Watch CBS News

Transcript Excerpt: Sen. John McCain

SCOTT PELLEY: You met last night with senior members of the Iraqi government?

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: Yeah. We gave them a little straight talk and told them that, you know, there are certain benchmarks that we expect them to meet. And I gave them my assessment that the American patience or tolerance for the war is limited, and we've got to show success. And the reaction, I think, was a little strong. But overall, I've met with most of these people on many occasions. So, it's not as if we're strangers. We can speak frankly to each other. But no, they didn't particular like to hear it. Some of them don't quite understand the urgency of them meeting these benchmarks. We don't have an unlimited amount of time here. We've go to have the oil revenue thing pass. We've got to have provincial elections. We've got to have a number of other issues resolved here so that we can show the American people that progress is being made.

PELLEY: And you told them what, to get your point across?

MCCAIN: I described to them what's been going on in the House and Senate, and just said that I think there's a window here where we need to show progress. And so did my other colleagues who were there.

PELLEY: What is it that the Iraqi leadership doesn't get?

MCCAIN: It varies. In at least one case, I don't think they quite understand the political climate very well, the political climate back in the United States. I think that's probably the problem. But couple of the others, they're very well attuned.

PELLEY: And when you say they don't understand the political climate in the States, what did you tell them?

MCCAIN: Well, I told them that I believe that we had a window of opportunity of some period of time where the American people should expect them to enact pieces of legislation and show that they are governing and governing effectively, ranging from oil revenue sharing to all across the board, to training and equipping, to investing their money -- and they have a lot of money, billions as you know -- into projects for economic development. In other words, we need to see across-the-board progress on the part of the Iraqi government. And I think they have been showing some progress. I would point out they're only ten months old. But still, I tried to convey to them a sense of urgency.

PELLEY: When does our patience and our money run out?

MCCAIN: I think that that is dependent directly upon our success on the ground, or prospects of success, and also the political and economic process moving forward. I think it's directly related to that. I still believe that if you can show the American people a steady progress towards political, economic, and military stability, then the American people will say 'okay.' But I do understand that it's not an unlimited amount of time, to say the least.

PELLEY: In all of the polls, the majority of the American people say it's time to begin withdrawing the troops. The House is on record saying it's time to begin withdrawing. The Senate now on the record. You say more troops are the answer. Why?

MCCAIN: Well, I think the surge is a new strategy. It's not just more troops. It's a new strategy. The second thing is, polls are interesting. If you ask the American people, "If we can show you a path to success, a way that you can have a government that's functioning and the military situation under control," of course they'll support it. They're frustrated, and understandably, by the lack of progress in Iraq. And that's because of the terrible mismanagement of this war that went on for nearly four years.

PELLEY: Mismanaged by whom?

MCCAIN: By the Secretary of Defense primarily, but also others. And obviously, the responsibility rests with the President of the United States. That's what you're getting around to. But mistakes have been made in every war. Abraham Lincoln made mistakes. Harry Truman made mistakes. Many mistakes have been made in every war. The key to it is, can you fix the problem and can you move forward and succeed? I believe that we have a new strategy and new generals. And I believe that we can succeed. And I believe the consequences of failure are catastrophic. And I want to say, Scott, [to] those who say 'just withdraw,' then you say, what next? So far, I've not gotten a satisfactory answer to what Plan B is.

PELLEY: You've described Secretary [of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld as among the worst Secretaries of Defense in the history of the country?


PELLEY: Why do you say so?

MCCAIN: The war was just very badly mismanaged. There's ample evidence of that. There's no doubt about that aspect of it. The key is, do we fix the problem or do we leave and face the consequences of failure, which I still think are terrible?

PELLEY: But the Secretary of Defense is not Commander-in-Chief.

MCCAIN: No. He's not.

PELLEY: What responsibility does the President bear for this?

MCCAIN: I think the President has great responsibility for it. The buck always stops there. But I would give the President credit for supporting a new strategy with new leadership so that maybe we can succeed.

