20 questions with John McCain
“Hey, Rob, how are you!” John McCain said on the other end of the phone. He sounded like he’d been hovering over his cell phone, just waiting for me to dial his number.
I spoke to the senator, now the presumptive Republican candidate for president, last Wednesday, while he was in Los Angeles for a full schedule of speeches and fundraisers. One of his local supporters arranged the interview, the only one he’s given to the Jewish press since clinching the nomination early last month, and the McCain campaign agreed to talk because they understand something uncommon is happening in this election: The Jewish vote is in play.
Edited and condensed TRANSCRIPT of a March 26, 2008 telephone interview with Rob Eshman, editor-in-chief of The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles and Jewishjournal.com , and Sen. John McCain, presumptive Republican candidate for President.
John McCain: Hello Rob, how are you?
Rob Eshman: Hi Senator, I appreciate your time thank you.
JM: Itâ(tm)s a pleasure.
RE: I was at your speech this morning at the World Affairs Council.. and I wanted to continue to explore those issues, but from the perspective of American Jewish voters.
So I guess weâ(tm)ll start with the Israel. You know all three of the candidates espouse faithful support of Israel, and there seems to be a longstanding bilateral U.S. consensus on Israel regarding the conflict of the Palestinians. I wonder how you think your support for Israel differs from that of Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama?
JM: Well I donâ(tm)t know what their support is so itâ(tm)s hard for me to compare it. I would just say that my first trip there was back in the late 70s with Scoop Jackson. (laughs). And I will never forget at the airport there was a crowd of people that were there to show their appreciation for Scoop, and he stopped some in the crowd and told us to stop so that he could greet Nathan Saranskyâ(tm)s wife, and I will never forget that one as long as I live. So again itâ(tm)s like on other national security issues, itâ(tm)s a matter of knowledge, background, experience and judgment. Thatâ(tm)s all.
RE: Senator Obamaâ(tm)s advisor General Merrill McPeak has been criticized pretty harshly for statements he made of the effect that American Jews wield too much influence over Americaâ(tm)s Middle East policy. But his comments echo very similar ones made in the past by one of your advisors, [former Secretary of State] James Baker. Is criticism of those statements legitimate, or is it kind of a partisan game that weâ(tm)re watching?
JM: Former Sec. Baker is not quote an advisor of mine. He runs an institute at Rice University, and I certainly admire and respect Sec. Baker, and I have to say that because he was Chief of Staff to President Reagan and he was Sec. of State, he has a long and illustrious career, but that does not mean that Secretary Baker and I are in agreement on every issue. I think he plays a far different role in my campaign than General McPeak does, and it was only recently that former Sec. Baker endorsed me. It was just before some the later primaries. But look, I in no way distance myself from Sec. Baker, and my respect for what heâ(tm)s done for the country. We just may not agree on every issue that affects the state of Israel or other issues.
RE: As you know thereâ(tm)s strong support for Israel in the evangelical Christian community, and that community is also strongly opposed to aspects of Palestinian ï¿½”Israeli peace negotiations, such as territorial compromise and the division of Jerusalem. Because the evangelicals are a significant source of your support or youâ(tm)d like them to be, how do you convince them then to go along with the painful compromises Israel will need to make whether at Annapolis or under your administration? What would you say to them to get them to go along?
JM: Well Iâ(tm)m not asking them to go along with anything. Iâ(tm)m expressing my appreciation for their support of the State of Israel, for the absolute criticality of its survival. You canâ(tm)t jump ahead here. I know they favor a peace process. I know they favor that because of my close relations with them and Pastor John Hagee, whoâ(tm)s been heavily criticized as you know for other things, [but] is one of the leaders of the pro-Israel-evangelical movement in America. Look, I just have to tell you that we should be so grateful for the support of the evangelical movement for the state of Israel given the influence that they have, beneficial influence that they have over millions of Americans, and then weâ(tm)ll worry about a peace process later on, but I know that they are committed to peace between Palestinians and Israelis as well.
RE: â¦As a military person, someone with deep background and knowledge as you said, no one has clear answers on what to do with the Hamas rockets landing on Sderot and Askelon, but if [Israeli Defense Minister] Ehud Barak were to ask you for some advice, what would you say Israel should do?
JM: Well I wouldnâ(tm)t presume to give him advice because heâ(tm)s a good friend of mine for many years, and heâ(tm)s very very very smart on military issues. In fact we all know heâ(tm)s a national hero. But I said in Sherdrot [Sderot]ï¿½”I always mangle the pronunciation of the town — when I was there I stated unequivocally that every nation has the right to defend itself against attack, and the fact is that the children have a 15 second warning of some 900 rockets that have landed in the last less than 3 months, so I think its clear that every right has theâ¦.every nation has the right to defend itself against attack.
RE: You said at the speech of the World Affairs Council that you would be personally and deeply involved in the peace process. President Bush waited until the end of his administration to get involved. Do you see yourself getting involved earlier than that?
JM: Immediately. Immediately. And as I said I donâ(tm)t know how many trips Iâ(tm)ve made to Israel. I know all of the leadership well. I know the parameters that theyâ(tm)re operating under, and I feel fully qualified to hit the ground running.
