Sen. John McCain joined the ranks of retired generals who have said they have no confidence in Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Or more precisely, the generals are falling in line with McCain’s long-standing assessment, McCain said Friday.
“I was asked a long time ago, I think a year and a half or two years ago, if I had confidence in Secretary Rumsfeld. I was asked that directly. I said, ‘No,’ ” the Republican senator said during a news conference at his Phoenix office.
“But the president has the right and earned the right as the president of the United States to appoint his team — and he has confidence in Secretary Rumsfeld.
“I will continue to work with Secretary Rumsfeld as much as I can as long as he is secretary of Defense. We have to, because we need to win this war.”
President Bush said Friday that Rumsfeld has his full support.
As long as Rumsfeld retains Bush’s confidence, he will keep his Cabinet position, despite sharp criticism that the defense secretary has mishandled the Iraq war and ignored the advice of field commanders, McCain said.
“The whole issue of Iraq, which is what this is all about, is having difficulty in the polling numbers. So I don’t think there’s any doubt that that reflects on Secretary Rumsfeld as well as all of us who support the war in Iraq,” McCain said.
The senator spoke to reporters on a wide range of topics before launching a weeklong series of appearances and town hall meetings that will conclude with a stint as the grand marshal of the Subway Fresh 500 Nascar race in Avondale on April 22.
The Senate is on a two-week break for Easter and Passover.
McCain discussed the recent nationwide immigration reform marches, the slow progress of the Iraq war, the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran and his presumed run for president in 2008.
Despite seemingly obvious signs that McCain already is engaged in the early stages of a presidential campaign, with visits to Iowa and New Hampshire before arriving in Arizona, he said he has not yet decided whether to run.
He will make that decision early next year, he said.
A more immediate task is finishing an immigration reform bill.
“The massive demonstrations here and around the country had a significant effect, as I was pleased that they did. We go back into session a week from Monday and I’m certainly hoping that we will be able to move forward on the immigration issue,” said the Senate power broker.
More than 100,000 flagwaving protesters marched past the state Capitol on Monday in support of a guestworker program that would legitimize an estimated 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants who are already in the United States.
The marches and Bush’s increased involvement in the debate should focus attention to get the issue resolved, McCain said.
The Senate will resume work on legislation proposed by McCain and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. The measure stalled before passage last week.
McCain said provisions built into the measure ensure that it’s not a “free ride” to citizenship, a charge made by some critics. The important features: A background check, a $2,000 fine and requirements that immigrants pay back taxes and learn English. It also mandates they work for six years and formally apply for citizenship.
Competing measures, such as one introduced by Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., which would require immigrants to return to their home countries before applying, are impractical, McCain said.
He noted that syndicated newspaper columnist George Will wrote that deporting 11 million people would require a line of buses that stretched from San Diego to Alaska. “I haven’t done the math on it, but it sounds pretty logical to me,” McCain said.
During a visit to Iraq a few weeks ago, the senator saw signs of slow, but steady, progress. He said he is hopeful that within six months Iraq will move toward a functioning government, an improved economy and a reduction of U.S. casualties.
One sign of progress is the increased training of the Iraqi military which has allowed Iraqi personnel to assume more front-line operations against insurgents.
“That’s why you see rising Iraqi casualties and a reduction in casualties to American troops. It’s a sign of progress. It’s sad, but it’s still a sign of progress that Americans are suffering fewer casualties,” McCain said.
Overall though, the Iraq war has proven to be “far worse” than the Vietnam War, said the former Vietnam prisoner of war.
“When we left Vietnam, the Vietnamese didn’t want to come after us. These people — (Abu Musab ) al-Zarqawi, (Osama) bin Laden and others — they want to come after us. They’re not interested in Iraq as much as they’re interested in destroying us and everything we stand for and believe in. There is a great deal at stake here,” McCain said.
Iraq’s neighbor in the Middle East poses another threat, he said. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proclaimed Tuesday that Iran had successfully enriched uranium for the first time, a benchmark in developing nuclear capability.
“It’s a significant threat to peace in the world, particularly since the Iranian government has announced on multiple occasions their dedication to the extinction of the state of Israel,” McCain said.
Ahmadinejad insisted Tuesday that Iran aims only to make electricity, the AP reported. There’s little doubt that Iran truly intends to make nuclear weapons, McCain said. The U.S. must work with the United Nations to demand Iran stop its nuclear program, he said.
His busy itinerary, which brought him to New Hampshire, Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio and Florida this week, was requested of others, McCain said.
He enjoys campaigning for Republican candidates, speaking at town hall meetings and making public appearances, he said.
He will not make any announcements about a possible presidential campaign this year. “One practical reason is I don’t want to divert our attention from the 2006 election, which right now is going to be a very tough election for Republicans,” he said.