The Star editorial board met with Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain on April 1. Excerpts of the conversation were published April 11 in the Star print edition, and we've collected segments, organized by topic, of the wide-ranging interview online:
STAR: I wanted to ask about "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and your perspective on that. And I know what you said several years ago and what you have said since. But I'm wondering if you've been approached by gay service members because you said that it's been working effectively, it's been working well. So I'm curious how do you come to that conclusion? Have you sought out gay service members, have you been approached by gay service members? How do you make that determination?
McCAIN: I make that determination by retention and recruitment is at an all-time high, the highest in the history of the all-volunteer force. I get that opinion because I visit with the troops all the time. I go to Iraq, I go to Afghanistan, I run into them everywhere. And of course I don't seek out someone who is gay. Why should I? These are all men and women who are serving. Why should I, that would be nuts. I go up to men and women and I say thanks for serving. I say thank you for serving, you are great Americans, God bless you.
STAR: But if there's a policy that could put that service in jeopardy for a number of service members, how do you judge whether it's working or not individually if you're not speaking with the people who are affected?
McCAIN: The policy is one that has worked by the opinion of their commanders. Now the military is an organization that is designed for one purpose and one purpose only, to fight and win wars. That's the only reason why we have a military. So by any objective view, our military is the most professional, best equipped, best trained, most highest quality that it's ever been. That means that its policies are working. And they get that from every commander from the sergeant to the second lieutenant all the way up to the service chiefs.
Now just yesterday, Gen. (George) Casey said he was very worried about an abrupt change without assessing the impact on the men and women in the military and our battle effectiveness. That's what he said.
The commandant of the Marine Corps said that he's against it. The head of the United States Marine Corps said that he's against it. And he said that they may have to change the living arrangements of the members of the United States Marine Corps.
Now these are people who are battle seasoned, they are people that are sergeants who have five tours in Iraq or Afghanistan.
STAR: You said that in your estimation ...
McCAIN: It's not my estimation. Objectives of estimation. You can't change the numbers of recruitment and retention.
STAR: If those things are going well, could they be better if the policy was changed?
McCAIN: That's why we need to review the policy and find out what the effect is on the military and their battle effectiveness. That's why we need an extensive review and listen to the commandant of the Marine Corps who says it should not be repealed. Listen to the men and women in the field, listen to the families of those who are serving rather than fulfill a campaign promise.
Now the reason why the president declared this is because it was a campaign promise, not because our military is hurting, not because we're having difficulties in the military.
STAR: There are those in the military who think it's a terrible policy and unjust and should be changed. So I think there's ...
McCAIN: Well, according to polls, I think that the overwhelming majority of members of the military support it. So I'm sure I can find people who don't like any policy that the military has. But the majority of the members of the military strongly support it, and they worry about battle effectiveness if they change the policy. That's why we have to have a thorough and complete review before we change the policy. And that's what I said two years ago and that's what I said two weeks ago and that's what I said yesterday and that's what I said today. We need a thorough and complete review before we change the policy and its impact on battle effectiveness and listen to the members of the military, not just because we are fulfilling a campaign promise by then-candidate Obama.
STAR: What about Adm. (Mike) Mullen's position, though?
McCAIN: He said it was his personal opinion.
STAR: Well, he did. But he also appeared in uniform. And it's a little hard to parse when the joint chiefs appear in front of the United States Senate committee and says "It's my personal opinion that."
McCAIN: What about when the commandant of the Marine Corps said he is opposed to it? What about when the chief of staff of the Army said we've got to go slow on this? What about when the chief of staff of the Air Force said I'm very worried about an abrupt change in policy and that we have to have a thorough review? What about all of those people?
STAR: Well maybe that was just their personal opinion.
McCAIN: No, no. It wasn't their personal opinion. It was their professional opinion. It was Admiral Mullen's personal opinion. All these other guys I just mentioned, that was their professional opinion.
STAR: I'm just saying when he appears in his uniform to speak, I don't think most Americans get invited to give their personal opinions before the Armed Services Committee wearing their uniform and appearing as the head of the joint chiefs.
McCAIN: I guess all I can do is repeat myself. He said and emphasized that it was his personal opinion. Every other one of the service chiefs have said we need a thorough and complete review before we change the policy. And polls have shown that members of the military don't want to change a policy because they think it's working.
STAR: There's also been a generational shift, I think, too, in terms of what younger members say and what ...
McCAIN: There may have been, there may not have been. But we need a thorough and complete review. I mean, how many times do I have to give you my opinion?
If you want to have a debate about this issue, I'll be glad to have a debate with you. I thought I came here to tell you my positions on the issues. I'm serious here. I would be glad to have an open and public debate with you on this issue. But I thought that I came here in order to tell you my positions on issues so that you can judge whether I should be re-elected or not or whatever opinions you may form.
STAR: I think a dialogue is good, too.
McCAIN: All right. Okay.
STAR: To make sure that I understand the nuances in your opinion and that I understand it thoroughly.
McCAIN: There are no nuances in my opinion. I think we need a thorough and complete review of the policy and its impact on battle effectiveness before we change the policy.
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McCAIN: Now, I would like to return to don't ask, don't tell with you and talk some more. Go ahead.
McCAIN: Go ahead. I'm ready. I'm ready. I'm ready. I'm ready. I'm ready to continue our conversation on it. Okay. Seriously. Go ahead.
STAR: Well I guess I'm just wondering do you see it as some have put it as a civil rights issue?
McCAIN: No. No, I don't. As Colin Powell said when don't ask, don't tell was first inaugurated, there's a difference between sexual preference and the color of one's skin. That was General Powell's statement.
STAR: That was years ago.
McCAIN: He was in favor of it, and now he's come out ... for the repeal. Yeah. I think what he said then still holds true today, that it is a different issue. I think Colin Powell wants to repeal don't ask, don't tell. I don't think he views it now as a civil rights issue, though.
STAR: Why should we review it at all if it's working well?
McCAIN: Because the president wants to repeal the law. The president initiated this. I'm not opposed to reviewing it. It's fine to review it. I think every law ought to be reviewed.
STAR: Do you believe at the end of the day the review will show that it should stand?
McCAIN: I'm not sure. I'm not sure. I think it will, from my experiences and seeing polls in the military and all that. But if I was sure of the outcome, I wouldn't want a thorough review. I just think we've got to have a thorough review in many policies. Particularly one as emotional and as impactful as this should be reviewed.
STAR: So if at the end of the review the consensus of the report or whatever is brought forth is that it's not working, it's keeping qualified people out, that the military could be better if it was repealed, are you open to following through on that recommendation because that's what it shows?
McCAIN: Well, if the president finds out at the end of the day after the review that it's working and an important policy that can be maintained, that he would maintain the policy. I think that's fair.
STAR: You would only accept the review if you had assurances from Barack Obama that he will protect the review?
McCAIN: Well, isn't that kind of fair? Why wouldn't I expect him to accept the review if I expect to accept it.
STAR: It's fair to expect him to. But I heard you say you won't if he won't.
McCAIN: I'm not going to deal and hypotheticals as to what would come out. But the fact is that I want to review and then I will make a decision from there. I don't know what the review result will say, I don't know what they will be about. And I just have to tell you that I engage in a lot of hypotheticals. But I'm convinced that it is working and has worked well.
Do you want more? I mean, I'm serious. Until we exhaust this issue, I'd be glad to continue our conversation. I apologize for referring to it as being a debate when it was really an informative discussion.