RE: Has our commitment in money and manpower in Iraq limited our ability to act militarily in Iran?
JM: I donâ(tm)t think so. I think the United States of America has the capability to defend its national security interests.
RE: So if there needs to be a military solution to Iranâ(tm)s nuclear programs, do you think the amount of money and manpower that weâ(tm)ve spent in Iraq wonâ(tm)t hinder us?
JM: I think that the United States of America militarily is fully capable of defending itself and against all threats, against all national security threats. So, because when you say âcan it defend itself,â it depends on you know the scenario of what quote defending itself means and so that is a [UNCLEAR] discussion.
RE: In terms of dealing with Iran on the nuclear issue, is there any chance that you would negotiate with them, or is that not an option right now?
JM: Well when you say negotiate with them, our ambassador in Iraq, I believe, has been there three times. Thereâ(tm)s been Iranians there in Baghdad. Theyâ(tm)ve had conversations. Thereâ(tm)s plenty of ways to communicateâ¦many ways to communicate if a country wants to reach an agreement, but no I donâ(tm)t like to enhance the prestige of someone who announces his nationâ(tm)s dedication and policy to the extinction of the State of Israel.
RE: On Iraq, you said you were optimistic that the surge is working in terms of bringing military security to our forces and to the Iraqis, but you acknowledge that the political stability is less promising. Now weâ(tm)re seeing today whatâ(tm)s happening in Basra with the potential that Muqtada al Sadr could lash out again. Is there a point when you would say, look, either run your country responsibly or become another Lebanon, itâ(tm)s your country, and weâ(tm)ve done our best. Do you think at some point we would have to say that?
JM: Well let me just say that Iâ(tm)m very satis ï¿½” I believe that there has been political progress. I want it to be more rapid. Iâ(tm)d like to see political progress in the United States of American. We might even consider doing a budget or maybe sitting down together and fixing social security and Medicare–and Iâ(tm)m a bit sarcastic. But the point is that they are making some progress. Looks like now we will have provincial elections. They did pass a law on addressing the amnesty issue for Sunis. There is de facto revenue sharing from the oil revenues. Democracy is tough, so I am gratified by the progress thatâ(tm)s been made militarily and I see as all counterinsurgencies do, progress on the social, economic and political front and I believe that worst thing we can do is set a date for withdrawal and thatâ(tm)ll be chaos, genocide, and by the way I also feel that itâ(tm)ll place the state of Israel in much greater danger because it will enhance the prestige and power of Iran in the region.
RE: Do you think the warâ(tm)s strengthened Iranâ(tm)s hand in the region?
JM: I think that our failures for nearly four years obviously did it. But I believe that that is being reversed as the surge succeeds, and I think that the Iranians are very possibly going to step up their assistance to the Jihadists because they donâ(tm)t want us to succeed in Iraq. But Osama Bin Laden has stated that Iraq is the central front. Osama Bin Laden has stated that they have to help their quote Palestinian brothersâ¦now, we know what that means. But Osama Bin Laden has said that the central front in the battleground is Iraq and their Palestinian brothers are next. So what are the implications to the State of Israel if they prevail on Iraq? I think theyâ(tm)re very obvious.
RE: So the Iraq Study Committee, the Baker-Hamilton Commissionâ¦recommended that the US deal directly with Iran and other nations around Iraq such as Syria, and try to stabilize Iraq through this external diplomatic effort. Is that something you would take a look at?
JM: I didnâ(tm)t agree with that any more than I agreed with the call by Baker-Hamilton Commission to withdraw from Iraq, so you know I have great respect for them and appreciation, but I expressed my disagreement at the time.â¦Look, Iran is a state sponsor of terror. They are sponsoring Hezbollah, right in Lebanon. They are trying to develop a nuclear weapon. Theyâ(tm)re committed to the extinction of the State of Israel. They are exporting the most lethal explosion devices into Iraq thatâ(tm)s killing young Americans. Letâ(tm)s have no doubt about the threat that this nation poses, not only the Americaâ(tm)s national security interests, but that of Israel and the entire middle east. If they develop a nuclear weapon, every expert that I know says that there will be proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region.
RE: But do have more leverage when you have contact?
JM: These are not discon—(inaudible). Tell me the kind of leverage we have with North Korea?
RE: We sanctioned talk with them, right?
JM: Weâ(tm)ve had talks with them. Tell me how much theyâ(tm)ve succeeded. But North Korea is not advocating the extinction of any of its neighbors. Iran is.
RE: I want to switch because I only have you for a little bit, so I want to switch to energy. Every president since President Nixon has promised to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Why do you think youâ(tm)ll succeed?
JM: Because I believe I can inspire the American people and I think that when the price of oil went over $100/barrel that there was certainly a psychological barrier there. I think Americans are ready to serve/conserve(?)
RE: As long as the warâ(tm)s going on, one of the criticisms that has been leveled at President Bush is that he hasnâ(tm)t asked the Americans here to sacrifice â¦in conjunction with the Americans who fight over there. Would you ask something of Americans here to bring the war home in some sense?
JM: Iâ(tm)ve askedâ¦will ask many times for Americans to serve a cause greater than their self interestsâ¦thatâ(tm)s always been what Iâ(tm)ve (inaudible).
