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Iraq: The Test of a Generation

Moderator: Peter G. Peterson, chairman, The Blackstone Group and chairman, Council on Foreign Relations
Speaker: John McCain, Member, U.S. Senate, (R-Ariz.)
April 22, 2004
Council on Foreign Relations

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Washington, D.C.

(Note: The opening remarks and question-and-answer session have been transcribed from the meeting. Senator McCain's remarks appear here as prepared for delivery.)


NANCY ROMAN: Hello, I think we're ready to get started. Thank you all so much for being here. I'm Nancy Roman, director of our Washington Program here, and today is really a double treat, because at first we have Senator [John] McCain, and I won't take much time because you're eager to hear from him, but I very much want to welcome our Chairman Pete Peterson. It's a pleasure to have him, and we rarely get him down here. And I told Senator McCain he's one of the rare few who could draw him. So, thank you very much, Pete.

PETER PETERSON: It's an immense pleasure to be able to introduce a very good friend, and indeed a role model, if I may be frank about it. You know, sometimes it's humorous to have an anecdote or two that has an element of truth, even if a bit ironic, and, Senator, a couple of anecdotes that, in an ironic sense, have a relationship to you.

When I was in corporate life in Chicago in the '60s, there was some transcendent legislative issue that was so transcendent I can't even remember what it was now, but it was very important to my company to get this bill passed. And [former] Senator Everett Dirksen [R-Ill.] was our senator, and he had promised to support this bill. Along the time came for a vote, and he didn't support the bill. So I, of course, went in to see him. And before I can say a word he said, “Pete, you're probably wondering whether I am a man of high principle.” I said, “As a matter of fact, that thought had crossed my mind, yes.” He says, “I'm a man of very high principle, and my first principle is total flexibility.” And, John, you'll remember that sonorous bass voice of his, so what could I do but laugh and go on.

A second story relates to President George Bush, Sr., who at a certain point was being pilloried, as you may recall, for his changed positions on such subjects as voodoo economics, and a few other subjects. He stands up before this group and he said, “I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that in view of my changed positions on voodoo economics, and this and that, whether I have the courage of my convictions.” He pounded the lectern and he said, “I want you to know, I do have the courage of my convictions, I just don't happen to agree with them.”

Now, Senator McCain is the opposite [of] these. He's wonderfully inflexible when it comes to his basic principles, and he has courage in every dimension, it seems to me: physical, political, and, indeed, moral. And today, I'm sure he's going to demonstrate that yet again on matters of national security and foreign policy in Iraq. But in my experience, he's always demonstrated that mind-set in domestic policy as well.

Some of you, at least, may recall in the early '90s, my dear friend and John's dear friend, [former Senator] Warren Rudman [R-N.H.] and I, and [former Senator] Paul Tsongas [R-Mass.] set up something called the Concord Coalition devoted to long-term fiscal responsibility and generational equity, which is a fancy word for fairness to our children and grandchildren. And as we look at the current situation at the Concord Coalition, at least— our current [situation], of course, is neither fiscally responsible nor is it fair to our children and our grandchildren. And it strikes us as rather interesting that LBJ [former President Lyndon B. Johnson] got pilloried for guns and butter during the Vietnam War, but now we've got guns and butter and tax cuts, and we're confronting the fascinating situation that I think is unprecedented; that if one asked what sacrifice we're being asked to make it's hard to know unless accepting a tax cut is somehow a sacrifice in some way.

And it's also unprecedented as to our defending from foreign capital, which is now at absolutely record levels, over 5 percent of the GDP [gross domestic product]. But in this area, too, John McCain has been a principled and courageous advocate. And the Concord Coalition is deeply honored that he's been graceful enough to accept our Annual Economic Patriot Award, because I consider him a great patriot in every sense of that word.

I've been asked, incidentally, to remind you that the meeting is on the record, as you can obviously see. Please turn off your cell phones, but not your hearing aides, of course, and it's my great pleasure to introduce Senator John McCain.

[Applause.]

JOHN McCAIN: Thank you, Pete. Thank you for your kind words. Thank you for your continued crusade for fiscal sanity and stability on behalf of our children and grandchildren.

America faces today our biggest foreign policy test in a generation. The deteriorating security situation in Iraq in the past several weeks vividly emphasizes the difficulties inherent in bringing stability to that country, and is a wake-up call to policymakers in Washington.

Given events on the ground, and the resulting debate that has taken place in this town, it is worth reviewing why we needed to go to war in the first place, why we must prevail, and how our conduct in Iraq fits with America’s broader foreign policy principles. The way in which we handle Iraq today will impact the Iraqi people, America, and the world for a generation or more. The costs of failure in Iraq are unacceptably high. The benefits of success, on the other hand, are extraordinary.

Why we are in Iraq

By early 2003, the status quo on Iraq was crumbling and could not be sustained. The international sanctions regime no longer constrained Saddam’s ability to spend money as he wished, and the regime was growing stronger, not weaker, under the existing sanctions. At the same time, critics around the world were demanding that those sanctions that remained be lifted. U.S. and British warplanes patrolled the no-fly zones, taking fire from anti-aircraft guns on a weekly basis. America was forced to keep troops stationed in Saudi Arabia, in an overtly hostile environment, with no light at the end of the tunnel. International pressure on Saddam was wavering, and intensified only when the United States showed a determination to deal with him once and for all. Even the renewed inspections in 2002 and 2003 took place only when Saddam was confronted with coalition troops deployed to his borders— an obviously unsustainable situation— and even then he refused to cooperate fully.

