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Transcript: Dialogues on American Foreign Policy and World Affairs: Senator John McCain & Walter Russell Mead

Hudson Institute

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Following is the full transcript of the July 21, 2015 discussion between Hudson Distinguished Fellow Water Russell Mead and Senator John McCain, part of Hudson’s “Dialogues on American Foreign Policy and World Affairs” series.

KENNETH WEINSTEIN: Good morning, and welcome to Hudson Institute. I’m Ken Weinstein, president and CEO of Hudson Institute. Hudson Institute is an international policy research organization dedicated to strong and engaged U.S. international leadership. I’m delighted to welcome everyone to our dialogue on American strategy and statesmanship, which is going to be led by our distinguished fellow Walter Russell Mead. Walter needs no introduction at Hudson. Walter is the James Chase professor of foreign affairs and humanities at Bard College, the editor-at-large of The American Interest magazine and a distinguished scholar on American strategy and statesmanship at Hudson. His Via Meadia blog in the American interest is must-read in Washington on both sides of the aisle. I will turn to our main guest in a moment. Let me just say when we kicked off this series, the idea was to do a new kind of event series in Washington to have an in-depth conversation with a leading Washington figure hopefully focusing on issues outside of the news cycle. And we kicked this series off. We began with a little-known senator from the state of Arkansas who, a few days before the event, decided to send a note to the mullahs in Iran…

(LAUGHTER)

WEINSTEIN: …That changed things a bit. This time, we decided to go with a very distinguished statesmen, a man who is an old friend of Hudson Institute and someone who was not going to be seeking higher office, figuring that would be a good way to have an in-depth conversation on these issues. Let me simply note that it’s a true honor to be up here, that no sitting member of Congress has done more for veterans or for U.S. national security going back to say, well, 1967, I’d put it.

JOHN MCCAIN: I think the Coolidge administration.

(LAUGHTER)

WEINSTEIN: The Coolidge administration will have it. So without any further ado, let me turn it over to Walter and just say, Senator, how honored we are to have you back here at Hudson. This was – you’ve had a long relationship with Hudson. We were your intellectual home for a number of years when you were little in the wilderness. And we have – we’re always honored and thrilled to have you here with us. So thank you very much, Senator, for doing this. Let me turn it over to Walter.

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

MEAD: Well, thanks Ken for the introduction, and thanks to everybody for showing up. And, Senator, it’s really good to see you again. I sort of thought about asking you about this bill I hear about to ban casino gambling in the state of New Jersey. But…

(LAUGHTER)

MEAD: …I think let’s stick with more press – more sort of globally interesting themes. This strikes me as one of the most interesting and maybe dangerous times in the international situation in a very long time. And we’ve got a presidential election coming. The debates are beginning. What do you think the candidates should be concerned with in this cycle, and what should voters be listening to from the candidates?

MCCAIN: Well, I thank you, Walter, and I am very happy to be here – back, again, as I have many times, at, I believe, one of the premier institutions in this country. I rely on much of the information that I get here. The topics and issues that are addressed has always been enormously helpful to me and you personally. So I thank you, Walter, and it’s great to be back. I’d just like to make one other comment, if I could very quickly, sort of about the issue du jour. And that is one of the things that surprised me when I came home from spending a long time away from home during the Vietnam War was two things. One was the divisiveness about the war when you’re only given information of (laughter) propaganda – there was enormous changes that took place during that period of time – and also, the failure of our Vietnam veterans, with the exception of the POWs, to be welcomed home. And that was a problem for a lot of our Vietnam veterans. A lot – the 18, 19-year-old draftees who went, answered their country’s call and came back and were not well treated. And so I made it my goal over the years to do what I could to help our Vietnam veterans and to give them the same status that they had given the POWs. And I think to a large degree, we’ve achieved that. I think to a large degree, most Americans now honor our Vietnam veterans as well as others.

I also think that the normalization of relations between our two countries is something that I worked on very hard. And I recently was in Hanoi to – for the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the normalization of our relations between the two countries. In fact, there’s a article – I think it’s in The New York Times this morning – about Saigon, about – it’s – does not resemble a classic communist kind of existence there in Saigon. They never have been able to really conquer Saigon. But anyway, so when this whole issue just came up obviously that I’ve been engaged in, I do not want to reopen the wounds of the war. I want us to celebrate our veterans, to move forward. And those who may have opposed the war or those who may have of – whatever it is – it’s over. And our Vietnam veterans deserve not to have this fight begin again because they are, in my view, the bravest and most wonderful people because they were, generally speaking, the 18, 19-year-old that got the notice and went and fought and came home. And unfortunately for them, because the majority of public opinion was opposed to the war, sometimes that opposition was transmitted and transformed into treatment of them which in some cases – not all, but in some cases really deplorable. So no matter what this – how this present controversy plays out, I’d like to make sure that whatever happens that we maintain the respect and affection and appreciation for those who served a long time ago. So…

MEAD: Wow.