RE: And anything in specific as far as the war?
JM: Sure, thereâ(tm)s a hundred ways to serve oneâ(tm)s country and to serve one causes greater than their self interest and Iâ(tm)m convinced they will do so.
RE: You spoke out today very eloquently about torture of suspected terrorists and I was wondering if you think it was right or wrong to torture somebody like Khalid Sheik Muhammed, the architect of the 9/11 attacks?
JM: Of course not.
RE: Even him.
JM: Of course not. No, not even him (laughs).
RE: You know we all watch too much â24.â Maybe thatâ(tm)s the problem.
JM: I think we doâ¦I think, look, Lindsay Graham and I met with a high ranking member of Al Qaeda last Thanksgivingâ¦ I asked them how [they recruited members] after the initial invasion [of Iraq]. He said first the lawlessness and (inaudible) gave him a great opportunity. Second he said his greatest recruiting tool was Abu Ghraib. That should be enough evidence for anybody. â¦ Every single military leader that I know and respect says we shouldnâ(tm)t torture people.
RE: I have a friend. Sheâ(tm)s a Jew, sheâ(tm)s a Democrat. She said that [she] would vote for John McCain â¦because she loves your positions on so many things especially Israel and the Middle East, but sheâ(tm)s worried that youâ(tm)ll nominate Supreme Court Justices who will overturn Roe v Wade. I find that sentiment echoed among a lot of the Jews who I speak with. I wonder how you would respond to that concern.
JM: I maintain that I will nominate Judges to the Supreme Court that strictly interpret the Constitution of the United States and I think thereâ(tm)s been too much legislating on the bench. I have no litmus issues nor is it proper to do so, but I will nominate Judges who will strictly interpret the Constitution of the United States. And if thatâ(tm)s her most important issue that I nominate those people who strictly interpret the constitution of the United States, then I respect her priorities.
RE: You know American Jews voted overwhelmingly against George Bush in 2004, and now the common, popular democratic argument against you is that voting for John McCain is giving George Bush a third term. How do you respond to that?
JM: The American people know me and know me well and thatâ(tm)s not reflected in the polls and so I think that they will select a leader that they want based on his or her vision and plans for the future not the past. Gotta go.
RE: Thank you senator.
A higher percentage of Jews than usual are expected to take a second look at the Republican candidate for president this year. It doesn’t happen often, but it’s not unprecedented. In 1980, when Ronald Reagan ran for president, he got 38 percent of the Jewish vote. Once again, Republicans believe, this could be their year.
To paraphrase Mark Twain, Jews are like most Democrats, only more so.
“A sizable proportion of Democrats would vote for John McCain next November if he is matched against the candidate they do not support for the Democratic nomination,” according to a recent Gallup poll of all Democrats. “This is particularly true for Hillary Clinton supporters, more than a quarter of whom currently say they would vote for McCain if Barack Obama is the Democratic nominee.”
On issues of foreign policy, the Middle East and Israel, Jews will be weighing the candidates carefully.
So as pollster Peter Hart told Maureen Dowd last week, the question voters will ask about Sen. Hilary Clinton, is, “Is she honest?” Of Obama they will ask, “Is he safe?”
As for Jews, I suspect the McCain question will be just as simple: “Is he Bush?”
Early Wednesday morning, I drove downtown to the Bonaventure Hotel to hear McCain deliver his first major foreign policy address as the Republican nominee.
The event was a World Affairs Council breakfast for about 1,000 people, and the subtext of his speech was clear: “I’m not Bush.”
McCain began with a description of himself as a 5-year-old watching a Navy officer drive up to his home and tell his father, a Naval commander, that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.
“I rarely saw him again for four years,” McCain said.
“My grandfather, who commanded the fast carrier task force under Admiral Halsey, came home from the war exhausted from the burdens he had borne, and died the next day,” McCain went on. “I detest war…. It is wretched beyond all description…. Only a fool or a fraud sentimentalizes the merciless reality of war.”
Into my mind popped memories of President George W. Bush landing on a flight carrier in his jumpsuit, as well as his recent remarks that he’s “envious” of soldiers engaged in “romantic” combat — which was just what McCain intended.
As pointedly, McCain made the thrust of his speech the importance of America working together with other nations in creating a safe and secure world. He quoted John F. Kennedy and Harry S. Truman.
“But we must also lead by attracting others to our cause, by demonstrating once again the virtues of freedom and democracy,” he added.
He said he would immediately close down the prisons at Guantanamo. “We can’t torture or treat inhumanely suspected terrorists we have captured.”
He called for a new treaty to deal with global warming, a “League of Democracies” to lead the world, a nuclear nonproliferation regime.
All these policies together, McCain said, “will strengthen us to confront the transcendent challenge of our time: The threat of radical Islamic terrorism.”
In turning to the Middle East, he didn’t turn to Israel — and he didn’t mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “The oppression of the autocrats blended with the radical Islamists’ dogmatic theology to produce a perfect storm of intolerance and hatred,” he said, not letting America off the hook for our support of these petro-dictators.
