Senator John McCain's remarks on the floor concerning the Levin-Reed Amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for FY '08:
“Mr. President, I oppose the amendment offered by the Chairman and the Senator from Rhode Island that would mandate a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.
“The debate that has taken place on this floor for some months now comes down to this. It is a simple choice. The sponsors of this amendment would have us legislate a withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq within 120 days of enactment, leaving in place only forces authorized to carry out specific narrow missions. That is one choice, to force an end to the war in Iraq and to accept thereby all the terrible consequences that follow. The other is to defeat this amendment, to give General Petraeus and the troops under his command the time and support they have requested to carry out their mission, to allow them to safeguard vital American interests and an Iraqi population at risk of genocide.
“That is the choice, Mr. President, and though politics and popular opinion may be pushing us in one direction, to take the easy course, we as elected leaders have a greater responsibility. A measure of courage is required. Not the great courage exhibited by the brave men and women fighting today in Iraq and Afghanistan, but a smaller measure, the courage necessary to put our country’s interests before every personal or political consideration.
“I would like to spend a few moments reviewing the state of affairs in Iraq today. The final reinforcements needed to implement General Petraeus’ new counter-insurgency strategy arrived several weeks ago. From what I saw and heard on my recent trip, and from briefings and reports since then, I believe that our military, in cooperation with the Iraqi security forces, is making progress in a number of areas. The areas where they are operating have not suddenly become safe – they have not – but they do illustrate the progress that our military has achieved under General Petraeus’s new strategy.
“The most dramatic advances have been made in Anbar Province, a region that last year was widely believed to be lost to al Qaeda. After an offensive by U.S. and Iraqi troops cleaned al Qaeda fighters out of Ramadi and other areas of western Anbar, the province’s tribal sheikhs broke formally with the terrorists and joined the coalition side. Ramadi, which just months ago stood as Iraq’s most dangerous city, is now one of its safest. In February, attacks in Ramadi averaged between 30 and 35; now many days see no attacks at all – no gunfire, no IEDs, and no suicide bombings. In Falluja, Iraqi police have established numerous stations and have divided the city into gated districts, leading to a decline in violence. Local intelligence tips have proliferated in the province, thousands of men are signing up for the police and army, and the locals are taking the fight to al Qaeda. U.S. commanders in Anbar attest that all 18 major tribes in the province are now on board with the security plan, and they expect that a year from now the Iraqi army and police could have total control of security in Ramadi. At that point, they project, we could safely draw down American forces in the area.
“The Anbar model is one that our military is attempting to replicate in other parts of Iraq, with some real successes. A brigade of the 10th Mountain Division is operating in the areas south of Baghdad, the belts around the capital which have been havens for al Qaeda and other insurgents. All soldiers in the brigade are “living forward,” and commanders report that the local sheikhs are increasingly siding with the coalition against al Qaeda, the main enemy in that area of operations. Southeast of Baghdad, the military is targeting al Qaeda in safe havens they maintain along the Tigris River, and Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of operations there, recently reported that attacks on civilians in his area of operations were down 20 percent since April and civilian deaths had declined 55 percent. These and other efforts are part of Operation Phantom Thunder, a military operation intended to stop insurgents present in the Baghdad belts from originating attacks in the capital itself.
“In Baghdad, the military, in cooperation with Iraqi security forces, continues to establish joint security stations and deploy throughout the city in order to get violence under control. These efforts have produced positive results: sectarian violence has fallen since January, the total number of car bombings and suicide attacks declined in May and June, and the number of locals coming forward with intelligence tips has risen. Make no mistake – violence in Baghdad remains at unacceptably high levels, suicide bombers and other threats pose formidable challenges, and other difficulties abound. Nevertheless, there appears to be overall movement in the right direction.
“North of Baghdad, Iraqi and American troops have surged into Diyala Province and are fighting to deny al Qaeda sanctuary in the city of Baqubah. For the first time since the war began, Americans showed up in force and did not quickly withdraw from the area. In response, locals have formed a new alliance with the coalition to counter al Qaeda. Diyala, which was the center of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s proposed “Islamic caliphate,” finally has a chance to turn aside the forces of extremism.
