Politics & Policy

McCain in Manhattan

The senator takes questions on Iraq, the border, and Giuliani.

Senator John McCain (R., Ariz.) held a fundraiser at the Hudson Theater in New York City Thursday night, at which his Gotham-dwelling supporters focused most of their questions on the threat of terrorism and on the troop surge into Iraq.

After McCain spoke for about half an hour, moderator Walter Isaacson opened the floor to questions–including a few from those who purchased an “e-ticket” to the event and watched it online.

The first question was from Henry Kissinger, who said, “I supported John in 2000, and I’m supporting him now, because I think the most important quality for a president is character.”

“I have great confidence that John will… take us from where we are to where we have to be,” he said. “And I think John is the man to do this, and I think it’s more important that I say this than ask a question.”

McCain responded:  “Whenever I have a question about something that’s going on in the world, I call Dr. Kissinger, and he is able to connect the dots for me.”

Isaacson asked McCain to list some of his other advisers. McCain named, in addition to Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft, Robert Kagan, George Schultz, Lawrence Eagleburger, William Kristol, and Robert Zoellick. “And you’d be surprised how often I touch base with that circuit,” McCain said.

Isaacson then proceeded with the actual questions. One supporter, who thanked McCain for his service, asked, “I’m concerned about the Iraq War. I understand your stance is that we should go ahead with this troop surge, and I do believe that what you believe is necessary would be a good idea.”

“However, what would it take you, after this troop surge–if in fact it does fail–for you to say, it’s time to bring the troops home?” he said.

McCain answered:  “I think there are going to be signs of success or failure–by the way, I’m talking about a new strategy. This is really important to have a new strategy and not just increase in troops. But we’ll know if the Maliki government is doing the right thing fairly soon. Whether they are enacting revenue-sharing, whether they really clean up their police. Whether the training and equipping of the Iraqi military proceeds. There’s going to be a number–whether they hold provincial elections. There’s going to be a number of indicators in that direction.”

McCain added that many insurgents are “going to ground” as a result of the surge and that it remains to be seen whether we will be able to ensure enough stability in Baghdad to keep them out. “I think we will know within months some indicators of whether we are succeeding or not,” he said.

“And if not?” the supporter asked.

“Then obviously we have to examine those other options. But again, it would depend on the situation at the time as to what is the most viable option. The American people may get so frustrated that, no matter where the Iraqis are, that they say ‘Get out of there,’ you know?”

A woman asked about the lack of terrorist attacks since 9/11, given that it doesn’t seem too difficult for a suicide bomber to blow up an American subway or bus. “What do you attribute that lack of terrorist attacks to? Is President Bush’s plan working that way?”

McCain replied:  “I do believe President Bush and his administration deserve great credit because after 9/11, I don’t have to tell people in this audience, every expert said that there was going to be another attack on America and relatively soon.” McCain warned against growing complacent. “There’s still a lot of bad guys around that are trying to do bad things to the United States of America.”

The very next question was on the same subject, and the man who asked it referenced an article in the current issue of The New Yorker “… about the possibility of terrorists smuggling nuclear weapons in past our borders and then the possibility of detonating those weapons in high population areas. So, as president, sir, how would you possibly implement deterrents against something like that?”

McCain replied instantly:  “Obviously we would want to secure our borders. That’s one of the problems with the immigration issue. If we could ever stop the flow of people just coming here for jobs, we could concentrate by drying up the magnet–by having a real viable temporary worker program. Then we could concentrate on our borders for either terrorists or drug smugglers, etc.”

McCain then changed his line of reasoning just as instantly. “I think there’s really only one way you can really prevent this–it’s not on our borders. It’s where it begins. Got to have the good intelligence on where all this stuff starts. Where the materials are, where the weapons are, where the people are trained, and where this whole hotbed of this kind of radical Islamic extremism begins. Because I just think, if you decide to withdraw in your borders–well, again, ask the Israelis how difficult it is to secure your borders even when you’re using every technology and every capability. So I think the issue is to really be aware of where all this stuff starts.”

He ended the night by calling radical Islamic extremism a “long twilight struggle,” and said, “I think it’s the kind of titanic struggle between purely good and purely evil” that calls for tenacity, intelligence, and better p.r. (McCain favors closing down Guantanamo).

Afterward, McCain mingled with the crowd and answered a few horse-race type questions for reporters. When asked for the fourth or fifth time about former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s lead in the polls, he said, “I’m not here to try to tout Mayor Giuliani for president of the United States.” He also criticized the Iraq proposals the Democrats announced on Thursday, saying, “If they feel so strongly that we should get out of Iraq, then they have the constitutional right to cut off funding. I have never heard of a war that was micromanaged by the Congress.” After that he continued to shake hands and take pictures with his enthusiastic New York supporters.

McCain will face more questions–and a different brand of conservative–as he heads south on Friday to a fundraiser in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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