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Sen. McCain On ISIS: I'd Rather Fight Them Overseas Than Here


And I'm David Greene in Paris, where we just heard some important remarks from Secretary of State John Kerry. He's here in the wake of the Paris attacks. Secretary Kerry came here directly from high-level talks about the future of Syria, and he made a remarkably optimistic statement.


JOHN KERRY: What we have now is a real, genuine process with possibilities. Four weeks ago, we didn't have that.

GREENE: What's notable here is that Kerry was in talks that included the Syrian government's allies, Russia and Iran.


KERRY: Every party there embraced a cease-fire. We're weeks away, conceivably, from the possibility of a big transition for Syria. And I don't think enough people have necessarily noticed that. But that's the reality.

GREENE: Kerry would like for Syria's Bashar al-Assad to leave power. In theory, that would create space to bring some Syrian rebels together with the government. Not incidentally, that would let them unite against ISIS. Kerry admits, though, the warring sides still need a political process to do that.


People tracking those developments include Secretary Kerry's longtime friend and frequent critic, Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona. He's chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Senator, welcome back to the program.

JOHN MCCAIN: Well, thanks to be - it's great to be back, Steve.

INSKEEP: Do you think a peace deal is that close?

MCCAIN: No. And I've heard this song several times in the past as - but it's particularly alarming when apparently, from what we're hearing, already John Kerry has conceded that Bashar al-Assad would remain in power for 18 months, whatever it is. Second of all, if a deal was made under the present circumstances, then it would cement Russia's major role in the region, and it would continue Iranian influence there as well. And I notice with some interest, in these talks, none of the moderate opposition was included in those talks. I talked to them. They have not been included.

INSKEEP: It sounds like you think, Senator, that a political settlement isn't even desirable, given the conditions right now.

MCCAIN: I think that what is desirable is what Leon Panetta and Hillary Clinton and David Petraeus recommended three years ago, and that was an arm, train, equipping program that works for the Free Syrian Army, a safe zone, a no-fly zone, a place where refugees could go - what we've been advocating for years. And we watch the Iranians continue to exert their influence, their malign influence, in other countries without - throughout the region and Bashar - and Vladimir Putin continue to dismember Ukraine. So all I can say is that one, I don't believe that the moderates - what's left of them now that Russians are bombing the hell out of them - are going to be included in this. And it will either keep Bashar al-Assad in power or one of his stooges, which is equally as bad.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask this, Senator McCain - President Obama defended his strategy yesterday in confronting ISIS. He said the strategy is going to work. And he issued a challenge yesterday to critics of his strategy. Let's listen.


BARACK OBAMA: Folks who want to pop off and have opinions about what they think they would do - present a specific plan. If they think that somehow their advisors are better than the Chairman of my Joint Chiefs of Staff and the folks who are actually on the ground, I want to meet them.

INSKEEP: If folks want to pop off - his words, Senator McCain. Do you want to pop off?

MCCAIN: Well, you know, this is the kind of thing that's so disappointing about a president of the United States. I respect his views. I respect those of my colleagues in the Senate who have very different views. But he has to resort to this kind of rhetoric. But second of all, and more importantly than that, he is basically saying that he has a strategy that's working and he'll continue that. I mean, no one, no one accepts that. And what the other device that he employs which is so, really, disturbing is that he sets up the straw man that we either do what he's doing or send in 100,000 troops. None of us, of course, want to send in 100,000 troops.

INSKEEP: You would want more ground involvement of some kind, though, wouldn't you, Senator?

MCCAIN: Of course, of course.

INSKEEP: Because if you're talking about a safe zone you're going to need at least to train more intensively Syrians, if not actively assist them.

MCCAIN: What we need to do is assemble a coalition of the Arab countries, maybe now some NATO countries including France. The United States would participate, probably - I'm talking about probably 10,000, I'm talking about air controllers, I'm talking about different specialties, including, by the way, some Apache helicopters. But we have a plan. We've articulated that plan specifically for a long time.

INSKEEP: Is it - forgive me, Senator, I'm so sorry but time is a little short - in a few seconds, is there a risk and that you would be playing into ISIS's hands? Because we talk to analysts who say ISIS would love a greater U.S. military involvement in Syria. It makes them the heroes to some people in fighting the United States.

MCCAIN: You can fight them there or you can fight them here. That's your choice now. That's your choice. And obviously, the president wants to fight them here, but I would rather fight them there. And I would rather have United States presence and I would go right to - have US trainers and I would like to have U.S. capabilities there, along with other nations in the region, to take ISIS out. And that can be done, and it could easily be done. They are not 10 feet tall. They can be defeated. The United States of America is the strongest nation in the world, and ISIS is doing just fine, thanks.

INSKEEP: And in a few seconds, Senator, the question of Syrian refugees. Many governors in your party, a few Democrats also, say they don't want to accept refugees. Presidential candidates are saying that. I'm recalling that the U.S. accepted refugees from Vietnam in the war that you fought. In 30 seconds or so, should the United States accept 10,000 Syrians?

MCCAIN: In Vietnam they were people who were fleeing the conditions there in Vietnam, and none of them posed a threat to the United States of America. The Vietnamese government was not training them to commit acts of terror such as we've just seen in Paris. We just have to make sure - absolutely sure - that there's a process that prohibits any kind of infiltration like we've just seen into Paris. They say they have a vetting capability, well, somehow these guys got through, right?

INSKEEP: Senator McCain, thank you very much. I really appreciate it.

MCCAIN: Thank you. Bye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.