Defense Sequestration and National Security

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A Conversation with Senator John McCain (R-AZ) - Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee

Moderated by Robert Kagan - The Brookings Institution & Foreign Policy Initiative

Photographs  | Summary  |  Transcript  |  Video

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Summary

Senator McCain applauded the Obama administration’s new approach to Asia.  In particular, he praised the America’s new joint operating base with Australia, calling it “a model for future cooperation in the region.”  While he said that he did not envision future conflict with China, he did say that the best way to prevent a Sino-U.S. conflict was to establish a strong military presence in the region, including an improved alliance system.

In the wake of cost overruns with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and in the face of looming long-term sequestration cuts to the defense budget, McCain emphasized the necessity of educating the American people about the critical importance of defense.  He remarked that he was partnering with other Senators to mitigate the impact of sequestration, but made clear that efforts to move forward needed to address cost overruns in the Pentagon’s acquisition programs. 

McCain contrasted the comments of Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who has called for efforts to mitigate sequestration cuts, and President Barack Obama, who has vowed to veto any such attempt.  But he ultimately blamed Congress for sequestration, saying it was the product of bicameral negotiations to raise the debt ceiling in August 2011.

McCain emphasized that the world is at “a hinge of history,” as evidenced by the Arab Spring, protests in Russia, unrest in China, and populist groups in the United States like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street.

In regards to the Arab Spring, McCain stated that the prospect of Islamist government does give him reason to doubt the necessity of overturning the dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.  While he is guardedly optimistic about the prospects for democracy in the region moving forward, he urged the United States to make clear it support for liberal forces in the region. He observed that Egyptians believe that Washington was slow to support them during the revolution against Mubarak, and American standing there was still damaged. 

The system in Moscow is corrupt, McCain emphatically said, as evidenced by the death of Sergei Magnitsky, the imprisonment of Mikhail Khordokovsky, and the continued occupation of the Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.  He added that critics of the New START strategic arms control treaty were being proven correct in their concerns over Russia’s attempt to limit America’s missile defense plans in Europe, given recent statements from Russian President Dmitiri Medvedev. 

McCain said that there have always been tensions between the isolationist and internationalist wings of the party.  Indeed, he was appalled by a resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives that call for the United States to have nothing to do with Libya, while at the same time Qaddafi’s forces were at the gates of Benghazi in March 2001.  Those who advocate a strong American role in the world must make clear the necessity of U.S. leadership in a turbulent and dangerous world.  Advancing this cause will require continued public education, and clear presidential leadership. This leadership, he said, has been sorely lacking from President Obama.

McCain added that the United States cannot extensively rely on its European allies, as the current financial crisis will impair their ability to act abroad in the future.  He concluded by noting that if the United States will continue to “lead from behind,” someone else will lead from the front.  If those countries are Russia and China, then U.S. interests in the international arena will suffer.  Strong American action abroad will be therefore needed in the future more than ever.

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Mission Statement

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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