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U.S. Situation in Iraq and Afghanistan

Author: John McCain
November 5, 2003
Council on Foreign Relations


Speaker: John McCain, Member, United States Senate (R-AZ)
Presider: Jim Hoagland, Associate Editor and Chief Foreign Correspondent, Washington Post

November 5, 2003
Washington, D.C.

SEN. MCCAIN (MC): (Applause.) Thank you, Jim. Thank you for your kind introduction, and thank you for presiding.

I'm reminded of the words of my dear and beloved friend Morris Udall, who once said that presidential ambition is a disease that can only be cured by embalming fluid. And I hope he was -- (interrupted by laughter). He also said, if you're a United States senator, unless you are under indictment or detoxification, you automatically consider yourself a candidate for president of the United States. (Laughter.) A lovely man.

For 30 years, Vietnam has been a lens through which all American foreign policy is viewed. El Salvador, we were told in the 1980s, would become a new Vietnam, as we debated whether it was acceptable to deploy more than 55 U.S. combat advisers to help a democratizing ally battle a communist insurgency. Our stunning victory in the first Gulf War, many said, exorcised the demons of Vietnam. America and our coalition allies won decisively and ejected Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. But it was only a partial victory because it did not alter the underlying regional instability caused by Saddam Hussein's continuing rule. And it did not end the hold of the Vietnam syndrome over our national consciousness.

Some of my colleagues invoked the specter of Vietnam as an argument to stay out of the Balkans in the 1990s, lest we be drawn into a mountain quagmire among allegedly ancient ethnic feuds. An exit strategy became more important than a victory strategy in the eyes of many, as if the most important goal were to minimize U.S. exposure rather than maximize the protection of U.S. interests and the promotion of American values.

Many opponents of the war in Iraq, and even some supporters, worry that the deserts of Iraq hold the same quicksand as the jungles of Southeast Asia. When our secretary of Defense says that it's up to the Iraqi people to defeat the Ba'athists and terrorists, we send a message that America's exit from Iraq is ultimately more important than the achievement of American goals in Iraq. We send a signal to every Iraqi -- ally, neutral and adversary -- that the United States is more interested in leaving than we are in winning.

Iraq is not Vietnam. But if we are to avoid a debate over who "lost" Iraq, as we debated who lost Vietnam a generation ago, we must act urgently to transform our early military success into a lasting political victory. The United States can and must win in Iraq. Iraq's democratic future, American credibility, and American security require it. An exit strategy is more than a date certain, it's more than a timetable for building an Iraqi army. It must be a victory strategy that recognizes U.S. vital interests at stake in Iraq and the good our nation can do when we are committed to serving the cause of freedom in a violent, dangerous place that can, in the end, only be made less threatening and more stable by the success of our political ideals.

The American people understand the need to build a new Iraq from the ashes of Saddam Hussein's murderous regime. Americans can be proud of the role every American in Iraq is playing to put that country on a course in which freedom and decency, rather than terror and fear, guide daily life. Our citizens are understandably upset by the daily death toll in Iraq. We must explain to the American people what our soldiers are dying for in Iraq, why their sacrifice matters, why we must win, and how we will win -- not how quickly we can get out and leave the Iraqis to their fate.

Iraq is not Vietnam. There is no popular, widespread anti- colonial insurgency in Iraq. There are killers who prospered under the tyranny of Saddam and seek its restoration. Unlike in Vietnam, the Iraqi Ba'athists and terrorists who oppose us are not guerrilla fish swimming in a friendly sea of the people. Our opponents, who number only in the thousands in a country of 23 million, are despised by the vast majority of Iraqis. The vast majority of Iraqis share our goal of defeating the remnants of Saddam's regime and their terrorist allies.

Unlike in Vietnam, the Iraqi insurgents do not enjoy the kind of sanctuary North Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos provided. They do not have a superpower patron that sponsors, supplies and sustains them beyond the reach of our power for geopolitical reasons. These murderers cannot carry the banner of Iraqi nationalism, as did Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam for decades. Their return to power offers the Iraqi people the promise not of self-rule but of mortal danger, not of a better future but of a return to a hated and fearful past. Iraq is not Vietnam because our ally is not a corrupt government unwilling to defend itself, but a newly-freed people that desperately want to build a new future. Most fundamentally, Iraq is not Vietnam because the United States and the Iraqi people share the same goal of building a free, prosperous and secure Iraq.

Our defeat in Vietnam nonetheless holds cautionary lessons. We lost in Vietnam because we lost the will to fight, because we did not understand the nature of the war we were fighting, and because we limited the tools at our disposal. Tet in 1968 was a massive battlefield defeat for the North but a strategic defeat for the United States, because the American press and the American public saw our leaders talk about a light at the end of the tunnel that did not exist. We can win the war in Iraq, but not if we lose popular support in the United States of America.

The United States will fail in Iraq if our adversaries believe they can outlast us. If our troop deployment schedules are more important than our staying power, we embolden our enemies and make it harder for our friends to take risks on our behalf. When the United States announces a schedule for training and deploying Iraqi security officers, then announces the acceleration of that schedule, then accelerates it again, it sends a signal of desperation, not certitude. When in the course of days we increase by thousands our estimate of the numbers of Iraqis trained, it sounds like somebody is cooking the books. When we do this as our forces are coming under increasing attack, we suggest to friends and allies alike that our ultimate goal in Iraq is leaving as soon as possible, not meeting our strategic objective of building a free and democratic country in the heart of the Arab world.

