John McCain photo

Interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN's "Late Edition"

July 27, 2008

BLITZER: And joining us now, the Republican presidential candidate, John McCain.

Senator McCain, welcome back.

MCCAIN: Thanks, Wolf. Good to be back.

BLITZER: Let's talk about -- you're elected president of the United States. It's January 20, 2009, first day you're in the Oval Office, after you're sworn in, what's...


MCCAIN: ... national security advisers and say, "How can we keep the peace in the world? What do we need to do? And what actions do we have to take? What actions have worked? Which ones haven't? Which policies haven't worked? And keep this nation safe and secured."

And then, of course, how do we restore trust and confidence in government? We've got to take some measures to reform the way that government does business, the way Congress does business, and get Americans' trust and confidence back in this country.

And that means -- and their government. And that means reforming the way that government does business, which Americans have lost trust and confidence in.

BLITZER: And what about what a lot of people call issue number one, the domestic economy, which seems to be in real serious trouble right now, by almost all accounts will still be in serious trouble in January of next year? What's the first thing you do on the economy?

MCCAIN: Restrain spending is the first thing we have to do. We have to restrain out-of-control spending. We have to reform government. We have to embark on measures to keep people in their homes, to keep their taxes low, to create new jobs, and to get our economy back moving again.

And that's part of the trust and confidence. We've got to regain the trust and confidence of the American people, because we have to act together. We have to put our country first. Congress and the government is fundamentally gridlocked, as we know. And that's why we see the all-time-low approval ratings of Congress.

And so we have to sit down together, Republican and Democrat together, and start working for the good of this nation, keep people in their homes, provide them with affordable and available health care, create new jobs all across this country.

And we can do it. And one of the major, major aspects of this, of course, is energy independence. The price of a gallon of gas is killing -- is harming the fixed-income Americans very badly. They're the ones that drive the oldest automobiles and drive the furthest.

And so we have to have this positive movement and mission, a national mission to become independent of foreign oil.

BLITZER: All right, we're going to get all those issues one by one. Let's talk a little bit about the national security issues. You're president of the United States; you've vowed that you will capture Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice.

Now, we know that President Bush since 9/11 has been doing the best he can. What would you do differently?

MCCAIN: Well, I'm not going to telegraph a lot of the things that I'm going to do because then it might compromise our ability to do so. But, look, I know the area. I've been there. I know wars. I know how to win wars. And I know how to improve our capabilities so that we will capture Osama bin Laden or, put it this way, bring him to justice.

BLITZER: All right. If you capture...

MCCAIN: We will do it. I know how to do it.

BLITZER: If you capture him alive, what do you do with him?

MCCAIN: Of course you put him on trial. I mean, there are ample precedents of -- for that. And it might be a good thing to reveal to the world the enormity of this guy's crimes and his intentions, which are still there. And he's working night and day to destroy everything we stand for and believe in.

BLITZER: Do you do him a regular civilian trial here in the United States or is it a war crimes tribunal, a military commission? What kind of legal justice would you bring him toward?

MCCAIN: We have various options, but the Nuremburg trials are certainly an example of the kind of tribunal that we could move forward with. I don't think we'd have any difficulty devising an international -- an internationally supported mechanism that would mete out justice. And there's no problem there.

BLITZER: All right, let's talk about the war in Iraq right now. Charles Krauthammer, the Washington Post conservative columnist, he writes that the prime minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, in recent days, quote, "voted for Obama, casting the earliest and most ostentatious absentee ballot of this presidential election."

If you were president and Nouri al-Maliki is still the elected prime minister of Iraq, and he says he wants all U.S. troops out, what do you do?

MCCAIN: Well, first of all, I know Prime Minister Maliki rather well. I know that he is a politician, and I know that they are looking at upcoming elections. I know that he knows and every -- and the other leaders know there that it has to be condition-based.

Any withdrawals -- which we will withdraw. We have succeeded. The surge has succeeded. And we're on the road to victory. And we will be out of there. And we may have a residual presence of some kind, as I've always said, but the fact is, the surge has succeeded.

And the fundamental here is that I supported that surge when it was not the popular thing to do. Senator Obama opposed it, said it wouldn't work, even voted to cut off the funds for the men and women who are fighting over there, and still -- and he still doesn't understand to the point where he doesn't agree that the surge has succeeded.

No rational observer -- no rational observer who sees the conditions in Iraq today as opposed to two years ago could possibly -- could possibly conclude that the surge hasn't succeeded.

So he sees it as a political issue. He doesn't understand the importance of this victory, and the consequences of failure, and the benefits of success.

If we had done what Senator Obama wanted to do, which, by the way, initially would have been the troops out last March, we would've had greater Iranian influence, we would have had an increase in sectarian violence, we would have seen possibly a wider war in the region, which would have drawn us back.

So I can assure you that Prime Minister Maliki understands that conditions have to be kept. And I want to find -- tell you again, General Petraeus, one of the great generals in history, strongly disagrees with Senator Obama. And our highest-ranking military officer also says it would be a very dangerous course. We're not going to go down that road.