MCCAIN: Anyway…

(APPLAUSE)

MCCAIN: Walter, I think you asked really one of the most important topics we can discuss in our time together. I believe that for the first time since 1980, the national security foreign policy will be one of two major issues that will decide the voters and make – impact the decision of the voters of America no matter whether they are Republican or Democrat or independent or whoever. When we saw the horrible beheading of Americans on the Internet, we saw a 30- to 40-point jump understandably in American concern about national security and ISIS. And then we saw – I don’t have to go – we’ve all – we all know the gruesome things that we have seen that ISIS has committed. And of course we see a situation in Ukraine, a country of beautiful people, wonderful people now being invaded – having been partitioned and is being Pac-Man-style absorbed by Vladimir Putin, and of course more aggressive behavior in China as well. That’s just some of the broadest issues. So I think that national security will play a very big role in these debates. I think that the American people are deeply concerned. And I also think that since our economy seems to be in a stumbling fashion getting better that that may not be the issue that it was as short a time ago as three or four years ago. So I think the voters will be examining our candidates. And I think that they will be examining Hillary Clinton’s record. I assume that she is going to be the Democrat nominee unless my friend Bernie follows a big upset (laughter). You know, Bernie and I negotiated this last VA reform bill. And I can tell you my reward will be in heaven, not here on Earth for that.

(LAUGHTER)

MCCAIN: By the way, I found him to be an honest man. But – so my answer is national security will be I think one of the top issues. And the American people are very nervous now about what’s going on in the world. Henry Kissinger testified before our committee that he has never seen the world in more crises since the end of World War II. I believe him.

MEAD: Yeah. He’s also I think voiced some concerns about Iran. And I’d like to get into that situation. I know you’ve been critical of – during the negotiating process of the way it looked like the Iran deal was shaping up. And since it’s come out, you’ve sharpened that a bit. Where do you see this Iran deal today? Is it a good deal, a bad deal? Where are we?

MCCAIN: I think it’s a bad deal. And I think that we can start out by establishing what we know. And that was the original purpose of the negotiations to where it went. The original purpose was very simple – elimination of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. That was what we went into these talks as the fundamental principle. We heard statements like there will be nothing to do with conventional weapons. We said – we were told that there would be inspections anytime, anywhere. We were told that we would gauge the elimination of sanctions on a gradual basis depending on Iranian behavior. We know that Iran is now controlling four countries. And I was in Kabul a few – over Fourth of July. They’re now supplying the Taliban with weapons, the Iranians are. So now we’ve reached a point where one thing is certain. And that is the Iranians at some point in time will acquire nuclear weapons. And that has scared the daylights out of our friends. And I predict to you now that it will be the nuclearization of the Middle East. The Arab – Sunni Arab countries are not going to sit still and watch the Iranians not only acquire nuclear weapons but the means to deliver them and the warheads. That – all of that they are continuing their production of. And one thing that was obvious throughout – the Americans wanted this agreement more than the Iranians did.

I’d like to mention one other issue that is really galling. It’s not in the grand scheme of things a huge issue. But General Dunford, who is the nominee for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was before the Senate Armed Services Committee. And one of the senators – I think it was Senator Manchin – asked him – said, how many deaths would – of American soldiers and Marines would you attribute to these copper-tipped IEDs? General Dunford said 500 – 500 Marines and soldiers. My friends, those copper-tipped IEDs were sent from Iran into Iraq. They – the copper tips allowed them to go right through armor of MRAVs, tanks and kill. I don’t know how many people were wounded. I will try to find that out. And guess who sent them in – Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Guess whose name is on a list to be relieved of sanctions – Soleimani. How could we possibly – how could we possibly, in deference to those Americans whose lives were sacrificed, want to lift sanctions on this cold-blooded killer, who by the way is running the Shia militias in Iraq as we speak?

MEAD: Were people in the Senate surprised when the administration took the deal to the Security Council before Congress had a chance to vote?

MCCAIN: No, we were not surprised because we figured that that’s what he would do. And I know it’s a little complicated, but maybe could I mention what’s going to happen? After 60 days – and it’s 60 calendar days, and we’ll be out the whole month of August – then there will be a vote of approval or disapproval of the removal of the congressionally imposed sanctions. Now, the administration is lifting the administration-imposed sanctions, the U.N.-imposed sanctions virtually as we speak. Now, that vote I am confident will be a vote of disapproval of the removal of those sanctions. But I do not know whether – because we know the president’s already said he’s going to veto – we do not know whether the president’s veto will be overridden. Obviously, there will be 54 Republicans who will vote disapproval. Then the question is, is there 13 Democrat senators who will vote with us? I do not mean to put any burden on anybody, but obviously one of the key players in this whole issue is Chuck Schumer. Chuck Schumer is going to be the majority leader – the minority leader – I hope not majority.

