John McCain photo

Remarks on the Floor of the United States Senate

March 27, 2007

Mr. President, I rise in support of an amendment that would strike the language in this bill calling for a withdrawal of American forces from Iraq.

These same provisions were rejected by the Senate two weeks ago by a 48-50 vote. Now here we are, debating the same provisions that have the same serious problems. I hope they will be rejected again by the same, if not a larger margin. Supporters of this provision say they want a date certain for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. But, Mr. President, what they have offered us is more accurately described as a date certain for surrender, with grave consequences for the future of Iraq, the stability of the Middle East and the security of Americans at home and abroad. And they offer it just as the situation in Iraq, though still fraught with difficult challenges, is beginning to improve.

The new developments argue for more effort in Iraq, rather than the withdrawal advocated by this bill's sponsors. As my colleagues know, I have been critical of the conduct of this war since 2003, and I very much regret that only now, four years into the conflict, are we beginning to implement the kind of strategy that was necessary from the start: a traditional counterinsurgency strategy that emphasizes protection of the population, economic development, and political progress, all with troop levels appropriate for the mission.

We are seeing today the emergence of precisely such a strategy. I'd emphasize this point: this new plan is not "stay the course." We are not staying the course in Iraq and I would not support the status quo any more than I have over the past four years. Nor have we merely deployed a new commander, however capable, and additional forces. America is engaged today in a fundamentally new strategy, a new approach to the war, an approach that is already showing encouraging signs that it might succeed.

Until now, U.S. forces did not attempt to defeat the insurgency and the terrorists, protect the population, and end the violence so that political and economic progress could occur. Most American troops spent their days on large Forward Operating Bases (FOBs), making forays out into hostile territory in which they were subject to ambush. Today, U.S. troops, along with Iraqi forces, are out of the FOBs and living in small outposts. Today, US forces are operating throughout Baghdad, even in Shi'ite strongholds such as Sadr city, Sunni areas like Mansoor, and mixed districts like Rashid. As of March 15, 24 Joint Security Stations were operational with many more planned. American forces in these stations are visible every day, living among the population, building confidence that we - and not the terrorists - will prevail. Contrary to some predictions, this has not increased US casualties. And, not surprisingly, our presence has resulted in a dramatic increase in actionable intelligence about terrorists.

You might not know it from reading newspapers or watching the evening news, but in Iraq today there are real signs that the new strategy is working. I'd like to spend just a few moments outlining some of this progress, not to paint an overly rosy scenario, but rather to correct what has become an almost single-minded focus in the Congress on the prospects of defeat. The debate in Congress has an "Alice in Wonderland" quality about it: we are debating efforts to micro-manage a conflict based on what the conditions were three months ago - NOT on what the reality is today. Conditions have changed in Iraq. The Baghdad Security Plan - the "surge" - is working far better than even the most optimistic supporter had predicted. The progress is tangible in many key areas despite the fact that only 40 percent of the planned forces are in Iraq.

Allow me to review some specifics. In Baghdad, the military has reported an increase in real-time actionable intelligence, provided to U.S. and Iraqi forces by a newly confident population. Prime Minister Maliki, who prevented U.S. troops from conducting certain Baghdad operations last year, has given the green light to American incursions throughout the city, including Shiite strongholds. All of the Iraqi army battalions called for under the plan have arrived, many at or above 75 percent of their programmed manning levels. Bomb attacks and murders are down since the surge began. Civilians killed in Baghdad numbered 1222 in December, 954 in January, and fell to 494 in February. There are reports of Sunni and Shia moving back into neighborhoods from which they had fled constant and horrific violence. Markets that have been subject to horrific car bombings have been turned into pedestrian malls that facilitate commerce and thwart terrorists.

Moqtada al-Sadr has fled, possibly to Iran, and has ordered his followers not to oppose the new Baghdad Security Plan. The Madhi Army, purportedly dedicated to the expulsion of Americans from Iraq, does not today openly challenge either U.S. or Iraqi forces. American troops are engaged in reconstruction efforts in Sadr city, with the cooperation of the local mayor. And in western Baghdad, our troops are establishing new outposts in areas [red tabs] that have been conduits for al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) penetration into the capital city, and have begun to clear these areas of terrorists and insurgents. The net result of all this is that key Shiite leaders are now claiming that the Baghdad Security Plan was their idea, and are taking credit for the increase in security - a development that would have unthinkable three months ago.

There is progress outside Baghdad as well: Throughout Anbar Province, Sunni sheikhs have banded together to fight al Qaeda in Iraq, and are pouring recruits into the police forces. Sixteen of 26 tribes in that western province are now working against al Qaeda. With numerous senior al Qaeda leaders killed or captured, the younger, less experienced leaders are making mistakes, such as targeting respected sheikhs and murdering children, that have alienated Sunnis and their leaders.

In Ramadi, hundreds of Iraqi police last week conducted a major sweep.

In the surrounding areas, including Haditha, and Hit, U.S. and Iraqi are conducting operations against al Qaeda and insurgents while protecting the population.

