SPIEGEL: Senator McCain, Europe is reserving a lot of hope for the next president of the United States. Will you try to win back trust in America around the world?
McCain: I know most of the leaders in Europe and other parts of the world and I have a long record of my positions and my ability to work together with our allies. I think I will start out with a level of credibility.
SPIEGEL: America has lost a lot of friends because President George W. Bush angered, indeed outraged, them. He allowed human rights to be violated at Guantanamo Bay, and he dismissed the joint effort to combat global warming. Under a President McCain, could we expect a change of course?
McCain: Yes. I would announce that we are not ever going to torture anyone held in American custody. I would announce that we were closing Guantanamo Bay and moving those prisoners to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and I would announce a commitment to addressing climate change and my dedication to a global agreement -- but it has to include India and China.
SPIEGEL: So is America coming back to renegotiate the Kyoto Protocol?
McCain: I believe America is going to enter into negotiations to try to reach a global agreement. But, as I said, that agreement must include India and China, two of the emerging economies of the world. We would be foolish not to do so.
SPIEGEL: Will America attempt to go it alone less frequently in the future?
McCAIN: Well, we all hope that America will be multilateral again in the future. There were times when the United States acted unilaterally, but I think we would all prefer to work in concert with our friends and allies.
SPIEGEL: What role will the United Nations play? Bush always ignored the UN.
McCain: The United Nations always plays an important role. But right now we are having to deal with a Russia that is clearly intent on blocking action. That's why the UN must act in a league of democracies that share our values and our common principles.
SPIEGEL: Should Germany play a more important role around the world and obtain a permanent seat on the Security Council, for example?
McCain: Germany does play a very influential role around the world, and I value the relationship that we have shared for many, many generations. I believe Germany will continue to play a very influential and important role in the world.
SPIEGEL: What is your impression of German Chancellor Angela Merkel? Have you had the opportunity to have a longer conversation with her?
McCain: I have known her for many years and gone to the Munich Conference on Security every year. In fact, I had to miss that conference this weekend for the first time in many years because of the campaign. I have had excellent relations with her as I have had with other German leaders from both major parties.
SPIEGEL: Everyone is concerned about Afghanistan right now. Do you think that the Germans should be getting more deeply involved in Afghanistan?
McCain: We need more Germans in Afghanistan. There is a great deal at stake -- for all of Europe and the US -- including the export of the poppy crop products into Europe as well as the threat to stability in entire the region.
SPIEGEL: The United States is fighting against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan. Do you expect greater support from the German military there?
McCain: I would like to see more German participation obviously, but those decisions are made by the German government and people.
SPIEGEL: Would you like to see Germany reduce trade with Iran?
McCain: I think we have to punish Iran to force them to abandon their current course.
Carrots and Sticks for Iran
SPIEGEL: Would you be willing to talk to people like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?
McCain: As long as Iran continues to announce its dedication to making the state of Israel extinct and as long as the country continues to pursue the use of nuclear weapons, I will continue to say that is not an acceptable situation. I will work with other democracies in order to find incentives and punishments for the Iranians.
SPIEGEL: Is war a legitimate instrument of politics?
McCain: Every nation has the right to defend itself. That is a fundamental right.
SPIEGEL: This reminds us of your biography. You took part in the Vietnam War and were tortured during the five and a half years you spent as a prisoner of war. We imagine you have had enough of war in your life.
McCain: We veterans really hate war. I hope there has not been any glorification of war in anything I have written or said. I also have no doubt that, for those of us who experienced the war, it was the worst experience we ever had. But, in some ways, it was the most magnificent time in my life because of the courage and bravery of those I had the privilege of serving with.
SPIEGEL: To what extent do your experiences from that time continue to influence your life today?
McCain: Well, obviously it was a very impactful period of my life, but my views have been shaped by my experiences and knowledge and background on national issues, of which my experience in Vietnam is just one part. But there are many lessons to be taken from the Vietnam War, including the Powell Doctrine, which states that if you are going to enter into a conflict, you go in with overwhelming force and get it done as quickly as possible. One of our mistakes in Iraq is that we never had enough troops to control the country after the initial military victory.