(LAUGHTER)

MCCAIN: Is going to be the Democrat – is going to be the Democrat leader of the – in the Senate. He is – comes from a very influential and important state. So it’ll be very interesting to see how Senator Schumer comes down on this. And I think it’s unclear. I would guess if I had to bet that probably he could uphold a veto. But I think it could turn into a very narrow thing. And so this debate – you know, I will freely admit that 9 times out of 10 debate on the floor of the Senate or in Senate hearing committees are not very important. But I think this debate may be one of the times where what – that people will be watching the debate in the Senate. So back one more time, I just am deeply concerned about the ultimate result of this because of the Sunni Arab nations’ mistrust and belief that they will be facing a nuclear Iran. And also, then the question – if you’re Habibi and you are convinced that this agreement presents a direct threat to your existence – just a couple of days before the announcement the demonstrations in the streets in Tehran – death to Israel, death to America – then I think that Habibi is probably placed in some – a very, very difficult decision-making situation.

MEAD: There’s been a lot of talk that – sort of the discussion now, assuming that Congress doesn’t override the veto and also assuming now that the U.N. sanctions are lifted, the executive sanctions are lifted, we’re clearly in a new place. And there’s sort of – there seem to be two schools of thought here. One is that the U.S. should now toughen our stance regionally against Iran. And another would say, no, no, as part of the rapprochement we should be more accommodating to Iran. Indeed, I’ve heard at least one very serious expert talk about how the Iranians may violate – break the deal if we don’t follow up on the treaty – on the agreement with, you know, starting to give a little in the region. Where do you see this going?

MCCAIN: I don’t know what more we can give (laughter). Iranians are now – control four countries – Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. They have – are making moves in other parts of the Arab world, i.e. Bahrain, the Sunni Arab world. And they continue their efforts in Syria. They’re the reason why Bashar Assad is still in power. We all know that. And the continued presence of the Shiite militia in Iraq as the – maybe the only viable force besides the Kurds militarily indicates that the preponderance of influence – not all influence but preponderance of influence in Baghdad is exercised by the Iranians, which by the way is our fault for the total withdrawal, which is obviously a subject for another day. But I just don’t know. Shouldn’t the shoe be on the other foot? Shouldn’t we expect the Iranians to improve their behavior now that they have this agreement? Shouldn’t they be showing us that they’ll stop the spread of terrorism throughout the world, much less trying to exert the age-old hegemony of the – ambitions for hegemony by the Persian people? So all I can say is one of my great disappointments about this agreement is that there has been no commitment on the part of the Iranians to curb their activities and their ambition. All of this, Walter, was based on the premise that the president had from the day he took – when he took office. And that is we will have an agreement with Iran. This will be, quote, “Nixon to China.” And we will have a whole new arrangement in the Middle East. Of course that scares the daylights out of the Sunni Arab world. And so that is the reason I guess why when the Iranians demonstrated in the streets after the flawed election in 2009 and said, Obama, Obama, are you with us, or are you with them – and he wouldn’t say a word. Someday there will be a statue of a young woman named Neda that we watched on the Internet bleed to death in the square in Tehran. And so this is in my view a delusion. And getting back around, they’re now – the president’s calling in the Arab countries – Sunni Arab countries and saying, we’ll give you a lot more weapons. Well, does that mean that you think that the Iranians are going to behave, or is this trying to bribe you into supporting the agreement? It seems to me it’s a bit paradoxical that first you expect the Iranians to behave as a result of this agreement, but yet you’re going to tell the Sunni Arab countries that you’re going to give them a lot more weapons. And that is – it seems to me that we are making a historic mistake.

MEAD: In Iraq at the moment we seem to be acting as roughly the allies of the Iranians. And some would say in Syria that, you know, by attacking ISIS, we’re also bolstering Assad and helping the Syrians. How do we get from – you know, given that we need to do something about ISIS, how do we get from where we are to some kind of policy that makes sense there?

MCCAIN: First of all, the issue has become much more complex over the years as various events have taken place. And we have not played a lead role in any – in fact, we have retreated in the view – and I get this from my friends in the region. There’s a perception that we have basically left the region. Let me just mention a couple aspects of it. We had a – we had Secretary Carter, who I happen to admire a lot – I think he’s doing a good job as secretary of defense – before the committee. And he kind of rolled a hand grenade in the room and said, we’re – we have now trained 60, six-zero, fighters to go back in and fight against ISIS. And by the way that’s about a $500 million tab. I don’t know what that works out per fighter, but…

MEAD: I’m volunteering if it’s handed out per capita.

