OTR Interviews

McCain: If the US strikes Syria without intent of regime change, then what are we supposed to accomplish?

Veteran senator wonders what Pres. Obama's endgame is with military strikes in Syria, whether president and Biden flip-flopped on their views on bringing a nation to war without consulting Congress

 

This is a rush transcript from "On the Record," August 28, 2013. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS HOST: This is a "FOX News Alert." At this hour, American warships are closing in on Syria. They are ready to strike if President Obama decides to pull the trigger. Does he first have to get approval, though, from Congress? He certainly thought so when he was a U.S. senator. Flashback to 2007.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA, D-ILL., PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: George Bush and Dick Cheney must hear loud and clear from the American people and the Congress, You do not have our support and you do not have our authorization to launch another war.

SEN. JOE BIDEN, D-DEL., VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I want to make it clear. I want to make it clear to the president, that if he takes this nation to war in Iran without congressional approval, I will make it my business to impeach him.

RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Obama didn't know when he was criticizing Bush. He didn't know how the world worked! He didn't know the Middle East was a bunch of bad guys!

Democrats demanding that Bush go through Congress, demanding that Bush go through the United Nations, demanding that there be a coalition.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The war drums continue to beat louder and louder in the Middle East.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: U.S. Navy warships are standing by. They are waiting orders from the president.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Syrians have said that if struck, they will counterstrike and counterattack on Tel Aviv, a city which they say will burn.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's pretty obvious that the Syrian army used chemical weapons. The president called that a red line, and so he feels we have to retaliate.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What I would hope is that at some point, they would come to Congress on authorization. Congress has been missing in action now for a long time relative to foreign policy.

LIMBAUGH: This is some of the most profound disrespect I have ever seen!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VAN SUSTEREN: And just moments ago, Senator John McCain went "On the Record."

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

VAN SUSTEREN: Back in the fall of 2007, sir, then Senator Obama and then Senator Biden were both running for president, or interested in the office. And Senator Obama said that Vice President Cheney and President Bush did not have the authorization to launch another war.

And then about two months later, then Senator Biden said that they did not have authorization, approval by Congress to go to war -- they're talking about Iran -- and that he would make it his business to impeach either -- impeach the president and the vice president should they go to war without that approval.

So now to today. Does the president have the authorization or approval from Congress to take military action against Syria?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-ARIZ.: Under the War Powers Act. By the way, the president just showed on issues like these, it's not where you stand, it's where you sit. He sits in a very different place now.

No, the president does not. The president -- President Reagan invaded Grenada without congressional authorization. There are other examples of it. The War Powers Act is very nonspecific on this, requires consultation and requires other things. And every administration says the War Powers Act is unconstitutional but refuses to test in it court for fear that it might be ruled constitutional.

No, the president does not have to, despite what he said. But he does -- he is required to consult with Congress, and it would be in his interests to consult with Congress, rather than acting in a unilateral fashion.

And by the way, I have never seen so many leaks in my life, down to days and weapons and targets, and it's really shameful. And this president said that they crossed a red -- that it would be a red line that, obviously, they've crossed it several times in the past. And now he is now saying that they will not be advocating or working or struggling or striking for regime change. That's crazy.

VAN SUSTEREN: When you talk about consultation with Congress, it seems a rather fluid concept. Speaker Boehner sent a letter to the White House today asking the president to answer 14 questions about his intentions or how he measured success or going into war.

But I'm curious. What -- what do you -- what do you understand consultation to be, consult everybody, just the leaders? Or what does it mean to consult Congress?

MCCAIN: I think it should be as many as possible, and obviously, it's much more difficult that we are in recess, but certainly, the leadership first, members of the relevant committees and then others.

But here's the president's problem. He said Bashar Assad -- if Bashar Assad crossed the red line on chemical weapons, then that would be unacceptable. And now he is saying that they're going to strike, but it's not for purposes of regime change.

You can't reconcile those two positions. And so it's turned into a very difficult position for the president to take. And there's a suspicion, obviously, that this would be a cosmetic kind of an action, which other presidents have taken in the past.

Could I just mention one other issue really quickly? The opponents of taking any action in Syria, despite the fact 100,000 people have been massacred, a million children refugees, are saying that if we help the Syrian Free Army, that that will be helping al Qaeda.

