Conventional wisdom holds that John McCain’s presidential campaign is all but down for the count. But the Arizona senator is still holding on — he placed third among Republican primary voters, according to a July Gallup poll — and in a recent one-on-one interview with the Forward, he held forth energetically on everything from Iraq and Iran to his Democratic rivals and the impact on the American Jewish community if his own campaign didn’t succeed.
“I think they’d lose the most knowledgeable and experienced person in the race, by far, on national security issues and expertise on the Middle East in general and the state of Israel in particular,” McCain said during the interview. “I’ve been going to Israel for [years] — I was there in 1978, so nearly 30 years. I am familiar with the leaders of Israel, I’ve known them for many years, and so I understand the threat they are encountering.”
McCain was in New York for a breakfast last week with members of the Republican Jewish Coalition. While his campaign has struggled, the candidate has persevered, focusing primarily on foreign policy — and it appears to have paid dividends. One of the leading Republican Party fundraisers, Lewis Eisenberg, is vowing unconditional loyalty.
“My friends in other campaigns have asked me [who I would support should McCain drop out], and I’m being absolutely sincere: I do not entertain the thought of his dropping out,” said Eisenberg, who was at the breakfast last week.
In the interview with the Forward, McCain — the only military veteran among the major presidential candidates of both parties — said that he envisions leveraging America’s soft power to help stabilize Iraq, achieving greater cooperation from neighboring countries such as Saudi Arabia and encouraging America to plunge headfirst into jumpstarting a peace process between Israelis and Palestinians.
“The Israeli-Palestinian issue has impacted everything in the Middle East for many, many years,” he said. “I would support peace efforts in the region as the second-highest priority [of my administration]. So we need to send our best and smartest people to try to help get the issue involved.”
Asked about his strategy for confronting the Iranian regime over its drive for nuclear weapons, McCain took a softer line than he has on previous occasions, as in April when he responded to a question about Iran by singing “Bomb, Bomb Iran” to the tune of the Beach Boys song “Barbara Ann.” In talking with the Forward, the Arizona senator said he rejected the argument, pushed by neoconservative eminence grise and Rudy Giuliani foreign policy adviser Norman Podhoretz, that President Bush should prepare to take military action against Tehran before leaving office.
“I do agree with Mr. Podhoretz that there is a comparison between the situation today and the threat of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, so I would be prepared for courses of action that may be necessary,” McCain said. “But I want to emphasize that I think there are other actions, such as democracies joining together to impose serious and meaningful sanctions on Iran.”
When asked about the recent scuffle between the two main rivals for the Democratic nomination, McCain at first took on Barack Obama’s position.
“I don’t get into their internecine strife, but the fact is, before you sit down with any of these people, like the president of Iran or North Korea, you’ve got to understand what the impact is on America’s influence in the world, and to just say you’ll sit down with them, which enhances their prestige and allows them to have a propaganda platform, obviously is naive.”
But the senator expressed worries about Hillary Clinton, as well.
“In [Hillary’s] husband’s administration, I believe America was weakened, I believe our military was weakened and I believe our overall position in the world was weakened,” he said. “So if she would pursue the policies that her husband pursued, I would not subscribe to such policies.”
One potential target that McCain left un-hit was the bloc of Republican congressmen in the House of Representatives that recently voted against a foreign aid bill that included funding for Israel.
“With typical Senate snobbery, I haven’t paid attention to the House,” he demurred. “I don’t have enough expertise to comment on it, except to say I’m proud of the Republican Party’s support for Israel over the last 30 or 40 years, and I’ll match it against the Democrats anytime. I would say that the fact that Ronald Reagan won the Cold War is probably one of the best things that ever happened to the world and the State of Israel.”