Friends and adversaries across the Middle East are watching us closely to gauge our will to win. Let's be honest: many of them do not want us to succeed. I don't think the Ba'athists in Syria, the mullahs in Tehran, or Arab despots from Riyadh to Tripoli are cheering for the United States. The expectation that we may leave Iraq before we have achieved our security and political objectives will cripple our ability to achieve them at all.

Politics at home has handicapped our progress. Only a few leading Democrats have demonstrated the kind of bipartisanship Bob Dole showed when, only two months before the 1996 New Hampshire primary, he supported President Clinton's decision to commit American forces to Bosnia despite the political risks he faced in doing so. Today some Democrats who supported the war in Iraq oppose spending the money required to win the peace. Others blindly criticize the administration without proposing an alternative policy that preserves American interests. With the exception of Joe Lieberman and Dick Gephardt, who are committed to victory in Iraq, it is unclear what the other Democratic presidential candidates would do differently to ensure an American victory, or how they would handle the consequences of the early American withdrawal some advocate. Governor Dean has expressed ambiguity about the justness of our cause in Iraq. I hope he will learn that partisan anger is no substitute for moral clarity.

I was heartened to hear the president say that we cannot cut and run in Iraq. To sustain the credibility necessary for victory over the long term, the administration needs to strive at all times to ensure that its assessment of the course of events in Iraq is candid and reflects the situation on the ground as best it can see it. Administration officials must be careful not to adjust our military posture in Iraq for political reasons. The only legitimate reason to adjust our posture is to improve our ability to accomplish our mission or respond to our successes in stabilizing and rebuilding Iraq.

There can be little political or economic progress in Iraq until the United States creates a stable and secure environment there. Prematurely placing the burden of security on Iraqis is not the answer. Hastily trained Iraqi security forces cannot be expected to accomplish what U.S. forces have not yet succeeded in doing: defeating the Ba'athists and international terrorists inside Iraq. It is irresponsible to suggest that it is up to Iraqis to win this war. In doing so, we shirk the responsibility that we willingly incurred when we assumed the burden of liberating and transforming their country, for their sake and our own. If the U.S. military, the world's best fighting force, can't defeat the Iraqi insurgents, how do we expect Iraqi militiamen with only weeks of training to do any better?

President Bush speaks frequently of the need to take offensive -- the in the war on terror, but in Iraq we too often appear to be playing defense. The simple truth is that we do not have sufficient forces in Iraq to meet our military objectives. I said this in August, after I returned from visiting Iraq, and before the security situation deteriorated further. It is even more obviously true today.

It was clear during the summer that we didn't have sufficient forces to conduct counterinsurgency operations within the Sunni triangle, secure necessary facilities, guard the borders to prevent foreign jihadists from flooding across or responding to an upsurge in violence if it occurred. In early September, the U.S. commanding officer in Iraq, General Ricardo Sanchez, admitted that his forces could not handle any new eruption of conflict in Iraq. Quote: "If a militia or an internal conflict of some nature were to erupt," he said, "that would be a challenge out there that I do not have sufficient forces for."

Since then, attacks on American forces have doubled to over 30 a day, and their increasing sophistication has made them more lethal. American military commanders have acknowledged that the Iraqi resistance shows signs of being centrally planned and coordinated. Yet the number of American forces in Iraq has not increased. Given the large support tail required of such a force, it is estimated that the number of American troops on patrol in Iraq at any given time is under 30,000. This is an insufficient number of troops to even play defense, much less take the fight to our enemy and create the conditions for the lasting peace that will enable Iraqis to assume full political authority and Americans to go home.

Our overall troop level in Iraq does not reflect a careful assessment of what it takes to achieve victory. It reflects the number of American forces who were in Iraq when the war ended, minus the Marines who were sent home. Simply put, there does not appear to be a strategy behind our current force levels in Iraq, other than to preserve the illusion that we have sufficient forces in place to meet our objectives. It makes even less sense to defend a troop ceiling that has been in place since April as American forces and our Iraqi allies come under increasingly savage attack.

U.S. military forces have sealed off the town of Tikrit. This is a welcome step. It's a hotbed of resistance. It would make sense to pursue this same strategy in Ramadi, Fallujah, and other Ba'athist strongholds within the Sunni triangle. But we do not have the forces in place to do that.

To win in Iraq, we should increase the number of forces in- country, including Marines and Special Forces, to conduct offensive operations. I believe we must have in place another full division, giving us the necessary manpower to conduct a focused counterinsurgency campaign across the Sunni triangle that seals off enemy operating areas, conducts search and destroy operations and holds territory. Such a strategy would be the kind of new mission General Sanchez agreed would require additional forces. It's a mystery to me why they are not forthcoming. We cannot achieve our political goals as long as a strategic region of Iraq is in a state of fundamental insecurity. The transformation that matters is in Iraq and the Middle East, not in some abstract conception of military reform.

