John McCain photo

Remarks at the IAFF's Presidential Forum in Washington, DC

March 14, 2007

Thank you very much. It's an honor to be with you today, and I thank you for your invitation. Yours is an honorable and gallant profession, and I welcome the opportunity to pay tribute to Americans who choose to rush into burning buildings that others flee, and who, today, stand a post on the front lines of this difficult struggle against terrorists who employ any means, no matter how cruel, to bring their war against human progress to our cities. I am in the company of heroes here, and I am grateful for the privilege.

I thought I should begin by offering a few thoughts about the issue that is of greatest concern to all of us, the war in Iraq. As we all know, the war has not gone well. American soldiers have fought well and sacrificed bravely there, as they always do. But we failed early on to recognize that we faced both an indigenous and foreign insurgency in Iraq, to make the necessary changes in our tactics and force levels to combat it, and to prevent a growing sectarian conflict that threatens to turn Iraq into a wasteland of chaos and almost unimaginable bloodshed, and potentially destabilize the entire Middle East. The situation has been correctly described as dire, but, as our new Commanding General in Iraq, General Petraeus, has observed, it is not hopeless. The probable consequences of our defeat there, which could include genocide and a wider Middle East war, require us to make every effort to prevent that nightmare scenario from occurring.

General Petraeus was ordered to Baghdad to execute a new strategy that realistically addresses the threats we face there, and he has been assured he will have the forces necessary to do so. It is long overdue. The hour is late. But we must try. We must. Should we fail in Iraq the damage to our interests, and the repercussions we will confront, would be so serious that we could be drawn into a wider and more terrible war. Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations would be strengthened and encouraged to attack us everywhere we are vulnerable, including here at home. Whatever your views at the outset of the war on whether war in Iraq was part of the war against terror, it is obvious that it has become so. Al Qaeda fighters are there in strength, and responsible for some of the worst atrocities committed against Iraqis and Americans. Should they gain control over part of the country they very well might gain control over some of the oil revenues produced there, which would strengthen there ability to attack us elsewhere. Sectarian divisions in Iraq between Sunni, Shia and Kurd might grow so extreme that other countries in the region would feel compelled to intervene directly in the conflict to support one side or another, and the war could spread. These are sobering possibilities, and they should cause us to consider the situation and our responsibilities there soberly rather than use Iraq as an opportunity for partisan posturing.

We do have some evidence that the new tactics we are employing since General Petraeus' arrival have begun to make progress. I don't want to oversell this. We have, in the past, made the mistake of offering false optimism in the short term, and that has contributed directly to the American public's despair that we can ever achieve success there that warrants our sacrifice in blood and treasure. But we should not overlook this progress either, as it offers some encouragement that the long overdue counter insurgency strategy General Petraeus has conceived and is executing might yet succeed where our past strategy has failed. We have the right commanders in Iraq now. We are establishing bases in contested neighborhoods in Baghdad, including Sadr City, the stronghold of the Shia militia, which will allow us to clear and hold these places and make it possible for economic reconstruction and political reconciliation to proceed. We are gaining the initiative and the enemy is beginning to react to us rather than the other way around as has been the case in the past. The Maliki government and the Iraqi parliament have agreed to a plan to share oil revenues with all parts of the country. Mr. Maliki has begun to purge the Interior Ministry of divisive elements more interested in fomenting sectarian warfare than bringing Iraq under the rule of law.

We have a long way to go, and success is far from certain. But I am guardedly, and I stress guardedly, encouraged that General Petreaus' plan is achieving more progress sooner than expected.

As we all know, the new strategy has required additional U.S. forces. Two more brigades are already there, and three more are on the way. To do this we have had to extend the tours of brigades already in Iraq and bring other brigades back into Iraq soon than expected.

When a nation goes to war, a million tragedies ensue. None are more painful than the loss and injury of our country's finest patriots. It is terrible thing, war, but not the worst thing. The men and women we have sent into harm's way understand that. They, not us, have endured the heartache and deprivations of war so that the worst thing would not befall us, so that America might be secure in her freedom. The war in which they fight has divided Congress and the American people. But it has divided no American in their admiration for them. We all honor them. We are all -- those who supported the decision that placed them in harm's way and those who opposed it - we are all humbled by their example, and chastened in our prideful conviction that we, too, in our own way, have offered our country some good service. It may be true or it may not, but no matter how measurable our own contributions to this blessed and beautiful country, they are a poor imitation of theirs. I know we all know how little is asked of us compared to their service, and the solemn and terrible sacrifice made by those who will never return to the country they loved so well.

In the last few weeks some of those brave men and women have learned their tour in Iraq will last longer than they were initially told. Others have learned that they will soon return to combat sooner than they had been led to expect. It is a sad and hard thing to ask so much more of Americans who have already given more than their fair share to the defense of our country. Few of them and their families will have greeted the news without feeling greatly disappointed, and without offering a few well deserved complaints in the direction of those of us who have imposed on them this additional hardship. Then they will shoulder a rifle and risk everything - everything - to accomplish their mission, to protect another people's freedom and our own country from harm.

It is a privilege beyond measure to live in a country served by such courageous and selfless patriots. May God bless and protect them. And may we, their elected representatives, whether we believe their mission can succeed or is certain to fail, have the political courage to stand by our convictions, and offer something more than doubts, criticism or no confidence votes to the national debate. They deserve more than that.

