say to those people, they’ve been wrong every time…

IK (interrupts)
You supported the Iraq war.

JMC
I said that if we didn’t leave a residual force behind in Iraq we would have this failure. I said that if we didn’t stand up to Vladimir Putin and help the Ukrainians that he would move further south and consolidate his control over eastern Ukraine. Every step of the way I’ve been right and they’ve been wrong.

IK (interrupts)
The Iraq war in 2003, that was…

JMC (interrupts)
The Iraq war vote in two thousand… when we had that vote the Secretary of State of the United States of America went to the United Nations Security Council and to the American Congress and said Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, so I believed the information I was given. More importantly, I said when President Bush was president that he had to fire his Secretary of Defence, that the strategy was failing, that we had to have the surge. We had the surge and the situation was stabilised and according to former Secretaries of Defence Panetta and Gates, as well as Ryan Crockartt we could have had a residual force left behind. The President wanted out, that was their view…

IK (interrupts)
But the Iraqis, the Iraqi government didn’t want…

JMC (interrupts)
The Iraqis wanted us. I was face-to-face with Maliki in his office and he said ‘yes, we will keep a residual force behind.’ How many? We wouldn’t even tell him how many and what the mission was. They wanted out. Again, you can take somebody’s word if you want to, but the most credible people in America I know – Ryan Crockartt, Leon Panetta and Bob Gates – all three of them said we could have left a residual force behind, we could have.

Now, if you don’t want to believe them that’s entirely up to you. But we didn’t. And so I predicted what would happen. And I’m predicting now, if we don’t leave a residual force in Afghanistan we’re going to see the same ending that we’re seeing now. And now we have ISIS controlling the largest amount of territory of any terrorist group in history, the richest, most powerful, and we do not have a strategy.

IK
So you’re strategy would be boots on the ground and the United States leading a military intervention.

JMC
No. Weapons directly to the Pershmerga. A no-fly zone in Syria. A robust arming and equipping of the Free Syrian Army. More forward air controllers on the ground, special forces and others in Iraq in order to achieve that goal, and a dramatically increased air campaign. We have had very few air attacks.

Ik
There is obviously a military side to this but there is also an idealogical one. You’re fighting an idealogical battle here and Islamic State, ISIL, is more and more popular. If there were a military campaign this group would gain in force. How do you beat that ideology?

JMC
Well, the way we had them beat when the surge had succeeded, when we stabilised the situation. There was no ISIS at that time. There were remnants of al Qaeda… and we predicted again at the time, if we pulled everybody out, we saw ISIS growing. It was obvious. It may have surprised the President, it may have surprised a lot of people, but we predicted it. We saw it growing and we said it’s going to happen.

So they have to be defeated militarily and at the same time we have to do all the other things; the economic, the political, the idealogical work that goes into a permanent response. First you have to beat them militarily.

Ik
Young men and women will therefore will stop going over to these countries to fight a jihad?

JMC
If they’re sure they’re going to die there. Absolutely. If they are sure they are going to die there they will stop going. And the reason why they’re attracting them now is because they are winning. That’s the reason why they are succeeding.

IK
We talked about Ukraine briefly and let’s go back to that issue. You mentioned the Ukrainian army should be supplied with weaponry. Is that not very risky? We don’t know what Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions are. That could be a declaration of all-out war.

JMC
What is Vladimir Putin doing now? They have taken Crimea, they have solidified their positions in eastern Ukraine, they have now just in the last week or two, moved more tanks and equipment into Ukraine. They have slaughtered over 4,000 Ukrainian soldiers. Are you worried about provoking Vladimir Putin? Are you crazy? Look what he’s doing? He is winning. He is, for the first time since the end of WWII a country is being dismembered in Europe and we won’t give them weapons to defend themselves. My, my! Listen those 300,000 people I saw in Maidan in sub-freezing weather, they don’t want to be part of Russia, they don’t want to see their country dismembered as is happening today and they deserve our help, by providing them with weapons. I mean, to think that we shouldn’t, and worry about provoking Vladimir Putin….

IK interrupts
You wouldn’t be concerned about having an all-out war with Russia?

JMC
There would never be an all-out war with Russia, that I know of. I know of no scenario where that would happen. But wouldn’t it be nice if these people who are having their homeland invaded to have some weapons with which to defend themselves. That is a tradition of the United States of America, to help people who are fighting against invasion and aggression. Now, it may not be yours, but it certainly is a tradition in the United States of America.

IK
We received this question from Bobby Laroche Nkabyo and he asks: “Politics aside, what do you think personally of President Vladimir Putin?”

JMC
I think he is what he is. He’s an old KGB apparatchik who wants to restore the Russian Empire and who uses the language New Russia. There’s no doubt what he is. By the way, I’ve been sanctioned by him, I’m proud of that. So that’s what he is. Why would you think he’s anything more complicated?

