John McCain on a more muscular US foreign policy

John McCain called for the US to adopt a much more muscular policy on Ukraine, including sending Kiev “defensive” weapons, in a speech to a packed house of the Los Angeles World Affairs Council on Thursday night. And after initially saying that he respected President Obama and had spoken to him earlier in the week, he was then very critical of his foreign policy. “Right now I am very worried about the place of the US in the world. This president doesn’t understand that if America doesn’t lead there are other countries who will fill that vacuum.”

The Arizona Senator was fresh off the plane from Ukraine, which he had visited over the weekend to support the new government, and he was reveling in the announcement from Russia on Thursday morning that he was one of 9 Americans who was being put on a sanctions list by Moscow. “That shows they really don’t understand how our political system works,” he said. “They have no idea how valuable it is for me politically to be on Putin’s sanctions list.” McCain then deadpanned that his spring break plans for Siberia would be put on hold and all the illicit campaign contributions he had stashed in rubles in Russian banks would be impounded.

The central point of his speech was that America is still the indispensable nation, and the rest of the world needs this country to take charge. “If we don’t lead, who will?” McCain ripped into Russia, calling it a gas station masquerading as a country, with an economy that would “be on the ropes” if oil dropped below $80 a barrel. But nonetheless Russia is a nuclear-armed country with a still-substantial military, and the threat from them should not be taken lightly. Putin, he said, is an old KGB colonel from Soviet Union days who believes Russia is still meant to dominate “the Near Abroad”, those newly independent countries that were former Soviet satellite states. Quoting Henry Kissinger, he said that Russia with Ukraine is an empire, Russia without Ukraine is a country. “I predicted Putin would invade Crimea - I am sorry I was right in that. But I don’t know what he will do now - and part of that depends on what he thinks the US would do in response.”

McCain said there is no military option for the US in Ukraine - and even if there were, the US public would not support any US military intervention in that country. “But that doesn’t mean we have to give up on them.” He said the first thing the US should do is give them arms. “The [Ukrainian] prime minister told me just a couple of days ago they need defensive weapons - anti-tank, anti-air and light weapons.” In addition, McCain said the US should begin a long term military assistance program, similar to ones we have with many other countries around the world. Secondly, he said, we should help them with their economy - Ukraine is in a state of total collapse, having been completely mismanaged by the previous government, which was mired in inefficiency and corruption. The son of former President Yanukovych, said McCain, was a billionaire – “and he was a dentist – that is a hell of a lot of root canals!” Thirdly, McCain said we should restart the missile defense systems that President Obama cancelled for Poland and the Czech Republic, to reassure our allies in eastern Europe against further Russian aggression. And he said the US should do military exercises in the Baltics. Finally McCain said we should put Georgia and Moldova on the path to NATO membership.

McCain was equally strident on Syria, where he said after drawing a red line in the sand on the use of chemical weapons, President Obama should not have backed down and changed his mind over striking Assad in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons, which killed 1,400 people. “That sends signals around the world, which says that the US is not going to stand behind what it says it is going to do.” And looking to Asia, McCain predicted “within 6 months there will be a major conflict between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands.”

McCain was at pains to point out some “good news” as he called it. “For the US the best times are still ahead of us.” Not only is the US becoming energy independent, but sophisticated manufacturing technology is now bringing manufacturing jobs back to the US - “and we are still the most innovative nation on earth.” But while the US still delivers the best education anywhere, the nation must institute immigration reform if it is to continue to prosper, he said, touching on one of his favorite domestic policy issues. “The majority of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) students in our universities are not American - they are foreigners. If we have immigration reform we can keep some of them, if they choose to stay - now they have to go home.”

Asked from the audience how he would have responded to Putin’s aggression over Crimea had he become president in 2008 and were now serving his second term, McCain said: “I would have sent a message consistently to Putin over the last 5 years that his actions would have repercussions.” He said the only thing that “tyrants” understand is a penalty for their aggression. “We have two choices – doing nothing, or convincing Putin that the cost of aggression is too great. We cannot cave in to aggressors.”

Responding to a question about how to handle the nuclear threat from Iran, McCain said that sanctions have at least brought the Iranians to the negotiating table. But now he said they must give up their right to enrich nuclear materials. “Ronald Reagan said ‘trust but verify’. I say “don’t trust and verify.’”

When asked by a younger member of the audience if the GOP had a strategy to attract young voters like her, McCain said the Republican Party needs to communicate better with younger people, talk about their hopes and dreams, and get their feedback. And then he circled back to the immigration debate – “we have to convince our GOP congressmen to reform immigration. Our proposal is tough, it is not an amnesty, but look at the demographics – the GOP needs the Hispanic vote – they want recognition.”