PELLEY: But you seem to give President Bush a pass, even though you're so hard on how this war was managed. You don't seem to criticize the President for that.

MCCAIN: I say that he is responsible, and I'll continue to say that he is responsible. Should I look back in anger, or should I look forward and say, "Let's support this new strategy; let's support this new general; and let's give it everything we can to have it succeed?"

PELLEY: You describe this new strategy. Give me a sense of what you're seeing on the ground now.

MCCAIN: On the ground, we are seeing progress here in Anbar Province, obviously. I mean, the statistics are there. In Baghdad itself, you are seeing some significant improvement. You're also seeing renewed attacks outside Baghdad as they've been driven out. I worry about southern Iraq as the British leave, as to how serious the infiltration of the Iranians are.
In the Kurdish areas, things are generally good. So, it's kind of mixed reviews. But we are seeing signs of progress. And there is no doubt about it. And the American people are not being given a full picture in my view.

PELLEY: We took a walk through a Baghdad market yesterday. But backing up that stroll through the market was ten armored Humvees, soldiers with rifles, and two Apache attack helicopters circling overhead. That doesn't seem like a safe neighborhood.

MCCAIN: I didn't see the helicopters, and nor did I ask for that kind of security. But I understand why they would provide me with that security. But I can tell you, if it had been two months ago and I'd asked to do it, they would have said, "Under no circumstances whatsoever." I walked through very narrow lanes. The Apache helicopters couldn't see me. The armored vehicles were parked out in the street. I'm very pleased that we had the opportunity to go into a neighborhood in Baghdad which I couldn't have before. I view that as a sign of progress. Is it perfect? No. It was long and hard and tough. Am I telling you they're in their last throes? Absolutely not.

PELLEY: Before you came on this trip, you mentioned in an interview that General Petraeus sometimes goes into Baghdad in an unarmored Humvee, and that there were neighborhoods that you could walk throughout without being concerned for your safety.

MCCAIN: There is no unarmored Humvees -- obviously, that's the case. I'm trying to make the point over and over and over again that we are making progress. And there are signs of progress, that it's long, and it's hard and it's tough. To take one sentence of mine out of 1,000 -- you know, life isn't fair. But the fact is, that's my message.

PELLEY: You were a little annoyed with yourself, I think, having said that.

MCCAIN: Oh, sure. But look, as long as you are as open to the media as I am, of course I'm going to misspeak. I have done it on numerous occasions, and I probably will in the future. I regret that when I divert attention to something that I've said from my message. But, you know, that's just life, and I'm happy, frankly, with the way that I operate. Otherwise, it'd be a lot less fun.

PELLEY: Some people took from that statement that you have far too optimistic an attitude about Iraq. Maybe you don't understand what's going on here.

MCCAIN: Well, I've been here many times. But the fact is, I keep saying over and over and over again, it's long and it's hard and it's tough. But again, I believe we are showing signs of progress. There are some good signs. The real question is here, are we going to be able to progress rapidly enough so that we can show the American people that this investment, this incredible sacrifice that's already been made, is worth continuing the effort as over time, I believe, we will be able to withdraw American troops. But I can't say exactly when. And I believe that the Iraqi government can stand on its own over time, and military.

PELLEY: What sort of time?

MCCAIN: I don't know. But we'll see signs fairly soon. Will the Iraqi government, the [Prime Minister Nouri al-] Maliki government, enact the kind of legislation that's necessary? We'll know that pretty soon. Will the streets of Baghdad become safer and safer? Can I say three months from now we'll know? 'Course not, 'course not. And I think it would be foolish to say such a thing.

PELLEY: If the American people elect you President of the United States, what can they expect in Iraq from your administration?

MCCAIN: By the time I'm inaugurated as President, we will probably have a very good handle on whether we've succeeded or failed in Iraq. What I can offer them is a lifetime of experience and knowledge and background and understanding in the nature of the evil we face, and no need for an on-the-job training and the vision and the proven record of being able to lead.

