‘The nature of the enemy is hydra-headed’

By David Horovitz March 21, 2008

In an exclusive interview with ‘The Post’ this week, Republican presidential candidate John McCain spelled out an unequivocally pro-Israel platform

(With Herb Keinon)

Each of the three standing US presidential candidates has developed an almost larger than life persona: Barack Obama, The Messiah; Hillary Clinton, The Wife Of; and John McCain, The American Hero.

And then you meet one of them in person and are faced not with the brushed-over televised image speaking in sound bites or soaring rhetoric, but rather someone who talks in run-on sentences, is not an expert or authority on all matters, and reveals – through humor and non-verbal signs and signals – little bits of himself.

That, at least, is what happened during The Jerusalem Post’s interview Tuesday with McCain in a lounge at Jerusalem’s David Citadel Hotel. For instance, McCain, 71, is not a young man, which is by no means a sin, a fault, nor something that should disqualify him from serving as president of the United States.

It is just that in his presence you feel his age, you sense it. You feel it in the way he looks, especially around the neck, and in the way you can actually see him think, see him thinking. His answers are not of the rapid- fire variety; they are slower, more methodical.

McCain is also a man of good humor, throwing in self- deprecating comments from time to time, chuckling easily – like when talking about the emptiness of the recent UN sanctions against Iran; or the thousands of new-found friends who have gathered around since he became the Republican party’s presumptive candidate; or how he, like French President Nicolas Sarkozy, would fire his spokeswoman if this particular interview did not go well.

It was clear that in granting a 30-minute interview to The Post during a whirlwind visit to the country, the Arizona senator was keen on reaching out to the American Jewish voters, voters who historically vote overwhelmingly for the Democratic candidate. McCain arrived with two staunch supporters: Senators Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, arguably America’s senior Jewish politician and a man widely respected in the Jewish community, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

It was also clear that McCain, in one brief interview, could touch on only a fraction of the issues of concern to the pro-Israel and Jewish voters. As a result, he didn’t go into much detail, preferring to speak in broad strokes about how Israel is a unique partner; how support for Israel is not only about Israeli interests, but also American ones; and how the West is engaged in a titanic struggle with an extremist foe.

On some matters of detail – such as whether he distinguished between Israeli building in east Jerusalem and in the settlements – McCain paused, cast a ‘help me out here’ glance in Lieberman’s direction, and then – very straightforwardly – said he ‘really didn’t have a good response to that question.’

In general, McCain doesn’t leave the impression of a ‘details’ person, but rather of a ‘big picture’ guy, a strategist, the point man who blazes a direction, and lets others fill in the details.

Which doesn’t mean he doesn’t pay attention to details. Indeed, it was telling that even before McCain took the first question of this interview, he said that although he didn’t have time during this trip to meet PA President Mahmoud Abbas, he did just get off the phone with him and believed he genuinely wanted peace.
‘I met with him before, as you know, and I still believe that he is committed to the peace process,’ McCain said. ‘I understand the complications that he confronts, but there is not a shred of doubt in my mind that he is committed in every way to bringing about a peaceful settlement to this very daunting challenge that affects not only the Palestinians and Israel, but also the entire Middle East.’

McCain, ever the careful candidate, did not want it to look like he was snubbing the Palestinians during his trip. And then, with no apologies and with signature ‘straight talk,’ he proceeded to lay out his unflinchingly pro-Israel doctrine.

You have an ethos about not declaring a war unless you are prepared to win it. How do you apply that in a world where warfare is very different now, and where – in the Israeli case – we are fighting these asymmetrical missile wars, launched from civilian neighborhoods, where hitting back necessarily affects civilians?

I can only put it into the broad statement that we are in a titanic struggle, and will be for the foreseeable future, between radical Islamic extremism and the forces of freedom and democracy and everything we value and treasure. The nature of the enemy is hydra-headed, it is multi dimensional, and the struggle is military, diplomatic, intelligence and ideological…. We’re going to have to succeed in all these areas.

Iran is a threat to the region. The latest information is that they are arming and training extremists that come out of Iraq in Teheran and sending them back in. They are obviously supporting Hizbullah. They are obviously pursuing nuclear weapons. They continue to have an influence in the southern part of Iraq, as we all know. The influence they appear to have over Syria is very apparent; so the challenge of Iran is a very large one. And I have said we have many areas and ways to pursue this part of the struggle.

I view Iran as part of this large struggle, one that is going to require the closest coordination, cooperation and assistance – and at the end of the day we have many options to pursue.

But, at the end of the day, we can still not afford to have Iran with nuclear weapons [because of] the threat to Israel, the nuclearization of the region, proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region, the threat it poses to other nations as well as Israel. We know they have ambitions that are not just aimed at Israel, [such as] destabilization of the entire region upon which United States national security interests rest.