(LAUGHTER)

MCCAIN: So but then I asked him the question, isn’t it true that these recruits – he said that they would expand that number obviously. I said, is it true that they are being – have to swear an oath that they will not fight against ISIS? That’s true. I said, well, then what are we going to tell them if they go back into Syria after they’re trained and they’re being barrel bombed by Bashar Assad? There was no answer to that. Now, isn’t it not only unworkable but immoral to train young men, send them back in and not protect them against this horrible barrel-bombing attacks by Bashar Assad? That is crazy. Why do you think the Turks have not done more in helping us in Syria? It’s because they’re demanding that this fight also be against Bashar Assad, that Bashar Assad has to go. Four years ago, they have said they would agree to a no-fly zone, a buffer zone, which, my friends, would have given us the ability to train, to equip, to do all kinds of things there. And they’re not doing it, and we’re not using the base at Incirlik. You know what the flight time is from an aircraft carrier over to Syria? Six and a half hours. Do you know that 75 percent of the sorties, the missions that we are flying – 75 percent, they don’t discharge a weapon because we don’t have forward air control on the ground. And that’s – applies to Iraq as well.

So now let’s shift over to Iraq. Now we have the Shia militia who are the leading fighters for Abadi and the Iraqis. These are the same Shia militia that we fought against in the battle of Sadr City when we defeated al-Qaida I mean, it’s – it is bizarre. And the president says, we are developing a strategy. Well, we got some semblance of a strategy in Iraq. So I got to hand it to him. We want to take Ramadi back. We want to take Mosul. We train – et cetera. But what’s the strategy in Syria? Does ISIS respect the boundaries between Iraq and Syria? Of course not, and so we are in a kind of a really bizarre kind of situation. Meanwhile in Yemen, we have the Houthis, supplied and trained and armed by the Iranians, now fighting against the Saudis. And the Saudis – I asked General Austin, our head of central command – and, again, congressional hearings are a great thing if you know how to conduct them. And I said, and when did the Saudis tell you that they were going to commence a bombing campaign in Yemen? One hour – one hour before. Well, my friend, we have come a long way. By the way, did you happen to notice that the Iranians now just purchased a billion dollars of weapons from Russia – excuse me, that the Saudis just purchased a – that’s the first time in history, my friend. First time in history that the Saudis have purchased weapon systems from Russia. What they’re telling us is that they think they have to go their own way because they can no longer rely on us.

So, Walter, my answers are long, and I apologize for that. But it’s very – it gets extremely complex, as you know. Meanwhile, ISIS – and, finally, meanwhile ISIS is, quote, “winning.” Why is ISIS winning? Because these young people, like that one that just killed four Marines and one of our sailors, have been indoctrinated in this is the winning team. This is winning. And that’s why people as far away as Equatorial Africa are declaring their allegiance for ISIS. They don’t have a clue about ISIS, but they know that they’re winning. So we’ve got to defeat ISIS, and we also have to then, at the same time, engage in this psychological battle which is getting the recruitment of thousands of young men from all over the world to fly – flow in to Iraq and Syria. We have to understand that these gruesome pictures that we have seen on the Internet, they are somehow attracting these young people. And I would just give you one more factoid. There are thousands – I’ve heard a thousand a month are coming into Iraq and to Syria to join ISIS. Now, suppose that only 2 percent of those thousands decided that they wanted to go back to the country they came from and commit some kind of atrocious act. That is a lot of people. And if they go back to Europe and they are a European citizen, they don’t need a visa. They just get on a plane and come to the United States of America. Mr. Baghdadi was in our prison camp Bucca for four years. At one time, we had 27,000 prisoners there. Mr. Baghdadi, after four years, he was released. And Mr. Baghdadi on his way out said, I’ll see you in New York. That was his statement. I’ll see you in New York. I don’t think Mr. Baghdadi was kidding. I don’t believe that Mr. Baghdadi thinks he can conquer America, but I do believe that Mr. Baghdadi right now is figuring out ways that he could orchestrate or accomplish another attack on the United States of America. And that is also the view of the director of national security and the head of the CIA.

MEAD: By the way, don’t apologize for when you want to give an – a long answer to these questions. The purpose of this format is to try…

MCCAIN: Thank you.

MEAD: …To get away from soundbites and superficial and gotcha stuff. So…

MCCAIN: Thank you.

MEAD: …I’m glad you feel comfortable doing that.

MCCAIN: Senators have that habit. I know this.

(LAUGHTER)

MEAD: There’s been some talk on the – in the Republican field – you know, the contest of the nomination what to do about the Iran deal, what should the next president do, you know, what should you do on the first day and so on. Without getting into any of that – given that there are going to be some facts on the ground, how should a new president look at this situation?

MCCAIN: I think that how our president would look at it is dictated by what happens in the next couple of months on the whole approval or disapproval but also on Iranian behavior. Now, if the Iranian behavior all of a sudden becomes far less aggressive and they are not doing the things that they’re doing today, then I think the next president will – no matter who that president is will probably live with it. But if there is repeated violations, then I think this president – next president is faced with a very, very – some very difficult sets of circumstances.

