Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) returned to the campaign trail this weekend, making seven stops in New Hampshire with his colleague and preferred presidential candidate, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). After the third stop, at an American Legion hall in Hudson, N.H., the two hawkish Republicans sat down for a joint interview about the refugee crisis, the need to send troops to fight the Islamic State, whether the secretary of state should resign, and what the world would look like had voters made McCain president seven years ago.
WP: You both mentioned that there are senators who are late-comers to this issue, and don't have a strategy. In your view, are Sens. Cruz and Paul going all-in on the refugee issue because they don't have a strategy to fight the Islamic State?
McCain: That's the only conclusion you can draw. When Lindsey Graham and I said that we had to arm the Free Syrian Army so that they could fight against the barrel-bombing and the slaughter, Sen. Cruz said that would be the air force for al-Qaeda. I mean, totally disconnected from what we were trying to do. He voted against, for example, the NDAA.
Graham: It was political opportunism.
WP: Are there candidates who have disqualified themselves, in your view, in the wake of Paris?
McCain: When voters make their judgments, in light of Paris, they ought to review the records of the candidates. What were they doing before Paris happened? Now it's pretty easy to call for military action. Before that, we were criticized ferociously. Ferociously! The old hawks, and all of that. Well, most of the time we were right.
WP: At the last event, the former mayor of Manchester said he was having trouble wrapping his head around another war because he couldn't remember the last time we'd won anything. How big a problem is that as you make the case here?
McCain: I think the best way is to make people realize, as they are beginning to, that we're either going to fight them over there, or we're going to fight 'em here. The impact of Paris is not just the loss of life. It's the ability of these people to commit horrendous acts of terrorism in the capitals of the world. And they're saying that we're next. We shouldn't discount that.
Graham: I'm embracing victory. This is a war that I intend to win. I am intending to create an environment where you don't have to worry about going to a mall, putting your kid on a plane — [instead] that a terrorist has to worry about getting on the phone or getting in a car. You'll never convince me we can't win. We must. We will. The best way to prevent another 9/11 is to destroy the caliphate while we still have time, and to stay in the region until things, over the arc of time, change.
WP: On the refugee part of this, Sen. Graham said at one that there was "xenophobia" underlying some of the reaction. What do you think a moderate Muslim is thinking, some guy watching Al Jazeera in Doha, watching the debate here about keeping out refugees? What does that do to our image?
Graham: Here's the deal. Having a time out on bringing refugees into the country makes perfect sense to me. Saying things like, 'We're gonna follow Muslims here and identify every Muslim as an enemy of America' makes no sense to me, undercuts the effort that I'm trying to engage in, which is to bring people our way. You completely don't understand the war when you say things like that. So it is a form of xenophobia that is no substitute for an actual plan. The way you win the war is, you destroy the terrorists; you build up others in the faith. Ninety percent of this faith doesn't want what 10 percent are selling.
WP: The French are still taking in 20,000 refugees after this, though. If we're calling for a pause, and France is doing that, what message does it send to Arabs?
McCain: Their opinion will depend on what we do once we have ample evidence that we can prevent an act of terror in the United States. Once we have that, decisions can be made. But what Lindsey said — Muslims have to be registered? What about the 3,500 members of our armed forces that happen to be of that religion? It's perfectly appropriate, and perhaps even required, that national security comes first. But after that, for example, there are several thousand interpreters who worked for us in Iraq.
WP: Does the legislation passed by the House keep them out?
McCain: This whole pause, I'm afraid, affects them as well.
Graham: When you turn your back on an interpreter who risked his life to fight radical Islam, nobody will help you in the future. When you train people to take Assad down, and they got bombed by the Russians, and you do nothing, it's hard to bring people your way. What Barack Obama's done is empower radical Islam and create doubt in the region about our ability to be an ally.
McCain: Here's the deal: Defeat ISIS [another name for the Islamic State], and then people can go back home. In the meantime, create a safe zone where people can stay. They don't want to come here and leave their country. Have a safe zone, a no-fly zone.
WP: You said here, and you've been saying, that we should create a no-fly zone and shoot a Russian plane if it crosses it. You don't worry about that turning this into a wider conflagration?
McCain: My greatest fear about Putin is that [the Russians] are inserting themselves in a way they haven't been before. They are dumb-bombing the areas around Syria, killing innocent civilians. He's bombing the people we trained and equipped — and John Kerry and President Obama sit there and watch.
WP: Sen. Graham has said that Kerry, Susan Rice and Valerie Jarrett should resign. Do you agree?
McCain: I will say this: They are exhibiting a degree of leadership and wisdom that is unprecedented in how bad it is.
Graham: They are incapable of repairing the damage they created. Nobody in the region can trust John Kerry after the Iran agreement. Here's what I would have done. I would have told Putin, if you bomb the people we are training, then you will be shot down.
McCain: I would give the people we trained and equipped the weapons to defend themselves. If they need a surface-to-air missile, then give it to them.
WP: Sen. Graham said earlier that the country would be better off now if you'd won in 2008. How much do you actually think about that?
McCain: (Laughs) I try not to, because you can't change history. But I did not believe, in November 2008, that this president would turn out this way. I had no idea that some seven years later that this world would be facing the most crises since World War II and the most refugees since the end of World War II.