“I offer these observations, Mr. President, not in order to present a rosy scenario of the challenges we continue to face in Iraq. As last weekend’s horrific bombing in Salahuddin Province illustrates so graphically, the threats to Iraqi stability have not gone away. Nor are they likely to go away in the near future, and our brave men and women in Iraq will continue to face great challenges. What I do believe, however, is that, while the mission – to bring a degree of security to Iraq, and to Baghdad and its environs in particular, in order to establish the necessary precondition for political and economic progress – while that mission is still in its early stages, the progress our military has made should encourage all of us.
“It is also clear that the overall strategy that General Petraeus has put into place – a traditional counterinsurgency strategy that emphasizes protecting the population, and which gets our troops off of the bases and into the areas they are trying to protect – that this strategy is the correct one. Some of my colleagues argue that we should return troops to the forward operating bases and confine their activities to training and targeted counterterrorism operations. That is precisely what we did for three and a half years, Mr. President, and the situation in Iraq only got worse. I am frankly surprised that my colleagues would advocate a return to the failed Rumsfeld-Casey strategy. No one can be certain whether this new strategy, which remains in the early stages, can bring about ever greater stability. We can be sure, however, that should the United States Senate seek to legislate an end to the strategy as it is just commencing – should we do that, Mr. President, then we will fail for certain.”
Now that the military effort in Iraq is showing some signs of progress, the space is opening for political progress. Yet rather than seizing the opportunity, the government of Prime Minister Maliki is not functioning as it must. We see little evidence of reconciliation and none of the 18 benchmarks has yet been met. Progress is not enough – we need to see results, and today the results are not there. The Iraqi government can function; the question is whether it will. If there is to be hope of a sustainable end to the violence that so plagues that country, Iraqi political leaders must seize this opportunity. It will not come around again.
To encourage political progress, I believe that we can find wisdom in several suggestions put forward recently by Henry Kissinger. An intensified negotiation among the Iraqi parties could limit violence, promote reconciliation, and put the political system on a more stable footing. At the same time, we should promote a dialogue between the Iraqi government and its Sunni Arab neighbors – specifically Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia – in order to build broader international acceptance for the Iraqi central government, in exchange for that government meeting specific obligations with respect to the protection and political participation of the Sunni minority. These countries should cease their efforts to hand-pick new Iraqi leaders and instead contribute to stabilizing Iraq, an effort that would directly serve their national interests. Finally, we should begin a broader effort to establish a basis for aid and even peacekeeping efforts by the international community, keyed to political progress in Iraq.
In taking such steps, we must recognize that no lasting political settlement can grow out of a U.S. withdrawal. On the contrary, a withdrawal must grow out of a political solution, a solution made possible by the imposition of security by coalition and Iraqi forces. Secretary Kissinger is absolutely correct when he states that “precipitate withdrawal would produce a disaster,” one that “would not end the war but shift it to other areas, like Lebanon or Jordan or Saudi Arabia,” produce greater violence among Iraqi factions, and embolden radical Islamists around the world.
Let us keep in the front of our minds the likely consequences of premature withdrawal from Iraq. Many of my colleagues would like to believe that, should the withdrawal amendment we are currently debating become law, it would mark the end of this long effort. They are wrong. Should the Congress force a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq, it would mark a new beginning, the start of a new, more dangerous, and more arduous effort to contain the forces unleashed by our disengagement.
No matter where my colleagues came down in 2003 about the centrality of Iraq to the war on terror, there can simply be no debate that our efforts in Iraq today are critical to the wider struggle against violent Islamic extremism. Already, the terrorists are emboldened, excited that America is talking not about winning in Iraq, but is rather debating when we should lose. Last week, Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s deputy chief, said that the United States is merely delaying our “inevitable” defeat in Iraq, and that “the Mujahideen of Islam in Iraq of the caliphate and jihad are advancing with steady steps towards victory.” He called on Muslims to travel to Iraq to fight Americans, and appealed for Muslims to support the Islamic State in Iraq, a group established by al Qaeda.