And now, of course, we know that there’s going to also be a rather elaborate defensive system in Iran to counter our air power. It will make – if the decision is made to attack Iran – and I emphasize if – this latest acquisition that they have made will make it far, far more dangerous for either Israeli or American or allied pilots. Oh, could I just – my candidate is, you know, Lindsey Graham. He knows more about these issues than any of the other candidates. So – but having said that, I remember – and I love Lindsey Graham. I’m totally biased. And I think he’s well qualified, but I also remember when an ex-governor of California, who had no foreign policy, national security experience to speak of – he’d been governor of our largest state. But the beauty of Ronald Reagan was two. One is he had an inner compass that just was remarkable. And second of all, he surrounded himself with the smartest people in America. And I believe that one of the keys to the next Republican – if it is a Republican president – is to get the best and brightest in America around that person. And that way he can replicate the record that Ronald Reagan had.

MEAD: OK. Well, we’ve been talking about the Middle East, which is about as depressing as a region can get.

MCCAIN: (Laughter).

MEAD: Let’s go to something really cheerful like Russia…

(LAUGHTER)

MEAD: …And Ukraine. Where do you think – how does Mr. Putin view the world at this point? Does he think he’s winning? Does he think he’s losing? What do you think is driving him right now?

MCCAIN: You know, a lot of people choose to interpret the words of people like Mr. Putin to their own – to match their own philosophy and their own view of the world. And I understand that. I’m sure I’m guilty of that. But sometimes we ought to just take people at their word. Mr. Putin has said – Vladimir Putin has said that the worst event of the 20th century was the breakup of the Soviet Union. Mr. Putin has stated time after time that he wants to restore the old Russian empire. Mr. Putin has made statements which he has followed through on. We are seeing, as you know, the breakup of the old – the liberal world order that was established at the end of World War II. For the first time in 70 years, a country is being dismembered. And to our everlasting shame, to our everlasting shame, we will not provide the Ukrainians with weapons with which to defend themselves. The Russian tanks and armored vehicles are not vulnerable to any weapon that the Ukrainians have right now. We could give them a javelin, which is a very effective anti-tank, anti-armor weapon, and I guarantee you it would raise the price for the Russians rather dramatically. And, in fact, we won’t even give them a lot of intelligence information. I know that’s hard to believe, but it happens to be true. I was in the Maidan when people – 200,000 people were there in freezing weather. I was just recently in Eastern Ukraine and met with volunteer battalions. Two of them had members that had been killed the day before. Several were killed afterwards. Right now if you’re a Ukrainian soldier and you see a drone, you got two minutes. You got two minutes to get moving. Otherwise, there’s a – artillery shell is going to come in and kill you because of the – in other words, Ukrainians are fighting with 20th century weapons, and the Russians are using 21st century weapons.

So what is Vladimir Putin doing? It was totally predictable. And I predicted once that we got – they got rid of Yanukovych that he would have to take Crimea because he views Sevastopol as his key to the Mediterranean and an integral part of the, quote, “Russian Empire.” So he moved in violation of the Budapest Agreement which guaranteed the territorial integrity specifically saying Crimea in exchange for their – transferring their nuclear arsenal out of Ukraine. So what’s he doing now? He’s putting intense propaganda pressure on the Baltics, intense pressure on Moldova, pressure on Romania, Poland, Georgia. Every period of some days, the Russians now move the fence from Abkhazia and South Ossetia 50 yards, a hundred yards. So, like, they just go in, and they move it and move it and move it further in violation of the cease fire orchestrated by the French prime minister at the time and continue to expand those areas and move Russians into South Ossetia and Abkhazia. So they’re on the move is what I’m saying, Walter. And they – I think that what Putin does now is he sort of calibrates about how far he can go without triggering some kind of real opposition. We are arguing now over when and how to raise the sanctions. Nobody talks about Crimea. Nobody talks about the Malaysian airliner, which we know was shot down with Russian equipment and probably with Russian manning it. We don’t – there’s no discussion of it. So he wants a land bridge to Crimea because it’s so expensive not to have it. Then the question is, is he satisfied? Does it go over through Odessa to Moldova? I don’t know the answer to that because I think it depends on our reaction to the things that he is doing now. Long term, I think he’s in deep trouble. I think their economy is in the tank. I’ve often said that Russia was a gas station masquerading as a country, and then I amended it. It’s a mafia-run gas station…

(LAUGHTER)

MCCAIN: …Masquerading as a country. The price of oil continues down, which is obviously integral to them. Their economy is in very bad shape. And, of course, over a long period of time, they are looking at a border with China. If you ever flew – and I never have – I’m told that if you fly along the Russia-China border, you’ll see the vast Siberia on one side and then you’ll see on the other side cities in China of literally millions of people. And they are going to have as a neighbor a very, very prosperous and powerful neighbor. So long term, I think that he’s in serious trouble. Short term, won’t he – don’t you think he will react the way most dictators do when they’ve got economic, domestic difficulties? Of course he will. He’s got 85, 90 percent approval rating in Russia today because he’s restoring the pride – you know, all of that kind of stuff. So all I can say is that I’m proud of the reforms that the Ukrainian government has made. I’m proud of their leadership. I love my former heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko, who is the mayor of Kiev and doing a good job in eliminating a lot of the corruption. So I think they’re serious about it. Now they’ve got a lot more to go because, as you know, it was totally pervasive.