We must also remember the mockery his regime made of the United Nations Security Council. He violated no less than 17 Security Council resolutions. If the word of the United Nations is ever to be worth more than a press release, there must be enforcement.

Some have argued that the U.S. exaggerated Saddam’s WMD [weapons of mass destruction] programs, and therefore Iraq posed no threat. It is important to learn precisely what happened to Iraq’s weapons, and to examine failures of our pre-war intelligence. That is why I have agreed to serve on the bipartisan commission that will examine WMD-related intelligence. But we must also recall the facts as we knew them in March 2003. U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Saddam possessed chemical and biological weapons, and might be pursuing a nuclear weapons program. European intelligence services concluded that Saddam likely had active WMD programs. Eight years of UNSCOM [United Nations Special Commission] inspections concluded Iraq was lying. Even [chief U.N. weapons inspector] Hans Blix and the U.N. inspectors assumed the regime was concealing weapons of mass destruction. If Saddam had secretly destroyed these weapons, he had numerous opportunities to document this destruction. But he did not do so.

At the same time, the world was painfully familiar with Saddam’s use of WMD in the past, including his barbaric chemical attacks on Iranians and Kurds. We knew that Saddam was by far the most belligerent leader in the region, having invaded and pillaged Kuwait, launched missiles at Saudi Arabia and Israel, killed hundreds of thousands of his own people, and attempted to assassinate a former U.S. president. We also knew of Saddam’s past involvement in terrorism, and his hatred of America.

We had three choices— deal with Saddam early, while we could; deal with Saddam later, after sanctions had lost force and he had furthered his weapons ambitions; or simply sit back and hope for the best. The 9-11 Commission has spent months investigating who might be at fault for failing to connect disparate dots, and for inaction in the face of grave threat. In Iraq, the dots were connected.

Even those in Iraq who claim that all WMD were destroyed suggest that Saddam planned to restart his programs once the time was right— presumably, once sanctions had fallen apart, he had his hands on billions of dollars in oil revenues, and international attention was again distracted. But let us assume for the sake of argument that Saddam had forever abandoned his WMD ambitions. Is it then wrong to have toppled the dictator?

I supported humanitarian intervention in order to stop genocide in Kosovo. I wish that the U.S. had acted— with force if necessary— to stop genocide in Rwanda. In neither of these places were America’s vital national security interests at stake, though our national values were. Murder in Kosovo and genocide in Rwanda demanded intervention. Time and time again, the world has witnessed vast brutality, done nothing, and then said “never again.” But it takes determined action to stop these tragedies. With the final erosion of sanctions, how long would the Kurdish population of Iraq have remained beyond Saddam’s reach? How many more mass graves would he have filled, how many more women raped, critics’ tongues cut out, children tortured? The U.S., which on three occasions encouraged Iraqis to revolt, had a responsibility to take up this charge, and we have liberated 25 million Iraqis from a state of near slavery.

These are the reasons why we are in Iraq today. Now that we have toppled Saddam and liberated the Iraqi people, we must succeed in our ambition to help bring freedom and democracy to the country. We are not trying to turn Iraqis into Americans. We are promoting values that are universal. Iraqis are no more willing than Americans to endure beatings, terror, and a lack of freedom. We can argue about the steps the administration took in the run-up and aftermath of the war. I have my differences, and have outlined some of these in the past. But failure is not an option.

What success requires

We have gotten many things right in Iraq. The coalition has de-Baathified the country, built roads and hospitals, opened schools, expanded investment, and created jobs. Despite the instability, a majority of Iraqis say that they are better off than they were before the war, and just a small minority say that they are worse off. Even more— 71 percent in the latest Oxford Research poll— say they expect things to be better in a year than they are now. Ironically, the Iraqi people today are more optimistic about their future than many Americans are.

Iraqis today are of two minds in their attitude toward the coalition. Apart from a relatively small minority of ex-Baathists and extremists, Iraqis are happy that Saddam is gone, and thankful that the U.S. toppled the dictator. They also understand that the American presence is a stabilizing force in their country. At the same time, they resent foreign occupation. In addition, when it comes to their future, the Iraqi people are understandably hedging. How can they be sure that Saddam’s followers won’t rule once again? We must make them certain through our firm resolve to prevail in Iraq.

First, we need a constructive domestic debate. Rather than discuss how we can best achieve our objectives in Iraq, some have preferred to use the issue as a political weapon to score points in this election. This is simply irresponsible— the stakes in Iraq are too high. We must show bipartisan resolve to prevail in Iraq, and not allow the insurgents to believe that they are winning minds in Washington. Our troops, the Iraqi people, and the world need to see unified American political leadership.

