Editor’s note: This is the text of Arizona Republican Senator John McCain’s speech at the Virginia Military Institute today, as prepared for delivery.
Thank you. I know that seated in the front of this hall are VMI cadets who have served in Iraq. I am grateful for your service, honored by your presence, and mindful that I speak to an audience that can discern truth from falsehood in a politician’s appraisal of the war. You know, better than most, whether our cause is just, necessary and winnable. You have risked much to make it so. Thank you. I’d also like to salute a few old comrades of mine, Orson Swindle, Jim Berger and Paul Galanti, whose example of steadfast courage helped to sustain me in a difficult time.
This institution is steeped in the ideals of service and sacrifice exemplified by the veterans here today. VMI has helped to form the character of many fine patriots, none greater than George Marshall, whose long, selfless service to our country was of inestimable value in some of the most consequential moments of the last century. As we celebrate this year the 60th anniversary of the Marshall Plan, VMI’s Corps of Cadets should take renewed pride from their association with his good name and in knowing the lesson of his character and patriotism has been a part of your education.
I just returned from my fifth visit to Iraq. Unlike the veterans here today, I risked nothing more threatening than a hostile press corps. And my only mission was to inform my opinions with facts. We still face many difficult challenges in Iraq. That is undeniable. But we have also made, in recent weeks, measurable progress in establishing security in Baghdad and fighting al Qaeda in Anbar province. To deny the difficulties and uncertainties ahead is an egregious disservice to the public. But as General Petraeus implements his plan to correct the flawed strategy we followed in the past, and attempts to spare the United States and the world the catastrophe of an American defeat, it is an equal disservice to dismiss early signs of progress. And now we confront a choice as historically important as any we have faced in a long while. Will this nation’s elected leaders make the politically hard but strategically vital decision to give General Petraeus our full support and do what is necessary to succeed in Iraq? Or will we decide to take advantage of the public’s frustration, accept defeat, and hope that whatever the cost to our security the politics of defeat will work out better for us than our opponents? For my part, I would rather lose a campaign than a war.
However it ends, the war in Iraq will have a profound influence on the future of the Middle East, global stability, and the security of the United States, which will remain, for the foreseeable future, directly affected by events in that dangerous part of the world. The war is part of a broader struggle in the Arab and Muslim world, the struggle between violent extremists and the forces of modernity and moderation.
In the early days after 9/11, our country was united in a single purpose: to find the terrorists bent on our destruction and eliminate the threat they posed to us. In the intervening years, we have learned the complexity of the struggle against radical Islamic ideology. The extremists — a tiny percentage of the hundreds of millions of peaceful Muslims — are flexible, intelligent, determined and unconstrained by international borders. They wish to return the world to the 7th century, and they will use any means, no matter how inhumane, to eliminate anyone who stands in the way. But the vast majority of Muslims are trying to modernize their societies to meet the challenges of the 21st century. While al Qaeda seeks to destroy, millions of Muslims attempt to build the same elements of a good life that all of us want — security, opportunity, peace, and hope.
The war on terror, the war for the future of the Middle East, and the struggle for the soul of Islam — of which the war in Iraq constitutes a key element — are bound together. Progress in one requires progress in all. The many complex challenges we face require more than a military response. This is a contest of ideas and values as much as it is one of bullets and bombs. We must gain the active support of modernizers across the Muslim world, who want to share in the benefits of the global system and its economic success, and who aspire to the political freedom that is, I truly believe, the natural desire of the human heart. No matter how much attention their ruthless tactics receive, terrorists are not the true face of Islam. Devout Muslims in Lebanon, Indonesia, Pakistan and Egypt, Morocco, Bahrain, and in Iraq, aspire to progress for their societies in which basic human needs are met for more than the privileged few and basic human rights are respected.
The United States needs stronger alliances, coalitions, and partnerships worldwide to engage this long and multidimensional struggle. We need to pay careful attention to America’s image and moral credibility. And in this broad effort, the outcome of the war in Iraq will play a pivotal role.
On my trip I traveled to Baghdad, Ramadi, and Tikrit, met with Iraqi cabinet officers, our top military leadership, including Generals Petraeus and Odierno, and with embassy officials, including our new ambassador, Ryan Crocker. I also had the privilege of spending time with our soldiers, from generals to privates. Their courage and resolve in this frustrating war is an inspiration, and serves as a reminder of our obligations to avoid the expediency of easy, but empty answers or the allure of political advantage to choose the path in Iraq that best honors their sacrifices.