MEAD: Yeah. Yeah, and I guess there’s a – you know, the problem, too, is the economy. And Putin can deter foreign investment just by creating military conflicts in the East. So it’s very hard to figure out how do you get to the point where Ukraine can have a growing, self-sustaining economy.

MCCAIN: I think that as long as he continues this kind of disruption, particularly in the – obviously the East is the industrial heartland of Ukraine. It is going to be very, very difficult for them to restore their economy. And also, as I say, they’ve made some significant reform moves. What you and I know, they’ve got a long way to go. Those oligarchs control the entire Ukrainian economy.

MEAD: Yeah.

MCCAIN: And they’re going to have a long, long way to go. But one of the things we’ve got to do, my friends, is – one of the key elements of winning the Cold War without firing a shot, as Margaret Thatcher described Ronald Reagan, is the propaganda, the message, the social networking. My friends, there is an inundation today in the Baltics, in Moldova, in Romania and Poland even of Russian (unintelligible) constant, incessant, sophisticated messages that are – that we have to counter. And I love our folks in Prague and free radio, free Europe and all that, but we got to catch up. We’ve got to catch up and understand that this is also a message of loyalties and truth that – we’re going to have to do a lot more. I’ve talked to Bob Corker who is also really heavily involved in this issue, and I think we’re going to – there’s been some fights amongst the board of governors and other stuff that just – we got to get on track on that because that’s the long-term message problem.

MEAD: Yeah. There’s also a lot of talk about how sort of corrupt Russian money is infiltrating in Europe and then through the banking system and so on and buying political influence. Do we need to do more about these things? Are there things we can do?

MCCAIN: We do, but we need European cooperation. We get basically cosmetic cooperation from them. We must get a – do the – pick the right measures to get energy to Europe. My friends John Hoeven and John Barrasso, both energy-producing states, have come up – country – states – have come up with a plan that if we take that natural gas that’s being flared right now in North Dakota, millions of dollars of it every day, and take that gas, get it through the pipeline, get it to Europe – in two years, we could do that. Now, it requires government permitting and requires a lot of things besides just building it. But in two years, we could get energy to the living rooms of Kiev, and that would change the whole thing. As long as the Europeans are dependent on Russian energy, you’re going to see this kind of equivocation, how soon can we lift the sanctions, et cetera. You know, I was – so that has got to be a part of it. And that’s another thing. I think – I don’t think this president will do it, but I really believe the next president could do it. And that would then free them up.

MEAD: Right, which is interesting. This is not about bombs. It’s not about planes, guns. It’s about economic development, natural resources to be used…

MCCAIN: And messaging.

MEAD: …For peace and stability.

MCCAIN: And messaging.

MEAD: And messaging. Exactly.

MCCAIN: Yeah, it’s the non-military side of it that is the ultimate decider over time.

MEAD: That’s right, so you heard it here from John McCain.

MCCAIN: The old hawk.

MEAD: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

MEAD: What about NATO? What kind of shape is NATO in?

MCCAIN: I think that NATO, to a large degree, these countries are impacted by their governments. The individual nations are impacted by their governments. I’ve asked several experts this question. Suppose that Vladimir Putin decided to move into three Russian-speaking provinces in one of the Baltic states. Suppose he just went there and no further. Does anybody here believe that NATO would then – and, remember, there can be only one dissenting vote, and it doesn’t happen – that NATO would agree to act militarily? I don’t think so. I hope that I am wrong. So, again, they are reflective of their governments. And they’re governments with this dependence on Russian energy and their continued reductions in defense spending. Poland – I think there’s three countries in Europe that have 2 percent spending on defense – 2 percent only. And that, of course, is another problem that we need to address with them.

MEAD: All right. Well, we’ve certainly – now that we’ve cleared up Europe and the Middle East, we’re not leaving Asia for the last because it’s the least important. Asia is obviously a core region of the world. Now some people would say that American foreign policy in the last few years has been more successful in Asia than in either Europe or the Middle East. Would you agree that the rebalance or pivot or whatever we’re calling it now to Asia has had a positive impact or not?

MCCAIN: I haven’t seen the rebalance. You know, we moved a couple of littoral combat ships, one into Singapore. But when you really look at it it’s there really hasn’t been a shift in military hardware. One is because we continue to reduce the size of our military. I’m sure you saw we’re going to cut the armies another 40,000, which I think is disastrous, by the way. But – and part of it is the military’s fault. We see the staffs and the headquarters go up. And we see the combat units go down, which I guess is – another day I should come here, and we’ll talk about the need for reform with the Pentagon.

MEAD: That should be great. We’ll hold you to that.

