Q&A with U.S. Senator John McCain

McCain: Support anti-Gadhafi Libyan rebels, de-legitimize Syria’s Assad.

The ranking Republican on the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee says that the Arab uprisings are “seminal, seismic events that can transform the entire globe.” The senator from Arizona, who ran unsuccessfully for president against Barack Obama in 2008, surveyed changes in the Middle East with the Cairo Review in Cairo on April 24 just after meeting with Libyan rebels in Benghazi.

CAIRO REVIEW: What should the U.S. be doing in Libya?

SENATOR MCCAIN: I think we should have the United States resume its leadership of NATO. There are only six of the 28 nations of NATO that are actively engaged. I say that because the United States has the unique air assets. Our allies are wonderful and I appreciate the British and the French, but only the United States has the air capability to really do the job along with them. The second thing I think we should do is recognize the Transitional National Council as the legitimate voice of the Libyan people. Certainly Gadhafi has no legitimacy. I met with these people. A finance minister, an economics professor at the University of Washington. Another member of the council was in Gadhafi’s prison for 31 years. They are a broad cross section of people who have one thing in common, and that is they want democracy and freedom and they hate Gadhafi. One of the reasons why we should recognize them is so it would free up Gadhafi’s frozen assets. Because they need money badly. We need to provide their military with communications equipment, with training, with seeing the weapons get into the country. They are badly outgunned. One of the things finally among others is to take out Gadhafi’s television. These people when they see him on television–I had four or five people tell me– they are scared. So let’s take him off television.

CAIRO REVIEW: What about taking him out, period?

SENATOR MCCAIN: I think we should do that. But I think that rather than hope to get lucky and take him out in an air strike, which is a lot harder than people think, I think if we had the forces properly trained and equipped, plus robust air activity, and I mean robust–by the way, I’m pleased the Predator is now in the fight–then I think he’ll go.

CAIRO REVIEW:  Why not take him out, which is what you seem to be saying?

SENATOR MCCAIN: Look, I’m not against that. But alot of people think it’s easy. It’s not. To rely on just getting lucky and taking him and his people out isn’t a strategy. It’s kind of a hope.  Like hoping he’ll be taken down from within. I don’t mind going after Gadhafi but what I really think is the way to succeed is have the liberation forces succeed. If you remember we went into Panama years ago. [Panamanian dictator Manuel] Noriega was somewhere in Panama, a teeny country, I think it took us three weeks to find the guy. We’ve never found [indicted Serbian war criminal Ratko] Mladic. Osama bin Laden. So when you say to do these things, it never turns out to be as simple as you think.

CAIRO REVIEW: What is your critique of President Obama’s approach to Libya?

SENATOR MCCAIN:  First, I would never have handed it over to, quote, NATO. Right now it is a conflict by committee without U.S. leadership. The British and the French are running short of weapons. The United States is NATO, first of all. To say hand it over to NATO, when the U.S. is a good part of it, is sophistry. Second, of course I would recognize this Transitional National Council. I would recognize them as the legitimate voice of the Libyan people, like the French and the Italians have done. Third of all, as we did in the Afghanistan conflict with Russia, we should facilitate weapons and training into the liberation forces. I want to emphasize, American troops on the ground would be counterproductive and harmful to the cause, so I do not support that.

CAIRO REVIEW: Why?

SENATOR MCCAIN: I think it would be viewed in many parts of Libya as another American invasion. In fact, I’m sure it would be. I’ve talked to the leaders in Benghazi, they don’t want American troops on the ground. It’s out of the question in my view.

CAIRO REVIEW: You seem confident if your advice were taken, Gadhafi would go.

SENATOR MCCAIN: A month and a half ago, if we had declared a no fly zone when the liberation forces were on their way to Tripoli, he would be gone now. Instead we had to wait to get the endorsement of NATO, slash, the UN security council. Here’s the contradiction. The president of the United States says it’s our policy that Gadhafi has to go. But then in the same breath says, but it would be a mistake to use force in order to achieve that goal. Why is he contradicting himself in the same sentence? Because he feels we have to get the endorsement of NATO and the UN security council, which we are aware is only allowing their resolutions for humanitarian action. This is why only 21 percent of the American people believe that the president has a clear policy about Libya.

CAIRO REVIEW:  What specific use of force do you advocate?

SENATOR MCCAIN:  Obviously to get our AC-130s back in there, the A-10s. The Predator is a good move, I applaud the president’s action there. Right now, Gadhafi is a third rate military power. But he does have the equipment and the armor that they are outgunning the liberation forces. They are outgunned. As President Clinton said, it’s not a fair fight. Why not make that fight more fair, and then I’m confident that Gadhafi will go. Let me add that there’s always the hope that Gadhafi will be taken out from within, that he will negotiate his exit.  All those things. I hope that that happens, but hope is not a strategy.

