In Aspen, Sen. John McCain says lack of U.S. leadership partly to blame for crisis in Egypt

Michael McLaughlin
The Aspen Times

U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., speaks about topics including ongoing clashes in Egypt, Secretary of State John Kerry's current role, and the state of refugee camps after the Arab Spring, during a Hurst Lecture Series event at the Greenwald Pavilion at the Aspen Institute on Wednesday.
Leigh Vogel/The Aspen Times |

U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., pulled no punches as he discussed his opinions on America’s role in the Middle East and the current immigration issue.

McCain spoke Wednesday at the Aspen Institute as part of the Hurst Lecture Series. Elliot Gerson, executive vice president at the Aspen Institute, hosted the hour-long conversation.

Dressed in a button-down shirt and sport coat, McCain didn’t hesitate to discuss some of the tougher questions facing the U.S. and came across as much more of a conversationalist, rather than a slick public speaker.

Gerson wasted no time diving into the current crisis in Egypt, which McCain had first-hand experience with as he was in Egypt last week. He asked McCain if Egypt could become the “new Syria” and was there any chance of still finding some sort of reconciliation or negotiations.

“I don’t think it will likely be the ‘new Syria,’” McCain said. “But the chances of a peaceful resolution has diminished dramatically. The United States of America, because of a lack of leadership, contributed to the terrible tragedy that we see ensuing in the streets of Egypt.”

McCain referred to Egypt as the heart and soul, as well as the most important country, in the Arab world. He visited Egypt last week with U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and made a strong plea to the Egyptian military that they not use force to remove the anti-government demonstrators and name dates for a future elections and a constitution.

They refused.

“The anti-Americanism there is hard for me to exaggerate,” McCain said.

McCain then spoke of Secretary of State John Kerry making a statement two days ago where he thanked the Egyptian military for “restoring democracy.”

“I’m not making that up,” he said. “I believe that the Egyptian military believed they had a free hand. They obviously exercised that. We have to make them understand that there are serious consequences to this kind of behavior. This administration has not done that.”

McCain touched on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and admitted he didn’t have high expectations for a quick and clean resolution. He also warned of the repercussions the U.S. might face for not helping out in Syria after visiting a Syrian refugee camp.

McCain met a teacher there who pointed to a large group of children and told him that those kids would someday want to seek revenge against the people who refused to help them in their time of need.

“We’ve seen the extremism that these camps can breed,” McCain said. “We’re going to be paying the price for this for a long, long time. The situation in Syria has gone from a small uprising to a full-scale regional conflict and there is no American leadership. That’s what appalls me.”

McCain made the point that the U.S. could help dramatically if it would just take out the four runways the Syrian government is using to move its troops. He said if the U.S. establishes a no-fly zone, the Syrian pilots won’t fly into “certain death.”

When the conversation turned to immigration, McCain again was forthright with his opinions. He said his hope is that the House and Senate can find a middle ground and come out with legislation to deal with the complex issues.

“There’s only one criteria that we cannot violate,” he said. “Whatever legislation we decide upon has to have a pathway to citizenship. You cannot keep a group of people in this country and never allow them to become citizens.”

McCain touched on the U.S. debt ceiling and called out Congress for addressing the budget in the most “unsatisfactory and a bit cowardly” fashion.

“We just mandated across the board cuts,” he said. “That means we’re cutting into things we don’t want cut and doesn’t cut enough the things we want reduced. It’s harming our military in ways that I could take a long, long time to describe.”

Near the end of the discussion, Gerson called McCain a paragon of what service to country means, which brought a long applause from the audience. McCain said that he believes that many young people in the U.S. are looking for an opportunity to serve their country.

“Nothing is more rewarding than to serve a cause greater than your self-interest,” McCain said. “I believe we have a generation of young Americans who want to serve their country. It’s our job to find them the avenues in which they can serve.”

McCain wrapped up the discussion by reiterating his belief that America is still a huge international influential power.

“I think America has led, and should continue to lead, as we do in almost every aspect of the world,” he said. “If we don’t stand up and speak up for people who are struggling for freedom and basic human rights, then that’s not what my version of America is all about.”