Security is a precondition for everything else we want to accomplish in Iraq. We will not get good intelligence until we provide a level of public safety and a commitment to stay that encourages Iraqis to cast their lot with us, rather than wait to see whether we or the Ba'athists prevail. Local Iraqis need to have enough confidence in our strength and staying power to collaborate with us. Absent improved security, acts of sabotage will hold back economic progress. Without better security, political progress will be difficult because the Iraqi people will not trust an Iraqi political authority that can't protect them. By all means increase the number of Iraqis involved in security, as the administration is suggesting we will do by standing up an Iraqi paramilitary force drawn from the security forces of the former regime and the militias of Iraqi political parties. But given the time that it will take to train, vet and deploy sufficient numbers of Iraqi forces, and the competence required to root out a hardened foe, for the foreseeable future, Iraqi forces aren't a substitute for adequate levels of American troops.

Our adversaries in Iraq seek not merely our military withdrawal, but the defeat of our enterprise to construct a new and democratic Iraq. What threatens them most are not American forces, but the prospect of a progressive, popularly elected Iraqi government that rejects everything the Ba'athists stand for and holds them accountable for their crimes.

More American forces and a commitment to keep them in Iraq as long as it takes are required to defeat our adversaries, so that Iraqi democracy is not stillborn. As we learned in Vietnam, if we do not defeat them before we leave, our enemies will continue to fight until any government we help establish is destroyed.

While Iraqification will not solve our immediate security problems, I believe we must move more quickly to transfer meaningful political authority to Iraqi leaders. The Coalition Provisional Authority continues to make a fundamental mistake in the way it interacts with the Iraqi people. The CPA seems to think that all wisdom is made in America, and that the Iraqi people were defeated, not liberated. For all the comparisons of post-war Iraq to Germany and Japan in 1945, the examples of Italy and France, liberated countries whose people were largely on our side, may be more instructive. The United States is treated as an occupying force in Iraq partly because we are not treating Iraqis as a liberated people.

Sometimes, Ambassador Bremer's office appears as inclined to criticize the Iraqi Governing Council as to work in partnership with it. It is astonishing to many friends of Iraq that the United States created the Governing Council but has not worked sufficiently to help it succeed. Too often, the Governing Council finds itself on the receiving end of orders from the CPA, rather than working in partnership with the CPA to improve daily life in Iraq. The United States will not succeed in Iraq if the Governing Council fails.

The Turkish troop deployment highlighted the gulf between the CPA and Iraqi leadership. A historic vote in the Turkish parliament, despite the opposition of Turkish public opinion, committed our ally to deploy 10,000 troops to Iraq in response to a long-standing American request. When Ambassador Bremer announced the Turkish deployment to the Governing Council, they proceeded to voice their strong opposition to it, resulting in a formal vote by the Council and an American request to Turkey to stand down its forces. Effective diplomacy in Ankara worked but was not matched in Baghdad. This embarrassing sequence of events was yet another reminder of the CPA's self-imposed distance from the Iraqi leadership.

Ultimately, Iraqis should decide how to form a constitutional commission and when to hold national elections. The Iraqification of Iraqi politics should be accelerated, even as American military forces continue to play the central role in hunting down Iraqi insurgents. We are aggressively training Iraqis to perform security functions. We should be equally aggressive in training and advising political parties, transferring more authority to Iraqi leaders, and establishing a framework and timeline for a political transition. It is our responsibility to help create the security in which Iraqi politics can flourish. We can leave it to the Iraqis to decide what kind of tax code they should have.

Iraq's transformation into a progressive Arab state could set the region that produced Saddam, the Taliban, and al Qaeda on a new course in which democratic expression and economic prosperity, rather than a radicalizing mix of humiliation, poverty, and repression, create a new modernity in the Muslim world that does not define itself in ways that threaten its people or other nations. Failure to make the necessary political commitment to secure and build a new Iraq could endanger American leadership in the world, put American security at risk, empower our enemies and condemn Iraqis to renewed tyranny. It would be the most serious American defeat on the global stage since Vietnam.

The United States can and must win in Iraq. Doing so will require the administration to remain committed to a policy of transformational change in Iraq. It will require a renewed American commitment to the principles of Iraqi freedom and Middle East transformation the president articulated earlier this year. It will require the president's deep involvement in his administration's decision-making in Iraq. As Lincoln and Truman demonstrated, American presidents cannot always leave decisions on matters of supreme national interest to their subordinates. It will require a commitment to do what is necessary militarily, to deploy as many American forces for as long as it takes, to ignore the political calendar, and to trust Iraqis with a greater degree of authority to manage their own affairs.

Let there be no doubt: victory can be our only exit strategy. We are winning in Iraq, but we sow the seeds of our own failure by contemplating a premature military drawdown and tempering our ambitions to democratize Iraqi politics.

Winning will take time. But as in other great strategic and moral struggles of our age, Americans have demonstrated the will to prevail when they understand what is at stake, for them and for the world.