We’re going to need their courage more than ever. The divisions in Iraqi society are deep, and the need for greater security critical. Innocent Iraqis are still being murdered, and our soldiers are braving dangers no less threatening than in the past. Every day we read about or watch on television the latest car bombing, IED explosion or sniper attack. But something else is happening, too. There are the first glimmers of progress under General Petraeus’ political-military strategy. While these glimmers are no guarantee of success, and though they come early in the implementation of the new strategy, I believe they are cause for very cautious optimism.
For the first time in my visits to Iraq, our delegation was able to drive — not fly by helicopter– from the airport to downtown Baghdad. For the first time we met with a Sunni tribal leader in Anbar province, who is working with American and Iraqi forces to fight al Qaeda. Sixteen of the twenty-four Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar are now working with us. We visited Iraqi and American forces deployed together in Baghdad — an integral part of the new security plan — where they maintain a presence in a neighborhood cleared of militias and terrorists, and hold the ground they have retaken rather than return to base, after which the enemy returns to impose its will again on a defenseless population. The government of Prime Minister Maliki is delivering on its promise to deploy Iraqi brigades to Baghdad. A plan to share oil revenues equitably among all Iraqis has been approved by Iraqi ministers and is pending approval by the parliament. After an important visit by Prime Minister Maliki to Ramadi in Sunni dominated Anbar, he promised a new policy to allay Sunni fears that they will be excluded from sharing in the political future of the country. An important result of the new security plan is the cooperation we are receiving from the Iraqi people, who are beginning to provide us with actionable intelligence about the whereabouts and plans of the enemy. These welcome developments have occurred even though only three of our five additional brigades have arrived.
These and other indicators of progress are encouraging, but they are not determinative. I understand the damage false optimism does to public patience and support. I learned long ago to be skeptical of official reports that are long on wishful thinking and short on substance. As we make progress in some areas, the enemy strikes where we do not have as great a presence. But security in the capital is indispensable to a greater level of security throughout the country so that political and economic progress can occur. And in Baghdad we are making progress. We have a long way to go, but for the first time in four years, we have a strategy that deals with how things really are in Iraq and not how we wish them to be.
After my first visit to Iraq in 2003, I argued for more troops. I took issue with statements characterizing the insurgency as a few “dead-enders” or being in its ‘last throes.’ I criticized the search and destroy strategy and argued for a counter-insurgency approach that separated the reconcilable population from the irreconcilable. That is the course now followed by General Petraeus, and the brave Americans and coalition troops he has the honor to command.
It is the right strategy. General Petraeus literally wrote the book on counter insurgency. He is a determined, resourceful and bold commander. Our troops, many of whom have served multiple tours in Iraq, are performing with great skill and bravery. But the hour is late and, despite the developments I just described, we should have no illusion that success is certain. But having been a critic of the way this war was fought and a proponent of the very strategy now being followed, it is my obligation to encourage Americans to give it a chance to succeed. To do otherwise would be contrary to the interests of my country and dishonorable.
Many in Washington have called for an end to our involvement in Iraq. Yet they offer no opinion about the consequences of this course of action beyond a vague assurance that all will be well if the Iraqis are left to work out their differences themselves. It is obviously true that no military solution is capable of doing what the Iraqis won’t do politically. But, my friends, no political solution has a chance to succeed when al Qaeda is free to foment civil war and Iraqis remain dependent on sectarian militias to protect their children from being murdered.
America has a vital interest in preventing the emergence of Iraq as a Wild West for terrorists, similar to Afghanistan before 9/11. By leaving Iraq before there is a stable Iraqi governing authority we risk precisely this, and the potential consequence of allowing terrorists sanctuary in Iraq is another 9/11 or worse. In Iraq today, terrorists have resorted to levels of barbarism that shock the world, and we should not be so naïve as to believe their intentions are limited solely to the borders of that country. We Americans are their primary enemy, and we Americans are their ultimate target.
A power vacuum in Iraq would invite further interference from Iran at a time when Tehran already feels emboldened enough to develop nuclear weapons, threaten Israel and America, and kidnap British sailors. If the government collapses in Iraq, which it surely will if we leave prematurely, Iraq’s neighbors, from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Egypt, will feel pressure to intervene on the side of their favored factions. This uncertain swirl of events could cause the region to explode and foreclose the opportunity for millions of Muslims and their children to achieve freedom. We could face a terrible choice: watch the region burn, the price of oil escalate dramatically and our economy decline, watch the terrorists establish new base camps or send American troops back to Iraq, with the odds against our success much worse than they are today.