SPIEGEL: When you were a prisoner of war, did you ever dream of becoming president of the United States?
McCAIN: No. Never.
SPIEGEL: Last summer, your campaign seemed doomed. Now you are the clear Republican favorite and all of your major competitors, with the exception of Mike Huckabee, have dropped out. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has called you the greatest comeback story of recent years. How do you explain your dramatic turnaround?
McCain: There are many, many reasons. But one of the major ones is that we went to the states and told the truth. Simply the truth. At times, what they wanted to hear and, at others, what they did not want to hear. But we told the truth, and people responded to it. They got what we call "straight talk," and I was able to outcampaign my other competitors.
SPIEGEL: Most of the presidential candidates have had trouble dealing with the Iraq issue. At times they were in favor of the war and, at others, they were against it.
McCain: Yes. I always supported the offensive in Iraq, even at a time when that position was not very popular within the Republican Party. At those times, other people were looking for exit signs.
SPIEGEL: But most Americans now feel the war was a mistake. Will you be able to maintain your position in a general election against the Democrats? Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton want to get out of Iraq as quickly as possible. This aim is more popular than your position.
McCain: Senator Clinton and Senator Obama will withdraw our forces from Iraq based on an arbitrary timetable designed for the sake of political expediency and which recklessly ignores the profound human calamity and dire threats to our security that would ensue. They will not recognize and seriously address the threat posed by an Iran with nuclear ambitions against our ally, Israel, and the entire region.
SPIEGEL: Your army has already been in Iraq for five years, and almost 4,000 American soldiers have died. What makes you so certain that an increase in the number of troops and the surge can actually have an impact?
McCain: I intend to win the war, and I trust in the proven judgment of our commanders there and the courage and selflessness of the Americans they have the honor to command. I share the grief over the terrible losses we have suffered in its prosecution. There is no other candidate for this office who appreciates more than I do just how awful war is.
McCain: But I know that the costs in lives and treasure we would incur should we fail in Iraq will be far greater than the losses we have suffered to date. And I will not allow that to happen.
SPIEGEL: And what would happen if this were to happen anyway?
McCain: Al-Qaida would sound the trumpets to the world that they had defeated the United States. And the further we withdrew, the greater they would advance -- until they reached us in America directly.
SPIEGEL: When one makes inquiries about you in Washington, one hears that you sometimes lose your temper. Will America soon be getting a choleric president?
McCain: The fact is that it is simply not true. Second, I have worked across the aisle with the Democrats and with members of my own party in one of the most productive ways of any legislator. That would be impossible to do if there was any kind of problem in that area. And I have the support of so many of my colleagues who serve with me in the Senate.
SPIEGEL: You are reported to have screamed profanities at senators, and even though people think you have learned to control yourself, there are said to be moments when you cannot or choose not to. They call you "McNasty."
McCain: It is an interesting theory, but it is completely false and orchestrated by my political opponents. I am not complaining about it, it is just a fact. Once again, my record indicates that I know how to work together to get things done with people on both sides and all parts of America.
SPIEGEL: So, do you consider yourself to be a candidate without weaknesses?
McCain: I am a man of many failings. I make no bones about it. That is why I am such a believer in forgiveness and redemption. I have done many, many things wrong in my life. The key is to try to improve.
SPIEGEL: Governor Schwarzenegger thinks that Republicans sometimes set the wrong priorities and that they are too slow on important issues like global warming and healthcare. Why did your party neglect these issues in the past?
McCain: I do not know. I have not neglected them.
SPIEGEL: But your party has.
McCain: Our biggest problem is that we let spending get out of control. That was the biggest problem, with our base and with the American people.
SPIEGEL: Because of assumptions like these, some Republicans feel you are more of a Democrat than a conservative.
McCain: I am proud to be a conservative, and I make that claim because I believe in the most basic of conservative principles: That liberty is a right conferred by our Creator, not by governments, and that the appropriate objective of justice and the rule of law in our country is not to aggregate power to the state but to protect the liberty and property of its citizens.