In an election season with a very unpopular war as its backdrop, McCain’s serious ideas about Iraq are bound to be demeaned and caricatured, as they already have been, everywhere from YouTube to The Huffington Post. (In fact, McCain has gotten a fairer and more insightful hearing on Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” where he has made 11 appearances, than he has on HuffPost.)
You can think he’s wrong when he says the surge of American troops into Iraq is working, but his plan is more detailed — and draws on more experience — than the plans put forth for withdrawal by either of his opponents.
In the World Affairs Council speech, McCain gave a bit more nuance to his statements that America could be in Iraq “another 50 years, 100 years.” When Americans say the cost of Iraq is too high, he said, they mean the cost in lives. To withdraw and leave behind an unstable country would be to destabilize the entire Middle East, to strengthen the forces of Al-Qaeda and Iran. The United States continues to have a military presence, he pointed out, in countries that are now our allies, where past wars are long over: Japan, South Korea and Germany, all places where not a single soldier is at risk. That’s what he meant by staying there.
One could argue that the actual dollar cost is just a bit upsetting to Americans, as well, but McCain pointed out that no one stands outside his speeches protesting the cost of our bases in South Korea (“And they’re protesting everything else,” he said).
Nevertheless, his much-maligned statement came off as neither Strangelovian or Cheney-esque (i.e.; “So?”), but as an informed assertion of America’s power and responsibility, and a pointed rejection of Bush’s foreign policy of the past seven years. Sitting in the Bonaventure ballroom, I realized that the Republicans, finally, after seven years, have the chance to replace a teenager with a grownup.
So when I called the senator later that day for the pre-arranged interview — Hey, Rob, how are you? — I had my questions on Israel, Iraq, etc. all teed up, with my overarching one — are you Bush? — saved for last.
I started with Israel, asking the senator to compare his policies toward Israel to those of Clinton and Obama. I told him my sense is that over the years a bipartisan consensus has developed on the major Israeli-Palestinian issues, no matter who occupies the Oval Office. McCain deflected.
“Well I don’t know what their support is, so it’s hard for me to compare it,” he said.
He reiterated an often-told story he’s made to Jewish groups, about flying to Israel for the first time with the late Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson, and landing at the airport, and witnessing Jackson being greeted by Soviet refuseniks he’d helped rescue.
“I’ll never forget that one as long as I live,” he said.
“Look,” he added, “like on other national security issues, it’s a matter of knowledge, background, experience and judgment. That’s all.”
I pointed out that President Bush had waited until the end of his second term to get involved in peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. When would President McCain get involved?
“Immediately,” he said. “And, as I said, I don’t know how many trips I’ve made to Israel. I know all of the leadership well. I know the parameters that they’re operating under, and I feel fully qualified to hit the ground running.”
There also has been a “Battle of the Advisers” going on, with Republican Jews singling out Obama military adviser General Merrill A. “Tony” McPeak for statements that suggest American Jews wield too much influence over America’s Middle East policy. I asked McCain if he puts much stock in such critiques, given that his adviser, former Secretary of State James Baker, has said the same and worse (There was, for instance, Baker’s “F— the Jews,” although I didn’t cite this example).
“Former Secretary Baker is not a quote ‘adviser’ of mine,” McCain replied. “It was only recently that former Sec. Baker endorsed me. It was just before some of the later primaries. But look, I in no way distance myself from Secretary Baker and my respect for what he’s done for the country. We just may not agree on every issue that affects the state of Israel, or other issues.”
McCain also defended his support of the controversial Rev. John Hagee, a staunchly pro-Israel evangelical who has been criticized for his anti-Catholic comments. I asked the senator how he would get pro-Israel evangelicals, who have been staunchly opposed to Israel giving up territory or compromising on the status of Jerusalem, to support any peace agreement.
“You can’t jump ahead here,” he said. “I know they favor a peace process. I know they favor that because of my close relations with them, and pastor John Hagee … is one of the leaders of the pro-Israel-evangelical movement in America.”
I started to correct him — Hagee and other evangelicals most certainly don’t support compromise on territory or Jerusalem, and McCain must know this. That’s when I got my first taste of the famous McCain technique: I’ll-talk-so-you-can’t.
“Look,” he cut me off, “I just have to tell you that we should be so grateful for the support of the evangelical movement for the state of Israel, given the influence that they have, beneficial influence that they have over millions of Americans, and then we’ll worry about a peace process later on, but I know that they are committed to peace between Palestinians and Israelis as well.”
McCain had recently returned from a trip to Israel, where he visited the southern town of Sderot (“I always mangle the pronunciation,” he said). I asked him what advice he would give Israel in dealing with the constant barrage of rockets that Hamas regularly fires at Sderot’s residents.
“When I was there I stated unequivocally that every nation has the right to defend itself against attack,” he said.
But he added he wouldn’t presume to give advice.
Then we got to Iraq, the subject where McCain must realize he is the most vulnerable with independent voters, and Jewish voters, who, I pointed out, are largely opposed to the war. Even allowing that McCain’s plan is more developed than his critics have allowed, I asked him whether he would ever be prepared to tell the Iraqis that it is up to them, not us, to choose whether they want to be a stable democracy — or to become Lebanon.