In Diyala Province, U.S. forces expelled al Qaeda forces from one of their major bases in January, seized major weapons caches, disrupted fighter networks, and cleared cities and villages of al Qaeda fighters. A U.S. Stryker battalion has reinforced Diyala and is conducting major operations against AQI forces seeking to reconstitute. At the same time, other U.S. forces in Diyala are acting against rogue Madhi Army leaders in the province and are holding the Diyala and Tigris Rivers to combat re-infiltration into Baghdad.

On the belt to the south of Baghdad, al Qaeda has come under heavy U.S. pressure in recent weeks, with American forces destroying car bomb factories and uncovering major weapons caches in areas such as Yusufiya, Latifiya, and Salman Pak.

In Mosul, U.S. and Iraqi forces have killed and captured numerous al Qaeda operatives since December.

In Samarra, American and Iraqi troops have captured al Qaeda facilitators and north of the city, Salahuddin Province, American troops have moved off of their Forward Operating Base and into the town of Bayji, an important hub on the road network.

Mr. President, these developments, which have occurred just one month into the new strategy and with only a portion of the five additional U.S. brigades having yet deployed, suggest that, at long last, we have a strategy in Iraq that is succeeding. That is not to say that all is going well in Iraq; clearly, it is not. Violence continues, the Madhi Army recently launched an attack in Basra, and one of Iraq's Vice Presidents was gravely wounded in a bomb attack. But we all know the negatives; we read about them every day and see them flash across our television screens hourly. The enemy knows how attention-getting car bombs are, and their strategy reflects this understanding.

We must try to stop such events, and push the Iraqi government to move forward with its reconciliation efforts and meet the benchmarks laid out by the President. What we cannot do, and, for the sake of America's vital national security interests, we must not do, is give up just at the moment we are starting to turn things around in Iraq.

Yet in the face of this new reality, the proponents of the legislation offer one prescription for the future: withdrawal of U.S. forces. Despite the progress, despite the ongoing need for U.S. troops to stabilize Iraq and pave the way for a political solution, despite the moral burdens we have incurred as a result of our decision to topple Saddam Hussein, and, above all, despite the catastrophic consequences for vital U.S. interests that would follow a premature withdrawal from Iraq, the sponsors of this legislation would force precisely that.

To those who believe that the best course is to withdraw, I ask: Can you explain to the American people precisely what you believe to be the consequences of this action? If we follow the timetable included in this bill - to withdraw troops whether or not we are succeeding or failing; regardless of whether the country is secured; irrespective of whether the Iraqis can manage their own affairs alone, or whether the forces of terror and chaos will triumph - if we follow this timetable we risk a catastrophe for American national security interests.

Note that American national security interests are directly at stake. Not just Israeli interests, though Prime Minister Olmert has said that defeat in Iraq could be devastating for his country. Not just for our Arab friends and partners in the region, though they fear the consequences of massive humanitarian displacement, growing Iranian influence, and wider bloodshed. Not just for the Iraqis themselves, for whom genocide is a real prospect should sectarian violence spiral out of control. But for America. Success or failure in Iraq is the transcendent issue for our foreign policy and our national security. People say they want to defeat the terrorists. But if we withdraw from Iraq prematurely, it will be the terrorists' greatest triumph.

Withdrawing before there is a stable and legitimate Iraqi authority would turn Iraq into a failed state, 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 - including attacks against America - with impunity. If we leave Iraq based on an artificial timetable, al Qaeda will be free to plan, train for and conduct operations from Iraq just as they did from Afghanistan. We cannot make this fatal mistake twice.

If Iraq descends into chaos, the power vacuum there will invite further Iranian interference, at a time when Tehran already feels emboldened. Iraq's neighbors, from Saudi Arabia to Egypt to Turkey, would feel their own security eroding, and may intervene on the side of particular factions. This uncertain swirl of events could spark regional war severely damaging to America's fundamental security interests. And we would then face a terrible choice: watch the region burn, watch the terrorists establish new bases, with profound implications for the safety of Americans and their economic well-being, or send troops back into Iraq once again.

Now, the proponents of withdrawal state that they envision no such catastrophe; they are not advocating a precipitous withdrawal but something more gradual, and they would leave American troops in place to focus on three limited objectives: protecting coalition personnel and infrastructure, training and equipping Iraqi forces, and conducting targeted counter-terrorism operations. But if these three missions sound familiar, Mr. President, that's because they formed the centerpiece of the strategy that was failing up until the beginning of this year. They would forbid counterinsurgency operations, protection of the population, and the other elements of our new strategy that are directly responsible for the successes we have seen this year. This legislation is a plan for failure. But neither failure nor success is the objective of its sponsors. They wish to get out of Iraq, whatever the consequences for America. They conceive no failure as worse than remaining in Iraq and no success worthy of additional sacrifice. They are wrong, Mr. President, terribly, terribly wrong.

