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Face the Nation Transcripts, August 31, 2014: McCain, King, Smith

The latest on the threat posed by ISIS in Iraq and Syria and the unfolding saga with Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine
August 31: McCain, King, Smith 24:17

(CBS News) -- Below is a transcript of the August 31 edition of Face the Nation. Guests included: John McCain, Adam Smith, Peter King, Danielle Pletka and Michael Singh.

MAJOR GARRETT, HOST: I'm Major Garrett.

Today on FACE THE NATION: the threat from ISIS grows. Two Americans are killed fighting with the terror group that is also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, as President Obama studies the danger and the options.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't want to put the cart before the horse. We don't have a strategy yet.


GARRETT: The Pentagon is conducting surveillance for airstrikes in Syria. Will the president approve them? Will they be enough to defeat ISIS, and is that even the goal of U.S. policy?

And Russian troops and military equipment enter Eastern Ukraine. More economic sanctions appear likely, but can the West reverse Russian aggression? We will ask the president one of the top president's critics, Arizona's John McCain.

We will get the latest on the fight against ISIS and potential threats to America from Congressman Peter King of the House Homeland Security Committee and Adam Smith of the House Armed Services Committee.

Sixty years of news because this is FACE THE NATION.

Good morning again.

We start this morning with the growing debate about what the U.S. and its allies can and should do to combat the growing threat from the terror group ISIS. Yesterday, the policy debate was front and center in the pages of "The New York Times."

Secretary of State John Kerry, who is being sent to the region to build an international coalition, wrote: "Airstrikes alone won't defeat this enemy. A much fuller response is demanded from the world. We need to support Iraqi forces and the moderate Syrian opposition who are facing ISIS on the front lines. We need to disrupt and degrade ISIS capabilities and counter its extremist message in the media."

And on the other side, Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham wrote that regional allies are important, but: "Ultimately, ISIS is a military force and it must be confronted militarily. Mr. Obama has begun to take military actions against ISIS in Iraq, but they have been tactical and reactive half-measures. Continuing to confront ISIS in Iraq but not in Syria would be fighting with one hand tied behind our back."

Senator John McCain joins us now from Cottonwood in his home state of Arizona.

Senator, specifically as you can, can you describe for our audience what a full-blown strategy against ISIS would look like? SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: A full-blown strategy would be recognizing that we now are facing the largest, most powerful, wealthiest terrorist organization in history, and it is going to require some very strong measures to defeat them.

And they must be defeated, not contained. And we -- first of all, we have to have a strategy. The president said he didn't. But what are our goals there? If you want to build coalitions, what are you telling our allies, that we want to save people who are stranded on mountaintops or protect American troops?

You have to have a specific strategy to defeat ISIS. And that means, among other things, understanding that ISIS has obliterated the boundaries between Syria and Iraq, main headquarters being in Syria. So we have to get better weapons to the Peshmerga. We have to have airstrikes in Syria as well as Iraq.

We have to arm the FSA, the Free Syrian Army. One of the biggest mistakes ever made in my view in recent times was the president's overruling his entire national security team, including the secretary of state, that argued two years ago for providing weapons for the Free Syrian Army. That was a seminal moment.

Remember, this is a president who said it is not a matter of whether, but a matter of when Bashar al-Assad would go. We have to have reconciliation between the Sunni and the new government in Iraq. And most of all, we have to have a clear strategy dictated by a policy, and that policy has to be, we have to defeat ISIS, not contain, not stop, but defeat ISIS, because they are a direct threat over time to the United States of America.

GARRETT: Let me pick up on that, Senator McCain. Are you saying we are at war and should say so clearly to the world and to Congress with ISIS, and does that also mean introducing special forces into the mix?

MCCAIN: I think that it requires additional U.S. troops, not ground combat units, but it is going to require some more special forces. It is going to require some more forward air controllers. It is going to require some more advisers for training of the Iraqi military, which right now is, as we all know, near collapse.

And we have to also work closely with the Kurds and help a very -- especially with weapons to the Peshmerga, which is a very -- they can fight, and Iraqis will fight. But there has to be a policy and a strategy to implement that policy. And first we have to tell -- if we want to build a coalition, we have to tell those people what our goals are.

