TIME Newsmaker Interview

Interview: John McCain On Ukraine, Syria, Barack Obama, Chris Christie

Tapping a black sharpie on his right hand, John McCain sat in his Senate offices on the second floor of the Russell Senate Office Building, prime Senate real estate and a sign of McCain’s seniority. This is the Arizona senator’s fourth term and he tells me he’s laying the ground work to run again in 2016, though no decisions have been made yet. “I just love the fight. I love the arena,” he says with a fierce grin. “I enjoy going down there—and raising hell just like my old friend Ted Kennedy used to do—and be in it. I’m probably involved in more issues that I’ve ever been since I’ve been in the Senate. I enjoy it. I don’t think I’ve lost my edge.”

Lacking an edge has never been a problem for the famously straight-talking senator and nor was it on Friday afternoon as I sat down with him to discuss a range of issues before the Senate and his party. McCain refused to speculate about what might have been if he’d been elected president in 2008. “Honestly, it’s hard for me to say,” he says, looking off towards his bookshelf at the far wall. Would he ever run again? “No,” he laughs, “I’ve been rejected often enough.” (More on the 2016 crop of GOP hopefuls below.) But as he contemplates the distinctions between himself and President Obama, some clear differences form. “Contrary to allegations, I would not want to send American troops into harms way,” he says. “We can achieve our goals in many other fashions. But I do believe the best way not to send troops into harms way is to be strong and steadfast. In the words of Margaret Thatcher, ‘Ronald Reagan won the Cold War without firing a shot,’ ” he says.

He gets up and finds a speech he gave recently on the Senate floor in which he read Obama’s words on foreign policy and then detailed how the President has failed to live up to his pledges. “His actions contradict his statements,” he says. “And that’s unfortunate because what it’s done is made countries all over the world believe the United States does not live up to its commitments.”

That said, McCain remains anxious to work with Obama. He doesn’t believe the President is a lame duck just yet. Though, McCain laments, the President is less inclined to work across the aisle these days. “I think he’s got to do more outreach. People in the White House… they say, ‘Come on we spent all of last year blah blah blah, you know. Well, we did do a budget for the first time in four years. We did finally prevent the shut down of the government. We did raise the debt limit. We did a farm bill. There are some things that he could find that we could do on a bipartisan basis, and that may not be his top agenda items, but he’s got to do more outreach. I thought when he had a couple of dinners with Republican senators, we really had a good environment there. Because he is a very very articulate and attractive guy in a setting with eight or nine senators and him. Because he was smarter than the rest of us,” McCain says. “But I don’t see that now. I don’t see any of that.”

In a free ranging 40-minute interview, McCAin touched on the current challenges in the Ukraine, the Syrian civil war, the 2016 GOP field and the policy issues near and dear to his heart. Here is an edited transcript of the exchange:

Q. You famously declared in 2008, “We are all Georgians.” So are we all Ukrainians now?

We are all Ukrainians in the respect that we have a sovereign nation… that is again being taken into the Russian orbit, taken in as part of Russia. That is not acceptable to an America that stands up for the rights of human beings. We are Georgians. And we are Ukrainians. And we are Burmese. And we are Tibetans. We are a country with a tradition of standing up for people’s human rights.

Q. Turning to Syria, Saudi Arabia is reportedly considering giving the Syrian opposition [anti-aircraft weapons called] manpads. Do you think that’s a good idea?

I think it’s a great idea… Tell me that mass atrocities aren’t going on in Syria today. I’ve got the pictures. You’ve seen them. Now, [Obama]’s contradicting, by failing to help these people, his own statement of presidential policy. So, I think he’s betraying his commitment. He’s obviously saying one thing and doing another, I mean it’s patently obvious.

[McCain gets up and finds a file on his desk. It's full of pictures of victims of chemical weapons attacks in Syria. He flips through it, showing them to me, before slapping the file down on the coffee table in front of him.]

The seminal moment was when he was going to attack Syria because he said they had crossed the red line and didn’t. The credibility of the United States in the Middle East crumbled. Now, why do I say it’s good to have manpads? There are no good options in Syria and the options get worse every day, the inflow of foreign fighters, the increase in [the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, known as ISIS] who are so horrible that even al Nusra, even al Qaeda fights against them. There’s still a strong and viable opposition in Syria, which is non-radicalized Islam and I don’t care what people say because I’ve met them. So right now there is no good option and as we speak. Right now there are helicopters flying over dropping these horrific barrel bombs. I want to shoot them down. And to stop these atrocities I’m willing to take the risk of a manpad, the risk of them falling into the wrong hands, because we’ve got to stop it. I’m guardedly confident that we could get them into the hands of the right people and keep them in the hands of the right people.

Q. You would support the U.S. giving them manpads?

That’s right. I would prefer it. But if the United States won’t and the Saudis do, I would be nervous, I would be concerned, but as opposed to doing nothing? No.

Q. The head of the Free Syrian Army, Gen. Salim Idris, was recently replaced by his own men. What do you make of that move?

I attribute a lot of it to the fact that we never really supported Idris, so he was unable to provide the means and the equipment that his people needed. So, I trace a lot of it to our failure to support him sufficiently.