That is a lie. That is not true. We have a viable Free Syrian Army commanded by General Idris. They are operating on their own. They are still a majority. And to say that it would be al Qaeda-influenced is not true.

And we can get -- and I found out today that not one weapon has gone to the Free Syrian Army from the United States. It has from some other countries in the region but not from the United States. That's shameful.

VAN SUSTEREN: What do you anticipate is going to happen if the U.S. does take military action? If the point is not to take out President Assad, what are we trying to do, just sort of, I don't know, saber- rattling? If we go after the chemical sites, then we run the risk of creating other problems. What is the goal here?

MCCAIN: That's an excellent question because if the administration is saying they're not there for regime change, then the question has to be asked, what are these attacks supposed to accomplish?

And my view is that what the president should be saying is that now he has committed war crimes, and we will give the Free Syrian Army what they need. We will take out his air power, and we will negate that air power and we will provide them with a safe zone from whence to operate and reverse the momentum, which is on the side of Bashar Assad, Iran, Hezbollah and other radical groups.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, the United States -- a lot -- many Americans have war fatigue at this point and they're unsure where this leads. But I'm curious, if we do that, what happens? If we do nothing, what happens?

MCCAIN: If we do nothing, then the slaughter continues, as I said. And those who want to do nothing do not realize or appreciate the fact that this is becoming a regional conflict. You cannot confine this to Syria. Look what's happening in Iraq as we speak, more killing than there's been since 2008, restoring of al Qaeda in both Iraq and in Syria, particularly in Iraq.

You're seeing Lebanon under -- having increased violence. Jordan is on brinking -- on the brink of having to -- the overthrow of the government.

This is spreading, and you can't confine it. And the only way you're going to solve this is help those people overthrow Bashar Assad. And is it complicated and is it difficult? Of course. But it's much more complicated and difficult than it would have been if we'd have acted to help these people two years ago.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, it's sort of a perplexing thing that's happened is the Arab League, of which Syria was a member, suspended Syria about two years ago because of its shooting of civilians -- now they've come to the point where they are condemning what happened, chemical weapons, and they are assigning the blame to President Assad and his regime. But they don't advocate military action.

If they at least, you know, nodded towards us or asked us or did something, they would at least give us cover to go in there. But we've got the Arab League just sitting on the sidelines on this!

MCCAIN: Well, the Arab League has never been known for its courage, but they're the ones who are assisting -- certainly Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE and others are assisting the Free Syrian Army a heck of a lot more effectively than we are and giving them help that we have not given them.

And by the way, I understand the request by the Free Syrian Army for gas masks has been refused by the United States, by our CIA and our government. Isn't that incredible? All I can tell you is that America must lead, and America is not leading and that's apparent to every nation in the region.

And the Arab League not signing on is an indication of their lack of trust that the United States will do what's necessary. Maybe just they're worried, as I am, that it'll just be a cosmetic -- a few cruise missiles and then stop.

VAN SUSTEREN: In light of the fact that this has now been -- this is all open, everyone's talking about it. There are no big secrets about what we are planning to do or might do -- maybe the specifics, but generally -- why not do as Senator Rand Paul has suggested and have a robust debate in Congress about this, rather than having this sort of shuttle diplomacy, sending people to Capitol -- Capitol -- or to the White House to talk?

Why not lay this out so the American people can see what the national security allegations or suggestions are by various members of the House and the Senate?

MCCAIN: Well, I'm not opposed to that. And we can have the speaker and the majority leader call Congress back from recess. That is their -- within their authority, and begin that debate. So I suggest that Senator Paul address that to Speaker Boehner and Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell. I'm not against that.

But I am against delaying reacting to what is a massacre of a thousand people. You saw these pictures of these dead children. Come on! This is horrific! We can't stand by and watch this happen!

VAN SUSTEREN: When was the last time that you spoke with President Obama about this, or have you even had sort of an audience with him or a conversation with him about Syria?

MCCAIN: I had a brief conversation a few days ago, and I had a conversation with the vice president today, which was an extended conversation. And I made my points, just as I am making them to you.

VAN SUSTEREN: Senator, thank you very much. And of course, we're all watching to see what happens in the next days and weeks to come. Thank you, sir.

MCCAIN: Thank you, Greta.

(END VIDEOTAPE)