MCCAIN: But I think that it’s pretty clear that we give the Chinese a great deal of credit, and they deserve a lot of it. They see the long term. They see around the corner of history. You and I’ve heard that many times. Well, somehow, they’ve been able to basically unite most of the countries in the region because of their ham-fisted approach to a lot of issues, specifically the South China Sea. So, you know, our best friends are the Vietnamese. The Philippines have just announced a 25 percent increase in their defense spending. All those countries in the region are scared to death. And I believe that we should make sure that these countries understand that we’re not going to do things – we’ll help them. We’ll give them assistance, training, exercises and all that. But there is a limitation. But I think the most important thing – I hate to disillusion anybody, but we dodged a bullet a few weeks ago when we approved of the TPA. My friends, I was in Singapore. I met with the prime minister of Singapore. And I said to him, what if the United States Congress turns down the TPP? He said it’s disastrous. And you are through in Asia. Now, that’s the prime minister of Singapore. I think the most important thing that we could do in the short term is ratify the TPP. And believe it or not, I think at some point, we should tell the Chinese that they’re invited. This isn’t – in a way, it’s a counter to the Chinese in the economic respect. But it’s not a counter to the Chinese that we’re confronting them. But at some point, maybe sooner rather than later, maybe we should tell the Chinese if they’re willing to do certain things, we would include them in this TPP. In the meantime, my friends, believe me – if we do this PPP (ph), we’re not going to be shoved out of Asia because we have much more natural ways of trading with these countries than we do with China, given the make-up of the Chinese economy. So I am praying that we will get this TPP negotiated. We’ll get it to the Congress under this president’s watch and get it ratified. And I guarantee you that is as big an impact as 10 aircraft carriers.

So finally, I would just say on that issue I think it is very volatile. I think that the Chinese pay attention to us, what we’re doing in the rest of the world. For 10 years, the Chinese filled in a hundred acres of land in the Spratlys. In the last year they filled in a thousand acres. And they’ve built runways. And they’re going to put weapons there. And the next thing you’ll see the Chinese do is when an American aircraft, whether it be a commercial aircraft or what, they’ll say, identify yourself, establishing an air defense identification zone, which then means territorial sovereignty. So a lot of people say, well, I mean, what’s the – you know, just fly over the Spratly, tell them who you are. Who cares? Well, that’ll be their next. And, of course, we all know that 60 percent of the world’s economy travels through that area. And we’re going to have to be very careful how this whole thing – issue is handled.

MEAD: Do we have any countermoves? Are there things we can do?

MCCAIN: Closer relations with our Asian friends, joint exercises, which we’re starting. The Japanese, my friends, just through – I guess it’s the lower house – just passed the most significant change in Japan since 1945. And that is that they are now changing the definition of their constitution. They’re not changing their constitution but the definition of it, which basically allows them to act in, quote, “self-defense.” That is huge. Abe is strong. Abe has got a good majority behind him. And the only problem – and I don’t mean to get into too much details – but what just makes me sad is this failure of a reconciliation between the Japanese and South Korea. I met with the South Korean president. I’ve met with Abe. And I said to both of them, look, my friends. There was a lot of hard feelings after the Vietnam War. Now we’re their friends. I said, I know how volatile and emotional this issue is. Can’t imagine how emotional it is. But it’s not in their interest to not be in a natural alliance in every way – economically, politically. They are democratic governments – in every way. And I hope and pray that there can be some kind of reconciliation between the two biggest economies in Asia outside of China.

MEAD: You know, I hear around the world – and I’m sure you hear the same thing – a lot of people have a kind of a forecast that China’s going to keep growing forever and dwarf the United States. And so a lot of people are making serious geopolitical calculations and bets based on the idea of China sort of replacing the United States as the world’s largest economy, most powerful country. How do you respond to those questions?

MCCAIN: I respond by one way. One is look at the demographics. The one-child policy is now got you a very, very large segment of the population aging. Second, if you ever go to Beijing, be sure to wear a mask, for God’s sake. I mean, you know they’ve got huge environmental problems. I mean, they are huge.

And third of all, they are having internal contradictions right now. We see one person after another that is being tried for corruption – people that were very close and high in the leadership. There’s a certain amount of turmoil there. Let me just transpose it. My friends, you’ve heard a lot of bleak information from me today. I am totally optimistic about the United States of America. We are now energy-independent. You and I having this conversation 10 years ago, we would not have believed it. That has a huge effect if we do the right things, like export oil for – if we want to, build the pipelines, et cetera. So that has eliminated our reliance on Middle Eastern oil. No longer could we have a scenario we saw in the ’70s where gas lines were blocks long. Second of all, manufacturing jobs – manufacturing is coming back to the United States. That’s the good news. Bad news is that there are not a hell of a lot of jobs. About two months ago in Scottsdale, Ariz., a Belgian company – I went to the grand opening. They were hiring about 100 people – making windows was located in Scottsdale, Ariz. I said to the woman who, their company – she’s the CEO – the company in Brussels. And I said, why did you pick Scottsdale, Ariz.? She said, because we looked around the world, and we decided America was the best place for us to have a facility. And we picked Scottsdale, Ariz. Maybe she played golf. I don’t know.