And by the way, how do you define victory? In counter-insurgencies, and Iraq has turned into a counter- insurgency, you win over time and you succeed gradually…. There’s no peace-signing [ceremony]. There’s no Camp David accord. There’s a gradual reduction of the influence and strength of the enemy…

Let us ask some specifics about our struggle. First of all, in Gaza, the Palestinians voted for Hamas and they are now in full control. Are there strategies that Israel can effectively pursue? How do you win an ideological struggle when the [Hamas] government is encouraging the extremists?

It is extremely difficult, but one of the lessons here is that if the government is not responsible to the people [it will fail]. And we’ve seen that through history. Fatah, as we all know, did not provide social services and help the people the way Hamas did. Chairman Mao said first you feed the stomach, and then you feed the brain. I’m not the greatest admirer of Chairman Mao, but he was pretty smart in some ways. Shouldn’t Fatah have understood the lesson here and taken care of the people?

So all I can say is that we have to try to regain the ideological high ground on Gaza. I do not know how exactly you do that. I’ve been involved in these issues for 25 years, but I can’t give you a formula and say this is how you get Gaza back to some kind of government that is amenable to a peaceful outcome of this situation. I can say that we ought to help Abbas and ought to help Fatah, but we also ought to make it very clear to them about the need to take care of the people who are living in very bad conditions, as we all know.

Should Israel engage with Hamas?

I don’t think so. But let me say this. I don’t think I am the person to make that decision. That is the decision of a freely elected democratic government. I’ve made it a practice for the last 25 years to say, ‘I trust this government, I trust its leaders.’ My job as a senator, and in any position of leadership I might hold, is to work with the government of Israel, not dictate to the government of Israel what I think is the solution.

My personal feeling is that no [Israel should not talk to Hamas], because someone is going to have to answer me the question of how you are going to negotiate with an organization that is dedicated to your extinction. That is my personal view. But I am not going to tell the government of Israel, which may see an opportunity, [what to do]. But I don’t see it myself.

The Palestinian argument to counter what you said is that they are trying to improve things, but that Israel, with settlement expansion, is making it very hard for them, that the Israelis are playing into the hands of the extremists?

I’ve heard and listened and been briefed 200 to 300 times throughout the years, and I understand and agree with our government spokesperson who urges ‘restraint,’ which is what the Bush administration recently said.
But I also understand that there are some isolated settlements that will also be closed down. That’s a tough decision for the [Israeli] government. I’ve seen the film when they go in and remove people from settlements, and it is a democracy.

My job is not to make a decision as to whether the settlements should be expanded or not, but rather my job, I think, is to try to create conditions that would lead to negotiations and a settlement grounded on the belief that it is not just [about] my commitment to the state of Israel. If Hamas/Hizbullah succeeds here, they are going to succeed everywhere, not only in the Middle East, but everywhere, and Israel is not the only enemy. They are dedicated to the extinction of everything that the US, Israel and the West believes and stands for. So America does have an interest in what happens here, far above and beyond our alliance with the state of Israel.

Do you agree with the tactics Israel is using to stop the rocket fire in the south? Is the military doing what it should be doing?

I have great respect for Ehud Barak. I think he is one of the great military people I have ever seen and had the opportunity of knowing.

I can’t give you a good answer as to how you respond to these rocket attacks. But I can tell you that I believe that if rocket attacks came across the border of the United States of America, that the American people would probably demand pretty vigorous actions in response. I think I know my constituency in the state of Arizona, and they would be pretty exercised if rockets came across our southern border, which will never happen, but they would demand a pretty vigorous response.

I would like to speak in the broadest terms in saying that when you look at all the factors that are at play here, when you look at the multitude of the challenges and the nature of the enemy, including a nation that is developing nuclear weapons and is dedicated to Israel’s extinction, then from my standpoint Israel is probably at greater risk than perhaps it has been since 1947.

Does the National Intelligence Estimate – the problematic NIE, from Israel’s point of view – remove support that might be necessary for military intervention in Iran, if everything else fails, or do you believe that as president you could muster that support?

I was critical of the NIE at the time. The director says now he wouldn’t do that again, but I think the damage that was done by weakening the resolve of our European allies was serious.

This latest round of sanctions that was passed at the UN is remarkable in its weakness. I don’t even know how you call them sanctions. So I believe the NIE was damaging, but I do have some optimism particularly where [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy is concerned. I’m glad the [German] chancellor is here in Israel.

Over time we may be able to gather more European support as the evidence becomes clear, as it will, that Iran is progressing on the path towards construction and acquisition of nuclear weapons. Perhaps [we may be able to] implement what I’ve been advocating for a long time – that is a League of Democracies, since it is clear that China and Russia, particularly Russia, will block real meaningful sanctions against Iran. That League of Democracies would be countries that share our values, our principles, our philosophy and our appreciation of the challenge that Iran poses to stability in the Middle East, and maybe we could act in concert.