Second, the president must make clear to the American people the scale of the commitment required to prevail in Iraq. He needs to be perfectly frank: bringing peace and democracy to Iraq is an enormous endeavor that will be very expensive, difficult, and long. The American people understand that we are fighting for the freedom of others, and I believe they are willing to sacrifice. The president needs to be as straightforward and specific as possible when he describes these necessary sacrifices.

Part of this sacrifice starts here with lawmakers in Washington. We need to make tough decisions about where our wartime priorities lay, and this means that we have to reassess our domestic priorities. As the appropriations season starts up, it is clear that we simply cannot have it all— tax cuts, pork for the special interests, ever-growing entitlement programs, and war in Iraq. Congress cannot demand discipline and sacrifice only of the men and women fighting in the desert. We need it at home as well.

Third, it is painfully clear that we need more troops. Before the war, the U.S. Army chief of staff said that several hundred thousand troops would be necessary to keep the peace. While criticized at the time, General [Eric K.] Shinseki now looks prescient. I have said since my visit to Iraq last August that our military presence is insufficient to bring stability to the country. We should increase the number of forces, including Marines and Special Forces, to conduct offensive operations. There is also a dire need for other types of forces, including linguists, intelligence officers, and civil affairs officers. We must deploy at least another full division, and probably more.

Troop contributions from NATO are welcome, and we should continue to seek troops from other countries. But the fundamental truth is that we face the security task mostly alone. Our coalition partners— and the British forces in particular— are helpful, but they are not present in the strength and numbers necessary to provide security. The newly trained Iraqi security forces are not yet prepared for the job and many have been unwilling to fight. There have been exceptions, including groups of Iraqi forces that courageously battled insurgents in Falluja. In the short run, however, the United States will have to shoulder the responsibility for re-establishing security. We must ensure that we have the men and materiel necessary to do the job.

Fourth, we must ensure that our understandable efforts to minimize collateral damage in Falluja are not seen as a victory for the hardest of the hard-core killers. Our goal in places like Falluja, where unreconstructed Baathists, former intelligence officers, and foreign jihadists converge, should be to capture or destroy them. We face implacable enemies who reject a peaceful role in the new Iraq. We must be careful not to be seen by Iraqis as responding to direct attacks with accommodation.

Fifth, while the burden in Iraq will be primarily ours, we must do more to reinforce our friends and allies who are sharing the burden, risks, and responsibilities in Iraq. Bulgarians, Britons, Spaniards, Italians, and many other nationalities have been wounded and killed in Iraq. Our enemies seek to divide our coalition. They do it through bombs in Madrid and through kidnappings in Iraq. Every leader who has sent personnel to join the coalition in Iraq has done so out of principle, not out of political expediency. I am distressed to hear some denigrate the contributions of our allies— from the young democracy in Georgia that is tripling its troop contribution to our British and Australian friends who were with us on the ground before the first shot was fired. Those who sacrifice with us in adversity are our truest friends.

Sixth, we need to stop any irresponsible third country-interference in Iraq. We must make clear to Syria and Iran that any meddling in Iraq will have dangerous consequences for the security of their own fragile regimes. In addition, we must be exceedingly cautious about Iranian government involvement in a political settlement. Iran’s interests in Iraq and American interests in Iraq are not, to put it mildly, the same. I was concerned to see the Iranian diplomatic delegation that visited Iraq last week attempt to mediate between U.S. forces and those of [rebel Shiite cleric] Muqtada al-Sadr. If the Iranian government has the influence to restrain the insurgency, it presumably has the capacity to encourage it, should it decide to do so. The answer to Sadr’s challenge is not in Tehran but in Iraq.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we need a political strategy. We do not currently have one. With no one identified to lead Iraq after the transfer of sovereignty, and with some questioning even the date for the handover, there is a political vacuum in Iraq today. We need to reduce the uncertainty as soon as possible by announcing our plan for events after June 30.

This begins by sticking to the turnover date. Were we to decide now, 70 days before the long-scheduled handover, that the U.S. will continue the occupation, we would feed the suspicions of all those who believe that we are in Iraq for conquest, rather than liberation. We must also announce, as soon as possible, who will lead the country and make clear that these new leaders, however chosen, are transitional, and will see the country through to elections. An Iraqi government will only have full legitimacy when it is freely chosen by the people, as called for by the transitional constitution.

The U.N. also has a role to play. U.N. participation in fashioning a political solution may increase the legitimacy with which the new regime is viewed by foreign countries, and make it easier for others to contribute troops and assistance. We should not fool ourselves, however, into thinking that we can turn over the problem of Iraq to the United Nations. Recent polls indicate that Iraqis do not equate a U.N. veneer with political legitimacy, and many distrust the institution that managed the Oil for Food program, which enriched Saddam at their expense. The U.N., while it has a number of capable diplomats on its staff, cannot alone solve this political situation, and [Secretary General] Kofi Annan has said recently that the security situation may preclude a significant U.N. presence in the near future. The U.N. can help, but it is no substitute for U.S. leadership.

Nor is it a substitute for transferring real political authority to the Iraqi people, which must be our urgent goal. A strong American role in Iraq’s security is critical, but we must move to transfer decision-making power to the Iraqis as soon as possible. The June 30 handover must mean more than the transfer of policymakers from CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority] headquarters to the new U.S. Embassy.