(LAUGHTER)

MCCAIN: But anyway – and third of all, my friends, this – these devices are what has changed the world. It’s changed our way of living. It’s changed our world. It’s changed the way we communicate. It’s changed everything. And, my friends, they may be made in China, but they were all thought of here. And we – there’s no country in the world that has this kind of innovation and this kind of ingenuity that these young people have. About a month and a half ago, I went to Venice, Calif., a place I don’t hang out at a lot.

(LAUGHTER)

MCCAIN: And I went to an organization called Snapchat, OK? Snapchat. I see the young people in this room smiling, the old people befuddled just as I was. And I was met at the door by a young man in Levis and a T-shirt, 25 years old. He’s the CEO. He just turned down, I think, $2 billion for Snapchat. My friends, this is phenomenal what’s going on. It’s unbelievable, you know? And they rip you off all the time. Every time there’s a new one of these, my wife makes me buy another goddamn one of them. And they get bigger and have…

(LAUGHTER)

MCCAIN: But anyway – so it is incredible what is taking place in the transmission of information, which is knowledge, which is progress. And I don’t think that, even in China, that you can control people like they used to be able to do it in the past. There are too many ways of people transmitting information. Information is knowledge. Knowledge is power. So I am overall, in the long term, very optimistic about the future.

MEAD: Of course, it’s also true that American weapons technology benefits from exactly this kind of innovation. We still have…

MCCAIN: Yes. For example, drones. My friends, the F-35 is most likely the last manned fighter aircraft that you will ever see. And that’s not bad. That is not bad because we’re not going to put the lives of pilots in danger.

MEAD: You are challenging all stereotypes – the pilot saying unmanned aircraft is good.

MCCAIN: But – and there will be tankers. And there will be all kinds of manned aircraft. Don’t get me wrong. But fighters? I think you’ve seen the F-35 to be the last one because if you can fly an airplane and control it from Langley and have it sit there for 12 hours with no pilot involved, and it can discharge weapons – and I think that’s the way we’re going to go. Recently, there was a – things happen that we historians will look back on. Recently a drone took off and landed from an aircraft carrier. That, my friends, is another signal as to what the weapons of the 21st century are going to be.

MEAD: All right. So you think the best days are still ahead?

MCCAIN: I do. And I’m – when I’m with the young Americans – and I went to – back again. I’ve been up – go every year Fourth of July to either Baghdad or Kabul. And I was in Kabul Fourth of July. And all my cynicism goes away when I meet these young people who are serving in the military. And it’s not just the military. We have, you know, the Teach for America program. We have AmeriCorps. We have really – I believe that young Americans are much more patriotic, far more – and willing to serve their country than my generation was – our generation.

MEAD: Our generation?

MCCAIN: Our generation, Walter. Soon we’ll be down the old soldiers’ home in our rocking chairs, waiting for someone to…

MEAD: Collecting all the Medicaid – Medicare we can.

MCCAIN: …Medicare we can. Ripping off those young people.

MEAD: Kind of delightful prospect to look forward to.

MCCAIN: I’d like to thank all – on behalf of Walter, myself, I’d like to thank the young people here for their…

(LAUGHTER)

MEAD: Really, your generosity overwhelms us.

MCCAIN: That’s right.

MEAD: All right. And if – for a young person who’s trying to prepare themselves for some kind of life of public service, what would you suggest they do?

MCCAIN: I say there’s many avenues of service. And there is nothing nobler than serving a cause greater than your own interest. And every time I meet someone who has served and that is older and done other things in life and did those things, whether Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, all that, they always say, the best part of my life was – fill in the blank of what form of public service they engaged in. So the cause and the people that you serve are obviously benefited by your patriotism and your service. But the individual at the end of the day gains more than anybody else – that they have attempted to bring to a better life.

MEAD: Mr. Senator, thank you for sharing the time with us. And I think we all feel like we learned something. And it’s interesting to hear with your kind of perspective and reflection. And it’s also nice to see you out of the political limelight, you know, without all the publicity and the glare and the controversy…

(LAUGHTER)

MEAD: …In this quiet time of your life. But thank you.

(LAUGHTER)

MCCAIN: Can I again thank the Hudson Institute and its leadership and its members? And, by the way, I know you have a very active program for young people, too. So – even though a few of them are socialists and communists.

(LAUGHTER)

MEAD: All right. Well, listen. Let’s – I think the senator has to get to a meeting. So it would be great if we could stay seated as he leaves us.

MCCAIN: OK.

MEAD: But a big hand for Senator McCain.

MCCAIN: Thank you all.

MEAD: Thank you so much.

(APPLAUSE)

MCCAIN: Thank you.

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