General Petraeus has called al Qaeda “the principal short-term threat to Iraq.” What do the supporters of this amendment believe to be the consequences of our leaving the battlefield with al Qaeda in place? If we leave Iraq prematurely, jihadists around the world will interpret the withdrawal as their great victory against our great power. Their movement thrives in an atmosphere of perceived victory; we saw this in the surge of men and money flowing to al Qaeda following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. If they defeat the United States in Iraq, they will believe that anything is possible, that history is on their side, that they really can bring their terrible rule to lands the world over. Recall the plan laid out in a letter from Zawahiri to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, before his death. That plan is to take shape in four stages: establish a caliphate in Iraq, extend the “jihad wave” to the secular countries neighboring Iraq, clash with Israel – none of which shall commence until the completion of stage one: expel the Americans from Iraq. Mr. President, the terrorists are in this war to win it. The question is: Are we?
The supporters of this amendment respond that they do not by any means intend to cede the battlefield to al Qaeda; on the contrary, their legislation would allow U.S. forces, presumably holed up in forward operating bases, to carry out targeted counterterrorism operations. But our own military commanders say that this approach will not succeed, and that moving in with search and destroy missions to kill and capture terrorists, only to immediately cede the territory to the enemy, is the failed strategy of the past three and a half years.
Major General Rick Lynch, who is directing a major part of the Baghdad offensive, said over the weekend that an early American withdrawal would clear the way for “the enemy to come back” to areas now being cleared of insurgents. “When we go out there,” he said, “the first question they ask is, ‘Are you staying?’ And the second question is, ‘How can we help?’” General Lynch added that, should U.S. forces pull back before the job is complete, we risk “an environment where the enemy could come back and fill the void.” On Monday, Lt. Gen. Odierno, the number two commander in Iraq, said, “My assessment right now is, I need more time. . . . I’m seeing some progress now here in Iraq. We have really just started what the Iraqis term ‘liberating’ them from al Qaeda.”
Withdrawing before there is a stable and legitimate Iraqi authority would turn Iraq into a failed state and a terrorist sanctuary, in the heart of the Middle East. We have seen a failed state emerge after U.S. disengagement once before, and it cost us terribly. In pre-9/11 Afghanistan, terrorists found sanctuary to train and plan attacks with impunity. We know that today there are terrorists in Iraq who are planning attacks against Americans. We cannot make this fatal mistake twice.
As my friend Brent Scowcroft has said recently, “The costs of staying are visible; the costs of getting out are almost never discussed. . . If we get out before Iraq is stable, the entire Middle East region might start to resemble Iraq today. Getting out is not a solution.” Natan Sharansky has recently written, “A precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces could lead to a bloodbath that would make the current carnage pale by comparison.” Should we leave Iraq before there is a basic level of stability, we will invite further Iranian influence at a time when Iranian operatives are already moving weapons, training fighters, providing resources, and helping plan operations to kill American soldiers and damage our efforts to bring stability to Iraq. Iran will comfortably step into the power vacuum left by a U.S. withdrawal, and such an aggrandizement of fundamentalist power has great potential to spark greater Sunni-Shia conflict across the region.
Leaving prematurely would induce Iraq’s neighbors, including Saudi Arabia and Jordan, Egypt to Israel, Turkey and others, to feel their own security eroding, and may well induce them to act in ways that prompt wider instability. The potential for genocide, wider war, spiraling oil prices, and the perception of strategic American defeat is real, Mr. President, and no vote on this floor will change that.