His answer was long, rambling and, given the battle taking place in Basra that very day, a bit worrisome: “I believe that there has been political progress. I want it to be more rapid…. Looks like now we will have provincial elections. They did pass a law on addressing the amnesty issue for Sunnis. There is de facto revenue sharing from the oil revenues. Democracy is tough, so I am gratified by the progress that’s been made militarily, and I see … progress on the social, economic and political front. I believe that the worst thing we can do is set a date for withdrawal, and that’ll be chaos, genocide and, by the way, I also feel that it’ll place the state of Israel in much greater danger because it will enhance the prestige and power of Iran in the region.”
On Iran, McCain gave two different answers. When I asked if negotiations with Iran might help improve relations, he said, unequivocally, “no,” and rejected that recommendation of the Baker-Hamilton Commission. On the other hand, he didn’t rule out speaking with Iranians other than their crazy (my word) president.
“Our ambassador in Iraq, I believe, has been there three times,” McCain said. “There’s been Iranians there in Baghdad. They’ve had conversations. There’s plenty of ways to communicate.”
Does he think the war has strengthened Iran in the region?
“I think that our failures for nearly four years obviously did it,” the senator said. “But I believe that that is being reversed as the surge succeeds, and I think that the Iranians are very possibly going to step up their assistance to the Jihadists, because they don’t want us to succeed in Iraq…. Osama Bin Laden has said that the central front in the battleground is Iraq, and their Palestinian brothers are next. So what are the implications to the State of Israel if they prevail on Iraq? I think they’re very obvious.”
On the domestic front, I praised the senator in his call for energy independence, but pointed out that every president since Richard Nixon has issued the same call. Why would he succeed?
“Because I believe I can inspire the American people,” he said, “and I think that when the price of oil went over $100 a barrel that there was certainly a psychological barrier there.”
Then I turned to judicial nominations: McCain is opposed to legalized abortion, and the idea that he could appoint members of the Supreme Court who would overturn Roe v. Wade would be a deal breaker for many otherwise-McCain-leaning Jews. What would he say to them?
“I have no litmus issues, nor is it proper to do so,” he said, “but I will nominate judges who will strictly interpret the Constitution of the United States. And if that’s the most important issue, that I nominate those people who strictly interpret the constitution of the United States, then I respect [their] priorities.”
In other words, if you don’t like it, vote for the other guy (or gal).
At this point, our allotted 20 minutes were winding down. The senator, I could hear, was in motion. But of course I still had one more question. The Question: What would you say, senator, to the charge that a vote for McCain is a vote for a third Bush term?
“The American people know me,” he said, “and know me well, and that [opinion] is not reflected in the polls, and so I think that they will select a leader that they want based on his or her vision and plans for the future, not the past. Gotta run.”
That was it. We didn’t get to the economy, healthcare, the stuff that decides elections.
Still, for days afterward, the first question people asked me was, “So, are you gonna vote for him now?” Or, as one put it, “Are you going to follow John McCain to the dark side?”
President Bush has understood the dangers facing the world, but was unable or unwilling to address them effectively. The result is a world where America is less safe, and Israel is less secure. From Bush we learned that the answer to the question, “Is he good for Israel?” really should be: “Is he good for America?” Because when America’s strength, leadership and credibility go astray, Israel is endangered.
McCain with his echoes of Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy, is undeniably more experienced, more learned — a grownup.
McCain has a plan for Iraq, the surge, and it is unfolding before our eyes. He may be out on his limb, but what he says is founded in a deep understanding of foreign policy and the uses and limits of military power. The Democratic candidates have justifiable criticism of the war, and both promise a speedy withdrawal, but they have no plan of what that really means, yet.
So for the Jews, or at least for those of us who think that war, and that region — and not just party loyalty — is still issue No. 1, the ball is in Obama’s and Clinton’s court.
Remarks By John McCain To The Los Angeles World Affairs Council
March 26, 2008
ARLINGTON, VA — U.S. Senator John McCain’s will deliver the following remarks as prepared for delivery today at the World Affairs Council in Los Angeles, California:
National Review: Democrats’ Distortion
McCain on the War in Iraq
When I was five years old, a car pulled up in front of our house in New London, Connecticut, and a Navy officer rolled down the window, and shouted at my father that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. My father immediately left for the submarine base where he was stationed. I rarely saw him again for four years. My grandfather, who commanded the fast carrier task force under Admiral Halsey, came home from the war exhausted from the burdens he had borne, and died the next day. In Vietnam, where I formed the closest friendships of my life, some of those friends never came home to the country they loved so well. I detest war. It might not be the worst thing to befall human beings, but it is wretched beyond all description. When nations seek to resolve their differences by force of arms, a million tragedies ensue. The lives of a nation’s finest patriots are sacrificed. Innocent people suffer and die. Commerce is disrupted; economies are damaged; strategic interests shielded by years of patient statecraft are endangered as the exigencies of war and diplomacy conflict. Not the valor with which it is fought nor the nobility of the cause it serves, can glorify war. Whatever gains are secured, it is loss the veteran remembers most keenly. Only a fool or a fraud sentimentalizes the merciless reality of war. However heady the appeal of a call to arms, however just the cause, we should still shed a tear for all that is lost when war claims its wages from us.