The risks of failure and the benefits of success

We have toppled Saddam, and we have the responsibility to finish the job-to place true sovereignty in the hands of the Iraqi people. But what if we fail? Let us be clear about the likely outcome of our leaving Iraq prematurely. In overthrowing Saddam Hussein and the apparatus of Baathist rule, we shattered a system built on total oppression. We are now helping the Iraqi people construct a new order, but we aren’t there yet. If we leave, violence will fill the vacuum as groups struggle for political power, and we risk all-out civil war. At the very least, scores will be settled, warlords will reign, and the violence we see today will pale in comparison to the bloodletting. And we will repeat in much starker terms the mistake we made in 1991.

If we leave, we will pay a dear price as Americans. For years, al-Qaeda used our withdrawal from Somalia as an example of our lack of resolve. The lesson was clear— inflict enough pain on Americans, and you will achieve your aims. If our enemies succeed in Iraq, they will have taught the world the lesson of Mogadishu a hundredfold.

If we leave, we doom reform in the Arab world. Why should other Arabs embrace democracy and freedom when it cannot take root even after a wholesale regime change in Iraq?

If we leave, we risk turning Iraq into a failed state, handing its neighbors— including leading terrorist sponsors Iran and Syria— a prime opportunity to expand their influence in the region, and creating a breeding ground for terrorism.

But if we succeed in stabilizing the country, in building a new government to which we hand sovereignty, in establishing a political system based on freedom and democracy, what will we then have accomplished?

If we succeed, we will have affirmed the universal values upon which this country was founded, and on which our foreign policy must be based— that all men and women are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. That people everywhere in the world, not just in the West, deserve the same rights and freedoms we enjoy. I do not believe that there is an Arab exception any more than there was a black African exception, an Asian, or a Latin exception.

If we succeed, we send a message to every despot in the region that their day is done— that no people will tolerate forever leaders who deprive them of liberty.

If we succeed, we help create in the center of the Middle East a representative and humane government that provides an example to the region. We help bring an end to the political repression and economic stagnation in which extremist roots grow. People in the region can then express their views within the political system, rather than being forced to its margins. They will have access to economic opportunity that will bring them hope, rather than despair.

Is this scenario unrealistic? I am not willing to condemn millions of Arabs to repressive government for another generation. Let’s look at what Iraqis believe about their own future. In the Oxford Research poll I cited earlier, Iraqis were asked to select the type of political system they prefer. By far the top response— the response that garnered more support than an Islamic state or a single strongman— was Iraqi democracy. Over 85 percent of Iraqis polled said that they agreed that Iraq needs democracy “at this time.” And Iraqis are not the only people in the region who yearn for freedom. As the U.N.’s 2003 Arab Human Development Report indicates, Arabs topped the worldwide list of those saying “democracy is better than any other form of government,” and they expressed the highest level of rejection of authoritarian rule.

Just as the status quo on Iraq was unsustainable in early 2003, today the status quo in the Middle East is a clear and present danger. Every year the population of unemployed, disaffected, and politically disenfranchised youths grows. Lacking freedom of expression and assembly, with no access to the ballot box and few political and economic rights, some individuals will find no outlet but extremism. And we will pay the price.

Our foreign policy principles

I know the debate over what to do in Iraq is part of the larger debate over how to use the pre-eminent position of the United States in the world. No one can foretell how long we will stand astride the world with unmatched power. We must use our power now to shape the world for the future, to guarantee that future generations here and abroad will live in freedom, democracy, and prosperity.

We do not use American power to establish empire. We do not spend our blood and treasure for territorial gain, nor for oil, nor to enrich our corporations. We act in Iraq as we should act in the world— to bring lasting liberal order to the globe. Our power must be directed in ways that bolster freedom, democracy, economic prosperity, international institutions, and rules.

In Iraq our national security interests and our national values converge. Iraq is truly the test of a generation, for America and for our role in the world. Faced with similar challenges, previous generations of Americans have passed such tests with honor. It is now our turn to demonstrate that our power, ennobled by our principles, is the greatest force for good on earth today. Iraq’s transformation into a secure democracy and a force for freedom in the greater Middle East is the calling of our age. We can succeed. We must succeed.

PETERSON: We're now ready for questions. Please wait for the microphone, identify yourself, keep your questions to the point, if you would, and try to remember we have only one speaker here, speaker McCain. Our distinguished new head of the Washington office asked me to kick off one or two, senator, and let me try.

Let me give you a hypothetical, senator. What would or should we do if, in the post-June 30th period, a so-called sovereign Iraqi government asks us to leave, even if we are unhappy about the security situation there? I understand it's a hypothetical, but it's at least possible.

McCAIN: Well, if that scenario evolves, then I think it's obvious that we would have to leave because— if it was an elected government of Iraq— and we've been asked to leave other places in the world. If it were an extremist government, then I think we would have other challenges, but I don't see how we could stay when our whole emphasis and policy has been based on turning the Iraqi government over to the Iraqi people.

PETERSON: A second and final question from me. As you know—

McCAIN: By the way, could I— if we do it right, that's not going to happen, but we will be there militarily for a long, long, long time.