And these people, by the way, are very cynical, particularly the Saudis and others, because we said we were going to strike Syria, and then the president reversed himself without even telling them.

GARRETT: Is this a war footing we should be on with ISIS? Does it represent that much of a danger, and should that be the organizing principle of the strategy whenever it is developed? MCCAIN: I think it starts with an understanding that this is a direct threat to the United States of America, that it may be one of the biggest we have ever faced.

I was astounded when the president of the United States said that the world has always been messy and it has been accentuated by social media. That means that the president of the United States is either in denial or overwhelmed. He is either in denial or overwhelmed, one of the two, because whether it be Ukraine, which maybe we will have time for a few minutes on, but that this is a direct threat to the United States of America.

And we are seeing, of course, Vladimir Putin on the march in Ukraine.

GARRETT: What should be done in the Ukraine? The president is talking about more economic sanctions when he meets with NATO leaders next week in Europe.

MCCAIN: First of all, we have got to realize what Vladimir Putin is. He is an old KGB colonel that wants to restore the Russian empire.

When Yanukovych was overthrown peacefully by the people of Ukraine, indicating their commitment to being part of Europe, Vladimir Putin had to take Crimea because of his desire to have that naval base and access to the Mediterranean. Then Vladimir Putin thought that he could excite enough separatists, enough pro-Russians in Eastern Ukraine to establish some sort of area under his control.


GARRETT: Right, but what to do next, what to do now, Senator McCain?

MCCAIN: What to do now is impose strong sanctions.

Do you know that we would not even give intelligence information or weapons to Ukraine? Give them the weapons they need. Give them the wherewithal they need. Give them the ability to fight. They will fight.

And as far as Vladimir Putin is concerned, put strong sanctions. If you're looking at it from Vladimir Putin's viewpoint, Major, he has done pretty well with minimum of penalty. And as long as the Europeans are dependent on his energy supplies, they are not going to do much.

GARRETT: Senator, I have talked to people at the White House who say the last thing that region needs is more weapons, that is making the situation worse. You disagree.

Why do you believe the introduction of U.S. weapons would make a difference on the ground in Eastern Ukraine?

MCCAIN: For God's sake, can't we help these people defend themselves? This is not an incursion. This is an invasion.


GARRETT: Is it a war? Has there been an act of war committed by Russia against Ukraine?

MCCAIN: I think, from the Ukrainian standpoint, you would say that.

He is establishing a land bridge all the way to Crimea. And he may then threaten Moldova and the Baltics if he continues to succeed. When say, is it -- quote -- "war," it is a conflict that requires our participation, not through American ground troops, but our participation, our help and our leadership. And that is what seems to be missing.

Libya now is collapsed into a failed state. That is what happens when you lead from behind, and we are now facing more crises in more parts of the world than at any time since the end of the Cold War.

GARRETT: Senator McCain, before I let you go, I want to talk to you about the Ebola crisis in Africa, 1,500 dead, 3,000 cases already, 20,000 predicted in the next six months.

Should the United States send military medical assets like the USS Comfort or USS Mercy to treat some of those afflicted by this virus? And should the United States be more directly involved in trying to contain this outbreak?

MCCAIN: I would like to see -- obviously, all of us would like to see the United States more involved. We have hospital ships because they can move from one place to another.

If there is a role where they can play where we can provide additional medical help, I think all the world would support it. And some experts are now saying that this is a very, incredibly dangerous situation that we are facing. So we should marshal up all the assets that we have to do what we can, but it is a very complicated and difficult situation, obviously.

GARRETT: Senator McCain, thank you very much for joining us on FACE THE NATION.

For more of the threat from ISIS, we turn to Congressman Adam Smith, a top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. He's joining us from Seattle. And Republican Peter King, a senior member of the House Homeland Security and Intelligence Committee, Congressman King joins us from his home state of New York.

Congressman Smith, let me start with you.

Do you have any reaction to Senator McCain's comments about Syria and the Ukraine? Specifically, let's start with Syria.

REP. ADAM SMITH (D), WASHINGTON: Well, I think the point is absolutely it is a military conflict. But it is also a political one. And I think the problem is, we need reliable partners to work with in the region. If we simply come in and start bombing ISIS, we run the risk of forcing Sunnis into their camp.