PELLEY: But if this new strategy does not work and it becomes the next President's problem, what can we expect? Do we pull at that point?

MCCAIN: By that time, this issue will have been largely decided one way or another. We will know by January of 2009 whether this strategy has succeeded or failed. If it's failed, then we are going to have a challenge of enormous consequences, because this region will be in chaos, and al-Qaeda will be based here. And we will be fighting them in many places in the world.

PELLEY: So, do we leave the region?

MCCAIN: I don't see how we can. I don't see how we can as long as we are dependent on this part of the world for so much. I'm not sure how you could accomplish that. If I know any good options to what we're doing now, I'd tell you what they are. I do believe that obviously it's diplomatic. It's economic, as well as military. You got to get the countries in the region more involved. You got to appeal to their self-interest. You've got to have, obviously, some progress towards democracy. You've got to move forward with the Israeli/Palestinian peace process. I mean, there's a whole lotta things that need to be done. You have to have the United States of America become more energy independent. There's a whole lot of issues that are associated with this part of the world.

PELLEY: You just said you need to get the other countries in the region involved. Do you directly negotiate with Syria and with Iran?

MCCAIN: I don't mind sitting down and talking to anybody. Remember, the Iranians are the people that just took 15 British sailors and marines captive, which is a gross violation of every norm of international law. They have dedicated themselves to the extinction of the State of Israel. I'm not sure what kind of a conversation to have. But should you talk to them? Sure. But I think you be careful not to legitimize them.

PELLEY: But that's where you part company with the Bush administration. You would sit down with Iran and Syria and talk to them directly?

MCCAIN: I would sit down if I could see that it leads to some beneficial result. Do you know there's 1,000 ways of communicating with Iran and Syria? Everybody has a Blackberry now in the world. It's not as if we don't have ways of communicating. It's whether we have some common ground to communicate on.

PELLEY: What happens in Iraq if the House or the Senate presently have their way and American forces are out of here in a year's time or 18 months?

MCCAIN: You know, it's not just my opinion. Even those retired generals who very much strongly oppose Secretary Rumsfeld and the strategy have said -- people like General [Anthony] Zinni and many others -- have said, look, you withdraw now and precipitously you're going to have chaos. General [Brent] Scowcroft, who opposed the Iraq War -- literally everyone agrees that you would have a chaotic situation here and genocide. And we would be back in one way or another. That's the widely-shared view. Not unanimously, but widely-shared view.

PELLEY: We've talked about the majority of Americans wanting out of Iraq at this point. I wonder at what point do you stop doing what you think is right and you start doing what the majority of the American people want?

MCCAIN: Well, again. I disagree with what the majority of the American people want. I still believe the majority of the American people, when asked, say if you can show them a path to "success" -- which is a viable government that is performing economically and militarily -- they'll support it. But suppose this strategy fails -- we'll know pretty soon -- and then, obviously, you would have to examine many other options. But failure will lead to chaos. Withdrawal will lead to chaos. So, how do you-- how do you manage that and handle it? I'm sure there are ways to attempt to do so. But I don't know of any good ones.

PELLEY: You don't think there are any good options after this surge strategy?

MCCAIN: No, I don't. And I'm sure that we would have to accommodate. We would have to strategize. We would have to adjust. But I think it would be incredibly difficult.

PELLEY: You know, even your fellow Vietnam veterans in the Senate have parted company with you on this. They all voted for the deadline to pull the troops out.

MCCAIN: I understand that, and I respect that view. It's not the first time that I have disagreed with John Kerry or with Jim Webb on various issues. We'll see how this whole thing turns out here.

PELLEY: Was this war a mistake? Would America be better off today if we had never invaded this country?

