McCain: ‘Who Will Follow an Uncertain Trumpet?’

by Duncan Currie

Freshly returned from a trip to Iraq and Afghanistan, Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) discussed the respective challenges facing both countries yesterday at a conference hosted by the Foreign Policy Initiative. After eight months of post-election bickering, Iraq politicians have finally agreed on the formation of a coalition government. McCain expressed disappointment that Jalal Talabani (a Kurd) will remain in office as president, but he also affirmed his confidence in Shiite leader Nouri al-Maliki, who will stay on as prime minister. Tehran spent gobs of money trying to boost its preferred candidates in Iraq’s March 2010 elections, but McCain reckons that Iranian influence wound up being less robust than many had feared. On the other hand, he is still “very worried” about the possible emergence of a Shiite-led dictatorship.

Regarding Afghanistan, McCain emphasized that “militarily, we are doing quite well,” and he lauded Gen. David Petraeus for his stewardship of the war. Unfortunately, he added, Afghanistan remains bedeviled by pervasive corruption, including at the top levels of Pres. Harmid Karzai’s government. He also warned that elements of the Pakistani ISI continue to hamper U.S. progress by aiding the Taliban and other bloodstained militants. Meanwhile, the entire region is uncertain about America’s staying power and the implications of its much-ballyhooed July 2011 withdrawal date, said McCain, who is concerned about the rise of Afghanistan fatigue among Republicans and predicts that the party will experience war-related “tensions” over the coming year.

After his panel conversation with FPI director (and well-known foreign-affairs commentator) Bob Kagan, McCain spoke exclusively with NRO. He criticized the Afghan president’s weekend comments (Karzai told the Washington Post that America should “reduce military operations” and “reduce the intrusiveness into the daily Afghan life”) as “unhelpful,” and he urged Obama to give a major speech reiterating our long-term commitment to the beleaguered country, noting that Taliban fighters are threatening the Afghan people with decapitation if they cooperate with U.S. forces. Alluding to a famous Bible verse, McCain asked: “Who will follow an uncertain trumpet?”

On the New START arms-control treaty that Obama and Russian president Dmitry Medvedev signed back in April, McCain said that Republicans will take their signals from his Arizona GOP colleague, Jon Kyl, the Senate’s most prominent skeptic of the treaty, who has pushed for the modernization of America’s nuclear arsenal. In his discussion with Kagan, McCain voiced optimism that GOP concerns over modernization and missile defense (the latter of which “should not be tied to the START treaty”) could be resolved successfully.

#more#Some of the other topics McCain addressed in his FPI remarks included:

IRAN: The Persian country won’t experience “fundamental change,” he said, until there is “regime change” in Tehran. Citing America’s Cold War–era support for Lech Walesa and Polish Solidarity, McCain declared that the U.S. should be doing everything possible to funnel information to the Iranian people (“a very cultured and sophisticated people”).

ASIA: In the years ahead, America will need to maintain a “significance naval presence” in the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea, and elsewhere to “counterbalance” Chinese military power. The U.S. should also seek to promote “trans-Pacific” free-trade deals, McCain said, while concurrently strengthening its bilateral partnerships with countries such as India, Japan, and Vietnam. (“It’s fascinating how the Vietnamese have become our best friends,” he observed.) Indeed, McCain called the U.S.-India partnership “the key to the future of the world.”

THE DEFENSE BUDGET: McCain hailed Robert Gates as “a tremendous leader” and one of the best defense secretaries in U.S. history. He also said it would be reasonable to trim total defense spending by $100 billion (as Gates has proposed), insisting that there are “a lot” of potential savings in the Pentagon budget.

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