And let's take Iraq as an example. When the problems began in Iraq, there was considerable criticism that the president didn't act right then. But the problem was, we had the Maliki government in Iraq. And if we had acted right then, we would have coming in on the side of Iran and the Shias in a Shia-Sunni civil war.

And what we need in Iraq and what we need in Syria is, we need moderate Sunnis to oppose ISIS. To do that, we have to build that coalition. Building that coalition is not an excuse for not doing military action. It is making sure that that military action is effective by insisting on a change in government in Iraq, getting something even approaching a power-sharing arrangement to bring some Sunnis back in, put us in a stronger position.

Similarly, when we were able to partner with the Kurds, that put us in a stronger position to confront ISIS. In Syria, it is much more complicated. We have got to work with the free Syria movement, but they are relatively weak and divided. And the last problem we have there is for too long potential allies in the region like Turkey and Saudi Arabia were funding groups like al-Nusra and ISIS, you know, increasing their power.

Now I think those folks have seen the light, and they want to try to work with us, but it takes time to build a coalition. We can't simply bomb first and ask questions later. We have to have the right targets and the right support in order to be effective in stopping ISIS, instead of uniting Sunnis around them.

GARRETT: Very good.

Congressman King, I want to play for you something that British Prime Minister David Cameron said on Friday about the threat to the U.K. and possibly other Western nations. Let's take a listen.


DAVID CAMERON, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: What we're facing in Iraq now with ISIL is a greater and deeper threat to our security than we have known before. People are rightly concerned about so-called foreign fighters who have traveled from Britain to Syria and Iraq, taken part in terrorist acts, and now come back to threaten our security here at home. And the scale of this threat is growing.


GARRETT: Congressman King, based on what you know, what can you tell our audience about the likelihood of an ISIS or ISIL attack on the United States? Is that really the leading threat we have to face here, or is it more something that the Europeans, specifically the British, have to be concerned with?

REP. PETER KING (R), NEW YORK: No, Major, I would say that we have to face it as much as the British do.

While there's more Brits in Syria than there are Americans, the fact is all of those Brits -- it could be 500, as David Cameron said and there's also thousands of others from other European nations who have gone to Syria -- they all have European passports and they can all come to the United States.

In addition to that, we have over 100 Americans that are there and a number of Canadians who can come back to the United States. And as we have been seen in the past, the United States is always the main target of these terrorist organizations. So, no, we are very concerned about this.

And I would say, I wish our president were showing the same leadership that David Cameron showed. What is President Obama waiting for? I agree with Adam Smith that we have to have coalitions and we have to try to get other forces on our side.

But it was a year ago this all started. I remember being at the White House with Denis McDonough talking about the importance of air attacks in Syria. And he had allies lined up, and then the president pulled the rug out and those allies are going to be very hard now to get back into a coalition.

Also, meeting with Vice President Biden in the White House trying to get support to groups in the Free Syrian Army. Virtually nothing has been done on that. We can't wait forever. And the longer we do wait, the stronger ISIS becomes, more people amassing it, and more America and Britain become at risk.

GARRETT: I would like to ask you both.


GARRETT: Adam, I will give you a second.

SMITH: Sure.

GARRETT: Let me ask you both, is this a situation that should remind us of what we did or did not do with al Qaeda? We did not declare war on al Qaeda. Should we declare war on ISIS and should we organize the U.S. government and a military strategy around defeating it as rapidly as possible, even if that means we can't always have the perfect or even near-perfect coalition that you talked about a minute ago, Congressman Smith?

SMITH: Well, I think the problem with doing that is what Peter references, the air attacks that the president threatened and didn't do. Those were air attacks that were going to be against the Assad regime, the very people that ISIS is fighting.

So I think that shows the complexity of the situation. We do not want to come into Syria now on the side of Assad. We have got to find other folks, the free Syria movement, to work with. But that isn't simple. And, again, if we go in and appear to be, you know, choosing either Assad's side or the Shia side in a civil war, then we simply drive more Sunnis into the arms of ISIS.