I am an idealist, and I believe it is possible in our time to make the world we live in another, better, more peaceful place, where our interests and those of our allies are more secure, and American ideals that are transforming the world, the principles of free people and free markets, advance even farther than they have. But I am, from hard experience and the judgment it informs, a realistic idealist. I know we must work very hard and very creatively to build new foundations for a stable and enduring peace. We cannot wish the world to be a better place than it is. We have enemies for whom no attack is too cruel, and no innocent life safe, and who would, if they could, strike us with the world’s most terrible weapons. There are states that support them, and which might help them acquire those weapons because they share with terrorists the same animating hatred for the West, and will not be placated by fresh appeals to the better angels of their nature. This is the central threat of our time, and we must understand the implications of our decisions on all manner of regional and global challenges could have for our success in defeating it.
President Harry Truman once said of America, “God has created us and brought us to our present position of power and strength for some great purpose.” In his time, that purpose was to contain Communism and build the structures of peace and prosperity that could provide safe passage through the Cold War. Now it is our turn. We face a new set of opportunities, and also new dangers. The developments of science and technology have brought us untold prosperity, eradicated disease, and reduced the suffering of millions. We have a chance in our lifetime to raise the world to a new standard of human existence. Yet these same technologies have produced grave new risks, arming a few zealots with the ability to murder millions of innocents, and producing a global industrialization that can in time threaten our planet.
To meet this challenge requires understanding the world we live in, and the central role the United States must play in shaping it for the future. The United States must lead in the 21st century, just as in Truman’s day. But leadership today means something different than it did in the years after World War II, when Europe and the other democracies were still recovering from the devastation of war and the United States was the only democratic superpower. Today we are not alone. There is the powerful collective voice of the European Union, and there are the great nations of India and Japan, Australia and Brazil, South Korea and South Africa, Turkey and Israel, to name just a few of the leading democracies. There are also the increasingly powerful nations of China and Russia that wield great influence in the international system.
In such a world, where power of all kinds is more widely and evenly distributed, the United States cannot lead by virtue of its power alone. We must be strong politically, economically, and militarily. But we must also lead by attracting others to our cause, by demonstrating once again the virtues of freedom and democracy, by defending the rules of international civilized society and by creating the new international institutions necessary to advance the peace and freedoms we cherish. Perhaps above all, leadership in today’s world means accepting and fulfilling our responsibilities as a great nation.
One of those responsibilities is to be a good and reliable ally to our fellow democracies. We cannot build an enduring peace based on freedom by ourselves, and we do not want to. We have to strengthen our global alliances as the core of a new global compact — a League of Democracies — that can harness the vast influence of the more than one hundred democratic nations around the world to advance our values and defend our shared interests.
At the heart of this new compact must be mutual respect and trust. Recall the words of our founders in the Declaration of Independence, that we pay “decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” Our great power does not mean we can do whatever we want whenever we want, nor should we assume we have all the wisdom and knowledge necessary to succeed. We need to listen to the views and respect the collective will of our democratic allies. When we believe international action is necessary, whether military, economic, or diplomatic, we will try to persuade our friends that we are right. But we, in return, must be willing to be persuaded by them.
America must be a model citizen if we want others to look to us as a model. How we behave at home affects how we are perceived abroad. We must fight the terrorists and at the same time defend the rights that are the foundation of our society. We can’t torture or treat inhumanely suspected terrorists we have captured. I believe we should close Guantanamo and work with our allies to forge a new international understanding on the disposition of dangerous detainees under our control.
There is such a thing as international good citizenship. We need to be good stewards of our planet and join with other nations to help preserve our common home. The risks of global warming have no borders. We and the other nations of the world must get serious about substantially reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the coming years or we will hand off a much-diminished world to our grandchildren. We need a successor to the Kyoto Treaty, a cap-and-trade system that delivers the necessary environmental impact in an economically responsible manner. We Americans must lead by example and encourage the participation of the rest of the world, including most importantly, the developing economic powerhouses of China and India.
Four and a half decades ago, John Kennedy described the people of Latin America as our “firm and ancient friends, united by history and experience and by our determination to advance the values of American civilization.” With globalization, our hemisphere has grown closer, more integrated, and more interdependent. Latin America today is increasingly vital to the fortunes of the United States. Americans north and south share a common geography and a common destiny. The countries of Latin America are the natural partners of the United States, and our northern neighbor Canada.
Relations with our southern neighbors must be governed by mutual respect, not by an imperial impulse or by anti-American demagoguery. The promise of North, Central, and South American life is too great for that. I believe the Americas can and must be the model for a new 21st century relationship between North and South. Ours can be the first completely democratic hemisphere, where trade is free across all borders, where the rule of law and the power of free markets advance the security and prosperity of all.
Power in the world today is moving east; the Asia-Pacific region is on the rise. Together with our democratic partner of many decades, Japan, we can grasp the opportunities present in the unfolding world and this century can become safe — both American and Asian, both prosperous and free. Asia has made enormous strides in recent decades. Its economic achievements are well known; less known is that more people live under democratic rule in Asia than in any other region of the world.
