A Conversation with Senator John McCain (R-AZ): Maintaining America’s Leadership in an Uncertain World

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During the second session of FPI’s 2010 forum, FPI board member Robert Kagan spoke with Senator John McCain on the subject of “Maintaining America’s Leadership in an Uncertain World.” Sen. McCain, who recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, initially talked about the changes he saw in his recent trip, where for the first time in a number of years, he observed significant changes in the war. Under the leadership of General Petraeus, Sen. McCain noted, the United States military in Afghanistan is doing “very well.”

Senator McCain then discussed various aspects of the counterinsurgency strategy. On the clear and hold aspect of security, the military has experienced great success. On the third pillar of the military strategy, they have not yet begun to rebuild those areas of the country that are pacified – the “build” aspect of the strategy. Overall, the senator noted, the military aspect of the conflict is going better than predicted.

Despite the relative success thus far experienced, Senator McCain sees significant hurdles and failures in Afghanistan. Corruption at all levels of the Karzai government remains rampant. Second, Pakistani cooperation and communication to the Taliban and terrorist elements remain a cause for concern. Third, the governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan remain “uncertain” about United States staying power in the region, causing both Karzai and the Pakistani ISI to “hedge” bets in the greater war. While Secretary of State Hillary Clinton continues to mention America’s ongoing commitment to a stable and peaceful Afghanistan, such rhetoric is continuously undermined when President Obama mentions his July 2011 deadline. Unfortunately, Senator McCain noted, the region sees premature withdrawal as certain.

Mr. Kagan then asked the Senator how he could convince the region he would not begin to withdraw troops in 2011, Senator McCain said the president has two opportunities in the near term to reaffirm his commitment. First, he encouraged the president to give a firm commitment to success in Afghanistan at the G-20 meeting in Lisbon. Second, the president should take advantage of the December strategy review to speak to the American people on this important endeavor. While the American people were immersed in domestic news during the recent elections, many Americans are becoming increasingly more restive of the Afghanistan war as death tolls increase overseas. He said the president’s lack of public explanation has made the public weary of the war, and said it is the president’s duty to remind the American people of the importance of success in Afghanistan.

The conversation then moved to domestic politics and the future of the defense budget. Senator McCain worries there are aspects of the newly elected Republican caucus that could cause “tensions” within the party moving forward, as he believes some members will seek to reduce overall defense spending and challenge the president’s strategy on Afghanistan. While these views do not represent a majority of the newly elected political class, he worries some of these “new Republicans” will increase calls for protectionism and isolationism.

Regarding the defense budget, Senator McCain agrees with Defense Secretary Gates, in that there are many areas within the budget that can be trimmed, while not reducing American capacity abroad. Cuts should begin with excessive high-cost items such as the F-35 fighter jet. The program is over budget and long overdue. Further, the senator said earmarks have bloated the defense budget. Moving forward, eliminating these inappropriate funding requests will save billions of dollars from the overall defense budget. Senator McCain said these cuts will reduce excess and unwanted costs, and allow the military to refocus our commitment to allies abroad. He sees this refocus playing out most notably in the Asia pacific region, where the United States can increase relations with key allies in the region, including expanded ties with India. As the world economy continues to shift away from a European centric focus to an Asian focus, there will be unpredictable shifts in geopolitical power, and the best way to prepare is with a strong American presence in the region,

Mr. Kagan then asked Senator McCain about the importance of free trade, and the administration’s inability to push forward an agreement in South Korea this week. While the president has spoken positively on free trade lately, Sentor McCain noted, the president has taken very little action on these issues. Senator McCain praised the president fr moving forward on the Korea agreement, but urged the president to move forward on all three trade agreements signed under the Bush administration. Each agreement, he said, is an opportunity for the American economy to compete abroad, and failure to ratify such agreements will risk losing important markets for American goods. The next six months will be critical in moving forward with these agreements, as China continues to sign free trade agreements throughout Asia.

The conversation then turned to Iraq, where Senator McCain discussed the hands off approach of the Obama administration after the Iraqi elections. America, he noted, has a vested interest in the future outcome of Iraq. He praised the administration for taking a greater interest in Iraq after months of debate, credited Vice President Biden for taking a hands on role in moving forward in the development of Iraq. If Iraq is going to be a state of democracy and freedom, the newly formed government must represent all religions.

Finally, Senator McCain discussed the Obama administration’s “Reset” policy with Russia.  He noted there remain two major problems with the START treaty, but signaled both issues can be resolved in the near term: the nuclear modernization and missile defense. If these two issues are resolved, he said, ratification of the agreement will move forward.



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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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