McCain on Israel, Iran and the Holocaust

Two weeks ago, I spoke with Barack Obama about the Middle East, Zionism, and his favorite Jewish writers. Since my blog is both fair and balanced, I had a lengthy conversation with Senator John McCain earlier this week about many of the same subjects.

The two candidates, who are scheduled to address the AIPAC policy conference in Washington, D.C. early next week, have well-developed thoughts on the Middle East, and their differences are stark. Obama sees the Israeli-Palestinian dispute as one of America's central challenges in the Middle East; McCain names Islamic extremism as the most formidable challenge. Obama sees Jewish settlements as "not helpful" to peacemaking between Israel and the Palestinians; McCain does not offer a critique of the settlements, instead identifying Hamas' rocket attacks on the Israeli town of Sderot as the most pressing problem. And both men take very different positions on the issue of Philip Roth.

In our conversation, McCain took a vociferously hard line on Iran (and a similarly hard line on Senator Obama's understanding of the challenge posed by Iran). He accused Iran of not only seeking the destruction of Israel, but of sponsoring terrorist groups - Hamas and Hezbollah - that are bent on the destruction of the United States. And he said that the defense of Israel is a central tenet of American foreign policy. When I asked him why he is so concerned about Iranian threats against Israel, he said - in a statement that will surely placate Jewish voters who are particularly concerned about existential threats facing Israel - "The United States of America has committed itself to never allowing another Holocaust."

Here is an edited transcript of my talk with McCain:

Jeffrey Goldberg: Is the Zionist cause just, and has it succeeded?

John McCain: I think so. I'm a student of history and anybody who is familiar with the history of the Jewish people and with the Zionist idea can't help but admire those who established the Jewish homeland. I think it's remarkable that Zionism has been in the middle of wars and great trials and it has held fast to the ideals of democracy and social justice and human rights. I think that the State of Israel remains under significant threat from terrorist organizations as well as the continued advocacy of the Iranians to wipe Israel off the map.

JG: Do you think the Palestinian cause is just?

JM: In respect to people like Mahmoud Abbas, who want to have a peaceful settlement with the government of Israel, to settle their differences in a peaceful and amicable fashion. If you are talking about Hamas or Hezbollah, which are dedicated to the extinction of the state of Israel, then no. It depends on who you're talking about.

JG: Senator Obama told me that the Arab-Israeli dispute is a "constant sore" that infects our foreign policy. Do you think this is true, and do you think that the Arab-Israeli dispute is central to our challenges in the Middle East?
JM: Well, I certainly would not describe it the way Senator Obama did -

JG: He wasn't referring to Israel as an "open sore," he was referring to the conflict.

JM: I don't think the conflict is a sore. I think it's a national security challenge. I think it's important to achieve peace in the Middle East on a broad variety of fronts and I think that if the Israeli-Palestinian issue were decided tomorrow, we would still face the enormous threat of radical Islamic extremism.

I think it's very vital, don't get me wrong. That's why I've spent so much time there. The first time I visited Israel was thirty years ago, with Scoop Jackson and other senators, when I was in the Navy. I visited Yad Vashem (Israel's Holocaust memorial) with Joe Lieberman the last time I was in Israel. So my absolute commitment is to peace between Israel and the Palestinians. But the dangers that we face in the Middle East are incredibly severe, in the form of radical Islamic extremists.

JG: Do you think that Israel is better off today than it was eight years ago?

JM: I think Israel, in many respects, is stronger economically, their political process shows progress - when there is corruption, they punish people who are corrupt. The economy is booming, they have a robust democracy, to say the least. Bin Laden has not limited his hatred and desire to destroy the United States to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, though Israel is one of the objects of his jihadist attitude. What you're trying to do is get me to criticize the Bush Administration.

JG: No, I'm not, what I'm --

JM: Yeah, you are, but I'll try to answer your question. Because of the rise of Islamic extremism, because of the failure of human rights and democracy in the Middle East, or whether there are a myriad of challenges we face in the Middle East, all of them severe, all of them pose a threat to the existence to the state of Israel, including and especially the Iranians, who have as a national policy the destruction of the state of Israel, something they've been dedicated to since before President Bush came to office.

JG: What do you think motivates Iran?

JM: Hatred. I don't try to divine people's motives. I look at their actions and what they say. I don't pretend to be an expert on the state of their emotions. I do know what their nation's stated purpose is, I do know they continue in the development of nuclear weapons, and I know that they continue to support terrorists who are bent on the destruction of the state of Israel. You'll have to ask someone who engages in this psycho stuff to talk about their emotions.