If we succeed in Iraq, a new generation of Americans will take pride in their country's sacrifice, and American credibility in the world will be as enhanced as it was harmed by our defeat in Southeast Asia. Our success in Iraq will change the way the Middle East is governed and deter a host of threats that will prey on our weakness if we fail.

We must succeed in Iraq, because every bad actor in the Middle East -- Ba'athist killers; terror's sponsors in Iran and Syria; terror's financiers in Saudi Arabia; terror's radical Shi'ite and Wahhabi inciters; the terrorists of al Qaeda, Ansar al-Islam, Hamas and Hezbollah -- has a stake in our failure. They know Iraq's transformation would be a grave and perhaps fatal setback to them. Iraq must be important to us because it is so important to our enemies. That's why they are opposing us so fiercely, and why we must win.

Thank you very much. (Applause.)

JIM HOAGLAND (JM): Senator, thank you. I see you haven't lost the habit of speaking about inconvenient realities over the last couple of years. (Laughter.)

I just wanted to follow up on a couple of things you said before we go to the audience. There are two mechanical questions, I think, that flow from the remarks. One is what would you consider, then, a sufficient number of troops? And secondly, where would they come from?

But let me ask it, perhaps, in a slightly broader fashion by asking you to talk about the fact that the Pentagon is now preparing to call up 15,000 new Reserve forces to rotate into Iraq in January following the inability to attract foreign troops or troops from other countries. Seen from the Senate, what is the effect of calling up on what seems to be now a long-term rotation plan of calling up Reserves like this?

MC: Well, I think already the strains on the Guard and Reserve forces that are in Iraq is probably having some long-term ill effects. I think it's very difficult to ask someone to remain in the Reserves who finds himself constantly on active duty. You either get out or become a member of the active force.

In the short term, these young men and women are outstanding, they're wonderful, the strength of America. I talk to many of them time after time. They're willing to do the job, and they understand how hard the job is and they're willing to do it. So, in the short term, they'll do fine, and they will respond to their country's call. They're the best I've ever seen in watching several generations of men and women in the military.

But the long-term prospects, their families, their wives, their children, their husbands, are going to say, "Look, you've got to make a choice here," and that's why we have to increase the size of the military in the long run. We just have too many commitments and too many challenges to face around the world. And the Pentagon is loathe to increase the size of the military because it is so expensive. As most people in this room are very well aware, the most expensive part of an all-volunteer military establishment is personnel costs and all the associated costs with it. So, they're very reluctant, but they're going to have to face the facts and they're going to have to increase the size of the military in the long run.

In the short run, we have to depend on, and I think we can depend on, the loyalty, the patriotism, the professionalism and the outstanding qualities of these young men and women who will be required to serve an extra amount of time.

JH: And do you have a number to offer us as to what --

MC: You know, I mentioned an extra division, but what I meant was not a division itself. We don't need more howitzers, we don't need more tanks. We need Marines, Special Forces, counterespionage operations, better intelligence people, linguists, all the kinds of people that are involved in countering a real insurgency.

Everything we see on television, my dear friends, is a reaction to an event -- to a bombing, to an explosion, to whatever it is, an ambush. We should, over time, be seeing films only of actions that provoke reactions on the part of the people we are after. And the only way you can do that is through good intelligence.

JH: A couple points to make before we begin the questioning. If you would, please, wait for the microphone to come to you. Secondly if you would, please, state your name and whatever affiliation is appropriate. And finally, the senator has to leave exactly at 2:00. If you would please remain seated until the senator has left, we would greatly appreciate it.

So if you would wait for the microphone, we'll get started here. Yes, sir?

AUDIENCE: My name is Said Arikat from Al-Quds newspaper. Senator, Representative Jim Leach of Iowa yesterday lashed out at the administration because he is loath to see an occupation that will go on for six or seven years, as he put it. In fact, he's calling for a very short stay and withdrawal, because occupation, he seems to think, will undermine America's interests in the long run. Is that an isolated voice within the Republican Party, or are we likely to see more voices? And how long do you think that a U.S. occupation or U.S. military presence in Iraq is needed? For how long?

Thank you, sir.

MC: Well, first of all, I agree with the president we'll stay and do whatever it takes. And it's very difficult for me -- and I admire Congressman Leach very much, but I just -- we just have a disagreement.

I think that the next three to six months will determine how long we are in Iraq. When I was there in August, as I mentioned in my prepared remarks, I saw enough and talked to enough sergeant majors and captains and lieutenant colonels and British and others that I got an appreciation of the enormity of the challenge and what was lying ahead. And that's why I came back in August and said we got to have more troops and we got to have them in the Sunni triangle. And again, let's not forget things are going very well in the north and in the south. This is clearly a -- not necessarily small, but not the majority of the Iraqi people or the country.

If we can do the things that I talked about, then I don't see us staying a long time in Iraq. But for us to signal an early withdrawal would be the worst signal that we could send and would mean an increase in the number of casualties.

Could I finally say, the trend, unfortunately, in the Sunni triangle is up. The number of improvised explosive devices -- IEDs -- the number of attacks, the number of people wounded, the number of fatalities, all of them continue on the upswing. And to ignore that reality and say that we have enough troops there on the ground is simply not addressing what I think are facts. Everybody's entitled to their opinion -- you know that old line -- but not everybody's entitled to their facts. The facts dictate that we need to do something significantly different.