It is European financial institutions that are extending unlimited lines of credit to the Iranians. It’s European institutions, and aspects of our European Atlantic alliance, that are not as vigorous in their response as perhaps we could be if we all acted in concert.

How could you as president get them to be more active? And domestically, could you muster support for the necessary use of force if push comes to shove?

I’m confident that our European allies will come to appreciate the threat that Iran poses. They also understand the destabilizing effects of a nuclear-armed Iran throughout the region. I believe we will work more closely together with the Europeans then we have for some time, so I am guardedly optimistic that the major democracies of Europe will side with us at the end of the day in imposing meaningful sanctions on Iran.
Will it be easy? No. Will it require consultations and sharing of info and intelligence? Yes. But I am confident we can do that. And I don’t place all my eggs in the French basket, but it certainly does make a difference when the French president has a different attitude toward America and our alliance than his predecessor did.

You said earlier today that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. Does that mean there should be no sovereign Palestinian presence anywhere in Jerusalem as far as you are concerned?

That status is something that is hard for me to be specific about, because I think it is part of the negotiating process… I believe that the [US] embassy should be moved to Jerusalem.

Do you see a distinction between Israel building in new neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, and building in the settlements?

[Long pause] I really don’t have a good response to that question. I really think that we should understand that the US and Israel are partners. Israel is not a client of the United States of America, they don’t do our bidding, they have a freely elected government, and that government functions sometimes haltingly; so does ours, by the way. In case you haven’t noticed, we haven’t passed a budget yet, and the Iraqis have! Some people say, too often, ‘We should tell the Israelis what to do.’ But we are partners. And if you are true partners, then you don’t dictate what you think the terms of the survival of a nation should be.

Doesn’t saying something like that, which is very forthright and will be very welcome in Israel, complicate your potential of being accepted as an honest partner for the Palestinians?

I hope not, because I would be more than happy to treat Fatah as a partner as well, if they were committed to a process that resulted in peace.

We all agree there [needs to be] a two-state solution. If there were a two-state solution and peace – which has far-reaching effects not only in the Middle East, but in the entire world – then I would be eager to have the United States and a Palestinian state as partners.

But a little straight talk: we do have a unique relationship [with Israel]. We have a unique relationship with the British; that doesn’t mean we can’t be partners with the French or anybody else. We have a unique relationship between the United States and Israel, but that doesn’t mean we would discriminate against a Palestinian state if it were created, and Israel and the US are committed long-term to a two-state solution.

Regarding the three kidnapped Israeli soldiers, Israel has this history of making massively asymmetrical prisoner exchanges, with people then released sometimes committing further terrorist acts. What would you suggest to the government, to the parents, from your particular perspective [as a former prisoner of war]?

All I can say is that [Israel's readiness for such exchanges] is a commentary on the value that the Israeli people place on every single individual citizen who serves the country, and I know that the families understand that the government is doing everything in its power to return these brave young soldiers to their families and their homes.

But I know they also understand that the government cannot agree to something that could put additional lives of brave young Israelis in danger. In other words, [it could not] make an agreement that would somehow compromise national security in a way that could lead to further conflict by encouraging their adversaries, or giving them some success that would lead to further sacrifice of other brave young Israeli citizens. It is a careful balance.

Our hearts go out to [the families, and they have] our sympathy. I think they just need constant reassurance that there is no effort spared by the Israeli government, and especially the military, to bring them home safe and sound.

There are whispers about the role former secretary of state James Baker has in your campaign, and is likely to have in your administration. Could you comment on that?

I admire and appreciate secretary Baker. He not only was secretary of state, he was chief-of-staff to president Reagan, he was secretary of the Treasury, he was a campaign chairman. He has a long list of accomplishments. All I can tell you is that I haven’t even picked a vice president – or a nominee for vice president – much less picked a person who I would want to represent the United States [as a special Middle East envoy].

Two quick comments. I would personally be engaged, OK. And I know enough about it [the Middle East] to personally engage it and give it my highest priority. And secondly, [a possible US envoy] would obviously be a person who is respected and would be listened to by both sides without being viewed as being biased in one direction or the other.

What role, if any, do you foresee for Senator Lieberman in a possible McCain administration?

The easiest thing in a political campaign for any elected person to do is to sit on the sidelines and wait to see what happens. I have thousands of new-found friends now that I’ve won the nomination of my party. It’s amazing. But Senator Lieberman came to support my candidacy [before the New Hampshire primary] at a time when it was certainly not clear whether I was going to win this nomination or not… It was a critical moment in my candidacy.

I believe that Joe is man who is probably admired and respected by Democrat and Republican alike – in a most unusual way in the American political scene today. And I know many ways that he can serve this country, with or without me as president of the United States…

© The Jerusalem Post