Q. Are you disappointed when you hear from Evangelicals who support Assad because they believe he’s on the side of the Christians?

I met with a group of Christian leaders here. We had a rather spirited discussion. I believe that with a truly democratic and freely chosen government in Syria the rights of Christians would not be dependent on the good will of a leader like Bashar Assad, of a brutal dictator. And the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Council has committed unequivocally on many occasions that they would protect the rights of Christians, of Kurds, of Jews, of people of all faiths. I believe they will.

Q. Who do you like for President in 2016? New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie?

I think he’s still a very viable candidate. I do believe that obviously he has to get this issue behind him. I think he’s handled it quite well. There’s always the question in these situations on whether there’s new information and that’s the caution that I have but I think the smartest thing he could’ve done is have a press conference that lasted until he answered every possible question. I thought that was really a wise tactic on his part.

Q. Any others? Rand Paul? Jeb Bush?

Ted Cruz? I think we may have the most diversified group of candidates in everybody’s memory. You know last time there was a large group of candidates, but there was a definitely frontrunner from the beginning even through there were ups and downs it was pretty clear that he was the front runner. Right now there is no front runner. Senator Cruz has carved out a significant part of the Tea Party and that group. [Kentucky Senator] Rand Paul, I would put in the kind of libertarian sort of conservative group. I think he and [Texas] Sen. Cruz will be competing some of the same support, the Tea Party because there’s overlaps. I think that [former Florida Governor] Jeb Bush is an extremely viable candidate. I think his pause is the obvious one; his last name is Bush. But at the same time, he may be competing with someone named Clinton, so it’s kind of a balancing act there. Two dynasties clashing. I think that [Florida Senator] Marco Rubio is a very bright and very articulate young senator and has a great deal of attractiveness to him.

Q. Did immigration ruin it for Rubio?

I don’t think so because I don’t think that Marco’s necessarily competing for that section of the Republican Party. Over 70% of the Republicans support a path to citizenship. So he may not get the support of the very active – and they are very active – opponents of immigration, but I think he is very attractive to many.

I think that [South Dakota Senator] John Thune would be a viable candidate. I think it you look at our governors ranging from [Louisiana’s] Bobby Jindall, to [Ohio’s] John Kasich particularly. [Wisconsin’s] Scott Walker, he’s been through the fire. [Texas's] Rick Perry—I think he’s going to run again and I think he’s going to have money behind him. So I certainly wouldn’t count him out and I’m sure he’s learned a lot. I think that one thing that is clear is that there’s no clear favorite and that’s probably healthy for the party. Campaigns matter.

Q. Mitt Romney in 2016?

I don’t think Mitt would do that. I really don’t think that he wants to run again. He’s very close with his family and I don’t think he wants to put his family through it again.

Q. It seems like immigration isn’t going anywhere in the House this year and Democrats like David Plouffe have said it probably won’t go in 2015 or 2016 ahead of the next presidential election. So what do you make of the idea of not doing immigration reform until 2017?

I think every year you can find an excuse not to act on it. Probably around 2015, I could give you an argument for not doing it in 2017—the make up of Congress, who’s going to be President. You can always find an excuse not to act. I still have some hope—I can’t use the word optimism—that we can convince our friends in the House that we ought to move forward in some way. Now, why do I have some hope? It’s because I know that the business communities, the Catholic Church, Evangelicals, small business, large businesses, the growers—all of our Republican base—have been galvanized to support this. It’s one of our highest priorities… I see enormous pressures from literally every part of the Republican Party base. Not to mention the Democrats: the labor unions, the farm workers, the AFL-CIO. There’s never been a larger coalition of support that I’ve ever seen.

Q. You used to be very engaged on the issue of climate change?

I’m still interested in it. And I think there are a lot of things that we can do like this transition that we’re making to natural gas thanks to our resources and I still believe in nuclear power as one of the big parts of the answers, and that’s almost impossible to get. And I think we need to address greenhouse gas emissions. But I try to get involved in issues were I see a legislative result… But there’s going to be no movement in the Congress of the United States certainly this year and probably next year. So I just leave the issue alone because I don’t see a way through it, and there are certain fundamentals, for example nuke power, that people on the left will never agree with me on. So why should I waste my time when I know the people on the left are going to reject nuclear power? I don’t believe that you can really succeed in reducing greenhouse gases unless you have a lot of nuclear power plants. They’re against them. Well, okay, I move on to other issues.

Q. You’ve been in Congress a long time.

A long time, since the Coolidge Administration.

Q. Not that long! Do you think it’s changed?

Of course we’ve seen changes. One of the biggest changes of course was this year was in the Senate procedures—the nuclear option. If we regain the majority one of the Senate I would hope and I would urge that the first things that we do is reverse that. It has really created enormous ill will here.

Q. So you want to work with Obama on foreign policy?

Absolutely. I’d want to work with right now, immediately, on the Ukraine, getting them the assistance that they need. I want to work with him in getting International Monetary Fund funding. I want to work with him on a lot of democracy efforts throughout the world. I want to work with him on relations with China. There’s so many areas that we can work together.

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