EXCLUSIVE: John McCain answers Salon questions about Ted Cruz, ISIS and repealing Obamacare

GOP senator and ex-presidential candidate tells Salon about war, gridlock -- and why it won't be Ted Cruz's Senate

Published November 11, 2014 9:25PM (EST)

  (Jeff Malet, maletphoto.com)
(Jeff Malet, maletphoto.com)

It's been a career filled with highs and lows, but when John McCain looks back on the closing months of 2014, the former Republican Party presidential nominee and current senator will probably remember the time as one of long-awaited and welcome returns. There were, of course, the results of last week's midterms, which gave the GOP majority status in the Senate next year and put an end to eight long years of wandering. Once the new Congress convenes next year, McCain's chairmanship of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee is all but guaranteed.

In addition to the Senate majority, McCain teamed up with his longtime friend and creative partner Mark Salter to write a book about military service, American history and the value of an old-fashioned, martial sense of honor. The result is "13 Soldiers: A Personal History of Americans at War," which looks at 13 men and women who fought for the U.S. — one for every major American war — and how the experience affected them.

Salon spoke with McCain over the phone about the book, the war on ISIS, what he thinks President Obama should do on immigration and what he hopes to see from the soon-to-be GOP-controlled Senate. Our conversation is below and has been edited for length and clarity.

You and Mr. Salter haven't released a book in some time. What was it about this idea that made you want to get back into the mix?

It was an idea we've been kicking around with John Karp, our publisher ... We haven't done anything for a number of years, but I've always kicked around the idea.

Sometimes I talk about history, particularly with young people, and they yawn and kind of get a little restless, because it's one thing to talk about the Civil War [and] it's something else to talk about the people who were engaged in it and what happened to them, and, in other words, kind of personalize it.

People and leaders who ignore the lessons of history repeat them. That's an old adage, but it's very true ... But how do you get people interested? You give them the examples of people who were actually engaged in war, but ... you also try to give them the context of the conflict ... and that way, I would hope, more young people might be more interested in [it]. That was a major motivation for it.

You mention how the lessons of history are important for leaders and would-be leaders. If you could have the incoming Republican freshman read one or two stories before taking office, which would you recommend?

Two, actually, for a little bit different reasons.

Oliver Wendell Holmes ... was fundamentally changed by his experiences in [the Civil War] ... but he went on to serve as a distinguished justice of the Supreme Court.

The other would be Monica Lin Brown, because she showed that there really should not be any debate over women in combat. It's one thing to have a rifle or an AK-47 or whatever it is and do the fighting, but the only thing that the medics have is equipment to try to save lives — and yet they go into the same danger that the combat soldier or Marine does as well. She ran to the sound of the guns, and saved lives, and that one I think is a lesson for the debate about the modern-day military, that as long as they are physically and mentally qualified ... then I think the argument about women in combat is probably dispensed with.

And if you could have the president read one chapter?

That is a good question. Maybe the story of Mikey Monsoor, because he might have a better understanding of the importance of the obligation we have to the men and women who have served and sacrificed not to have all of that wasted or lost because of lack of a better strategy.

Let me give you an example: I was in Louisiana campaigning for our candidate there and we went to a bunch of veterans' events. At one of them, a young man came up to me and said, "Senator McCain, I was at the Second Battle of Fallujah" — as you know, that was the bloodiest single encounter when the surge began; we lost 86 soldiers and Marines, [and] I think 400 were wounded — and he said, "I lost four guys in my platoon. Now the black flags of ISIS fly over Fallujah. Tell me, Senator, what do I tell my friends' mothers?"

That's was a tough one for me to answer, and as you know, I believe that this could have been avoided by leaving a residual force behind, a stabilizing force behind. History will make that judgment; I'm growing a little weary of arguing it, but ... maybe that would be the one [I'd have the president read] ... We have to perform in a way that is worthy of these people's sacrifice.

Well, about ISIS; I'm sure you've seen reports about the rebels we armed over there defecting to al-Qaida and often taking our weapons with them. What do you say to those who are opposed to intervention and point to this as proof that arming foreign fighters backfires?

I still think a seminal moment was when Hilary Clinton, David Petraeus, Bob Gates and others meeting with the president strongly recommended arming the Free Syrian Army, and he rejected that. I still to this day don't know his rationale there. At that time, the equation on the battlefield [in Syria] was shifting in favor of [Syrian President] Bashar Assad ... because the Iranians had convinced or ordered Hezbollah into the fight — some 5,000 talented fighters. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard was on the ground, training and equipping and fighting against the Free Syrian Army. And Bashar Assad, without the Iranian injection — well, in the president's own words, it [was] not a matter of whether, but a matter of when Bashar Assad [would] go.

In response to the dramatic escalation on the part of the Iranians and the Russians (planeload after planeload of Russian weapons came in, too) ... we basically did nothing to help [the Free Syrian Army], so they start getting beat. Now, when they are defeated, time after time, people start leaving them, because they see that they're not winning. And that's understandable. Some of them have defected to al-Nusra, because ... their enemy is [ultimately] Bashar Assad ...

There have been setbacks, but all of that was predictable. I keep on a desk in my office the pictures that were ... recently on the front page of the New York Times. Thousands of people [massacred by Assad] ... those pictures are gruesome. They show crimes against humanity. And, you know, it was 8,000 ethnically cleansed at Srebrenica that motivated Bill Clinton to go and fight and defeat Milosevic in Bosnia. Now we have 200,000 killed; and 150,000 Syrians are still in Bashar Assad's prisons under the most unspeakable conditions. Sometimes I am accused of getting emotional about it. Well, I plead guilty. I plead guilty to being emotional about it. I'll leave it to the judgment of the people of Arizona whether my emotion is justified or not.