MCCAIN: If we had succeeded and employed the right strategy, we would've rid the world of a guy who acquired and used weapons of mass destruction and clearly was intent on acquiring and using them again. So, then everybody would've been happy. But given the circumstances, obviously we have to look back and say, should we have done it? If we'd known it was going to have this lack of success, obviously we should've been very careful about what we did. But to have gotten rid of this guy I think was the right thing to do. I just question the failed strategy that caused us to be in the situation we're in today.

PELLEY: Senator, are you betting your candidacy that the surge strategy is going to work?

MCCAIN: Oh, I think that may be the case. But I don't worry about it or think about it. There's too many young people who have sacrificed too much for our country and in this conflict for me to worry about any effect it might have on my political career or life. Scott, I don't mean to bore you, but I went to the opening of a rehab center outside of Brooke Army Hospital, all paid for with private donations. And I saw these young people on crutches and wheelchairs, badly burned. They're glad they served. They're proud they served. And their sacrifice is far more important than any ambitions of mine. I've said a few times I'd rather lose a campaign than lose a war.

PELLEY: But can you remain a viable candidate if the surge strategy fails?

MCCAIN: I don't know. I don't think about it or worry about it.

PELLEY: If the surge strategy fails, what's next?

MCCAIN: That's what I don't know. I keep talking to a lotta people about what our next step would be if it fails. And obviously, it would have to be some kind of effort to contain. But I don't know exactly how you do that. Clearly, the other nations in the region would have a stake in what happens in Iraq as well. So, I've yet to hear a good plan B.

PELLEY: Where did the President make mistakes that left us where we are at this point in your opinion?

MCCAIN: I think probably not asking enough questions about what was going on maybe, would be probably a mistake that he made. And, you know, try to find out more about exactly what was going on. And maybe trusting his subordinates more than he probably should've in the conduct of the war. But it's, you know, it's awful easy for me to give 20/20 hindsight on how I would have been different. But my key point is, let's look forward. And he's got a new strategy and new generals, and hope he succeeds.

PELLEY: You think the President was ill served by the Secretary of Defense, Mr. Rumsfeld?


PELLEY: You think he was ill served by the Vice President?

MCCAIN: I think so to some degree, although obviously you rely on the Secretary of Defense primarily. But obviously, the President relies on the Vice President to a degree for defense and national security issues, yes. And I think one of the mistakes was made obviously, was to paint a rosy scenario about this war, when the events on the ground did not justify those rosy predictions, which then added to the disappointment of the American people.

PELLEY: What are your predictions for this war?

MCCAIN: I believe that it can succeed. I believe that it will. But having said that, it is a race against time. We've got to show the American people that we are succeeding. We have to do that. Democracies are such that if the will of the people over time does not support our presence here, it just isn't going to happen. So, we got to show them some success.

PELLEY: You think we're past that point already?

MCCAIN: No, I don't think so. I don't think so. I pray not.

PELLEY: Your son Jimmy volunteered to serve.



MCCAIN: Because he's a patriotic American.

PELLEY: Did you try to talk him out of it?

MCCAIN: No. But I really don't talk about him or my other son very much. I'm like any parent in America. I'm proud to have anyone in my family or friend serving their country in any way.

PELLEY: Do you know what it was about Jimmy that made him want to join, if you will, the family business and come to a place like this?

MCCAIN: I think my son is no different than the thousands and thousands of other sons and daughters who decide they want to serve their country. And I'm not sure it's much more complicated than that.

PELLEY: I don't know how far you have to go back, maybe to Franklin Roosevelt, to have a President who had a son in uniform fighting in harm's way.

MCCAIN: I think that's probably the case, yeah.

PELLEY: Does that affect the decisions that the Commander-in-Chief would make?

MCCAIN: Oh, no. No. One of my favorite stories is after Teddy Roosevelt's son Quentin was killed on the western front in World War I, he put on a very brave face and talked about how he would gladly sacrifice. And they found him in the barn in Sagamore Hill with his arms around Quentin's favorite Shetland pony, tears coming down his face say, "Quinty, Quinty, Quinty." One of the more touching stories I ever read about TR.