JG: Senator Obama has calibrated his views on unconditional negotiations. Do you see any circumstance in which you could negotiate with Iran, or do you believe that it's leadership is impervious to rational dialogue?

JM: I'm amused by Senator Obama's dramatic change since he's gone from a candidate in the primary to a candidate in the general election. I've seen him do that on a number of issues that show his naivete and inexperience on national security issues. I believe that the history of the successful conduct of national security policy is that, one, you don't sit down face-to-face with people who are behave the way they do, who are state sponsors of terrorism.

Senator Obama likes to refer to President Kennedy going to Vienna. Most historians see that as a serious mistake, which encouraged Khrushchev to build the Berlin Wall and to send missiles to Cuba. Another example is Richard Nixon going to China. I've forgotten how many visits Henry Kissinger made to China, and how every single word was dictated beforehand. More importantly, he went to China because China was then a counterweight to a greater threat, the Soviet Union. What is a greater threat in the Middle East than Iran today?

Senator Obama is totally lacking in experience, so therefore he makes judgments such as saying he would sit down with someone like Ahmadinejad without comprehending the impact of such a meeting. I know that his naivete and lack of experience is on display when he talks about sitting down opposite Hugo Chavez or Raul Castro or Ahmadinejad.

JG: There's no rationale for sitting down with Iran?

JM: Yes. I could see a situation hopefully in the future if the Iranians would change the policies that you and I have just talked about, but there would have to be negotiations and discussions and all kinds of things happening before you lend them the prestige of a face-to-face meeting with the President of the United States of America. As you know, our ambassador in Iraq, Ryan Crocker, has met with the Iranian ambassador in Baghdad on a couple of occasions. Those discussions, according to Ambassador Crocker, have been totally unproductive, because Iran is hell-bent on the destruction of Israel, they're hell-bent on driving us out of Iraq, they're hell-bent on supporting terrorist organizations, and as serious as anything to American families, they're sending explosive devices into Iraq that are killing American soldiers.

JG: Tell me how engaged you would be as President in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and give me a couple of names of plausible Middle East envoys.

JM: I would have a hands-on approach. I would be the chief negotiator. I have been there for thirty years. I know the leaders, I know them extremely well. Ehud Barak and I have gone back thirty years. I knew Olmert when he was mayor of Jerusalem. I've met many times with Netanyahu. I've met with Mahmoud Abbas.

In terms of envoys, there are a large number of people who could be extremely effective, and I apologize for ducking the question, but it would have to be dictated by the state of relations at the time. For example, we know that there were behind-the-scenes conversations Israel was having with Syria. Now it's broken into the public arena. So it would depend on the state of things. If they were more advanced in talks, which they are not, with Hamas, then you need someone like a mechanic. If it's someone who needs to lay out a whole framework, it would have to be someone who commands the respect of both sides, someone who has an impact on world opinion.

JG: What is the difference between an American president negotiating with Ahmadinejad and Ehud Olmert negotiating with the Syrians?

JM: You don't see him sitting down opposite Bashar, do you? (Bashar al-Assad is president of Syria.) I mean, that's the point here. It was perfectly fine that Ryan Crocker spoke with the Iranian ambassador in Baghdad. The point is you don't give legitimacy by lending prestige of a face-to-face meeting, with no preconditions.

JG: But Obama has shifted off that position.

JM: Sure, and the next time he sees where he's wrong, maybe he'll shift again. The point is is that he doesn't understand. Look, in the primary, he was unequivocal in his statements. And now he realizes that it's not a smart thing to say. I didn't say he wasn't a smart politician.

JG: Do you think that settlements keep Israel and the Palestinians from making peace?

JM: There's a list of issues that separate them, from water, to the right of return, to settlements. Look at the Oslo Accords, which basically laid out a roadmap for addressing these major issues. And settlements is one of them, but certainly one of the issues right now is the shelling of Sderot, which I visited. As you know, they're shelling from across the border. If the United States was being rocketed across one of our borders, that would probably gain prominence as an issue.

JG: Do you believe that Israel will have to go into Gaza in force to deal with the rockets, and if Israel did, would you support it?

