CBS News anchor Katie Couric talked exclusively, and separately to both presidential candidates. What emerged was a kind of long-distance debate. Their differences over the wars have never been sharper ... or clearer. Couric spoke with Sen. John McCain over satellite hookup while he was in New Hampshire and she was reporting from Amman, Jordan. What follows is a full transcript of the interview.
Katie Couric: Sen. McCain, Prime Minister Maliki and Sen. Obama seem to be on the same page when it comes to a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops by 2010. Are you feeling like the odd man out here?
Sen. John McCain: Prime Minister Maliki, General Petraeus, Admiral Mullen and the other leaders in Iraq have all agreed that it's conditioned-based. Sen. Obama said the surge would fail. He said that it couldn't succeed. He was wrong. He said he still doesn't agree that surge has succeeded now that everybody knows that it has succeeded. I said at the time that I supported the surge. I would much rather lose a campaign than lose a war. Sen. Obama has indicated that by his failure to acknowledge the success of the surge, that he would rather lose a war than lose a campaign.
I know what this conflict is all about. I will bring our troops home. I will bring them home in victory. I will not do what the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said would be very dangerous. We will have a stable Iraq that we won't have to return to because we have succeeded in the strategy and we will come home with victory and honor and not in defeat. Sen. Obama has said that if the surge failed that he might have to send troops back. After this surge has succeeded and we've won a victory, we'll never have to send Americans back.
Couric: Why do you think Prime Minister Maliki publicly supported and endorsed the concept of a timetable - a 16-month timetable? And isn't that one of the main objectives of the operation, Sen. McCain, to get the Iraqi military to stand up so U.S. forces can, in fact, stand down?
McCain: Well that's what they've been doing and we've succeeded. And the fact is that Prime Minster Maliki … always said it would be conditioned-based. And so has all of our leaders, and so has General Petraeus, who has had enormous success. If Sen. Obama had had his way, we'd of never had the surge.
And we'd of been out of there last March. Probably having to come back because of chaos in the region. Increased Iranian influence. So the fact is that we have succeeded. We are winning. They'll come home with honor. And it won't be just at a set timetable.
It'll be condition-based, which all of us are in agreement. We're including our military leaders. Including one of the great generals in history, General Petraeus, who device his strategy was succeeded when, frankly, most people, and those who thought, including political pundits, said we had lost the war, including Harry Reid, including Sen.Obama. So we've succeeded. And we will come home in victory. And it'll be based on conditions. But al Qaeda is not defeated. They're on the run, but they're not defeated. So we have to be prepared to continue to do what's necessary to succeed. But we have in order to win the war. But we have succeeded in the strategy. There's no doubt about it.
Couric: Senator McCain, Sen. Obama says, while the increased number of U.S. troops contributed to increased security in Iraq, he also credits the Sunni awakening and the Shiite government going after militias. And says that there might have been improved security even without the surge. What's your response to that?
McCain: I don't know how you respond to something that is such a false depiction of what actually happened. Colonel McFarlane (phonetic) was contacted by one of the major Sunni sheiks. Because of the surge we were able to go out and protect that sheik and others. And it began the Anbar awakening. I mean, that's just a matter of history. Thanks to General Petraeus, our leadership, and the sacrifice of brave young Americans. I mean, to deny that their sacrifice didn't make possible the success of the surge in Iraq, I think, does a great disservice to young men and women who are serving and have sacrificed.
They were out there. They were protecting these sheiks. We had the Anbar awakening. We now have a government that's effective. We have a legal system that's working, although poorly. And we have progress on all fronts, including an incredible measure of security for the people of Iraq. There will still be attacks. Al Qaeda's not defeated. But the progress has been immense. And to not recognize that, and why it happened, and how it happened, I think is really quite a commentary.
Couric: A commentary on what?
McCain: That Sen. Obama does not understand the challenges we face. And … not understand the need for the surge. And the fact that he did not understand that, and still denies that it has succeeded, I think the American people will make their judgment.
And I think that they will agree with me, that at enormous sacrifice, after four years, nearly four years of failed strategy, we have succeeded. And our troops will come home with honor. And we won't be defeated. And there won't be chaos in the region. There won't be increased Iranian influence in the region. And it will have a bearing on what happens in Afghanistan, as well as the entire region of the world. And I'm proud of what they've done. And to deny their success, I think is a fundamental misunderstanding of what happened. The American people will make a judgment.
Watch the CBS Evening News piece on the candidates' vision for Iraq.
Watch part of Couric's exclusive interview with Barack Obama in Jordan.
Couric: Sen. Obama also told me, Sen. McCain, that the money spent on those additional troops, on the surge, might have been more effective had it gone to Afghanistan or even to a better energy policy in the United States. What's your response?
McCain: The fact is we had four years of failed policy. We were losing. We were losing the war in Iraq. The consequences of failure and defeat of the United States of America in the first major conflict since 9/11 would have had devastating impacts throughout the region and the world.
Thanks to a great general, thanks to a lot of courage and bravery on the part of American men and women in the military, we succeeded. And we are on the path to an honorable withdrawal and … victory. Not having to return, as Sen. Obama said we might have to, if his strategy of straight dates for withdrawal didn't succeed.
So, of course it's been enormous sacrifice. And Americans are all saddened by it. But the consequences of failure would have been devastating. And that would have been the result if we had done what Sen. Obama wanted to do. Which would have meant our troops were out by last March, much less anytime soon, according to an arbitrary date.