BLITZER: What -- but if Maliki persists, you're president, and he says he wants U.S. troops out and he wants them out, let's say, in a year or two years or 16 months, or whatever, what do you do? Do you just -- do you listen to the prime minister?

MCCAIN: He won't. He won't. He won't, because he...

BLITZER: How do you know? How do you know? How do you know that?

MCCAIN: ... knows that it has to be condition-based. Because I know him, and I know him very well. And I know the other leaders. And I know -- I've been there eight times, as you know. And I know them very, very well.

BLITZER: So why do you think he said...

MCCAIN: And the point is...

BLITZER: Why do you think he said that 16 months is basically a pretty good timetable?

MCCAIN: He said it's a pretty good timetable based on conditions on the ground. I think it's a pretty good timetable, as we should -- or horizons for withdrawal. But they have to be based on conditions on the ground.

This success is very fragile. It's incredibly impressive, but very fragile. So we know -- those of us who have been involved in it for many years know that, if we reverse this by setting a date for withdrawal, all of the hard-won victory can be reversed.

MCCAIN: We're not ready to do that. Too many brave young Americans and their families have sacrificed too much.

But we will be out, and the difference is, we'll be out with victory and honor and not defeat. Senator Obama has said there's a possibility, under his plan, we may have to go back.

I guarantee you, after they withdraw under what we are doing, we'll never have to go back.

BLITZER: All right. Now, you also made a very serious charge against Senator Obama. You've repeated it. You say you stand by it, that he would rather lose a war to win a political campaign, raising questions about, you know, his motives.

Joe Klein, writing in Time Magazine, says, "This is the ninth presidential campaign I've covered. I can't remember a more scurrilous statement by a major party candidate. It smacks of desperation."

Those are pretty strong words from Joe Klein, whom you obviously know. But tell us. What are you charging -- what are you accusing Obama of doing?

MCCAIN: I am accusing -- I am stating the facts, and the facts are that I don't question Senator Obama's patriotism. I'm sure that he's a very patriotic American. I question his judgment because he lacks experience and knowledge, and I question his judgment.

I'm not prepared to see the sacrifice of so many brave young Americans lost because Senator Obama just views this war as another political issue which he can change positions.

And everybody knows that he was able to obtain the nomination of his party by appealing to the far left and committing to a course of action that I believe was -- I know was wrong because he said the surge would not work. He said it wouldn't succeed. No rational observer in Iraq today believes that the surge did not succeed. So he just treats it as another political issue because he doesn't understand and he doesn't have the knowledge and the background to make the kinds of judgments that are necessary.

And this war has enormous ramifications. If we had lost it, we would have faced enormous champ in the region, throughout the world, increased Iranian influence, perhaps even having to come back in a wider war.

So he simply does not understand and treats it as another political issue.

BLITZER: But he says that, when it comes to judgment back in 2002 and 2003, early 2003, before the war, he made the right call in opposing the war to begin with, and he says you blundered; you made the wrong call in supporting going to war against Saddam Hussein.

MCCAIN: I'd be more than happy to go through all of that again, and historians will. The fact is that Saddam Hussein was bent on the development of weapons of mass destruction, and I'll be glad to discuss that.

The fact is, what did we do at a critical time, when we were about to lose the war?

We were losing the war. Senator Obama wanted to get out. I wanted the surge, which was not popular. The surge works.

And now, what do we do in the future?

Do we continue on the path to victory -- and we've succeeded -- or do we set a time for withdrawal and jeopardize and possibly reverse all the gains that we have made?

That's the question on the minds of the American people today.

BLITZER: We invited our viewers, Senator McCain, to submit some video questions for you, sort of, our video version of a town hall meeting.

Jonathan Collins of Tampa, Florida, says he's very liberal but he says he has no connection to either campaign. He asks this question. I'll play it for you. Listen to this.


QUESTION: Can you please, in layman's terms, so that the entire world will know when these events happen, we have won the war in Iraq? Can you please give us your definition?


BLITZER: Go ahead, Senator. I guess the question is "Define victory...

MCCAIN: Sure. It's a classic...

BLITZER: Define victory in Iraq.

MCCAIN: Sure. It's the classic outcome of a successful counterinsurgency, which this strategy is, an effective government in a secure environment, a social, economic and political process that's moving forward -- very importantly, a legal system that is functioning to protect the rights of the people, Americans withdrawing, and the Iraqi people having a chance at freedom and democracy, which, obviously, they were never going to have under Saddam Hussein, and we avoid the risk of a wider war; we Reduce the influence of Iran in the region; we have a positive impact, even as far away as Afghanistan, because success breeds success -- but an Iraq that is a stable, normal country.

And it's not over, as I said. Al Qaida is not defeated. They are on their heels, but they're not defeated. That's why we have a ways to go, but the progress, by any parameter, has been dramatically good. And that's a path to victory in Iraq, and you can see it every single day in Baghdad, Mosul, Basra and around the country. And I say, thank God.