Since the new Congress convened in January, various proposals for ending or shortening this conflict have been considered and proposed. I say this with no malice, but few of them are constructive or offer much more than an opportunity for one party to score points against the other. That's unfortunate. I believe the situation is too serious and our troops deserve much more than a debate that is little more than political theater intended to embarrass the President or to placate those who offer slogans and wishful thinking for serious and realistic advice about the best way forward in Iraq. 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 that the situation that existed until recently is sustainable. None of us can say we have proposed a course of action that will achieve certain success. The hour is late. The situation is, indeed, dire. But all of us have a responsibility to withstand despair and the allure of partisanship to make sound, informed judgments about how to proceed from here, and to defer our own interests and political considerations to what is in the best interests of our country. Presidents don't lose wars. Political parties don't lose wars. Nations lose wars, my friends, and nations suffer the consequences. And those consequences are far more serious than a lost election.

To defend ourselves in this war and the global struggle against terrorism we must do everything better and smarter than we did before. We must rethink, renew, and rebuild the structure and mission of our military; the capabilities of our intelligence and law enforcement agencies; the purposes of our alliances; the reach and scope of our diplomacy; the capacities of all branches of government to defend us against the peril we face. We need to marshal all elements of American power: our military, economy, investment, trade and technology. We need to strengthen our alliances, and build support in other nations, which must, whether they believe it or not, confront the same threat to their way of life that we do. And we must marshal the power of our ideals. Our security and the global advance of our ideals are inextricably linked. Freedom is not the product of power and wealth. Power and wealth are the product of freedom.

We must also prepare, across all levels of government, far better than we have done, to respond quickly and effectively to another terrorist attack or natural calamity. I am not an advocate of big government, and the private sector has an important role to play in homeland security. But when Americans confront a catastrophe, either natural or man-made, their government, across jurisdictions, should be organized and ready to deliver bottled drinking water to dehydrated babies and rescue the aged and infirm trapped in a hospital with no electricity.

Our Armed Forces confront our enemies where they live, hide and fight, in the hope they will be prevented from again attacking us at home. Firefighters will confront the consequences if that hope is not realized.

You know what it means to sacrifice for a cause greater than yourselves. You have dedicated your lives to saving others' lives and protecting your country from harm. You have put the interests of your communities and your country ahead of your personal interests. Like soldiers, your service is strengthened by your loyalty to one another, by your shared devotion to our country and to one another, to the firefighter on your left and the firefighter on your right. You protect each other, fight together, laugh together, pray together, grieve over losses together, and risk everything together for the sake of people whose names you might never know and for the security of cities and towns that compensate you modestly and expect so much from you. Like soldiers, your courage is our shield, your loyalty our privilege, your sacrifices our lesson in heroism and your devotion to your fallen and injured our shared and honorable obligation. But it is the responsibility of your elected officials to make sure you are provided all the equipment and support necessary for you to protect your communities.

As the 9/11 Commission found, first responders in the Twin Towers on that terrible day were hindered by an antiquated "communications system that prevented them from being able to communicate with each other." As the Commission noted, "command and control decisions were affected by the lack of knowledge of what was happening 30, 60, 90 and 100 floors above." According to one of the [fire] chiefs in the lobby, "We didn't have a lot of information coming in. We didn't receive any reports of what was seen from the . . . helicopters. It was impossible to know how much damage was done on the upper floors, whether the stairwells were intact or not." The cause of this failing was not the first responders' fault. It was the fault of the federal government for not providing firefighters, police and other first responders with the necessary radio spectrum to enable them to communicate effectively with one another.

The same situation occurred during the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. Phone lines, cell towers and electrical systems were destroyed by Katrina, and caused a devastating breakdown in communications between first responders. Many emergency officials had to rely on runners to carry information and instructions to other first responders. This is intolerable. Some of us in Congress have tried for several years to provide unused spectrum to police, firefighters and other emergency officials without, I am sorry to report, success.

With all the technological advances of recent years, why is it that those on whom we depend when disasters strike are still unable to communicate with each other during an emergency, while we are able to watch the crisis unfold on our televisions? It's because public officials have yet to get serious about developing and funding a safety communications system for all local, state and federal first responders. The federal government spends too much money on too many things of dubious if any utility. It's time to put first the needs of the people who put the rest of first. Government needs to develop a comprehensive, interoperable emergency communications plan and set equipment standards, fund emergency and interoperable communications equipment, and provide you the radio spectrum that will allow you to communicate over long distances using the same frequencies and equipment. All you ask is for the means to do your job effectively so that the sacrifices you make on our behalf are not in vain. I don't think that is too much to ask. We should have done it years ago. We must do it now before disaster, man made or natural, strikes us again.

We need to keep our priorities straight in Washington. Our first and most important obligation is to provide for the common defense. You are in the business of saving lives. You bear that responsibility bravely. We are supposed to share that responsibility, and we should show the same professional dedication you do. You want us to help and not hinder your efforts to risk your lives on behalf of your fellow citizens. It is gross negligence for us to refuse you.

We have debts to you, as we have debts to those who fight for us on foreign soil. They are blood debts incurred by the sacrifices made so that we may live our lives and pursue our dreams in freedom and security. We cannot fully repay them but we cannot take them lightly either. I can only promise you that I take that responsibility seriously, as a matter of honor, and will try to the best of my ability to prove it. I know what we owe you and all Americans, the living and the fallen, who have put our country's interests before their own. I am humbled by it, inspired by it, and obligated by it. You are the examples that encourage us to find our own way to give something back to the country that has given us so much. We are and always will be beholden to you. Let us be, as well, faithful in our obligations to you.

Thank you for the privilege of addressing you, and may God bless and protect you, as you protect us.

John McCain, Remarks at the IAFF's Presidential Forum in Washington, DC Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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