Ik
George W. Bush famously said that he looked into the soul of Vladimir Putin and I’ll quote him here: ‘I looked the man in the eye and found him to be trustworthy and straightforward’.

JMC
And you know what I said at the time? I looked into his eyes and saw three letters. A ‘K’ a ‘G’ and a ‘B’.

IK
What are your thoughts on sanctions and do you think the EU is…

JMC
I think sanctions are good. I think when I’m sitting in Vladimir Putin’s shoes and I see the penalty I’ve had to pay now that I’ve got Crimea, now that I’ve got eastern Ukraine and I have now intimidated some of the other eastern European countries, that they are, sort of, coming our way i.e. Hungary. I would think I’m doing pretty well if I am Vladimir Putin. Now, the price of oil is the biggest problem that Vladimir Putin has, but that doesn’t have anything to do with sanctions. The sanctions have been minimal. Europeans aren’t going to do anything really effective as long as they are dependent on Russian energy.

IK
You’ve just described this, in terms of sanctions, as a joke. Do you maintain that?

JMC
Well, what… yes! I maintain it. Someone would have to tell me what they’ve done.

Ik
What would you like them to do? What would your message be to EU leaders?

JMC
I would like to see the Europeans, particularly through NATO, provide the Ukrainians with weapons with which to defend themselves from Russian aggression. He’s now got control of eastern Ukraine. In recent days he’s moved more tanks and equipment into Ukraine and he’s going to take Mariopul, so he has a land bridge to Crimea. Then he will be contemplating what kind of price he has to pay to move over to Moldova. That’s the old Cold War type.

IK (interupts)
So you think his endgame is basically re-establishing a power base across former eastern bloc countries?

JMC
Restore the Russian empire. In his view it’s not a bloc, it’s the Russian empire. Nova Russia – that’s what he keeps saying. Why would we not believe him?

Ik
OK. We’re going to skip quickly to some of the other hotspots in the world. We’ll touch upon the Palestinian issue. Now, administration after administration has tried to resolved the peace process there, why does it seem to be always out of reach?

JMC
I think some of the… there’s a whole variety of reasons why and part of it is that to some degree events have overtaken this Palestinian/Israeli issue. When we look at ISIS, when we look at Muslim extremism, when we look at those influences, which also influences the Palestinians, I think part of the problem is that Hamas is still there in Gaza and they are committed to the destruction of Israel and from time to time we see outbreaks of violence – and thank God for Iron Dome, otherwise we would have seen carnage in Israel – and I think that obviously both sides deserve responsibility. But there’s no reason for us not to keep trying.

Ik
Palestinian statehood – some of the European countries are recognising Palestine. What’s your take on that?

JMC
Certainly, it will never be United States policy.

IK
We’ll very briefly touch on Iran before we wind down this interview. We received this question from Emir Abbas and he asks – and obviously these are his words – ‘are US politicians really aware of the pressure they are putting on the Iranian people? I’d be grateful if you’d give me a real and truthful answer.’

JMC
Well, I usually try to give a truthful answer. The Iranians have a long record of cheating, of concealing their nuclear capabilities. They continue to develop the warhead and the missiles to deliver nuclear weapons. We’re on the verge of – if the administration has its way – a very bad deal. Meanwhile Iran is destabilising Yemen, they are pouring weapons and have motivated Hezbollah, ordered Hezbollah into Syria to slaughter Syrians. They are responsible for attacks on United States facilities going all the way back to the USS Cole and they are attempting to exert additional influence in the region in places like Bahrain and others. Our goal should not be to delay their capability, it should be to prevent acquisition of nuclear weapons or development of nuclear weapons. And already, the outlines I see, we believe, are a very bad deal.

IK
And so the world of politics is obviously one where you need a lot of stamina. You were a prisoner of war for five and a half years in Vietnam. Does that experience still serve you? Do you recall that experience when you’re facing hard days in the Senate?

JMC
I recall it because I recall the memories of… I was able to observe a thousand acts of courage and kindness that existed between myself and my fellow prisoners. I look back at it as one of the greatest experiences of my life because those that I know best and love most are those that I had the opportunity or misfortune of serving with in very difficult conditions. I was a professional military man and that’s one of the risks you take when you serve your country in the military.

Ik
We’re going to end on a question from one of the members of our social media and it’s a philosophical question… and it’s: “Does the American Dream still exist in 2014 and how would you define it?”

JMC
I think the American Dream exists and I am – long range – very confident that we are going to be energy independent, manufacturing jobs are coming back, our economy is recovering. There is a great deal of patriotism and a very wonderful young generation of Americans that are taking leadership roles in America. So overall I am optimistic about the United States and our role in the world. At the moment I’m deeply, deeply concerned about the slaughter of 200,000 Syrians while we watch.

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