(Michele McDonald/Globe Staff)
Republican presidential candidate John McCain spoke to the Boston Globe editorial board today.
John McCain is absolutely certain what to do about Iraq and illegal immigration.
But he's not sure what to make of a new intelligence report that -- in stark contrast to one just two years ago -- concludes that Iran froze its nuclear weapons program in 2003.
The Republican presidential candidate told Boston Globe editors today that the so-called surge of US troops in Iraq, which he championed, is working and is finally stablizing security in the country and limiting deaths. And if it is allowed to continue, economic, political, and social progress will follow, he said.
"I knew it would succeed," McCain said, pounding his fingertips on the conference room table for emphasis.
Eventually, US troops will be able to stay in fortified bases, but they will be needed to support Iraqi security forces and keep an eye on Al Qaeda for years to come, McCain said. He compared the bases to farflung US posts in Europe, Asia, and around the world.
"Americans don't mind the presence of troops," he said. "They mind casualties."
Still, the Arizona senator said he is not under any illusions that American-style democracy will emerge out of Iraq's sectarian violence. At best, he said, there will be a loose confederation of Shia, Sunni, and Kurd populations with a "not terribly effective" central government in Baghdad.
"There are no Thomas Jeffersons in Iraq," he said. "If there were, they were killed."
On immigration, which he called the most emotional issue he can remember wrestling with, he said the kind of comprehensive reform he, President Bush, and Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts pushed unsuccessfully earlier this year cannot proceed until Americans are confident that the borders are more secure.
"It's all a mess because we didn't do our job," he said.
McCain said he still believes in a path to possible citizenship for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country, with the proviso that they get in the back of the line, behind legal immigrants. To charges that that amounts to amnesty for lawbreakers, he said those undocumented immigrants have "status quo amnesty" now because laws are not being enforced.
He also said he worries that some of the heated rhetoric from other Republicans risks sounding "anti-Hispanic" and that some of the more draconian proposals lack compassion.
"The whole thing saddens me," he said.
McCain is more perplexed about the new intelligence estimate on Iran, which reversed one in 2005. "I don't know what to make of it all," he said.
He said he wants to closely study what changed and whether there might be disinformation mixed in, quoting Senate colleague Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who compared the revised report to a new car and said he wants to look under the hood.
"My confidence in American intelligence capability is not at the highest level," McCain said.
While McCain acknowledged that the new report will likely slow momentum for tougher economic sanctions on Iran, he said pressure should still be kept on the regime. It is still responsible for sending sophisticated roadside bombs to Iraq and supporting the terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah, and continues to be hostile to Israel and have dangerous ambitions in the Middle East, he said.
"My view is Iran still does remain a threat to the region," he said.
McCain, who hopes to break through in the New Hampshire primary, where he won in 2000, returns there this afternoon for a town hall with Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling.
"I'm very curious," McCain said with his trademark self-deprecating humor, "whether I'll be asked a question or not."