Do not take my word from it. Consult, perhaps, the Iraq Study Group report, which says: “[a] chaotic Iraq could provide a still stronger base of operations for terrorists who seek to act regionally or even globally,” and that “Al Qaeda will portray any failure by the United States in Iraq as a significant victory that will be featured prominently as they recruit for their cause in the region and in the world.” The report goes on to say that “a premature American departure from Iraq would almost certainly produce greater sectarian violence and further deterioration of conditions. . . The near-term results would be a significant power vacuum, greater human suffering, regional destabilization, and a threat to the global economy. Al Qaeda would depict our withdrawal as a historic victory.”
Or perhaps ask the Iraqis. Brig. Gen. Qassim Attam, the chief Iraqi spokesman for the Baghdad security plan, said on Sunday that the Iraqi military and police force need more time before they are capable of assuming control of the country’s security.
Or maybe our intelligence agencies which, in the January National Intelligence Estimate concluded: “If Coalition forces were withdrawn rapidly during the term of this Estimate, we judge that this almost certainly would lead to a significant increase in the scale and scope of sectarian conflict in Iraq, intensify Sunni resistance to the Iraqi Government, and have adverse consequences for national reconciliation. . . the ISF would be unlikely to survive as a non-sectarian national institution; neighboring countries. . . might intervene openly in the conflict; massive civilian casualties and forced population displacement would be probable; AQI would attempt to use parts of the country. . . to plan increased attacks in and outside Iraq; and spiraling violence and political disarray in Iraq, along with Kurdish moves to control Kirkuk and strengthen autonomy, could prompt Turkey to launch a military incursion.”
Those are the likely consequences of a precipitous withdrawal, and I hope that the supporters of such a move will tell us what they believe to be the likely consequences of this course of action. Should their amendment become law, and U.S. troops begin withdrawing, do they believe that Iraq will become more or less stable? That al Qaeda will find it easier to gather, plan, and carry out attacks from Iraqi soil, or that our withdrawal will somehow make this less likely? That the Iraqi people become more or less safe? That genocide becomes a more remote possibility or ever likelier?
Mr. President, this fight is about Iraq but not about Iraq alone. It is greater than that and more important still, about whether America still has the political courage to fight for victory or whether we will settle for defeat, with all of the terrible things that accompany it. We cannot walk away gracefully from defeat in this war.
How we leave Iraq is very, very important, Mr. President. As the Iraq Study Group found, “If we leave and Iraq descends into chaos, the long-range consequences could eventually require the United States to return.” General Petraeus and his commanders believe that they have a strategy that can, over time, lead to success in Iraq. General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker will come to Washington in September to report on the status of their efforts, and those of the Iraqis. They request just two things of us: the time necessary to see whether their efforts can succeed, and the political courage to support them in their work. I believe that we must give them both.
Mr. President, right now, as we continue our debate on the war in Iraq, American soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen are fighting bravely and tenaciously in battles that are as dangerous, difficult and consequential as the great battles of our armed forces’ storied past. Americans who fought in France’s hedgerow country; those who bled in the sands and jungles of Pacific islands, who braved the onslaught of the Chinese Army in the frozen terrain of Korea, and who fought a desperate battle to retake Hue from the enemy during the Tet Offensive and against numerically superior forces in an isolated Marine base at Khe San will recognize and honor the sacrifice of Americans who now fight with such valor, determination and skill to defend the security interests and the honor of our country in desperate battles in Iraq.
The hour is indeed late in Iraq. How we have arrived at this critical and desperate moment has been well chronicled, and history’s judgment about the long catalogue of mistakes in the prosecution of this war will be stern and unforgiving. But history will revere the honor and the sacrifice of those Americans, who despite the mistakes and failures of both civilian and military leaders, shouldered a rifle and risked everything – everything – so that the country they love so well might not suffer the many dangerous consequences of defeat.