To enumerate the strategic interests at stake in Iraq does not address our moral obligation to a people we liberated from Saddam Hussein’s tyranny. I suspect many in this audience, and most members of Congress, look back at America’s failure to act to prevent genocide in Rwanda with shame. I know I do. And yet I fear the potential for genocide and ethnic cleansing in Iraq is even worse. The sectarian violence, the social divisions, the armaments, the weakened security apparatus of the state — all the ingredients are there. Unless we fight to prevent it, our withdrawal will be coupled with a genocide in which we are complicit. Given our security interests and our moral investment in Iraq, so long as we have a chance to prevail we must try to prevail. As General Petraeus has repeatedly stated, it will be several months or more before we know with any confidence whether we can turn this war around. Elements of the new civil-military strategy are still being drafted, almost half of the additional troops have yet to arrive, and many of the new civilians have yet to take up their posts. We are off to a good start, but significant results will take time.
What struck me upon my return from Baghdad is the enormous gulf between the harsh but hopeful realities in Iraq, where politics is for many a matter of life and death, and the fanciful and self-interested debates about Iraq that substitute for statesmanship in Washington. In Iraq, American and Iraqi soldiers risk everything to hold the country together, to prevent it from becoming a terrorist sanctuary and the region from descending into the dangerous chaos of a widening war. In Washington, where political calculation seems to trump all other considerations, Democrats in Congress and their leading candidates for President, heedless of the terrible consequences of our failure, unanimously confirmed our new commander, and then insisted he be prevented from taking the action he believes necessary to safeguard our country’s interests. In Iraq, hope is a fragile thing, but all the more admirable for the courage and sacrifice necessary to nurture it. In Washington, cynicism appears to be the quality most prized by those who accept defeat but not the responsibility for its consequences.
Before I left for Iraq, I watched with regret as the House of Representatives voted to deny our troops the support necessary to carry out their new mission. Democratic leaders smiled and cheered as the last votes were counted. What were they celebrating? Defeat? Surrender? In Iraq, only our enemies were cheering. A defeat for the United States is a cause for mourning not celebrating. And determining how the United States can avert such a disaster should encourage the most sober, public-spirited reasoning among our elected leaders not the giddy anticipation of the next election. Democrats who voted to authorize this war, and criticized the failed strategy that has led us to this perilous moment, have the same responsibility I do, to offer support when that failure is recognized and the right strategy is proposed and the right commanders take the field to implement it or, at the least, to offer an alternative strategy that has some relationship to reality.
Democrats argue we should redirect American resources to the ‘real’ war on terror, of which Iraq is just a sideshow. But whether or not al Qaeda terrorists were a present danger in Iraq before the war, there is no disputing they are there now, and their leaders recognize Iraq as the main battleground in the war on terror. Today, al Qaeda terrorists are the ones preparing the car bombs, firing the Katyusha rockets, planting the IEDs. They maneuver in the midst of Iraq’s sectarian conflict, sparking and fueling the horrendous violence, destroying efforts at political reconciliation, killing innocents on both sides in the hope of creating a conflagration that will cause Americans to lose heart and leave, so they can return to their primary mission — planning and executing attacks on the United States, and destabilizing America’s allies.
It is impossible to separate sectarian violence from the war against al Qaeda. Al Qaeda is following an explicit strategy to foment civil war in Iraq. The only way to reduce and finally end sectarian violence is to provide greater security to the population than we have in the past, as we are doing now in Baghdad; to encourage Iraqis to abandon their reliance on local militias, and to destroy al Qaeda and other truly irreconcilable enemies of the United States and the Iraqi people.
Our defeat in Iraq would constitute a defeat in the war against terror and extremism and would make the world a much more dangerous place. The enemies we face there harbor the same depraved indifference to human life as those who killed three thousand innocent Americans on a September morning in 2001. A couple of days before I arrived in Baghdad, a suicide car bomb destroyed a large, busy marketplace. It was a bit unusual, because new U.S. and Iraqi security measures in Baghdad have reduced the number of car bomb attacks. But this time the terrorists had a new tactic: they drove their car to a security checkpoint and were waved through because there were two small children in the back seat. The terrorists then walked away from the car, leaving the children inside it, and triggered the explosion. If the terrorists are willing to do this terrible thing to Iraqi children, what are they willing to do to our children?
Some argue the war in Iraq no longer has anything to do with us; that it is a hopelessly complicated mess of tribal warfare and sectarian conflict. The situation is complex, and very difficult. Yet from one perspective it is quite simple. We are engaged in a basic struggle: a struggle between humanity and inhumanity; between builders and destroyers. If fighting these people and preventing the export of their brand of radicalism and terror is not intrinsic to the national security and most cherished values of the United States, I don’t know what is.
Consider our other strategic challenges in the region: preventing Iran from going nuclear; stabilizing Afghanistan against a resurgent Taliban; the battle for the future of Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and others; protecting Israel’s security; the struggle for Lebanon’s independence. Does any honest observer believe those challenges will be easier to confront and at lesser cost in American blood and treasure if the United States accepts defeat in Iraq?