And, again, the future is bright for the people of Iraq. The future is bright for stability in the region, for strengthening our alliances and succeeding in Afghanistan. And it's gonna be long and hard and tough struggle. If we had done what Sen. Obama had wanted, we would have been defeated. Now, we have the chance and opportunity for a very bright future.
Couric: Sen. Obama describes Afghanistan as the central front on the war on terror. That is where, after all, Senator, 9/11 was plotted. And now the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan seems to be a hot bed of al Qaeda activity. Why do you believe Iraq is the central front in the war on terror?
McCain: Well, one reason is because that's what Osama Bin Laden said that it was. He said, "Go to the country of the two rivers." That's what General Petraeus says, who I think is extremely knowledgeable. That it is the central battleground. And Afghanistan is very tough. And there's a number of great challenges there. And we have to employ the same strategy there that succeeded in Iraq. And we can succeed there. We've got the problems on the Pakistan-Afghan border.
We've got the poppy problems. We've got a weak government there in Kabul. But we can and will succeed there. And if we hadn't succeeded in Iraq, then the complications would have been incredibly more severe. And the chances of succeeding in Afghanistan would have been greatly diminished. Now that we've succeeded in Iraq, obviously, we will be freeing up troops to go to Afghanistan. And we will urge our NATO allies to send more troops and be more involved as well. We can succeed.
Couric: Do you agree with Sen. Obama's contention that up to three additional brigades should be deployed to Afghanistan?
McCain: I've said that for a long time. But, you see, Sen. Obama doesn't understand it's not just troops. It's an overall strategy. The kind that we employed in Iraq, which he said couldn't succeed, and wouldn't succeed, and still doesn't acknowledge as having succeeded incredibly.
That's the same strategy that will work in Afghanistan. So it's not just troops, it's hold and build. It's working and building up the Afghan army. It's combating the poppy crop. It's a stronger government of Afghanistan. It's a resettling and addressing the issue over the border areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan. So, it's an overall strategy. It's not just two or three brigades. It is also increased engagement on the part of our NATO allies. But I guarantee you, if we had failed in Iraq, and been defeated in Iraq, our challenges in Afghanistan would have been dramatically complicated and worse.
Couric: Sen. McCain, you sound very frustrated with Sen. Obama's perspective.
McCain: No, I'm not at all. I respect Sen. Obama. I admire his success. He won a very tough primary campaign. I respect him. I look forward to debating these issues. He's just has been wrong and he is wrong. And, therefore, I strongly disagree. And I think the American people will make a judgment about who was right. And so I admire and respect Sen. Obama. I wish he would have engaged in town hall meetings with me, as I asked him to do. So that we could talk about this and other issues, including the economy, which is the overriding issue to Americans today.
Couric: You have said, quote, "I know how to win wars." Which war, Sen. McCain, are you referring to?
McCain: Bosnia. Kosovo. First Gulf War. The conflict in Iraq. To name a few. I've been engaged in every single one of them, and in a decision making process as one of the senior members of the Armed Services Committee. And engaged in the debates on the floor of the United States Senate. And involved in the Armed Services Committee. I know those wars. I know conflicts. And I hate war. No one hates war more than the veteran who feels most plainly the loss of a veteran. And I know how to win wars.
Couric: What does victory in Iraq mean to you? And how long are you willing to engage U.S. troops to achieve it?
McCain: We have succeeded in Iraq. We are winning. We will be making additional withdrawals as everybody acknowledged. We may have an advisory capacity as even Sen. Obama agrees. And we may have security arrangements that are in the interest of both countries. But the fact is victory is being achieved now. A stable society. Secure environment. Functioning government. Functioning legal system. All of the trappings of a nation where people can feel secure in their future in a free and independent nation. And that's what we've succeeded in the strategy which will then mean we are winning the war and bring our troops home.
Couric: What is your biggest fear about bringing troops home too soon, Senator?
McCain: That we lose the fragile success that we have achieved. Al Qaeda is not defeated. They're on the run, but they're not defeated. So my greatest concern is that we announce a date for withdrawal, which would have had devastating consequences if we had done it when Sen. Obama wanted it done.
And we lose all the hard won gains that we achieved at the great sacrifice of American blood and treasure. I don't want that reversed. Sen. Obama had said, well, if things don't go right, he's prepared to send American troops back. I'm prepared to leave when we have victory; so, we will never have to send American troops back.
Couric: Finally, Senator, your campaign released a video today complaining about what you call the media's love affair with Sen. Obama. (LAUGHTER) Clearly you believe you're getting unfair coverage. Why do you think that's the case?
McCain: I don't think so. I think …it is what it is. I'm a big boy. And I'm enjoying every minute of the campaigning. And I'm certainly not complaining. And, in fact, I think its fun to watch.
Couric: Do you think your campaign simply isn't as adept as Sen. Obama's when it comes to facilitating media coverage?
McCain: No, I think my campaign's doing fine. We're two or three points behind. We're doing fine. I'm very happy with where we are. Sen. Obama has run a very successful campaign, gaining the nomination of his party, and attracting the attention of many people.
I'm happy. We're putting one foot ahead of the other. I'm happy with where we are. I relish the underdog. And I'm confident we're gonna be victorious. I'm very happy with my campaign. I'm very happy with where we are. Love the town hall meetings and I love the kind of campaigning we're doing.
Couric: Sen. John McCain, Senator, thank you very much.
McCain: Thank you, Katie. Thanks for having me on. And it must be late at night there, so I appreciate it.
Couric: Yeah. It is. And it's good to talk to you, Senator. Thanks again.
McCain: My pleasure.