We read in our leading newspapers about those veterans of the Iraq War who have organized to oppose its continuation. They have fought for America’s freedom, and they have every right to exercise their freedom to oppose their government’s policies. I wish, though, that the press would pay at least equal attention to the many more veterans who have fought, suffered and witnessed the ultimate sacrifice, the loss of their dearest friends, and yet are still committed to America’s success in Iraq, and to those who have served multiple tours in this terrible war, and yet re-enlist because they remain steadfast in the belief that they can achieve the mission they have already risked so much to achieve. The American public, those who still support our effort in Iraq and those who desire a quick end to it, should be daily reminded that although our country is deeply divided about this war, most of the many thousands of Americans who have suffered its worst miseries are still resolved that it not end in an American defeat.
Our new counterinsurgency strategy is succeeding where our previous tactics failed us. We are taking from the enemy and holding territory that was once given up for lost. Those who have falsely described General Petraeus’s efforts as “staying the course” are the real advocates of continuing on the course of failure. Many of those who decry the way we got into this war and the way we fought it are now advocating a way out of it that suffers from a more willful refusal to face facts than they accused the administration of exhibiting. Although we all seem to be united in recognizing the mistakes and failures of the past, the proponents of reducing our forces in Iraq, and keeping them on secure bases from which they could occasionally launch search and destroy missions are proposing to return to the very tactics that have brought us to the point of trying to salvage from the wreckage of those mistakes the last best hope for success.
That is what General Petraeus, and the Americans he has the honor to command, are trying to do – to fight smarter and better, in a way that addresses and doesn’t strengthen the tactics of the enemy, and to give the Iraqis the security and opportunity to make the necessary political decisions to save their country from the abyss of genocide and a permanent and spreading war. So far, the Maliki government has not risen to that challenge, and it must do so. It is obvious that America is losing our resolve to continue sacrificing its sons and daughters, while the Iraqi government will not take the political risks to do what is plainly in the best interests of the Iraqi people. But we do not fight only for the interests of Iraqis, Mr. President, we fight for ours as well.
We, too, Mr. President, we members of Congress, must face our responsibilities honestly and bravely. What is asked of us is so less onerous than what we have asked from our servicemen and women, but no less consequential. We need not risk our lives, nor our health, but only our political advantages so that General Petraeus has the time and resources he has asked for to follow up on his recent successes and help save Iraq and America from the catastrophe that would be an American defeat. That is not much to risk, Mr. President, compared to the sacrifices made by Americans fighting in Iraq or the terrible consequences of our defeat. For if we withdraw from Iraq, if we choose to lose there, there is no doubt in my mind, no doubt at all, that we will be back – in Iraq and elsewhere —in many more desperate fights to protect our security and at an even greater cost in American lives and treasure.
Little is asked of us to help prevent this catastrophe, but so much depends on our willingness to do so, on the sincerity of our pledge to serve America’s interests before our own. The Americans who must make the greatest sacrifices have earned the right to insist that we do our duty, as best as we can see it, and accept willingly and graciously whatever small sacrifice we must make with our own personal and partisan ambitions. Ours is a noisy, restive, and contentious profession. It has always been thus, Mr. President, and it always will be. But in this moment of serious peril for America, we must all of us remember to who and what we owe our first allegiance – to the security of the American people and to the ideals upon which we our nation was founded. That responsibility is our dearest privilege and to be judged by history to have discharged it honorably will, in the end, matter so much more to all of us than any fleeting glory of popular acclaim, electoral advantage or office. The history of this country, after all, is not merely a chronicle of political winners and losers, it is a judgment of who has and who has not contributed to the continued success of America, the greatest political experiment in human history.
It is my sincere wish that all of us, Republicans and Democrats, should know in our hearts whatever mistakes we have made in our lives, personally or politically, whatever acclaim we have achieved or disappointment we have suffered, that we have, in the end, earned history’s favor. I hope we might all have good reason to expect a kinder judgment of our flaws and follies because when it mattered most we chose to put the interests of this great and good nation before our own, and helped, in our own small way, preserve for all humanity the magnificent and inspiring example of an assured, successful and ever advancing America and the ideals that make us still the greatest nation on earth.
Given the recent public troubles in his campaign, it seems unlikely that Sen. McCain will be able to capture the GOP nomination. And how much poorer are we because of it?