So my response to those people who are now saying, "Oh, it's all terrible; we can't win, etc." [is], Well, if you're willing to stand by and watch Bashar Assad slaughter now 200,000 people [and create] 3.5, 4 million refugees ... we will pay a price for that. I was in a refugee camp in Jordan ... and I was being taken around by a woman who was a schoolteacher, and there were kids everywhere, children everywhere, and she said, "Senator McCain, you see these young boys?" And I said, "Yeah, they're all over the place." She said, "They and their parents believe that [America] has abandoned them, and they're going to take revenge against you when they grow up." My friend, we are going to reap a whirlwind.

If I could switch gears for a second and turn to immigration reform, I saw you mention on CNN the other day that you're pleading with the president not to issue an executive order quite yet —

Here's my logic, real quick. My logic is that [Speaker Boehner] has now gained a larger number of members which, I believe — and I've been told by people around him — would allow him to override the hardcore people who under no circumstances would agree to any reform. I'm not sure he can do that ... I think it's possible that they would take it up in some form or another ...

Why couldn't the president wait two, three, four months and then act with [an] executive order? At least give this new Congress some opportunity to act, and then, if he still feels that frustrated, then I still don't agree with it, but I understand why he would do it. You see my point?

Would you be OK, then, with the plan David Axelrod recently floated — the president gives Congress a deadline to send him a bill and then does the executive order, if need be, after that?

Frankly, whether I happen to like it or not, that would give a significant, I think, advantage to the president, P.R.-wise.

In terms of P.R., I wanted to ask you about something I don't quite understand when it comes to the messages I'm hearing from the GOP congressional leadership. On the one hand, Sen. McConnell and Speaker Boehner have spoken a lot about reducing gridlock and toning down the vitriol in the Capitol. But on the other hand, they're also saying they plan to vote to repeal Obamacare. How can Republicans deescalate the partisan war by going after the president's signature accomplishment?

I think there's a realization that there's not going to be an outright repeal of Obamacare. If we passed it in both houses [of Congress], the president would veto, and obviously there's not sufficient votes to override his veto. But so many people campaigned on repeal of Obamacare that I think we would have to go through that [process].

Where I think that we can succeed is [addressing] certain aspects of Obamacare that would be very difficult for the Democrats to vote against. For example, the medical device tax. That has driven medical device manufacturers overseas, it has not been a success at all ... I think another area would be the 40-hour work week, restoring that. That could probably get a lot of Democrat votes as well. In other words, I think we would go at it piece-by-piece, rather than just an all-out assault.

But I also understand your point: You say you want to work together, but your first priority is to repeal Obamacare. Well, one of the justifications that we are using is that it's the only real social engineering entitlement that was passed in a non-bipartisan fashion ...

[At the beginning of his presidency], I think the president had two choices: one was [to take on] healthcare reform, and the other was [to address the] debt and the deficit. I believe that ... historians may view that as a mistake, not to have gone to debt and deficit reduction when he had 60 votes in the Senate and an overwhelming majority in the House ... That might have been something that would have been significantly more impactful and long-lasting than the Affordable Care Act.

But the deficit is falling pretty quickly right now, isn't it?

It is going down now, which is good, but everyone that I have talked to that's smart on it says within three, four, five years — as we see the dramatic increase in enrollment in the entitlement programs — it's going to start going back up.

There's a lot of talk lately about areas where there might be room for compromise between the parties — tax reform, free-trade chief among them. But is there a disconnect between what voters want when it comes to bipartisan solutions and what they get? Are the things that Congress might be able to do the same as what voters actually care about?

I think it depends on the impact of anything we do on their lives. In other words, if they start seeing a betterment of their lives, and direct effect on them, then yes ...

The reason why I think this election went badly for the Democrats is even that though the stock market is ... booming all the time, that really did not affect most Americans, because of the stagnation of wages, all of those aspects that you are very familiar with.

But here's why I'm hopeful, OK? And maybe I'm digging for the pony. But Republicans know that if they want to have a chance in 2016, they've got to go to the voters with something that they've accomplished. The president — in his last two years — and the Democrats — who've just sustained a great defeat, even if it was by narrow margins — realize that they've got to do things different ...

[Future Senate Majority Leader] Mitch [McConnell] is going to promise to run the trains on time. The Democrats are going to want to not be saddled with the Harry Reid legacy, and the president, I hope, would look at what Bill Clinton did [after the 1994 midterms].

You mention Sen. McConnell promising to make the trains run on time; I gather you don't agree with the "Ted Cruz's Senate" narrative?

Oh, no. I was very pleased when one of the first things Mitch McConnell said yesterday was, "We're not going to shut down the government again." I think that you just saw a McCain-Graham injection into the United State Senate — Joni Ernst, comes from the military; Tom Cotton, comes from the military; Dan Sullivan, comes from the military ... I've campaigned for literally every one of them and I have not seen any indication that they are of that desire for confrontation. And I was with most of them when they campaigned and said, "I'll go to Washington and get things done."

When the Democrats enacted the so-called nuclear option, many Republicans in the Senate were furious and vowed to enact revenge if and when they retook the majority. But it sounds like you don't expect any kind of retaliation and/or escalation to happen.

No, but what I think we must do is reverse [the nuclear option] ... I was especially bitter because I worked to avoid it on at least two occasions where we were able to do so; once when the Republicans were trying to do it, and once when the Democrats were trying to do it ...

So we're going to reverse it; I will insist on it, I will filibuster to make sure that we reverse it, because we've got to restore the Senate to what it's supposed to be ... a place where people can take up legislation, amend and debate. As inefficient as all that is, it's what the Senate was designed to do.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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