CAIRO REVIEW: You think American air forces and Libyan rebel forces will essentially remove the regime?

SENATOR MCCAIN: I’m confident they could succeed. Doing what they’re doing now. There are long stretches of desert road that Gadhafi forces have to travel. Gadhafi forces have been adapting in places like Misrata. By hiding in houses and those kinds of tactics, which help conceal them. But over time we could take them out… If we can free up his assets, that’s some $30 billion, that would do them pretty well for  a period of time. They are spending about $1 billion a month. By the way, if we can take Misrata, move further to the west, then they can control the oil supplies and they can start exporting oil.

CAIRO REVIEW:  A timeline?

SENATOR MCCAIN:  If all of our forces were put in full bore, if we recognized the government, we did those things we’re talking about, it could be in a matter of weeks. There are long distances to cover. Nobody really knows how loyal these people are to Gadhafi.  We know he has lots of mercenaries that he is paying very highly. One thing we find in warfare is that mercenaries, when they think they are on the losing side, have a tendency to get out of Dodge. That part is not clear. But to do what we’re doing now could very likely, not for sure, very likely lead to stalemate. What happens with stalemate? Then Al-Qaeda comes in and takes advantage of the situation. That’s a great danger.

CAIRO REVIEW: Why isn’t the president following this advice?

SENATOR MCCAIN: I think that the president is very concerned and I think legitimately so, that Americans are war weary, including his political base. I think he worries about us getting enmeshed in a third war in an Arab country. Those concerns in my view are not sufficient to take the action that he has taken.

CAIRO REVIEW: What are American interests in Libya?

SENATOR MCCAIN: America’s interests are if it ends in stalemate you may have another hot bed of Al-Qaeda activity. Two, if Gadhafi succeeds, it sends a message to other dictators, like Bashar Assad and others, if you kill enough people, you stay in power. I think it is in European strategic interests frankly more than the U.S. It is not that far across the Mediterranean. Immigration issues and many others. Finally, you know, we have always as Americans tried to help people if we could—that’s a big caveat, if we could–obtain freedom and democracy. I visited a hospital in Benghazi on Friday. A ship had just come in from Misrata. There was a whole bunch of young men wounded and dying. I won’t describe to you how horrible it was to see those young people fighting for freedom who are literally dying before my eyes. It seems to me that we ought to try to give them a hand.

CAIRO REVIEW: Why not in Syria too then?

SENATOR MCCAIN:  In Libya, I believe that we can beneficially affect the situation. I think we should condemn Assad. I think we should strengthen sanctions. I think we should de-legitimize him in every way we can, but I don’t see a military aspect that would be effective here in Syria.

CAIRO REVIEW: Time to call for regime change in Syria?

SENATOR MCCAIN:  I think is time that we declared that Assad has lost legitimacy by slaughtering his own people. I don’t think there’s any doubt that we should declare that. When you call for regime change though and it doesn’t happen, it makes your credibility impacted. I think we should say the guy is doing terrible things and we should do everything we can do to stop him. But I would be very careful about a declaration of U.S. policy. It was always our policy to contain the Soviet Union. It was never our policy to overthrow Joe Stalin who killed millions of people, because we didn’t see how we would do it.

CAIRO REVIEW: What’s the criteria?

SENATOR MCCAIN:  In Libya, we can get rid of the guy. We have the ability in my view to get rid of the guy. In Syria, it’s time to declare him illegitimate. To condemn the wanton killing of his citizens is more than appropriate… In the case of Syria, we should no longer have any illusions about Bashar Assad being a reformer. He is a brutal dictator just like his father was… One thing about America, we stand for Wilsonian principles, and we also stand for realpolitik. That doesn’t mean we can fight every fire and go everywhere in the world. Where there is an opportunity to beneficially affect outcomes and fulfill our commitment that all of us are endowed with inalienable rights, then obviously we should try to assist preferably never with the loss of American blood and treasure.

CAIRO REVIEW: Should there be aid to the Syrian people who are trying to change the regime in Syria?

SENATOR MCCAIN: I don’t know how we do it. If there was a supply line in there. What we can do, through Voice of America, various media, especially including social media and others, is express our solidarity with them. And as the president said publicly, [condemn] the horrific actions on their part. Again I don’t know how these things can be accomplished. If I saw an easy way to be accomplished, they would be worthy of consideration.

