Sen. McCain on Iraq, the GOP, 2008 and His New Book

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This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," November 22, 2005, that has been edited for clarity.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: Sen. McCain, of course, was a prisoner of war during Vietnam. He's standing by the Bush administration on whether to set a timetable for getting out of Iraq. Democrats and Republicans have been duking that out on Capitol Hill for a week. McCain thinks our troops should finish the job or the consequences of failure would be catastrophic.

The senator is the author of a new book, "Character is Destiny: Inspiring Stories Every Young Person Should Know and Every Adult Should Remember."

Sen. John McCain joins us now.

Sen. McCain, thank you very much. Appreciate you coming on today.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-ARIZ: Thanks, John. Good to be back with you.

GIBSON: Tell me what you make of this enormous fight over Congressman Murtha's suggestion that we set a timetable and get out of Iraq soon.

MCCAIN: I think it's fine that we have a debate. I think it's wonderful if we have a discussion and respect opposing points of view and ventilate it to the American people.

I have the highest respect for John Murtha. I've known him for many years. But I respectfully and strongly disagree.

And I think that all of us are allowed to do that. I feel that if we set a timetable that's not in keeping with the situation on the ground, it's a recipe for disaster.

And, John, if you just give me 10 more seconds, we lost Vietnam and we left Vietnam; the Vietnamese didn't come after us.

If we lose in Iraq, you'll see factionalized fighting and eventually hot Muslim extremism. And if you believe what Zarqawi wrote, if you believe what bin Laden says, then they'll be coming after us.

GIBSON: Senator, the Iraqis, this coalition of Sunnis and Shiites and Kurds who are trying to make their government work — they have an election coming up in early December, as you know — voted Tuesday and said the U.S. should get out. How do you explain that?

MCCAIN: I explain a lot of it due to domestic politics.

I met with the deputy prime minister of Iraq as short a time ago as two weeks ago.

They know what would happen. And I think that when you look at the exact details of what they said, that they're pretty much in keeping with what I'm saying. Sure we'll withdraw, but it has to be at a time when the Iraqi security and military are able to handle their own security requirements.

GIBSON: Senator, why do you think it's taken so long?

I mean, Monday there was an incident in which an American opened fire on a minivan that was not stopping at a checkpoint. A couple of kids were killed, a couple of adults. This video is all over Arab TV. And this makes us look awful, as usual.

When are the Iraqis going to be able to man those checkpoints?

MCCAIN: I hope soon.

We are making some progress, John, but not nearly what we wanted to do.

In the case of this unfortunate killing, it is a legitimate question why they didn't stop. It is well known to all Iraqis that because of suicide bombers, that they have to be stopped. Too many Americans and innocent Iraqis have been killed when these cars which are suicide bombers have passed through checkpoints.

So we regret the loss of life, but I don't see how you could have expected Americans to do otherwise.

But in respect to your larger question, I hope that those checkpoints will be manned by Iraqis sooner rather than later, especially in Baghdad.

But I can't tell you a certain date when that's going to happen. And I'd rather be pleasantly surprised then again having the American people's hopes and expectations raised and be disappointed.

GIBSON: Senator, you wrote Tuesday warning that this is starting to hurt the Republican Party. This is turning into a potent issue for the Democrats. How bad is it?

MCCAIN: When you look at public support for the war in Iraq and for the president and for Republicans in Congress slipping, we should take notice.

But we can fix this problem. We can prevail in Iraq. We've got to be steadfast. We can turn this situation around as far as the president's approval ratings are concerned.

Our economy is good. We need to get energy prices under control, take up immigration reform, stop the outrageous spending.

Ronald Reagan recovered from a bad period and so did Bill Clinton. So can this president.

GIBSON: Do you think this president is going to be asked by Republicans to campaign with them in the midterm elections? Or has he become toxic in a lot of House and Senate districts?

MCCAIN: People can only speak for themselves, John, and make their own assessment.

I'd be proud and pleased to appear any place in the world with this president.

GIBSON: Senator McCain, what happens in '08?

