Election 2008

ALEX CHADWICK, host: This is Day to Day. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand. Friday night, John McCain and Barack Obama will meet for the first of three presidential debates. The topic on Friday night is foreign policy. We'll be speaking with the key advisers for both campaigns. Today, John McCain's. Robert Kagan is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Welcome to the program.

Mr. ROBERT KAGAN (Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment For International Peace): Thank you.

BRAND: Now, you were an early proponent of the Iraq War, and that war has obviously become deeply unpopular in this country. And has in many people's opinions, greatly reduced the standing of the United States in the world. What would you say to people who question your judgment in supporting the war and questioning John McCain's judgment in voting for it? And what you're advising him to do now?

Mr. KAGAN: Well, you know, from the very beginning of the conflict, I and others, including John McCain, said that the Bush administration was - had mishandled the way the war needed to be conducted. In this respect, by the way, our position is exactly the same as Joe Biden's position. Joe Biden, along with many others, voted for the war, but saw very early on that the war was not being fought correctly.

I do not regret removing Saddam Hussein from power. I think if Saddam Hussein was in power today benefiting from $140-a-barrel of oil, he would be a very great menace, and we would then have two menaces in the region, Iran and Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

The fact that the strategy chosen to fight the war by the Bush administration was a bad strategy has cost us. It's cost us in terms of world opinion, it's cost us in terms of our standing in the world, and that needs to be repaired, and Senator McCain's entirely aware of that. And he has said in his speeches and in his trips to Europe, that he knows the United States needs to repair its relations, especially with its democratic allies.

But I have every confidence that someone who is experienced and knows the world as well as John McCain, will actually do a better job of repairing those alliances than someone who's really - is coming to this a very new, and doesn't know this world very well.

BRAND: So the war was not a mistake?

Mr. KAGAN: I - there were mistakes made in the war. There is no question that the way the war was fought was a mistake. But I do not believe it was a mistake to remove Saddam Hussein from power. And by the way, I noticed that opinion polls in the United States are shifting, and that attitudes toward Iraq have changed as the surge has been successful.

And I think - you know, I hear from many journalists that the war is a non-issue now in this campaign. I don't think it is a non-issue. I think it's an issue that is working in Senator McCain's favor. I think the people saw that McCain was right about the proper strategy toward Iraq. They've seen the success of the strategy that John McCain proposed. And so, their attitude towards the war is changing, and I think this is benefiting Senator McCain.

BRAND: Pakistan seems to be a major hurdle in dealing with the problems in Afghanistan. There is a problem with the tribal areas along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, where Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters are going into Afghanistan from that area. And Pakistan seems unwilling to crack down on those operatives. What should the United States do? Pakistan is an ally. Should it cut off billions of dollars in aid that it gives Pakistan?

Mr. KAGAN: We have to look at what's happened in Pakistan. There's been a change of government. There is now a democratically elected government, which faces numerous challenges. And I think that the United States, as always, needs to try to work with a democratic government and help it achieve both our aims and its aims.

Pakistan also has to worry about al-Qaeda terrorism. There was a terrible attack in Pakistan just recently, and I think this isn't a question of bullying a democratic ally around. It's a question of trying to figure out how best to achieve our common objectives. It's true that there are some elements of the Pakistani government that have been reluctant to deal with this problem, especially in the military and the intelligence services. And I think that the real challenge for us now is to figure out a way to work with this new government.

At the end of the day, however, we must make sure that the al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives that are operating in this region are dealt with. And I think that, you know, the first option is obviously to help the Pakistani government do that, but it must be taken care of one way or another.

BRAND: One way or another being what, specifically?

Mr. KAGAN: Well, I think it's got to be very clear that, you know, if Pakistan can't deal with the problem, that the United States will have to protect its interests and the interests of Afghanistan and others. But the first option is clearly to try to get the Pakistani government to do what needs to be done.

BRAND: Well, would that mean going over the border and firing on positions in Pakistan?

Mr. KAGAN: Well, we're already doing that.

BRAND: And does John McCain support that?

Mr. KAGAN: I think that there's no question. I mean, the argument that we had early this year was whether it was the right thing to do for someone to announce a strategy of doing that, which was what Barack Obama did. That is no way to win the cooperation of a fellow government. But the fact is that we need to do what needs to be done to deal with those forces in that region. The first option is to get the Pakistani government to do the right thing.

BRAND: Well, given the fact that some people are wringing their hands, saying the Pakistani government is not doing the right thing and hasn't been doing the right thing. And as you say, we are already firing inside the border of Pakistan. The risks could be that that would destabilize this democratically elected government.

Mr. KAGAN: Right. That's always a risk. And there are also other ways this government could become destabilized. That's why we also need to do - and this is something that Senator McCain has called for - make sure that we are providing the Pakistani government with the economic and development assistance they need to try to become a stable and successful democracy, which they haven't been for some years.

But I think it's too early to pass judgment on this government. It's a very new government, we have a very new Pakistani leader. And I think that right now, the objective needs to be to strengthen them, to do what we can to help. And to hope that they will, in fact, start to do the right thing in these difficult areas.

BRAND: So, if McCain wins the election and come January he is sworn in, what is his first - what would be his first foreign policy priority?

Mr. KAGAN: Well, obviously anyone who comes into office is going to have a number of priorities. I mean, the first priority of any president is going to be, to make sure that they can continue to protect the United States from another attack like September 11th.

I would expect anyone who comes into the White House, and this will certainly be true of John McCain, to want to immediately get the full briefing of what the nature of the threats are, and what we're doing to stop them. I notice that people like Joe Biden are talking about how the United States is less secure now.

The fact is, the one thing that there is no question about, if you're talking about the Bush administration, is that we've gone seven years without an attack - without another attack on the United States. Which is something that I think no one thought was going to be possible after September 11. The real task for the next president is to make sure that there are no further attacks. And I think that's going to be Senator McCain's top priority.

But at the same time, there are a lot of other things going on in the world. And I would say that beyond that, his top priority will be to re-establish and strengthen America's relations with its democratic allies around the world. Aside from protecting the United States from attack, right now that should be our top priority.

BRAND: Robert Kagan is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. And he's a foreign policy adviser for John McCain. Thank you very much.

Mr. KAGAN: Thank you.

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CHADWICK: And here's a program note. We have an interview for tomorrow with Susan Rice. She's a senior foreign policy adviser to Senator Obama's presidential campaign.

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CHADWICK: NPR's Day to Day continues.

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