PETERSON: As you know, senator, your very good friend Warren Rudman co-chaired with Senator Gary Hart [D-Colo.] a prescient commission really on national security in the 21st century. You may not know that those same two gentlemen have chaired a task force at the Council on certain aspects of homeland security, including the first responder issue. It's under the leadership of Dr. Stephen Flynn [Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies]. Some of the work suggests that we still have a lot of vulnerabilities in ports, in our healthcare system and a variety of other areas. How do you feel about the state of our homeland security program, and what would you have us do about whatever you think the state is?

McCAIN: Thanks, Pete. I think we've made progress. I think it's significant that we have not experienced another terrorist attack since 9/11. I think that is testimony to much of the progress that we've made. I agree with you and Gary Hart and Warren Rudman that we have a long way to go. We react a lot more often than we act, and that's true in Congress. In the Commerce Committee, the first thing we did after the [March 2004] Madrid bombing was hold a hearing on our rail security. Guess what we found out? That our rail security isn't really very good— [laughs]--and we're spending very little money on it, while we're spending tens of billions on airport security. Port security is also another major vulnerability.

But I'm going to surprise you with this part of the answer. My friends, we will never have a secure border until we enact meaningful and comprehensive immigration reform. People will continue to move across our borders as long as there is a supply of jobs because there is a demand for workers, and they will come to take those jobs.

I live in a border state. In the first three months of this year, they apprehended 155,000 people coming across our border between Arizona and Mexico illegally. We think we catch one out of four or five. Now, sooner or later, someone who wants to do bad things to the United States is going to figure that might be a good way to get into the United States. And as long as we have 8 million to 15 million people living in the United States who are here illegally, it's going to be very difficult to keep track of our population. It cries out— immigration reform is an issue we all duck because it's so controversial. We better address it from a national security standpoint.

PETERSON: All right, can we start with questions? Yes, sir. Please wait for the microphone. Identify yourself, if you will.

QUESTIONER: Good afternoon, senator. My name is Reuben Brigety. I'm a professor at American University. In light of the decisions of Spain and Honduras and the Dominican Republic to withdraw their troops, what specific policy suggestions do you have not only to strengthen our coalition of troops that are there, but also to encourage other countries to share the burden in Iraq?

McCAIN: I think the obvious answer, of course, is a greater United Nations involvement. These leaders, as I mentioned in my remarks, have shown courage by sending their troops to Iraq. None of them are popular for it; they did it out of principle as opposed to any political expediency. So they've got to give their constituents and their voters the imprimatur of the United Nations and other international organizations, but particularly the United Nations.

The second point is they probably— with the exception of the kind of unique aspect of the Spanish election, they probably would not be withdrawing them if we had a secure environment. And this goes back to the United States militarily having to obtain a secure environment, and once they have reasonable confidence that they won't sustain casualties, then I think you'll see a lot of other countries contributing. And, you know, there could be some benefits in the long run to these countries from a stable Iraq. It's a very wealthy country.

PETERSON: Yes, please?

QUESTIONER: Thanks. Barbara Slavin of USA Today, and a Council member. At a hearing this morning in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a couple of questions were asked that were not answered by government officials. What happens if the transitional government that is supposed to be in charge from July 1 until elections decides that they don't want U.S. forces, say, going into another Falluja; or if they decide to inhibit rights of women; or take other steps, or sign agreements, economic agreements, that we don't approve of? Who will tell them that they can't do this? Is this going to be the responsibility of the U.S. ambassador? And how will that make that government look legitimate in Iraqi eyes?

McCAIN: I can only go back to previous experiences— Korea, for example, and other countries that we've been involved in, in helping them. Bosnia is an example. We have considerable influence. We have enormous influence. It can't be in the interest of any freely elected government to have the situation as prevails in Falluja today to continue, because that's not a recognition of a freely elected and central government.

It will be a very delicate situation. It will be that we may have to sometimes— I won't use the word "threaten," but make them aware of the consequences of not doing the right thing. But at the same time, if— this goes back to Pete's question— if they decide that they want to act in a way that is not in consonance with our stated goals and principles, then we have to look at the realities on the ground at the time. The one thing we do know is that unless an occupying force is committed to the democracy and self-government of the country in which it exists, it cannot exist there for long. I mean, it's just a reality that history shows us.

But you know, when we talk about that, I'm surprised that— in a way, that the administration didn't do a little better job of answering that, because the scenario is that it is in their interest to have the United States there militarily for a very long period of time. It's in their interest to see us help them rebuild. It is in their economic interest to do the kinds of building of business and free enterprise system that they didn't know under Saddam Hussein. Everything dictates that we should get together, but— should act in consonance— but if there are disagreements, then the United States of America has to decide. And that decision— I doubt it, but could be one that would be— would mean that we would have to re-examine our role in Iraq.

PETERSON: Can we go in the back of the room a little bit? There. Thank you very much.

QUESTIONER: Philip Gourevitch from The New Yorker magazine and the Council. You refer quite a bit to the sort of— the public opinion in Iraq, but it seems that you're depending on one poll. And in the past, certainly, it seems the decisions around this war have not necessarily gotten quite right how Iraqis would think and, in some ways, not been sure of public opinion. So I guess I'm wondering: Do you feel confident that we now know what Iraqis think better, that this alleged majority that shows up in these polls is, in fact, likely to determine the fate of the nation, and that— is the distinction that you make between an elected government and an extremist government necessarily mutually exclusive? What's to keep one from being the— from those being the same?