Do you think that, you know, obviously you're interested in '08, but is somebody going to stand up and say, "I am running on the Bush platform in this war. I am with the president just like this. We're together on it. I understood why we went to war. I believed in it, I still do"?

Or is everybody going to need to have a little daylight between themselves and George Bush?

MCCAIN: Look, I think if you're in for a dime, you're in for a dollar.

I believe that Saddam Hussein had used and had acquired and used weapons of mass destruction. If he were still in power he would do so.

Was there a colossal intelligence failure that we need to fix?

Of course.

Could the war have been prosecuted far more efficiently and without the mistakes that were made?

Of course.

But we have got to see this through to the end. I don't see any space ever developing between me and the president of the United States on this issue.

But I also want to say to you, I'm not deciding for a long time whether I'm going to run or not. But, right now, I'd rather concentrate on winning this war and doing what's necessary than worry about 2008, as much fun as it is for us to discuss it.

GIBSON: Yes, well, we're not done with the fun.


Senator, you saw the debate on Friday. It got nasty. At one point the congresswoman from Ohio essentially called John Murtha a coward. She was booed, hammered out of order. She withdrew the statement Tuesday facing some sort of sanction.

Is the war being misused for political purposes at this time, in your view?

MCCAIN: I don't know exactly what it is.

We see more bitter partisanship purveyed everything we debate and discuss. And, of course, the war is as volatile an issue as there is.

I saw some of that on the floor. I'm sorry to see it.

We shouldn't be discussing in that tone and manner. This is the United States Congress, not the Taiwan Congress.

But look, we've got to be much more respectful of one another and our views. Otherwise, the people that we serve will lose confidence and faith in us because they expect us to conduct our business on a much higher plane.

GIBSON: Did you expect the war in Iraq to be this volatile an issue now? Did you think it was settled after the Bush-Kerry election just a year ago?

MCCAIN: I thought it was directly dependent upon the degree of progress that we were making and the number of casualties.

Unfortunately, the attacks are up. We are still at an unacceptably high level of American casualties.

So I anticipated that it would be more and more difficult if we didn't make more progress.

I believe we can make progress. I believe the December 15 election is a major step forward. I think people have their own government there. We are making progress on the training.

Is it frustrating to me that the mistakes we've made, such as not having enough troops there and many other mistakes? Yes. But that doesn't mean that we can't fix those mistakes and we've got to see this thing through.

I always talk about the consequences of failure. John, if there's a democracy in the Middle East, in that part of the world, it's going to have a tremendous and beneficial effect on the surrounding countries as well.

GIBSON: Senator McCain, I know you don't want to talk about 2008 for yourself and we all play that game but, nonetheless, it seems a convention of the business that if someone is running for president, they write a book.

Now, here is your book, "Character is Destiny: Inspiring Stories Every Young Person Should Know and Every Adult Should Remember."

I must say this book is so high on the Amazon list it's ahead of mine.

MCCAIN: Oh no.

GIBSON: But why shouldn't we take this as a sign that McCain is running?

MCCAIN: Because it's the fourth book that Mark Salter and I have written. We started in on this project well over a year ago.

I think if it was intended for political reasons, we would have at least delayed it more.

And also, John, I really believe that young Americans are subject to a lot of influences which may not be the best.

And basically we tried to write this book for young people so that they would have a chance to read about and know about some people who throughout our history that have had wonderful qualities and that perhaps that they could look up to and emulate.

It doesn't have anything to do with politics, and I hope it's not viewed as such.

GIBSON: By the way, how does a McCain-Giuliani ticket sound?

MCCAIN: Listen, I just would like to say that it's foolish to speculate on it.

But Rudy Giuliani, I believe, is an American hero. I'd be proud and pleased to be in his company anywhere.

GIBSON: I'll take that as a yes.

Senator John McCain of Arizona ...

MCCAIN: No, no.


GIBSON: Happy Thanksgiving. Enjoy your days off.

Senator, thanks for coming on.

MCCAIN: Same to you, John. Thank you.

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