SPIEGEL: You often voted across the aisles and cut deals with Democrats. That made you suspicious to some.
McCain: My record in public office taken as a whole is the record of a mainstream conservative. I believe in small government, fiscal discipline, low taxes, a strong defense and judges who enforce, but do not try to make, our laws. I believe in social values that are the true source of our strength. And I believe, generally, on the steadfast defense of our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, which I have defended my entire career as a God-given to the born and unborn.
SPIEGEL: Rush Limbaugh said it would be a disaster if you win the nomination because he thinks that you are too liberal. How will you bring the Republican Party together to go up against the Democrats in the general election?
McCain: I have to just continue to send the message that I believe in a big-tent party. I also have to convey that the conservatives' major concern is the threat of radical Islamic extremism -- and that I am the best qualified to keep this nation safe.
SPIEGEL: What qualifies you? And what makes you different from Obama or Clinton?
McCain: Senator Clinton and Senator Obama want to increase the size of the federal government. I intend to reduce it. Senator Clinton and Senator Obama will raise your taxes. I intend to cut them. I have argued to make the Bush tax cuts permanent.
SPIEGEL: But you once voted against them in the Senate ...
McCain: ... because, at the time, they were not coupled with spending cuts.
SPIEGEL: A leaner state, promoting growth with lower taxes -- it sounds like you want to revive Reagan's supply-side economic policies.
McCain. I am a proud foot soldier of the Reagan Revolution. We can build a tax system that is pro-growth and can improve our global competitiveness. America has the second highest corporate tax rate in the world. Cutting corporate taxes will spur economic growth immediately and over the long run.
SPIEGEL: Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is a very progressive conservative. He vowed to stay neutral but surprisingly endorsed you shortly before Super Tuesday. Has that damaged you with the party base or helped you?
McCain: Governor Schwarzenegger's support was really a very important element in our victory.
SPIEGEL: The approval ratings of the current administration are the lowest since such ratings have existed. Do you have an explanation?
McCain: Well, there are many reasons for it. My approval ratings are very high. I match up either evenly with or slightly ahead of both Senator Obama and Senator Clinton in the opinion polls.
SPIEGEL: If elected, at 72 years of age, you will be the oldest man ever to enter the presidency in American history at the time of your inauguration. Will age be an issue in the campaign, especially if you are running against Obama?
McCain: I am healthy, I am fit and I think I can show that I have the bigger experience and the judgment to lead America in a very dangerous time.
SPIEGEL: You have a reputation of being superstitious. How do you feel about the increasing role that religion plays in American politics? Your opponent Mike Huckabee claims to be led by God.
McCain: Well, I think it is a very important part of my life. But I also believe that America is a great nation, and we embrace people of all religious faiths.
SPIEGEL: Sometimes you exchange jokes with Huckabee, but it is said that the one thing that binds you with Mitt Romney is mutual hatred. He has since dropped out of the race. Did that surprise you?
McCain: I cannot give you a complete explanation because I have not had a chance to discuss it with him at length.
SPIEGEL: He reportedly burned up about $35 million of his own money on his campaign.
McCain: I do know he was a competitor and ran a very good race that he can be proud of.
SPIEGEL: Who do you expect to be your opponent in the Democratic Party in the final stretch of the campaign this fall?
McCain: No idea.
SPIEGEL: Has the unusually heated and dramatic contest between the two (Clinton and Obama) changed American politics?
McCain: Well, compared to me, they have significant philosophical differences. They are liberal Democrats, and I am a conservative Republican. So we will have a very spirited debate based on strong philosophical differences.
SPIEGEL: Do you have two different strategies -- one for a woman and one for an African American?
McCain: No, I do not.
SPIEGEL: Every public opinion poll suggests that Obama will be harder to beat because he inspires independent voters.
McCain: I do not know which opponent would be more formidable. I know that I appeal very much to independent voters.
SPIEGEL: Senator McCain, we thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Klaus Brinkbäumer and Marc Hujer.