McCAIN: Well, in answer to your first question, I not only rely on polling data, I rely on human nature. I— as I tried to point out in my remarks, I don't know of any group of people, no matter where they live in the world, that would like to live under a regime such as they lived under in Saddam Hussein— beating, torture. We all know all that. We saw the pictures of the 8- and 9-year-old boys coming out of a prison in Baghdad. I mean, they're human beings. I think that all human beings— there's a universality of, as I've mentioned before, of— and certain inalienable rights— that prevail in Iraq, as they prevail in Cincinnati. But there is a certain— as I also mentioned, there is a certain ambiguity out there. Look, three times— three times— the United States of America encouraged them to rise up, and three times those thousands— in some case, tens of thousands— were slaughtered by Saddam Hussein. I'd be a little nervous, too. I'd be very nervous about it.

I'll never forget going to the airport in Basra. In Basra they have this beautiful airport. It was built by the West Germans— excuse me, by the Federal Republic of Germany— excuse me; I'm showing my age— the— by the Federal Republic of Germany, at a cost of some, I think, $50 million. It's never been used. The people of Basra never use that airport. Why? It's in the no-fly zone.

So there were some inconveniences, to say the least, associated with the sanctions on Iraq. So I believe that these people understandably are a bit nervous and skittish about what their future is, and that's why we have to be certain.

I think the second part of the question— tell me the second part of the question, real quick.

QUESTIONER: You said, when Mr. Peterson asked you about—

McCAIN: Oh, an extremist government, oh. Yeah, I see. Yeah, yeah. You see, again, the lessons of history, including their neighbor, Iran, show that extremist governments do not gain the support of the people. The Taliban didn't, I don't believe that the mullahs in Iran have, and I don't believe that in any other part of the world where the— because extremist, by the nature of the description, doesn't mean popular. And unfortunately, much to our dismay, when some of these, quote, extremist governments and groups get in control, it's awfully hard to pry them out. I am sure that if you had an election— I'm positive if you had an election in Iran today, those guys would be on the street in a New York minute. So I— will they choose an extremist government? I don't believe so.

And finally, could I say the Iraqi people are not unsophisticated and not uneducated? They're a pretty sophisticated— they have a history of a certain amount of sophistication, and I think that they would, if given the right opportunity, would choose the right form of government.

And finally, could I just mention Turkey? Turkey is a secular government. They were yanked into the 20th century by [Mustafa] Kemal Ataturk [the founder of the Turkish Republic and its first president], and Turkey is a functioning democracy. So— and it's a Muslim country. And I think that Turkey we could replicate in Iraq as well if we did it right.

PETERSON: All right. In the way back.

McCAIN: I'm sorry for the long answer, but that's a very, very important question.

PETERSON: Way back, please.

QUESTIONER: Yes, sir. Joe Cirincione, Carnegie Endowment [for International Peace]. Senator, I have long admired your career and your service to the nation, but isn't it a sign of how desperate the situation is in Iraq today that you have to come here and make a speech one year after the fall of Baghdad defending the decision to go to war, defending a U.S. military presence in Iraq that you say should go on for a long, long time?

Senator [Richard G.] Lugar [R-Ind.] today at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said that he thought public support for the war in Iraq was at risk. Is that your fear as well? Do you fear public support is eroding for the continued American military presence?

McCAIN: I certainly fear it because if we have continued large American casualties— and large is all in the eye of the beholder; 58,000 names are on the wall not too far from here, and we have no comparison to that, obviously, in this conflict. But when Americans see it on the crawl every hour of the day and every week in news, et cetera, it has dramatic impact. And their expectations were different after, quote, combat operations ended, quite a long period of time. That's why I said we've got to tell the American people how tough and long the slog is going to be.

Yes, I think things have been done wrong. Yes, I think they should have been done better. I can't tell you how upset I've been for months because we didn't send troops when we should have. And to say that it's because the commanders on the ground didn't say they asked for extra troops, what's that all about? It's the leaders; it's the leaders that decide. Napoleon said war is too important to be left to the generals— with all due respect to you, General [Edward L.] Rowny. [Laughter.]

But the point— and yes, I've been upset. And yes, mistakes have been made. But that's one reason why we avoid warfare. And just let me remind you that in other wars we've made serious mistakes and have adjusted and prevailed. In Korea, the greatest military operation probably in history was conducted in Inchon, and several months later, that same general told [former President] Harry Truman, “Don't worry, those guys speaking Chinese and in those clothes aren't really Chinese that are attacking.” [Laughter.] And it was a terrible mistake, and it cost thousands of lives. But we adjusted to it, we adjusted to it and we prevailed, thank God, and it changed the entire Cold War.

So I am standing here with you saying— speaking to you, we need to stay the course. Yes, we have made mistakes. We have the best military we've ever had in our history, both leadership-wise and the men and women, as well as officers. But we've got to do the things that are necessary to make this thing work, and again, one of them is to have a plan.