We all agree a military solution alone will not solve the problems of Iraq. There must be a political agreement among Iraqis that allows all groups to participate in the building of their nation, to share in its resources and to live in peace with each other. But without greater security imposed by the United States military and the Iraqi Army, there can be no political solution. As Americans and Iraqis sacrifice to provide that security, Iraq’s leaders must do the hard work of political reconciliation. We can help them get there, but we cannot assume their responsibilities. Unless they accept their own obligations to all Iraqis, we will all fail, and America, Iraq and the world will have to live with the terrible consequences. We are giving Iraq’s leaders and people the chance to have a better future, but they must seize it.
In the many mistakes we have made in this war, a few lessons have become clear. America should never undertake a war unless we are prepared to do everything necessary to succeed, and unless we have a realistic and comprehensive plan for success. We did not meet this responsibility initially. We are trying to do so now. Responsible political leaders — statesmen — do not add to the burdens our troops carry. That is what Democrats, intentionally or not, have done by failing to provide them with the resources necessary to succeed in their mission. Everyday that passes without the necessary funds appropriated to sustain our troops, our chances of success in Iraq dwindle and our military readiness declines further. We have sent the best Americans among us to fight in Iraq, at the least, we must give them the tools they need to do their job. When the President vetoes, as he should, the bill that refuses to support General Petraeus’ new plan, I hope Democrats in Congress will heed the advice of one of their leading candidates for President, Senator Obama, and immediately pass a new bill to provide support to our troops in Iraq without substituting their partisan interests for those of our troops and our country.
I know the pain war causes. I understand the frustration caused by our mistakes in this war. I sympathize with the fatigue of the American people. And I regret sincerely the additional sacrifices imposed on the brave Americans who defend us. But I also know the toll a lost war takes on an army and a country. We, who are willing to support this new strategy, and give General Petraeus the time and support he needs, have chosen a hard road. But it is the right road. It is necessary and just. Democrats, who deny our soldiers the means to prevent an American defeat, have chosen another road. It may appear to be the easier course of action, but it is a much more reckless one, and it does them no credit even if it gives them an advantage in the next election. This is an historic choice, with ramifications for Americans not even born yet. Let’s put aside for a moment the small politics of the day. The judgment of history should be the approval we seek, not the temporary favor of the latest public opinion poll.
We all respect the sacrifices made by our soldiers. We all mourn the losses they have suffered in this war. But let us honor them by doing all we can to ensure their sacrifices were not made in vain. Let us show an appropriate humility by recognizing that so little is asked of us compared to the burdens we imposed on them, and let us show just a small, but significant measure of their courage, resolve and patriotism by putting our country’s interests before every personal or political consideration.
In closing, I’d like to bring to your attention the gallantry and patriotism of one American who served with distinction in Iraq, a Navy SEAL, who refuses to quit his mission and let the country he loves so well suffer the terrible harm our defeat would entail. A few days ago, Petty Officer First Class Mark Robbins’ unit was ambushed outside Baghdad. During the ensuing firefight, he spotted an insurgent with an RPG, and immediately stepped out from cover and exposed himself to enemy fire to take out the terrorist before he could fire. He saved the lives of his comrades, but was gravely wounded as he did so. He was shot in the eye by another insurgent with an AK-47. The bullet exited the back of his head about three inches behind his ear. He was initially knocked unconscious but came to, continued to fight and then, despite the severity of his wound, walked to the evacuation helicopter. He was eventually taken to Landstuhl military hospital in Germany. As is the custom of Navy SEALs, he was accompanied by one of his comrades, Petty Officer Second class McLean Swink.
On our way home from Iraq, our delegation stopped in Germany for refueling and crew rest, and I had the privilege of visiting some of our wounded at Landstuhl. I briefly stopped in Mark Robbins’ room, but he was sedated and unable then to communicate. I spent a few moments there, and talked to his buddy, before I went to visit other wounded soldiers. Not too long after I had left Mark’s room, Petty Officer Swink found me and told me Mark was awake and had asked to see me. So I returned. When I entered his room and approached his bedside, he struggled with great difficulty to sit up, stiffened his body as if he were trying to stand at attention, grasped my hand tightly and wouldn’t let go. And then he whispered to me not to worry, “We can win this fight. We can win this fight.” Mark, as another person observed, looks like the “toughest kid on the high school football team.” He is tough, and brave, and very young. But more than that, he’s an inspiration to those who are only called upon to subordinate a temporary political advantage to the security of our good and great nation. Petty Officer Mark Robbins, an American hero, believes we can still win this fight. I’ll take his word for it, and accept my responsibility to help the cause he sacrificed so much to defend. Thank you.”