PELLEY: And you think about your son quite a lot, I suspect.

MCCAIN: I think about all my family all the time.

PELLEY: You know, I wonder. Knowing what you know, what do you believe the greatest threat to America is? This war in Iraq or the possibility that terrorists would strike another American city as they did on 9/11?

MCCAIN: I think the greatest threat this nation faces is this radical Islamic extremism. I think it is now morphed into Iraq. I think every briefing that we have here, al-Qaeda is very active. And so now, it's part of it. And if al-Qaeda gains a strong foothold here, I think that it increases the likelihood of an attack on the United States.

PELLEY: Would you close Guantanamo Bay?

MCCAIN: Yes. I would close Guantanamo Bay. And I would move those prisoners to Fort Leavenworth. And I would proceed with the tribunals.

PELLEY: Why? What's wrong with the way it was handled?

MCCAIN: Guantanamo Bay has become an image throughout the world which has hurt our reputation. Whether we deserve it or not, the reality is Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib have harmed our reputation in the world, thereby harming our ability to win the psychological part of the war against radical Islamic extremism.

PELLEY: There have been a lot of semantics over the last few years about what is torture, what isn't torture, whether American tortures prisoners.


PELLEY: What would you bring to that as President?

MCCAIN: I would never allow any technique which would not be publicly known to be used. We are better than our enemies. We are morally superior. That's why we will win this struggle. And I am confident that we will.

PELLEY: Do you believe that the United States has tortured its prisoners over the last few years?

MCCAIN: I do not have that evidence. But I have reason to believe -- and I've [got] no classified information -- that they have mistreated prisoners. How seriously, I don't know. By the way, that's why I felt compelled to pass the Detainee Treatment Act to make sure that we wouldn't.

PELLEY: You feel like it's a blight on the American reputation?

MCCAIN: I think it's harmed our reputation enormously in the world, yes, sir.

PELLEY: What did you learn in Vietnam that informs what you think about Iraq today?

MCCAIN: I learned many things in the Vietnam War. And I studied a lot about the war afterwards. I spent a lot of time studying. If you're going to go in, use overwhelming force. I think that you have to have a government that can be supported by the people. The regime in Saigon never really got strong support. I think you can succeed against an insurgency. In many ways, we were succeeding when the American people ran out to patience. It was a conventional attack by North Vietnam that overthrow the government in South Vietnam. That's a little-appreciated fact. I also learned that you've got to maintain the support of the American people, something that's obvious but it was reinforced by Vietnam. Otherwise, you cannot continue a conflict overseas. I think I also learned that a defeated army takes a long time to recover, and if this army is defeated, it's going to take this army a long time to recover. That's the only thing worse than an overstretched army, which we are unfortunately contending with today. I learned that young Americans will do magnificent things when they're serving their country, and it's very important that we never turn against those young people. And one of the things I'm grateful for, most grateful for, that even if people oppose this conflict, they still support the men and women who are fighting it. And for that, I thank God every day.

PELLEY: If the opposition of the majority of the American people to this war continues, is there a point at which a President has to abandon what he believes is right and do what the majority of the American people want?

MCCAIN: I think that Harry Truman proved that you shouldn't do that. You've got to do what you believe is right. Now, if you over time you may be forced to, I mean, after all, you're not a monarch or a dictator, you're a subject to the checks and balances and influence of the process of our government. But I think you have to do what you believe [and] know is right, where national security is concerned. I think you can make compromises on other issues as to try to get results. But on the issues of life and death such as this is, I think you have to stick with what you believe in.

PELLEY: We'd been speaking to a number of senior officers on this visit to Iraq, and they have talked less about democracy and more about achieving what they call an acceptable level of violence. Is that a sea change in what America was trying to accomplish here?

MCCAIN: I think it's a recognition that the security aspect of it is vital if we're going to have any further progress. I think these generals are trying to say, "Look, we need to have this secure environment. Otherwise, everything else is going to fail." And I agree with that.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.