PETERSON: General Rowny, I might say, you've probably learned to be careful of any statement that begins "with due respect." [Laughter.] What would you like to ask, sir?

QUESTIONER: No, I would first like to say that I think that peace is too important to be left only to the politicians. [Laughter, applause.] But— [inaudible]--is it etched in stone that the 30th of June is immovable? I understand, you know, the arguments that we don't want to break a promise, other people are going to think we're breaking promises, that a lot of Iraqis think we're breaking a promise, a lot of them don't want us there. But, if there's not stability, these technical people that are being put in cannot control the situation, is it impossible to move that date to, say, January 1, 2005?

McCAIN: You know, general, I have agonized over that issue and that aspect of it. And I understand. Your point is very well made. I would argue that, at this moment, we are not prepared, because when asked who's going to be the government— who was it that said, "That's a good question?”

AUDIENCE: Ambassador [L. Paul] Bremer [administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority].

McCAIN: Yeah, yeah. I saw him on television. They said, "Who's going to be their government?" And he said, "Well, that's a good question." [Laughs.] I do think that's a good question. [Laughter.] I agree with him. And I have the highest regard for Ambassador Bremer, by the way. And I understand that. I do, though, come down on the side, General, of going ahead with it and doing what we're capable of doing. We've got 70 days. We should be able to put in place a transitional government. We should be able to have a changeover, at least one that would at least send a message to the Iraqi people that we're beginning this turnover.

I think the ground that the extremists are plowing right now is that these Americans are occupiers. In Basra, after the bombs were set off, clearly an act of insurgency and sabotage, they're demonstrating, saying the Americans did it. That kind of thing, I think, we'd be facing in spades if we don't get this government over to the Iraqis as quickly as possible.

PETERSON: All right. Back there, please.

QUESTIONER: George Montgomery. Senator, do you support Senator [Chuck] Hagel [R-Neb.] in his attempt to get us to revisit the question of the draft?

McCAIN: I love Senator Hagel, despite the fact that he was in the Army. [Laughter.] But on this one, we're just in total disagreement. The all-volunteer force works. Look at the quality of men and women and the quality of leadership we have in our military today. [With] all due respect to my generation, I think they are superb. They're very well trained, they're very well educated and they're very well motivated.

The second thing is, by the way, kind of a technical aspect. If you restore the draft, do you draft women, as well? I think that would have to be addressed in the modern day Army. That would be a very interesting debate to engage in.

Third of all, the nature of our modern day military is that they're no longer the guy that— the 18-year old you give six weeks training at Fort Dix and send into combat. These people require and receive extensive technological training of enormous length of time and requiring a very high level of intelligence and capability.

And third [sic] of all, the military is very small today. What are we, about two-thirds the size we were of the size of the Persian Gulf War? We can recruit qualified and outstanding young men and women into the military.

And my final point is, no matter how you shape it, no matter how you shape— the reason why Chuck and others are saying we've got to return to the draft is because only a segment of our society is serving in the military today. There's nobody in Congress, literally, or in the Senate that— [inaudible]. You're still going to run into that same problem. We ran into it in Vietnam. We didn't have— rich people didn't serve. People from the lowest economic rung of our economic ladder served. And you're still not going to solve that problem by reinstituting a draft, in my view. And right now, especially. I don't want to be diverted to a discussion about Iraq when we may be at— as I mentioned in my speech, probably the most critical moment in a generation as far as American national security policy is concerned.

PETERSON: Yes, the woman back there, please. Thank you.

QUESTIONER: I want to follow up on that question, because— I'm Marie Coco with Newsday. The title of your speech is "The Tax For The Next Generation," but, as Mr. Peterson said in his opening remarks, no one other than military and Reserve families have been asked to make a single sacrifice for this war, and you are calling this endeavor a long, long one. So my question to you is, if we are going to keep an all-volunteer force, and particularly one that relies so heavily on Reservists, where does the rest of the public sacrifice, and are we not being asked to sacrifice specifically because the bottom would fall out of public support if we were?

McCAIN: First of all, as I mentioned, the most oblivious organization in America to what we're facing is the United States Congress. [Laughter.] We claim that— we claim that Lyndon Johnson was guilty of wanting guns and butter; this Congress wants guns and pork. We are— well, I don't have to tell you the multi-trillion dollar deficits we are amassing while the spending goes on and on, and I won't tell you a lot of my favorite examples. But we— the Congress wants to have it all. And that's the wrong example to set.

I believe that what we should do is ask Americans to serve. At nine— after 9/11, I think there was a very large mistake made, because at that time Americans were ready to serve. I would expand Peace Corps. I would expand AmeriCorps. I would say that young men and women can sign up for military service for 18 months in return for $18,000 in educational benefits and do a lot of the security things that don't require a lot of extensive training. I would encourage and even fund some neighborhood and community volunteer organizations. I would have, like— Americans want to serve. And if they're called to serve, they will serve. And I— and so your point is well made, and part of this long, hard struggle is that I would be doing a whole lot of that.

And by the way, every American I've ever known that served in the Peace Corps, every American I've ever known who served in the military, every American who ever served in the AmeriCorps says it's the best thing that ever happened to them. And young Americans, I think, are as patriotic as any generation we've ever had.

