"First of all, let me say something that I shouldn't," Sen. John McCain began. "I'm not sure they should put Mubarak on trial."
In a wide ranging-interview with Foreign Policy today, McCain made the case that prosecuting the former Egyptian president for killing unarmed protesters, as the new Egyptian government has promised to do, would encourage the Arab world's other embattled dictators to cling to power rather than risk the consequences of stepping down. He also weighed in on how the United States should support democratic transitions throughout the Arab world, and blasted cuts to funding for Title VI and other international educational programs as a "short-sighted" move that could weaken American diplomatic capabilities and, over time, create a "hollow diplomatic corps."
On Syria, McCain urged moral support for protesters, but offered a surprisingly strong warning against leading them to believe that any foreign military intervention might be forthcoming. He called for the United States and Europe to work quickly in support of the democratic transition and economic rebuilding of Egypt -- but warned that we shouldn't call it a "Marshall Plan." And the former presidential candidate expressed cautious optimism on Libya, calling on the administration to recognize the National Transitional Council.
McCain criticized President Barack Obama for moving too slowly at key moments, saying that the administration has been "a step behind" events in Egypt, Libya, and Syria. But quibbles over timing aside, his thoughts on the region were surprisingly close to those of the Obama administration -- a remarkable convergence given the toxic political arguments that usually characterize Washington these days, not to mention the heated rhetoric of the 2008 presidential campaign. Extending this bipartisan comity even further, McCain is co-sponsoring a bill with Foreign Relations Committee chairman Sen. John Kerry in support of U.S. intervention in Libya.
McCain gave an impassioned defense of the importance of supporting democracy in the region --- even when anti-Israeli or anti-American voices appear as a result. "There's every likelihood that, in the open political campaigns that take place in Egypt and other countries, the anti-Israel issue will be raised by some candidates," he said. "I know these politicians, I know some of the people who are going to be running, and they hate Israel."
But that did not deter him. Asked whether he still believed that Arab democracy was an American interest, he responded forcefully: "[I]f we don't believe that democracy is in our interest, we are somehow very badly skewed in our priorities and our inherent belief in the rights of everybody." Acknowledging that this could be a tough sell, especially when it came to finding funds to support these transitions, McCain said with emphasis that "we've got to convince people that it's in our interest to see [the Middle East] make this transition."
McCain sees job creation as key to a successful democratic transition (I didn't ask if he felt the same way about the Obama administration's efforts to do just that for the American economy). He's gravely concerned about the dismal economic situation in Egypt and Tunisia. "We were at the pyramids [in Cairo] three weeks ago, not a soul there," he said. "We stayed in a hotel in Tunis, Joe [Lieberman] and I were the only people in the whole hotel. I mean, they have really been decimated. [Tourism] is 10 percent of their GDP."
He went on: "What we need to do to these young people is say: We're going to give you an opportunity to get a job. That's the key to this." With a raised eyebrow, he also offered up a commentary on a country which did not appear in Obama's recent Middle East speech: Saudi Arabia. "Look at what the Saudis have done: They're just buying people off. They're distributing money."