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Los Angeles Times Interview

John McCain

A Conservative With Quirks, Poised for Two Ground Campaigns

April 11, 1999|Gregg Easterbrook

WASHINGTON — Whether they want to or not--and surely several would rather pass--the Republican presidential contenders must stake out positions on Kosovo. Rep. John R. Kasich of Ohio, former Vice President Dan Quayle, Sen. Robert C. Smith of New Hampshire and conservative activists Gary L. Bauer and Patrick J. Buchanan have all opposed U.S. involvement, risking criticism for breaking the unwritten rule that presidential candidates should never say anything that undercuts foreign policy. Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, former American Red Cross head Elizabeth H. Dole and publisher Steve Forbes all have said they favor bombing. The front-runner, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, has said only that he supports U.S. troops in the field, which is not far from saying, "Damned if I'm going to commit myself one way or the other."

Then there's John S. McCain, senator from Arizona and also a probable candidate for the GOP nomination. Nothing about McCain's position is equivocal. McCain favors mobilization of North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops for Kosovo--fast, quick, now. He is the only potential candidate talking about a ground war, the one option that could directly resolve the humanitarian outrage of Serbian attacks on the defenseless.

McCain, 62, is the son and grandson of Navy admirals. He went to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. and became a pilot, flying combat missions over Vietnam until he was shot down in 1967. McCain then spent five and a half years in a prisoner-of-war camp. After retiring from the Navy in 1981, he moved to Arizona, his wife, Cindy's, home, and ran for Congress in 1983. Criticized as a carpetbagger, he memorably responded that owing to his service-family upbringing, "The longest place I ever lived was in Hanoi." He won two terms as a representative, then, in 1986, easily won a Senate seat, which he has held since.

McCain's voting record on Capitol Hill has been mainly conservative, bit his views can defy categorization. He has repeatedly infuriated the GOP leadership by pushing for campaign-finance-reform legislation that would essentially ban the big-donor money most Republicans depend on. The dark spot on McCain's record is his membership in the "Keating Five," the group of senators who went to bat for convicted swindler Charles H. Keating Jr. in 1987, before his criminal activities were well-known. Since then, McCain had led an almost error-free political life.

Owing to his powerful, personal military experience, McCain's views on defense affairs receive close hearing in Washington. They have also been bringing him significant press attention in the last week, but his appearances on "Nightline" and "The Charlie Rose Show" paled before this headline over an editorial in the Des Moines Register: "McCain 1, Others 0." What makes the Des Moines Register's view so significant? The ground war of the year 2000 presidential race may be fought in Iowa.

McCain had planned to kick off his presidential candidacy last week in New Hampshire and then at an Arizona rally replete with high-school bands and balloons. Because of Kosovo, he postponed the formal announcement. He spoke to The Times by telephone just before departing for Brussels and Aviano, Italy, with Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, his former Senate colleague, and again after his return to the U.S.

Question: You say air power will be insufficient to compel Serbia to stop killing civilians in Kosovo, and if air power is not enough, that leaves only ground war.

Answer: Ground action is what's appropriate now. You can say we never should have gotten into this situation in the first place, but we have gotten in, so we must deal with the situation as it is now. To fail at this point would not only have a tremendous humanitarian cost but would threaten the credibility of NATO and ultimately threaten the credibility of the United States itself. In Pyongyang [North Korea] and in Baghdad, they pay close attention to whether the United States follows through on its commitments. It is essential we show the world the United States does follow through.

Q: If there's a ground war, some American troops are sure to die.

A: The president should be preparing the American people for the inevitability of casualties, if there is a ground war. I am completely aware that by advocating this option, I must take responsibility, too, for whatever casualties occur.

Q: Even a successful operation would do considerable damage to Serbia, including killing Serbian civilians who do not support the ethnic-cleansing policy.

A: A ground war does not necessarily mean a full-scale invasion aimed at Gregg Easterbrook is a senior editor at the New Republic and author of "Beside Still Waters: Searching for Meaning in an Age of Doubt."

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