AUDIENCE: My name is Sabah Elbardisi (sp) with Al Jazeera TV. Senator, Mr. Gephardt spoke on Sunday and said that Mr. Rumsfeld is not doing a good job, and he stopped short of calling for his resignation. He also said that the presidents cannot leave the responsibilities for their subordinates. Are you also calling for his resignation? Or what are you calling for?

MC: No. I think there are certain things that happen with the elections; a president to select his team is certainly a part of that. I certainly would not advocate that.

JH: Waiting for a mike.

MC: It's coming right here.

AUDIENCE: Senator, in your prepared remarks you say that today some Democrats who supported the war in Iraq oppose spending the money required to win the peace. Since the vote in the Senate on Monday was an unrecorded vote, how do you know how the Senate -- (laughter) -- how they stand? And is it a good idea for a vote of this importance to go unrecorded?

MC: You make a good point; no, it doesn't make -- it's not wise to have the vote go on unrecorded. And yet the first vote, when it went through the Senate, the package was largely the same as the first Senate vote, is what I was describing. The only thing that changed, really, in the Senate vote -- from the Senate vote to the final voice vote was the loans were done away with, as you know. But the Senate vote, I think, is indicative. But you make a good point. I don't -- I do not understand why we did it by, quote, "voice vote".

AUDIENCE: Ann-Marie Slaughter from Princeton University. In your remarks you make no mention of foreign troops, of going back to the international community and actually bargaining in such a way that we could get substantial numbers of troops. Have you ruled that out, and are you assuming that this is our burden alone to bear?

MC: I don't rule it out, and I would love to see it happen, but I'd like to point out two aspects of it.

One, the time is now. If we had an agreement with a major European ally, say the Germans all of a sudden found themselves on the road to Damascus, it would take -- (laughter) -- it would take months, if not many weeks, before they could arrive and make an impact. So the time sensitivity of this situation is what I am trying to emphasize today.

And the second thing, I think it's best to recognize political reality. The chances of us getting a significant input of troops from anybody but the Turks -- and I talked about that earlier -- I think is not good. I mean, I just know of no ally right now, or friend, that is willing to make a significant contribution to our effort there in Iraq. And so, I think it would be wonderful if it happened, but I don't see a likely scenario, particularly in the short time frame that I think is critical for us in this saga that we're in.

JH: Let me exhaust the front row for a while. I'll move it around after this one.

MC: That's what you get for coming late! (Laughter.)

AUDIENCE: Barbara Slavin of USA Today. I wanted to ask you about the actions of the administration. Do you fault them for creating a credibility problem, for too much happy talk? And to what extent are we paying the price now for the decision by the Pentagon to go in light and quickly to Baghdad? Thank you.

MC: I think one of the reasons why we try to avoid wars is because good people die. Another reason is they never go according to plan. No war in history -- I was just watching last night on one of the television channels the Korean War conflict. I mean, talk about a huge blunder; the mis-estimation of the Chinese intervention. There's never been a conflict that went exactly according to plan.

And we all know that two things, serious things, happened. One was the dissolution of the Iraqi military, who melted into the population and thereby were able to continue their -- organize and orchestrate their opposition. And the second thing is the condition of the country itself. None of us had any reasonable expectation that Saddam Hussein had reduced that country to a basket case, as far as any kind of infrastructure is concerned. But that doesn't change the fact that you adjust. You always adjust in military contingencies to the realities as you find them as the conflict unfolds.

No, I didn't agree when the deputy secretary of Defense is in the Al-Rashid Hotel and it's hit by rockets and administration officials say that's a sign of progress. (Laughter.) God spare us more progress! (Chuckles.)

But I do think that in recent days, the president's very strong statements about how this is a very tough struggle is very appropriate, talking to the American people about how difficult it is going to be. And the leaking of the memo, I think is also an important factor in bringing reality to the situation. And I want to emphasize, again, I believe the American people are very smart. They know what's at stake here. They know what needs to be done. And they will understand, if told, what the challenge and the dimensions of the challenge they're faced -- we cannot deceive them as to the immensity and the difficulty, at least in the short term, of this conflict as it exists today.

JH: If I could just follow up on that, Senator --

MC: Yeah.

JH: -- could you tell us what your sense is of what are the reasons for this slowness in adjustment that you've described?

MC: You know, I don't know, Jim. I don't -- some of it's just bureaucracy. Some of it is that I think that there was an element of surprise in some of this, because it was such a spectacular victory -- you know, I don't -- I think you could go down throughout military history and not find one that was quite as incredible as this one was. And we kind of all were in a sort of a state of euphoria for a period of time.

But frankly, we pay these people a lot of money and give them limousines and helicopters and jets to fly around with to make adjustments. And all of us are responsible. And so they've got to exercise that responsibility that they have to the American people, and they were slow in doing so.

AUDIENCE: [unintelligible]

MC: Yes, sir.

AUDIENCE: Thank you, Senator. Thanks. Dave Ruppe with Global Security Newswire. You've been talking about how we have to be forthright about the challenges that we face, but could you sort of characterize the probability that the challenge may be too difficult in the long run and, you know, five years from now, we may just pay too high a price to secure the peace and a stable democratic government there, solve their political problems, et cetera?