JM: It depends on what you mean by force. They've responded with air strikes, and identifying Hamas leaders and, you know, quote, responding. Would they respond with massive force? I don't know. I know from my conversations with them that they are deeply concerned. They're a democracy. How would an American government, how would American public opinion respond, if there were constant shelling, and kids had fifteen seconds - fifteen seconds - to get into a bomb shelter. I don't know what the government of Israel is going to do. It somewhat depends on whether these attacks will discontinue or if other things happen. I did get the distinct impression, nothing specific, but I got the impression that the patience of the Israeli government and the people is growing short.

JG: Let's go back to Iran. Some critics say that America conflates its problem with Iran with Israel's problem with Iran. Iran is not threatening the extinction of America, it's threatening the extinction of Israel. Why should America have a military option for dealing with Iran when the threat is mainly directed against Israel?

JM: The United States of America has committed itself to never allowing another Holocaust. That's a commitment that the United States has made ever since we discovered the horrendous aspects of the Holocaust.

In addition to that, I would respond by saying that I think these terrorist organizations that they sponsor, Hamas and the others, are also bent, at least long-term, on the destruction of the United States of America. That's why I agree with General Petraeus that Iraq is a central battleground. Because these Shiite militias are sending in these special groups, as they call them, sending weapons in, to remove United States influence and to drive us out of Iraq and thereby achieve their ultimate goals. We've heard the rhetoric -- the Great Satan, etc. It's a nuance, their being committed to the destruction of the State of Israel, and their long-term intentions toward us.

JG: Do you think their intention is the actual destruction of America?

JM: It's hard for me to say what their intentions are, but the effect - If they were able to drive us out of Iraq, and al Qaeda established a base there, and the Shiite militias erupted and the Iranian influence was expanded, which to my mind is what would happen, then the consequences for American national security would be profound. I don't know if their intention is to destroy America and what we stand for, but I think the consequences of them succeeding in the destruction of the state of Israel and their continued support for terrorist organizations - all of these would have profound national security consequences.

JG: A question about democratization in the Middle East. Imagine a continuum, Brent Scowcroft on one end, Paul Wolfowitz on the other. Where do you fall on that continuum, five years after the invasion of Iraq?

JM: I think that we've got to always balance the realism of a situation with idealism. I'm committed to that fundamental belief that we're all created equal and endowed with inalienable rights. But there are times when realism has to enter into the equation as well. If you look at Darfur, we don't want this to go on, but how do we stop it? And what would the consequences of our initial intrusion be? After the initial success, what are the long-term consequences?

I enjoy hearing this debate. There's no one I love more in the world than Brent Scowcroft. He's one of the most selfless people I've ever seen, never a trace of personal ambition, which is the rarest thing in Washington. But I lean also toward the historic idealism of America. Which means that every situation that confronts us, we have to try to maintain that balance. Have I always been right? No. But I try to learn from the lessons of history.

JG: You bring up an interesting question about the Holocaust, to which you say never again. But do you have an absolute commitment to stop genocide wherever it occurs?

JM: That has to be the fundamental goal, but it has to be tempered by the idea that you have to actually be able to do it, that you can succeed. If you fail in one of these efforts, that encourages others, and increases feelings of isolationism and protectionism in America. It's hard to convince Americans to send young Americans into harm's way, as it should be.

JG: It sounds like you're talking about Iraq.

JM: Well, we haven't talked about the four years of mishandling this war, which has been devastating, in particular to the families.

JG: A final question: Senator Obama talked about how his life was influenced by Jewish writers, Philip Roth, Leon Uris. How about you?

: There's Elie Wiesel, and Victor Frankl. I think about Frankl all the time. "Man's Search for Meaning" is one of the most profound things I've ever read in my life. And maybe on a little lighter note, "War and Remembrance" and "Winds of War" are my two absolute favorite books. I can tell you that one of my life's ambitions is to meet Herman Wouk. "War and Remembrance" for me, it's the whole thing.

Then there's Joe Lieberman, who lives a life of his religion, and who does it in the most humble way.

JG: Not a big Philip Roth fan?

JM: No, I'm not. Leon Uris I enjoyed. Victor Frankl, that's important. I read it before my captivity. It made me feel a lot less sorry for myself, my friend. A fundamental difference between my experience and the Holocaust was that the Vietnamese didn't want us to die. They viewed us as a very valuable asset at the bargaining table. It was the opposite in the Holocaust, because they wanted to exterminate you. Sometimes when I felt sorry for myself, which was very frequently, I thought, "This is nothing compared to what Victor Frankl experienced."