Editor’s note: This is the text, as prepared, of Senator John McCain’s Senate floor speech on the war, delivered on the afternoon of July 10, 2007.
Mr. President, the Senate has reached another moment of great importance. In debating the fiscal year 2008 defense authorization bill, we will help set the course of our nation’s security policy and influence our participation in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Much of the debate will be about Iraq, and I will have more to say about that important matter in a few moments. Before I do, I would like to note the many provisions in this bill that constitute good defense policy and that will strengthen the ability of our country to defend itself. That is why the Committee voted unanimously to report the bill. It fully funds the President’s $648 billion defense budget request; it provides necessary measures to avoid waste, fraud and abuse in defense procurement; and it makes Members accountable for their spending.
I would like to thank Chairman Levin, the subcommittee chairs, and all the Committee members for their work in bringing this measure to the floor. We have a good bill. We’ve authorized a 3.5 percent across-the-board pay raise for all military personnel and we’ve increased Army and Marine end strength to 525,400 and 189,000, respectively. I hope that by boosting these numbers we can build a more flexible active-duty force and deploy reservists more prudently.
The Committee also approved $2.7 billion for items on the Army Chief of Staff’s Unfunded Requirements List, including $775 million for reactive armor and other Stryker requirements, $207 million for aviation survivability equipment, $102 million for combat training centers, and funding for explosive ordnance disposal equipment, night vision devices and machine guns. The bill also authorizes $4.1 billion for Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles for all of the Services’ known requirements.
The Committee has come up with the money to support our troops, and I have no doubt that the full Senate will follow step. Money and policy statements, however, are not all that is required at this moment in our nation’s history. Courage is required, Mr. President. 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.
In this light I would like to discuss America’s involvement in Iraq. The final reinforcements needed to implement General Petraeus’ new counter-insurgency strategy arrived several weeks ago, and last week I had the opportunity to visit these troops in theatre. From what I saw and heard while there, I believe that our military, in cooperation with the Iraqi security forces, is making progress in a number of areas. I’d like to outline some of their efforts, not to argue that these areas have suddenly become safe — they have not — but to 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. 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 little progress toward meeting the benchmarks laid out by the President. The Iraqi government can function; the question is whether it will.
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 any of the various amendments forcing a withdrawal 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.’
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?
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. 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.
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 ask 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.
I know that senators are tired of this war: tired of the mounting death toll, tired of the many mistakes we have made in this war and the great efforts it requires to reverse them, tired of the war’s politicization and the degree to which it has become embroiled in partisan struggles and election strategies. I understand this fatigue, and yet I maintain that we, as elected leaders with a duty to our people and the security of their nation, cannot let fatigue dictate our policies.
The soldiers I met last week have no illusions about the sacrifices necessary to achieve their mission. On July 4th I had the great privilege to be present as 588 troops reenlisted in the military and another 161 were naturalized as U.S. citizens. Those men and women, taking the oaths of enlistment and citizenship in the center of Saddam’s al Faw Palace, they understand the many hardships made in our name. They have completed tour after tour, away from their families, risking everything — everything — for the security of this country. They do so because they understand that, however great the costs of this war, the costs are immeasurably greater still if we abandon it prematurely. All they ask is that we support them in their noble mission.
I wish we had planned to fight this war correctly the first time, but we can no more turn back the clock to 2003 than we can wish away the consequences of defeat by imposing some artificial deadline for withdrawal. Last week in Iraq, I met the bravest men and women our country has to offer, and not one of them told me that it was time to go, or that the cause is lost. They are frustrated with the Iraqi government’s lack of progress. They are buffeted by the winds of partisanship in Washington, talking today of surges and tomorrow of withdrawal, voting to confirm General Petraeus and then voting for a course that guarantees defeat. But in the end, they know that the war in Iraq is part of a larger struggle, a war of moderation and stability against the forces of violence and extremism. They recognize that if we simply pack up and leave, the war does not end. It merely gets harder.