MC: Well, first of all, it is very doable, and we do have the advantage that I keep having to come back to: the North and South of the country is very stable and very progressive. And we are talking about most of the time, 90 percent of the time, of problems in the so-called Sunni Triangle.

The consequences of failure are so profound that one refuses to contemplate it. I live in a border state. People and goods and drugs and all kinds of things continue to come across the border between my state and Mexico, despite our best efforts. We're not going to defend the United States of America within our own borders. It's impossible. And the kind of signal that failure would send, as I compared it before to Vietnam, would it be the end of America? No. But I think it would set us back enormously.

And the challenge we face is that in Somalia, we left. Beirut, we left. We can't leave. And clearly, these people study history as we do, and they think, well, inflict a few more casualties on the United States, and we'll have a Somalia or a Beirut. We've got to show our steadfastness. And we do have the equipment, the ability and all of the ingredients necessary for victory. But we have to -- it's like anything else, any other challenge that you face in life: You have to prepare for the long haul and then be gratified by an early success. To do the opposite, to plan for an early withdrawal, then, of course, only encourages the adversaries.

But also, let me just point out again: I am an idealist and an optimist. I fully believe the most immortal words ever written, "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men" -- all, A-L-L, men and women "are created equal and endowed by their Creator." I believe that the people of Iraq have the same hopes and dreams and aspirations as the people of the United States, or England or anyplace else -- or former Soviet Union countries -- anyplace in the world. And they want to exercise those rights. And they deserve it. And once they do, then the end of the regimes in the Middle East is -- it's not a matter of whether it's a win, because when democracy works in Iraq, all the other people in the surrounding countries will want to exercise that same kind of freedom. And that's why this is, in my view, is so immense.

I'm sorry for the lecture, but it -- we have to understand how critical this is.

JH: Right here.

AUDIENCE: Diana Lady Dougan, Center for Strategic and International Studies and Cyber Century Forum. But also by way of disclosure, I served on the congressionally-mandated advisory task force on public diplomacy in the Arab and Muslim world. And there has been a lot of attention to a number of the problems that we raised, and certainly, the dire disconnect in the Arab and Muslim world between those points that you made of American values and shared views among our countries. There's been an awful lot of talk about dump trucks and how much we're spending on that. About the only thing we seem to be doing in Iraq is putting money into a U.S.-owned satellite system and not much into building the indigenous press and the tradition of free press, which has not been there for a long time. Do you see the Senate taking a serious look at this as opposed to, "Oh, we've got a real problem and we don't have enough translators," but really looking at this and maybe trading in just one or two tanks for a little more in the public diplomacy realm?

MC: Yes. But I would also emphasize that those decisions should be made as much as possible by Iraqis. And that's why I think that in this three-legged stool of security and reconstruction and then democratization the democratization pillar is obviously directly related to a free and open media. And that's the area where I think that -- and that has got to be done through Iraqis governing themselves and providing for an environment where a free media and press can operate.

JH: This side of the room. Right here.

AUDIENCE: [inaudible] -- Georgetown University. Senator McCain, in terms of getting the support of foreign governments either for troops in Iraq at some point or for greater economic assistance in construction and reconstruction, do you see any merit in, over a period of time -- not next month, or perhaps five months from now, but in a year or two -- of aiming towards a NATO role in Iraq and a greater United Nations role in the economic construction of the country?

MC: I do. And I think that so far the NATO engagement in Afghanistan has been largely successful. For those of you that don't know it, it's led by a German general. And we have recently expanded their area of responsibility in Afghanistan. And we'll save Afghanistan for another day, but the NATO presence there I think has been very helpful. I think it's certainly an option that needs to be pursued. But given the relations between ourselves and other NATO partners -- as you know, one veto rules everything -- it would be very difficult in the short term.

Yes, we would be -- I'd be very happy to have the United Nations back. But again, the security aspect has driven that presence to a large degree on the ground out of Baghdad. But the U.N. has a very useful role to play, and we should be working towards that goal.

Back to the previous questioner. I'd just mention, I believe that events in Iraq are directly related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After we won in 1991 we had the Madrid meetings and Oslo peace accords. After this last victory we saw some signs of progress. I don't believe they're unrelated, because I believe that they directly affect a great deal of the public opinion, that situation directly affects public opinion in the Muslim world.

JH: Continue over here.

AUDIENCE: [inaudible] -- George Washington. I wonder, Senator, if the intelligence suggests that only a few thousand opponents who don't have broad support, and that you could democratize Iraq with money and troops, comes from the same people who informed you that they have weapons of mass destructions and are about to hit us.

MC: I didn't catch the last part.

JH: Is this the same intelligence sources that told us that they had weapons of mass destruction and they were about to hit us?

MC: (Chuckles.) Let's hope not! (Laughter.)

As I said in my remarks, I think that many people in the Sunni Triangle are waiting to see what happens; if the Ba'athists reemerge, if Saddam Hussein continues to exert some influence, as apparently he and his formerly number two guy are doing. And they are very nervous about him coming back. They have reason for that. In 1991, as we all know, they were told that Saddam Hussein would go. They rose up in places like Basra and were killed by the thousands.