Dealing with a rising China will be a central challenge for the next American president. Recent prosperity in China has brought more people out of poverty faster than during any other time in human history. China’s newfound power implies responsibilities. China could bolster its claim that it is “peacefully rising” by being more transparent about its significant military buildup, by working with the world to isolate pariah states such as Burma, Sudan and Zimbabwe, and by ceasing its efforts to establish regional forums and economic arrangements designed to exclude America from Asia.
China and the United States are not destined to be adversaries. We have numerous overlapping interests and hope to see our relationship evolve in a manner that benefits both countries and, in turn, the Asia-Pacific region and the world. But until China moves toward political liberalization, our relationship will be based on periodically shared interests rather than the bedrock of shared values.
The United States did not single-handedly win the Cold War; the transatlantic alliance did, in concert with partners around the world. The bonds we share with Europe in terms of history, values, and interests are unique. Americans should welcome the rise of a strong, confident European Union as we continue to support a strong NATO. The future of the transatlantic relationship lies in confronting the challenges of the twenty-first century worldwide: developing a common energy policy, creating a transatlantic common market tying our economies more closely together, addressing the dangers posed by a revanchist Russia, and institutionalizing our cooperation on issues such as climate change, foreign assistance, and democracy promotion.
We should start by ensuring that the G-8, the group of eight highly industrialized states, becomes again a club of leading market democracies: it should include Brazil and India but exclude Russia. Rather than tolerate Russia’s nuclear blackmail or cyber attacks, Western nations should make clear that the solidarity of NATO, from the Baltic to the Black Sea, is indivisible and that the organization’s doors remain open to all democracies committed to the defense of freedom.
While Africa’s problems — poverty, corruption, disease, and instability — are well known, we must refocus on the bright promise offered by many countries on that continent. We must strongly engage on a political, economic, and security level with friendly governments across Africa, but insist on improvements in transparency and the rule of law. Many African nations will not reach their true potential without external assistance to combat entrenched problems, such as HIV/AIDS, that afflict Africans disproportionately. I will establish the goal of eradicating malaria on the continent — the number one killer of African children under the age of five. In addition to saving millions of lives in the world’s poorest regions, such a campaign would do much to add luster to America’s image in the world.
We also share an obligation with the world’s other great powers to halt and reverse the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The United States and the international community must work together and do all in our power to contain and reverse North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and to prevent Iran — a nation whose President has repeatedly expressed a desire to wipe Israel from the face of the earth — from obtaining a nuclear weapon. We should work to reduce nuclear arsenals all around the world, starting with our own. Forty years ago, the five declared nuclear powers came together in support of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and pledged to end the arms race and move toward nuclear disarmament. The time has come to renew that commitment. We do not need all the weapons currently in our arsenal. The United States should lead a global effort at nuclear disarmament consistent with our vital interests and the cause of peace.
If we are successful in pulling together a global coalition for peace and freedom — if we lead by shouldering our international responsibilities and pointing the way to a better and safer future for humanity, I believe we will gain tangible benefits as a nation.
It will strengthen us to confront the transcendent challenge of our time: the threat of radical Islamic terrorism. This challenge is transcendent not because it is the only one we face. There are many dangers in today’s world, and our foreign policy must be agile and effective at dealing with all of them. But the threat posed by the terrorists is unique. They alone devote all their energies and indeed their very lives to murdering innocent men, women, and children. They alone seek nuclear weapons and other tools of mass destruction not to defend themselves or to enhance their prestige or to give them a stronger hand in world affairs but to use against us wherever and whenever they can. Any president who does not regard this threat as transcending all others does not deserve to sit in the White House, for he or she does not take seriously enough the first and most basic duty a president has — to protect the lives of the American people.
We learned through the tragic experience of September 11 that passive defense alone cannot protect us. We must protect our borders. But we must also have an aggressive strategy of confronting and rooting out the terrorists wherever they seek to operate, and deny them bases in failed or failing states. Today al Qaeda and other terrorist networks operate across the globe, seeking out opportunities in Southeast Asia, Central Asia, Africa, and in the Middle East.
Prevailing in this struggle will require far more than military force. It will require the use of all elements of our national power: public diplomacy; development assistance; law enforcement training; expansion of economic opportunity; and robust intelligence capabilities. I have called for major changes in how our government faces the challenge of radical Islamic extremism by much greater resources for and integration of civilian efforts to prevent conflict and to address post-conflict challenges. Our goal must be to win the “hearts and minds” of the vast majority of moderate Muslims who do not want their future controlled by a minority of violent extremists. In this struggle, scholarships will be far more important than smart bombs.
We also need to build the international structures for a durable peace in which the radical extremists are gradually eclipsed by the more powerful forces of freedom and tolerance. Our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan are critical in this respect and cannot be viewed in isolation from our broader strategy. In the troubled and often dangerous region they occupy, these two nations can either be sources of extremism and instability or they can in time become pillars of stability, tolerance, and democracy.
For decades in the greater Middle East, we had a strategy of relying on autocrats to provide order and stability. We relied on the Shah of Iran, the autocratic rulers of Egypt, the generals of Pakistan, the Saudi royal family, and even, for a time, on Saddam Hussein. In the late 1970s that strategy began to unravel. The Shah was overthrown by the radical Islamic revolution that now rules in Tehran. The ensuing ferment in the Muslim world produced increasing instability. The autocrats clamped down with ever greater repression, while also surreptitiously aiding Islamic radicalism abroad in the hopes that they would not become its victims. It was a toxic and explosive mixture. The oppression of the autocrats blended with the radical Islamists’ dogmatic theology to produce a perfect storm of intolerance and hatred.
