A Conversation About What’s Worth the Fight

Sen. John McCain spoke with NEWSWEEK's Michael Hirsh about the confrontation with Iran, renewed violence in Iraq and his temper, among other issues. Excerpts:

Hirsh: Why do you think radical Islam is the "transcendent challenge" of the century? When did you decide that?
I was always concerned. When I traveled abroad I saw the madrassas, and I certainly was briefed on the rise of extremism. There were other signs of it you could trace back to bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut [in 1983]. I don't think there's any doubt 9/11 brought it home dramatically.

In 1983, you urged restraint—the pullout of the Marines.
Actually, I was urging that they be pulled out because I feared … [they were] a token force without sufficient planning or support to have an influence on the ground.

I'm curious whether since that time your views on the use of force have evolved. Some people suggest that the success of the U.S. military in the first gulf war made you more willing to deploy forces abroad.
No, I don't think so. If a similar situation such as Beirut were proposed today, I'm sure I would object to that. I have a strong conviction that we have to do whatever we can to prevent the spread of radical Islamic extremism or the increase in influence of Iran in the Middle East, but there has to be a viable proposal to conduct our national-security interests [to commit troops].

In your speech in Los Angeles, you seemed intent on dispelling any suspicions that you might draw America into a wider war, perhaps with Iran.
No, not so much. I first said that in the 1990s, when I wasn't running for president. I was trying to express my views that the veteran hates war more than anyone else, because they mourn the loss of a comrade and know the horrors of war firsthand. I'll repeat this time after time—that armed conflict is the last option.

On Iran, if all diplomatic options are exhausted, and economic pressure fails to force a halt to its nuclear program, would you consider going to war?
Well, if I could not evade your question but put it in a more sensible form, I think we have to exhaust every possible option. I think there are many options that are viable, including those in conversations I had with [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy and [British Prime Minister Gordon] Brown on my recent trip to Europe, on a meaningful path to sanctions. But I will also state unequivocally that we cannot afford to have Iran … acquire nuclear weapons because of the obvious consequences—proliferation in the region, the threat to the existence of Israel, etc.

In your discussions with Sarkozy and Brown, did you agree on any sanctions that might be adopted beyond what has been put in place by the Bush administration?
No, we didn't get into those specifics … What I discussed with them was this concept of nations acting together in an emphatic and impactful way to hopefully successfully dissuade the Iranians and convince them that the path of nuclear-weapons acquisition would lead to consequences which would be too high a price to pay, economically as well as diplomatically.

Do you agree that we are engaged in a "War on Terror," as President Bush has defined it?
I think it's a military, intelligence, diplomatic and ideological conflict. Most importantly, in the long run it is an ideological struggle ... within the Muslim community, between those who are extremists and those who are moderate. And then another struggle exists between everything we stand for and value and the extremists who have gained significant influence in some parts of the world.

I notice you use the word "struggle" and not "war."
I don't like to use the word "war" particularly because it's a multifaceted struggle, which may have armed and military components. But at the end of the day I think it's a matter of ideology.

In your book "Worth the Fighting For," you say your temper "has caused me to make most of the more serious mistakes of my career." Which ones?
I was referring to when I see corruption, when I see earmarks and pork-barrel spending that goes to wasteful and unnecessary projects when the men and women who are serving don't have what are obviously higher priorities, the equipment and training. When I see people who are disrespectful of standards and values we sacrifice for, sometimes I have—although certainly not in recent years—lost my temper and said intemperate things. I feel passionately about issues, and the day that passion goes away is the day I will go down to the old soldiers' home and find my rocking chair.

In your speech in Los Angeles, you said anyone who doesn't accept that Islamic extremism is the transcendent challenge of the 21st century isn't fit for the White House. Is it fair to dismiss the view that perhaps other major challenges—like the credit crisis, global warming, the resurrection of Russia—might be equal or greater?
I'm not dismissing [that] position. But no one, I believe, should sit in the Oval Office and not understand that this is the transcendent challenge of the 21st century. I believe this economic challenge is deep and tough and maybe the most difficult since World War II. But I have the fundamental confidence in America's economy. I do not believe that anyone who fails to understand the dimensions and enormity of this [extremist] challenge is qualified to serve as president of the United States.