CAIRO REVIEW: Otherwise how do you assess the Obama administration’s response to the Arab uprisings?

SENATOR MCCAIN: The administration was probably late in saying that [President Hosni] Mubarak should step down. We see that reflected in the attitudes of some of the Egyptian people. But overall, this is a tough business. This is something that none of us ever predicted, including all the experts on the Middle East. For me to Monday morning quarterback every move the administration has made is both inappropriate and unfair. I think in Bahrain we have the possibility of a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. But Bahrain never posed a threat to the security of the United States. Gadhafi did. Gadhafi has the blood of 190 Americans on his hands. In Morocco, we have seen a good example of a monarch who has declared a transition to a constitutional monarchy. The king of Jordan is handling it fairly well. The sultan of Oman is fairly well. Each one of these are different situations. And to lump them all together would be a mistake.

CAIRO REVIEW: You spoke about Egypt?

SENATOR MCCAIN: Egypt we all know, and I don’t know if Americans really appreciate it enough, is the heart and soul of the Arab world. What happens here in Egypt will have a profound affect on the rest of the Arab world and frankly the world. I respect and love these other countries but we should focus a tremendous amount of American national security policy, American assistance, American help, on Egypt. If you can succeed here, I think we can succeed in most places. If we fail here–if democracy fails here, not “we”–then we are going to have enormous challenges.

CAIRO REVIEW: You met with Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi here in Cairo. What’s your assessment of the ruling military council in Egypt? There are complaints of human rights abuses.

SENATOR MCCAIN: The military continues to walk a fine line between trying to keep order and being guilty of being repressive. I think they have done a good job overall. There have been mistakes made, naturally there are going to be mistakes. Overall, I am told and get the impression that the Egyptian people are largely satisfied with what’s going on. I went to down to the [Tahrir] square this morning. It’s largely just a square again. I think if the military started alienating the people you’d see the square pretty crowded again. The proof that they are doing things pretty well is that the square is deserted.

CAIRO REVIEW:  You have confidence in Field Marshal Tantawi?

SENATOR MCCAIN: Yes I do, I do. I think he’s handled it very well so far. But even the best people can make mistakes.

CAIRO REVIEW:  You mentioned that the experts did not predict this. Is it time for America to reassess and recalibrate its policies for region, with a new team of experts?

SENATOR MCCAIN: I don’t think we need particularly a new team. They serve at the confidence of the president of the United States. We have to understand that what’s happening here isn’t just an Arab spring. Look at the Chinese cracking down because they are scared to death. Vladimir Putin is behaving in a way that he is clearly nervous. This isn’t confined to the Arab world. These are seminal, seismic events that are taking place that can transform the entire globe. We have to understand that in some ways we are in uncharted waters. We are going to have to adapt to changing situations. We can’t judge every country the same. They are not cookie cutter countries. Tunisia and Egypt are far different from Yemen. Frankly, and I probably shouldn’t say this, but I don’t know how we solve Yemen, once [President Ali Abdullah] Saleh–who is agreeing to step down. I’m not sure what path you take there. With countries like Tunisia and Egypt, that have sophisticated, educated populaces, I think there is a much better chance or opportunity. We have to understand that a lot of the old rules have been thrown out the window. And a lot of the old principles on which we behaved, such as supporting people even, you know, “He may be an SOB, but he’s our SOB,” don’t work anymore. This is a time for innovative thinking. I’m not a young man, but there are alot of young people out there in the foreign policy and national security establishment, I think that maybe we should start asking them what their views are.

CAIRO REVIEW: What about a new approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has dragged on for decade after decade? Has the U.S. got that wrong as well?

SENATOR MCCAIN: I believe that there is a renewed urgency to bring about successful negotiations on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. I am very worried that elections in certain Arab countries that there will be a level of demagoguery that will fan anti-Israeli attitudes which can be very harmful to peace in this part of the world. I think that Benjamin Netanyahu is sincere. I think that George Mitchell has done a great job. I think that Mahmoud Abbas is a very good man. But there should be a sense of urgency which would lead to negotiations sooner rather than later. I’ll mention one brief story. I was in Tunisia meeting with a group of people who led the revolution. A young woman said–she was a civil society activist, a women’s rights activist–she said, “Senator McCain, it’s not the first election we worry about.” It’s the second. And here in Egypt, we better do everything we can to assist a recovering economy, so they can hire people, get investment, and create jobs. That in my view is where American industry and business comes in. I would love to see them come here and say we’re going to establish here and we’re going to hire. And some of the companies and corporations that are already here will make commitments to expanding. I think that’s one of the key elements among many others.

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