That's why we have got to build these partnerships. Building these partnerships isn't about, oh, we would rather not do it ourselves. It is about it won't be effective if we do it ourselves. Yes, the threat is real. I think it is a bit of an overstatement at this point to say that that threat is on par with al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda was actively plotting attacks and they had numerous of them that they were plotting against the U.S. and other Western targets. ISIS has a lot of foreign fighters who are coming in, some of whom are going back, and we are worried about lone wolf attacks. There is no evidence at this point that they are actually doing the sort of command-and-control plotting, planning specific attacks against Western targets, like al Qaeda was, gosh, for better -- for almost a decade before 9/11.

GARRETT: Congressman King, let me pick up on that, because there are some analysts who have said the fact that we are now carrying out airstrikes in Iraq will make ISIS more likely than it would have been originally to attack the United States, create a grievance for them that didn't exist before.

Would that also be the case in Syria, and is that something for the U.S. government to ponder?


Al Qaeda didn't need a grievance to attack us on 9/11. These groups, they don't need any excuse. They will attack us whenever they can. And I would disagree with Adam. I believe strongly that ISIS does plan on attacking the United States. Even three years ago, their predecessor organization attempted to attack Fort Knox, and two people were arrested and convicted in Kentucky for that attempted attack.

And, again, Adam talks about and the president talks about setting up this coalition. They started a year ago, and they can't put it together. How long do we wait? The longer we wait, the more dangerous ISIS becomes. And my main criticism of last year was the president lined up these allies for the bombing attacks, he drew the red line, and then he pulled the rug out without telling those allies.

And now they don't trust the president. And that's why you are going to find a reluctance for other countries, for instance, other Arab states to get involved with us in a coalition.

GARRETT: Let me talk to you both about Ukraine, because I have talked to several analysts who believe that is a bigger threat, because Vladimir Putin is trying to upset all understood international orders, international rules of law in Ukraine.

What, Congressman Smith, do you think is the appropriate response from the United States government? Should it only be sanctions or should the United States, as Senator McCain suggested, introduce arms and intelligence on behalf of the Ukrainians fighting the Russian incursion? SMITH: Well, first of all, both of these situations are threats. I would certainly argue that ISIS is the bigger threat, because they are a terrorist organization with specific designs on disrupting the region and ultimately attacking us in the West.

But, obviously, containing Putin is a threat. And I think we should support the Ukrainian government strongly in pushing back against the separatists and the Russian incursion. That means strong economic sanctions against Russia. I even believe that it would be appropriate -- and we have sent some non-lethal aid to the Ukraine.

I think it is appropriate to up that level of aid, to make them a more capable fighting force to resist this incursion and to make it as painful as possible for Putin to make any progress in the Ukraine. So, I do think we should be more forceful in supporting the Ukrainian government.

GARRETT: Congress King, you have got about 30 seconds. Wrap us on this, if you would please.

KING: I agree entirely with Adam Smith on that, as I do on many issues, by the way.

No, I think it is important that we do arm the Ukrainians, allow them to defend themselves, give them the wherewithal that they need, because we have to let Putin know that there's going to be a price to pay for this. Otherwise, we can see a move on the Baltics. We can see troubles spreading through Poland and the Czech Republic.

He has to be told he cannot recreate a Soviet or a Russian empire. And if we can provide weapons -- and we should -- to the Ukrainians, I think we should do it at the earliest possible moment.

GARRETT: Congressmen King, Congressman Smith, thank you so much for joining us on FACE THE NATION.

KING: Thank you.

SMITH: Thank you.

GARRETT: And we will be right back in just one minute.


GARRETT: For some analysis this morning, we turn to Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute and Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Great to have you with us.

Danielle, your thoughts on where we are in Syria, what the president needs to do. And how damaging in your opinion was his candid, the White House says, admission we don't have a strategy yet?

DANIELLE PLETKA, AMERICAN ENTERPRISE INSTITUTE: Thank you for those extremely easy questions. (LAUGHTER)

PLETKA: Look, the situation we are in, in Syria is terrible. And it has been growing worse over the last three years.

And the problem is, we are no closer to an answer. The president was being candid in a way that we don't want our presidents to be candid. We want our presidents to have a strategy. And when they don't, we don't want them to say so.

The reality is, we haven't gotten together a set of ideas or a set of allies to fight ISIS or al Qaeda-related groups in Syria. We haven't got a strategy to push them out of Iraq. We haven't figured out how it is that we are going to defeat these groups. And, frankly speaking, it is a disaster for us, not just in the Middle East. It is a disaster for us wherever al Qaeda and those groups are.