We can no longer delude ourselves that relying on these out-dated autocracies is the safest bet. They no longer provide lasting stability, only the illusion of it. We must not act rashly or demand change overnight. But neither can we pretend the status quo is sustainable, stable, or in our interests. Change is occurring whether we want it or not. The only question for us is whether we shape this change in ways that benefit humanity or let our enemies seize it for their hateful purposes. We must help expand the power and reach of freedom, using all our many strengths as a free people. This is not just idealism. It is the truest kind of realism. It is the democracies of the world that will provide the pillars upon which we can and must build an enduring peace.
If you look at the great arc that extends from the Middle East through Central Asia and the Asian subcontinent all the way to Southeast Asia, you can see those pillars of democracy stretching across the entire expanse, from Turkey and Israel to India and Indonesia. Iraq and Afghanistan lie at the heart of that region. And whether they eventually become stable democracies themselves, or are allowed to sink back into chaos and extremism, will determine not only the fate of that critical part of the world, but our fate, as well.
That is the broad strategic perspective through which to view our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many people ask, how should we define success? Success in Iraq and Afghanistan is the establishment of peaceful, stable, prosperous, democratic states that pose no threat to neighbors and contribute to the defeat of terrorists. It is the triumph of religious tolerance over violent radicalism.
Those who argue that our goals in Iraq are unachievable are wrong, just as they were wrong a year ago when they declared the war in Iraq already lost. Since June 2007 sectarian and ethnic violence in Iraq has been reduced by 90 percent. Overall civilian deaths have been reduced by more than 70 percent. Deaths of coalition forces have fallen by 70 percent. The dramatic reduction in violence has opened the way for a return to something approaching normal political and economic life for the average Iraqi. People are going back to work. Markets are open. Oil revenues are climbing. Inflation is down. Iraq’s economy is expected to grown by roughly 7 percent in 2008. Political reconciliation is occurring across Iraq at the local and provincial grassroots level. Sunni and Shi’a chased from their homes by terrorist and sectarian violence are returning. Political progress at the national level has been far too slow, but there is progress.
Critics say that the “surge” of troops isn’t a solution in itself, that we must make progress toward Iraqi self-sufficiency. I agree. Iraqis themselves must increasingly take responsibility for their own security, and they must become responsible political actors. It does not follow from this, however, that we should now recklessly retreat from Iraq regardless of the consequences. We must take the course of prudence and responsibility, and help Iraqis move closer to the day when they no longer need our help.
That is the route of responsible statesmanship. We have incurred a moral responsibility in Iraq. It would be an unconscionable act of betrayal, a stain on our character as a great nation, if we were to walk away from the Iraqi people and consign them to the horrendous violence, ethnic cleansing, and possibly genocide that would follow a reckless, irresponsible, and premature withdrawal. Our critics say America needs to repair its image in the world. How can they argue at the same time for the morally reprehensible abandonment of our responsibilities in Iraq?
Those who claim we should withdraw from Iraq in order to fight Al Qaeda more effectively elsewhere are making a dangerous mistake. Whether they were there before is immaterial, al Qaeda is in Iraq now, as it is in the borderlands between Pakistan and Afghanistan, in Somalia, and in Indonesia. If we withdraw prematurely from Iraq, al Qaeda in Iraq will survive, proclaim victory and continue to provoke sectarian tensions that, while they have been subdued by the success of the surge, still exist, as various factions of Sunni and Shi’a have yet to move beyond their ancient hatreds, and are ripe for provocation by al Qaeda. Civil war in Iraq could easily descend into genocide, and destabilize the entire region as neighboring powers come to the aid of their favored factions. I believe a reckless and premature withdrawal would be a terrible defeat for our security interests and our values. Iran will also view our premature withdrawal as a victory, and the biggest state supporter of terrorists, a country with nuclear ambitions and a stated desire to destroy the State of Israel, will see its influence in the Middle East grow significantly. These consequences of our defeat would threaten us for years, and those who argue for it, as both Democratic candidates do, are arguing for a course that would eventually draw us into a wider and more difficult war that would entail far greater dangers and sacrifices than we have suffered to date. I do not argue against withdrawal, any more than I argued several years ago for the change in tactics and additional forces that are now succeeding in Iraq, because I am somehow indifferent to war and the suffering it inflicts on too many American families. I hold my position because I hate war, and I know very well and very personally how grievous its wages are. But I know, too, that we must sometimes pay those wages to avoid paying even higher ones later.
I run for President because I want to keep the country I love and have served all my life safe, and to rise to the challenges of our times, as generations before us rose to theirs. I run for President because I know it is incumbent on America, more than any other nation on earth, to lead in building the foundations for a stable and enduring peace, a peace built on the strength of our commitment to it, on the transformative ideals on which we were founded, on our ability to see around the corner of history, and on our courage and wisdom to make hard choices. I run because I believe, as strongly as I ever have, that it is within our power to make in our time another, better world than we inherited.