Let me just tell you what the bad guys are telling -- I think it's obvious, but it's worth repeating. They're telling the Iraqi people the United States propped up Saddam Hussein in the 1980s. We took Saddam Hussein's side in the Iranian war, against the Iranians, while he used weapons of mass destruction. In the 1990s, we are -- in 1991, we told the Iraqi people that he would be gone, and clearly, we didn't do that. In the 1990s, the economic sanctions imposed by the United States was very harmful to the economic life of the Iraqi people. And so -- and one of the reasons, main reasons were the no- fly zone and the economic sanctions.

So, you can understand why it would resonate with some Iraqi people the message that our enemies are giving: The United States is only there for the oil, and they're not interested in the betterment of the Iraqi people.

Now, all those things I can refute, but unfortunately, I'm not there during the discussion that many of these people are having with average Iraqi citizens, particularly when I was there in August, and it was 125 degrees and there was no electricity and no water and none of the public services. And I'm very happy to say that a lot of those services have been restored.

AUDIENCE: [name inaudible] -- Senator, your remarks suggest that public support is just critical to avoid a failure in Iraq. You also implied that it would be helpful in securing that support for Democratic candidates not to criticize the administration too much. But it's certainly plausible that a large -- that the widespread perception that the administration did not talk straight about all the justifications for war have undermined, in the long term, public support for the enterprise. In fact, we may not have seen the full cost of that widespread perception of lack of straight talk about justification.

What practical steps could the administration now take to recapture that component of public support?

MC: Could I say, my criticism of some of the Democratic politicians was not to tell them to be quiet, because it's their right as candidates and public office holders to say whatever they are -- whatever they want to. I think it's my right to respond to some of those. In other words, fundamentally, we either got to pay up or get out, when we vote once for going into the war but don't vote for the funds to win it.

I believe that American public opinion -- I know, because I read The Post all the time, surprisingly -- (chuckles; laughter) -- that the overwhelming majority of American people believe we did the right thing. I went to the mass grave outside what used to be Babylon and saw where 3,000 bodies were uncovered, how intelligent and economical these guys were. They'd tie two people together, shoot one in the head, and drop them both in the mass grave. We know about the 8- and 9-year-old boys that were in prison in Baghdad. We know about the murderous brutality of the sons. I mean, the American people believe we did the right thing, and I believe we did the right thing.

Now, where it hurts, though, will be in future conflicts, and it also hurts us with the Europeans because the Europeans were given the argument of weapons of mass destruction, particularly the British, far more as a compelling reason than the American people were. And what I worry about, unless we get to the bottom of this whole thing -- what intelligence reports, what led to certain statements made by certain officials -- is that maybe the next time, Iran, North Korea -- I'm not, you know -- but the next time there may be some kind of crisis -- and we all know that the weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them is one of the greatest challenges we face in the 21st century -- that the American people may be less accepting of an argument that an administration may make. That's what bothers me about that, not what we did on Iraq.

AUDIENCE: Kathy Ward, International Crisis Group. I know you said -- you mentioned Afghanistan a minute ago and said leave it for another day, but it's on the agenda. And so many of the parallels are so strong that I want to ask you if you could just quickly comment on what you think we need to do to get the job done there, and in particular if you could touch on handling of the warlords, role of Pakistan. And, you know, we had a supplemental go through just now which had $20 billion in reconstruction aid for Iraq and $1 billion for Afghanistan.

Thank you.

MC: I think Afghanistan is dicey. I think that there are certain areas of the country, particularly along the Pakistani border, that are clearly not under the control of either Pakistan or the Afghan government. I think it was true -- it's not necessarily all true -- but that Karzai -- President Karzai, who I happen to admire, controls all of Iraq (sic) till you get to the city limits of Kabul. But I -- there have been some improvements. He's fired some people. He's tried to bring some of the warlords under control.

There has been a rise in al Qaeda activity along the border. There has been some increase in U.S. casualties. I am concerned about it, but I'm not as concerned as I am about Iraq today, obviously, or I'd be talking about Afghanistan. But I believe that if Karzai can make the progress that he is making, that -- in the long term, we may muddle through in Afghanistan.

So I'm guardedly optimistic, but I am also realistic that the central government in Kabul has very little effect on the policies and practices of the warlords who control the surrounding areas.

So I guess I can say to you that we probably need more money. I'm glad the U.N. -- the NATO presence is there, as we referred to earlier. And I think in Afghanistan we can count on a lot more support from our friends and allies, both financially and militarily, very frankly, than we will in Iraq.

JH: Let's finish up down here in the front line.

AUDIENCE: Thank you very much. Senator McCain, obviously you've stressed security, a primary objective in Iraq before other things can take place, and that's obviously the role of the Pentagon. But early on, around the beginning of May, a Republican congressman, whose name I don't recall at the moment, said that --

MC: We never recall the congressmen's names. (Laughter.)