Libya is falling apart. We are not talking about it. Yemen is falling apart. We are not talking about it. We have got threats throughout the region, and they are going to be at our doorstep before we know it.

GARRETT: Michael, is there a danger in overamplifying the threat of ISIS? There is a sense now that they're 20-feet tall and that they are knocking on the doorstep.

MICHAEL SINGH, WASHINGTON INSTITUTE FOR NEAR EAST POLICY: Well, look, ISIS poses a major threat to our interests in lots of different ways. I think there is this question of foreign fighters and the sort of threat to the homeland. There is obviously the big threat that they pose to our interests there in Iraq and Syria and in the Middle East more broadly.

But I do think is important that we not sort of -- we not treat them as though they are 10-feet tall. This is a threat that if we have the will, if we decide to do it, I think we can address. This is a group which has thrived on sort of mobility and moving very quickly.

And I think it is a vulnerable group. And I think that the strikes that we have undertaken already in places like the Mosul dam area, in Amirli recently, just yesterday, demonstrate that this is a group with vulnerabilities if we do get that right strategy together to take it on.

GARRETT: We have a developing government in Iraq and a government that is unbearable, the Assad regime, in Syria.

Talking about a coalition outside that seems to miss the underlying point that we don't have a real partner in Iraq yet. We may over time. And we don't have a partner that we can work with in Syria. How much does that complicate what the president acknowledges is a highly complex situation, Danielle?

PLETKA: I think it has really been exaggerated. The reality is that we should be able to address what this problem is whether we like the government in Baghdad or not. And what it has appeared to me to be over the last few months is nothing more than a reason not to have a strategy, not to act. No, no, we can't act because we are waiting for the good guys to arrive in Baghdad.

Oh, well, the good guys have arrived in Baghdad, but we're not sure that they are really together yet. These cannot be excuses for us. Either we have a national interest here or we don't. If we don't, then it doesn't matter who is in Baghdad. If we do, then we should be pushing harder to pull them together, but we should be figuring out what is imperative, even as they put their own democratic government together.

GARRETT: Michael, you have said that you believe that Ukraine is actually, of the two -- and these are enormously complex and difficult challenges -- bigger for all of the players on the world stage, because Vladimir Putin is trying to essentially rewrite existing world order that has existed since the end of the Cold War.

SINGH: Well, that's right.

I think you see Russia, which is a major military state, obviously a nuclear armed power, really pushing up against every norm, principle and red line which has governed Western relations for 20 years now. It is really threatening peace in Europe in a way that we haven't seen in a long time.

And I think it is creating a danger that the great power relations in the 21st century are really going to be dictated by conflict, as opposed to cooperation. That is not something we want to see. And it is a very difficult challenge to meet. We haven't, I think, done enough in Ukraine. We haven't done enough to support the Ukrainians.

But even if we do more, there is no easy solution to what is happening there.

GARRETT: Does more mean arms?

SINGH: I think more means a lot of different things. I think it does mean that we have to increase sanctions much more rapidly.

You can't have this sort of incremental approach to sanctions. I think. I think it does mean providing military assistance to the Ukrainians. Now, that means not just weaponry. It means intelligence and things like that as well, which we have been reluctant to provide.

And I think it means that NATO has to get serious. Look, NATO appears as though it was really unprepared for this crisis, and that is not acceptable. I think NATO has to with the summit that is coming up this week decide how it is going to meet these types of chance in the future, and as well as this challenge itself.

GARRETT: Real quick, do you think NATO should enlarge itself to take Ukraine in sort of on the fly, which is now being discussed? SINGH: Look, I think the Ukrainians are interested in that.

But you heard very clearly from the president that he is reluctant to consider that kind of relationship with Ukraine. I think that the -- there's plenty of ways that we can help Ukraine without even having to take that step.


SINGH: So let's first, I think, consider the things which are within reach, like giving them military assistance, which they don't need to be a NATO ally to receive.

GARRETT: Very good.

Michael Singh, Danielle Pletka, thank you so much for joining us this morning on FACE THE NATION.

And we will be right back.


GARRETT: Well, that's it for us this morning. Thank you for watching FACE THE NATION.

Bob will be right back here next Sunday.

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