BLITZER: I have a bunch of short questions and hopefully some short answers.

MCCAIN: Sure. Some short answers, OK. (LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: We'll go through with some straight talk, as you like to do, right now.

If Israel were to decide its existence or security were threatened, and bombed Iran's nuclear facilities, would you, as president, stand with Israel? MCCAIN: I can only tell you I will not discuss hypotheticals, and I can't, but I can tell you this. The United States of America is committed to making sure that there's never a second Holocaust.

MCCAIN: That will be what I will do as president of the United States.

BLITZER: If you were president, would you move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem?



MCCAIN: Right away.

BLITZER: Like, as soon as you were inaugurated, right away, you would order the State Department to do that?

MCCAIN: I've been -- I've been -- I've been committed to that proposition for years.

BLITZER: The -- we have this question from Robert Weisman of Skokie, Illinois. He considers himself on the liberal side of the spectrum, but he asked this question. Listen to this.


WEISMAN: Senator McCain, do you agree with or will you unequivocally reject and repudiate the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war?


BLITZER: Did you hear the question?

MCCAIN: Well, that's -- yes, that's a very, very tough question, and it's based on the judgment of a commander-in-chief. No nation can wait until it is attacked when it is clear that there is going to be an impending attack from either a terrorist organization or a hostile nation.

So those kinds of judgments need to be made by presidents. And, again, you have to have the knowledge, and the experience, and the background to make those kinds of judgments.

Do I favor pre-emptive war? Of course not. None of us do. But it's the first obligation of the president of the United States to secure our nation and make sure that we are not attacked and American lives are lost or sacrificed. So that's why I said, when you asked me earlier, what was my first thing I would do as president, and that's make sure that everything has been done and is being done to secure America's safety and security.

BLITZER: All right, we've got a few more quick questions.


BLITZER: If you were president, would you take steps, would you work to repeal Roe v. Wade?

MCCAIN: I don't agree with -- I don't agree with the decision. It's a decision that's there. I will appoint judges to the United States Supreme Court that do enforce strictly the Constitution of the United States and do not legislate from the bench.

BLITZER: Do you support a pathway to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants in the United States?

MCCAIN: Once we have secured the borders. And I have not changed my position. We tried twice in the United States Senate with comprehensive immigration reform, which meant securing our borders, temporary worker program that works, and a path to citizenship for many, not all, but certainly many of the people who are already here illegally.

Americans want the border secured first. We can do that, and we can establish a truly temporary worker program through the use of biometric, tamper-proof documents.

And we can put some people, or a lot of them, on the path to citizenship, requiring they pay fines, learn English, do all the things necessary, with the principle that they cannot have any priority of those who either waited or came to this country legally.

BLITZER: Given the high price of gas right now, you recently changed your position on off-shore oil drilling, but you still oppose drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. If the price continues to go up, could you see yourself changing your mind on ANWR, as it's called?

MCCAIN: These are -- these are ways to attack a fundamental problem, as we all know, that are hurting Americans. First, let's get off-shore drilling going. Let's do it now. We can do it now. Oil company executives say that it could be as short a time as one to two years.

Contrary to the belief of some, just the president's announcement of a lifting of the federal moratorium had an impact on the futures cost of a barrel of oil. Let's get go going drilling off-shore first, and let's do whatever is necessary, and that includes nuclear power, both of which Senator Obama opposes.

BLITZER: You're in Colorado right now. They have an initiative on their ballot in November that would eliminate affirmative action. I don't know if you're familiar with that referendum, but is that a good idea?

MCCAIN: I'm not familiar with the referendum, Wolf. It's hard for me to say. I've always opposed quotas.

BLITZER: On the vice president front-- this is the final question, Senator -- there are stories out there you want to do this before the Olympic Games start in Beijing on August 8th and not wait any longer. Are those reports true?

MCCAIN: I can't comment on the process that we're going through. And I'm sure you understand that every nominee of the party has gone through this. And I appreciate you asking the question, but I can't comment on the process, and I thank you, though. And I know you understand.

BLITZER: Of course we understand. I'm not asking you to tell us who it is. I'm just wondering on a timing of when you think we'll know.

MCCAIN: Well, I -- I -- I, again, cannot comment on the process. And I apologize for being so obtuse.

BLITZER: Don't apologize. You have every right to be obtuse. You have every right to not answer. This is a free country, as you want.

Senator McCain, appreciate your time.

MCCAIN: But on this -- but on this one...

BLITZER: Go ahead.

MCCAIN: Fine, but, you know, on this one, I'm sure you understand, I'm sure that our viewers understand that when we start commenting, you really get on a slippery slope. And sometimes that's unfair to the people that are under consideration.

And I thank you for having me on, Wolf. This has been a very in- depth interview, and I appreciate the time.

BLITZER: We appreciate your joining us. And we hope you'll join us again sooner rather than later.


BLITZER: Good luck out there on the campaign trail, Senator.

MCCAIN: Thank you.

John McCain, Interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN's "Late Edition" Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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