These provisions draw a false distinction between terrorism and sectarian violence. Let us think about the implications of ordering American soldiers to target "terrorists," but not those who foment sectarian violence. Was the attack on the Golden Mosque in Samarra a terrorist operation or the expression of sectarian violence? When the Madhi Army attacks government police stations, are they acting as terrorists or as a militia? When AQI attacks a Shia village along the Diyala River, is that terrorism or sectarian violence? What about when an American soldier comes across some unknown assailant burying an IED in the road? The obvious answer is that such acts very often constitute terrorism in Iraq and sectarian violence in Iraq. The two are deeply intertwined. To try and make an artificial distinction between terrorism and sectarian violence is to fundamentally misunderstand al Qaeda's strategy—which is to incite sectarian violence. To say that targeting terrorist violence is allowable while stopping sectarian violence is illegal flies in the face of this reality, and would make it impossible to fight this war against terrorism, let alone prevail in it.

Mr. President, some senators have taken a different tack, arguing that Iraq is still winnable but that, by withdrawing troops, we will actually maximize the chances of success. They concede that a withdrawal will encourage insurgents and terrorists to unleash greater violence on the Iraqi people, but believe that such violence might induce Iraqi politicians to make the political decisions necessary to end it. Could this possibly be true? Can we, by withdrawing our troops from Iraq, actually increase the stability in Iraq rather than risk catastrophe, and induce a political solution rather than make it less possible? Is success in Iraq as simple as issuing redeployment orders, a move blocked only by stubborn commanders and civilian authorities?

General David Petraeus, for one, believes that it is not. Of course the dire situation in Iraq demands a political solution. That is undeniably true. But a political solution among the Iraqis cannot be simply conjured. It is impossible for meaningful political and economic activity to take place in an environment as riddled with violence as Baghdad has been. Security is the precondition for political and economic progress, and without security, we will not see the political progress all of us agree is necessary. In this regard, there are positive indications. Prime Minister Maliki went to Ramadi to reach out to Sunnis, and the Iraqi government is pushing through a new de-Baathification law. The oil revenue sharing law has been approved by the Council of Ministers and should be approved by parliament soon. Reports indicate that Iraqi officials are in discussions with a number of non-AQI Sunni insurgent groups, while fighting has broken out between AQI and Sunni insurgents.

Reconciliation is not the inevitable outcome of the new strategy. On the contrary, there is no guarantee of success. What the situation demands is not a guarantee, but rather a strategy designed to give us the best possible chance for success. This, I believe, is what the new plan represents.

The provisions our amendment would strike would force redeployments of U.S. forces within 120 days, and nearly all troops would have to leave Iraq by March 31, 2008. This does not incentivize the Government of Iraq to make tough decisions on reconciliation; it sets the stage for the government's collapse. This arbitrary deadline informs our enemies when they need no longer fear American military power. It signals to the population that their best bet for security really does rest in the hands of militias, rather than the government. It demonstrates to the government that they cannot rely on us - after all, we are pulling out regardless of the situation or the consequences. And it tells the terrorists that they - not we - will prevail.

All of us want to bring our troops home, and to do so as soon as possible. None of us, no matter how we voted on the resolution authorizing this war, believes the situation that existed until recently is sustainable. But there is a new situation, a new reality in Iraq. This amendment ignores that reality and ignores the consequences that would flow from its adoption. When Congress authorized this war, we committed America to a mission that entails the greatest sacrifice a country can make, one that falls disproportionately on those Americans who love their country so much that they volunteer to risk their lives to accomplish that mission. And when we authorized this war, we accepted the responsibility to make sure they could prevail. When we voted to send them into battle we asked them to use every ounce of their courage and fortitude on behalf of us.

This body unanimously confirmed General Petraeus. Why would we now deprive him of the opportunity to pursue the strategy he helped design and believes can work? Why would we hand our enemies a victory when we have finally taken the initiative and they are on the defensive? Let us give him and the soldiers he has the honor to command, Americans who are risking everything so that this new plan can succeed, the time necessary to achieve its objectives.

And let us, elected officials who have the honor of overseeing the conduct of our soldiers' mission in Iraq, exercise a lesser magnitude of courage - our political courage on behalf of them and the country they serve. If any Senator believes that our troops' sacrifice is truly in vain, the dictates of conscience demand that he or she act to prevent it. Those who would cut off all funding for this war, though I disagree deeply with their position, and dread its consequences, have the courage of their convictions, and I respect them for it.

If, on the other hand, you believe, as I do, that an increase of U.S. troops in Iraq, carrying out a counterinsurgency mission, provides the best chance for success in Iraq, then you should give your support to this new strategy. It may not be popular nor politically expedient, but we are always at our best when we put aside the small politics of the day in the interest of our nation and the values upon which they rest.

Those are the only responsible, the only honorable choices before us. There are no others, Mr. President. I wish there were. But here we are, confronting a political, military and moral dilemma of immense importance, with the country's most vital security interests and the lives of the best Americans among us at stake. May God grant us the wisdom and humility to make this difficult judgment in our country's best interests only, and the courage to accept our responsibility for the consequences that will ensue.

I yield the floor.

John McCain, Remarks on the Floor of the United States Senate Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

Simple Search of Our Archives