AUDIENCE: -- right -- that reconstruction is a civilian affair. Since the CPA does not -- has not provided a civilian address for the Iraqi people for their political and civil society development, do you think that the Pentagon should be in charge of the political and civilian part of this job, or simply the -- let them focus strictly on security, which obviously is what they're good at and their mandate?

MC: Well, I'd like to see the State Department and other organizations of our government play a greater role than they have. I think we saw an adjustment a few weeks ago when the president put Dr. Rice in charge of coordination. It's very obvious to me that she will be making sure that the appropriate -- she will be attempting to make sure that the appropriate agencies of government are able to carry out their functions.

It's not healthy when we read an unnamed source in the Pentagon said this about the Democrats -- I mean about -- excuse me -- about the State Department and -- (laughter) -- and an unnamed source in the State Department said -- Freudian slip! -- it's not helpful, this sniping at one another. It tends to dilute both the effort and the result.

I thought there was a very interesting piece in the New York Times Magazine on Sunday that was, I think, although not entirely accurate -- none are entirely accurate -- but I think it gave an overall picture of some of the conflicts that took place between the different agencies of government during that period of time. So, I think it's one of the aspects that has to be and is -- hopefully, is being addressed.

But I want to remind you, Chairman Mao said, "First you've got to feed the stomach, then the brain." And unless you get a secure environment where people can exercise their own rights, where they don't live in fear, where there's a fundamentally stable environment, as there is not at this moment in the Sunni Triangle, then all of those other agencies of government can't function. When the Red Cross leaves and the U.N. leaves and the Spanish leave and everybody's leaving, then it's very hard to achieve those missions that you just -- that you just asked about. And that's why it's so critical that we bring about some kind of real stability.

You know, there's one of our senior citizens here that didn't have a chance to ask a question, and I thought maybe -- I'm sure my constituents in Sun City would be very interested in your question.

AUDIENCE: Lots of questions. I'll ask two in a hurry. One, you talked about the consequences of failure. We used to hear about the consequences of failure in Vietnam --

MC: Yes.

AUDIENCE: -- and yet the United States went on to emerge as the solo superpower. Isn't talk about the consequences of failure in Iraq a bit too alarmist?

And secondly, a much less important question, what do you think the chances are of the Bush administration taking any of your advice? (Laughter.)

JH: For those of you who can't see that side of the room, it's Bernard Kalb who asked the question.

MC: Thank you, Mr. Kalb. First of all, in the Vietnam conflict, we did pay a heavy price, I think that all of us would agree, whether we were in favor of our conflict or not. But our failure caused us to pay a heavy price.

But there was one thing that was very different in the 1970s than is true in the 21st century, and that is this global war on terrorism that we're confronted with. And I think, as I mentioned earlier, we all know that the only way you win this war is going where the terrorists are. And if you try to withdraw to the United States, then we would be subject to enormous, I think, difficulties, to say the least. So I think the world has changed dramatically since the days of the Vietnam war.

I have a good relationship with the secretary of Defense, the secretary of State, and the president and Dr. Rice. And we talk frequently. And I would hope that I and some of my other colleagues are paid attention to and our opinions are taken in the mix. I know they have been in the past, and I would hope that they would now. But I -- and I -- also, again, I don't want to return to this idealism which seems to beset a lot of my thinking and views. But as long as there's young men standing on street corners in the Middle East with worry beads and no job, no hope, no opportunity, no democracy, no nothing, then there's going to be madrases that they're taken into, and they will then be trained as terrorists and want to destroy us. And this is why the Iraqi example is so serious. If you allow the status quo to prevail in the Middle East, I don't see any end to the production of terrorists and everything that they stand for and believe in.

And so, I think it's a very different situation. I may be wrong. I may be wrong. America's a great country. We can withstand severe blows. But I would really hate to contemplate sustaining this one. But I --

JH: I think that's --

MC: Could I --

JH: Yeah, sorry.

MCC: Just one more?

JH: Surely.

MC: There's another senior citizen -- yes. (Laughter.)

AUDIENCE: Lloyd Hand of Piper Rudnick -- [inaudible]

MC: Yes, sir.

AUDIENCE: Senator, I certainly embrace your thesis. But -- on the long term. But Secretary Rumsfeld seemed to be very clear and unequivocal Sunday when he said no more troops, there are sufficient. However, I wonder if he might be amenable -- and I don't underestimate the power of your persuasion, incidentally -- but I wonder if he might be amenable to the shift in mix of troops, and you were getting at this when you were defining what the division would be, and it's a subpart B question. Do you -- are you confident that we have the capability to both field and to train others to deploy, to engage in successful urban guerrilla warfare?

MC: I believe we do. And we have improved those capabilities over the years, and our military has gradually, as all huge bureaucracies -- they're a little bit slow in -- have emphasized that over a long period of time.

I hope that Secretary Rumsfeld would recognize that -- the realities on the ground. And the realities on the ground are that things are not getting better. And that would require, hopefully, maybe redeployment from the north and the south, perhaps other kinds of redeployment. But however you do it, I think we need more people there.

I thank you for joining me today. I thank you, Mr. Hoagland, for being here, and it's been a pleasure. And I appreciate the opportunity to engage some very intelligent people. Thank you very much. (Applause.)









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