PETERSON: Senator, I've been wanting to ask you a question. Since you referred to a New York minute, you seem to talk pretty quickly. How much shorter is a New York minute than an Arizona minute? I'm just curious. [Laughter.]

McCAIN: Well, in Arizona we have a fairly leisurely pace— [laughter].

PETERSON: I'm not sure that's the word most people would use to describe you.

McCAIN: [Laughs.]

PETERSON: Yes, sir.

QUESTIONER: Thanks. Senator, Gary Mitchell from the Mitchell Report. I want to ask you a question that comes from that seven-point agenda that you outlined. It begins with constructive domestic debate and then secondly goes to some plain talking from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and it raises two questions for me. One is whether you'd consider a friendly amendment and reverse the priority of those. And it goes to the more serious question of whether or not we can have a serious and profitable domestic debate in this country until the president does something that I think, in the judgment of a large number of people, he has not yet done, which is to be candid about the mistakes that have been made along the way and to talk frankly in some of the terms that you've been talking about today.

McCAIN: First of all, I think the president gave a very energetic and strong argument for our continued efforts in Iraq at his press conference. I thought his opening statement laid out the scenario very well.

I think that— I think we should admit that mistakes were made, I really do. [Former President] John F. Kennedy, after the Bay of Pigs, many people in this room remember, said, "I take full responsibility." His approval ratings went up because he said, "I take full responsibility." He fired [former Secretary of State] John Foster Dulles right after that, but— [laughter]--but— and yes, I think we should say, “Look, here are the errors we made but we're fixing them. We're fixing them, and here's what we're going to do.” And I would start out with increased troop presence.

To just kind of halfway say, well, we're extending these young people, 20,000 of them for three months— and by the way, have no— you have no idea how hard that is on them and their families. They will perform well, they will perform heroically, but that's tough. So we need to have a long-term plan for a troop presence at least for a year or two until we can get a handle on the situation. I'd start with that. Yes, we underestimated our troop requirements. Most Americans would say fine, let's fix it. Yeah, you got a—

PETERSON: OK, is there anybody on this side? We want to be politically correct. [Laughter.] On the right-hand side, here?

QUESTIONER: Can I ask a question just quickly?

McCAIN: Yes.

QUESTIONER: Where does the division come from, the new divisions for Iraq?

McCAIN: The new divisions— actually, some could come from Okinawa, some Marines from Okinawa. We could draw down in Korea if absolutely necessary. But what we really need to do along with this is say we need to expand the size of the Army and the Marine Corps. McCaffrey— [Retired] General [Barry] McCaffrey, for one, says we need an additional 80,000 in the Army and the Marine Corps. I don't— I'm not smart enough to know exactly what that number is, but I'll bet you that there are some real smart people and I don't see why 80,000 wouldn't be a reasonable number. You know, we could maybe not pay $250 million or $300 million for an airplane and maybe spend some of that money on personnel. And the reason why the Pentagon is reluctant is because the most expensive part of the armed forces today is personnel.

PETERSON: All right. Anybody on the—

McCAIN: Can I ask Mr.--

PETERSON: Yes, please.

McCAIN: Mr. Kalb is— if I don't answer his question he's in a snit until the next time that I get here. [Laughter.]

QUESTIONER: I promise not to snit. [Laughs.]

McCAIN: Thank you. Thank you.

QUESTIONER: Marvin Kalb with the Shorenstein Center at Harvard. You have spoken several times now about mistakes having been made. You repeated that. You have spoken about the 9/11 Commission citing failures in intelligence. And yet, nothing happens. There is no responsibility. No one is fired. No one quits. At what point is leadership to be shown?

McCAIN: Thank you, Marvin. That is a question that a lot of us have been asking. And I don't think there's any doubt that a lot of people were responsible, including the Congress, for our failure to anticipate 9/11. The blame is al Qaeda. Responsibility rests with a lot of individuals. I would hope that the 9/11 Commission's recommendations, which will be to restructure our intelligence organizations and apparatus, might also then make it viable, when we form up these new organizations, to have different leadership in them if we are aware that responsibility lies with certain individuals. But it is very unusual these days that we are all responsible, so therefore, no one is responsible. I thank you, Mr. Kalb, and it's good to see you again, sir.

PETERSON: OK, the final question. Yes, sir?

QUESTIONER: James Kitfield from National Journal magazine. Senator, the last year has been spent trying to mend some fences across the Atlantic from bruised feelings over going to the war, and also trying to get buy-in to what we're trying to do in Iraq by our allies in the region. Both those communities have expressed some dismay at Mr. Bush's move last week on the Mideast peace plan. Without getting into whether that was a wise thing, the timing certainly seems to me to be questionable. Could you comment on that?

McCAIN: Yeah. I'd say that I don't know if this is exactly the right move to take, but I do know that since Camp David, when President Clinton met with [President of the Palestinian National Authority, Yasir] Arafat and then-Prime Minister [Ehud] Barak [of Israel], basically we've had the status quo, with the exception of the building of a wall. And that status quo has entailed the loss of hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent lives. So what I hope is that at least this move would change the status quo and give us some progress.

I don't— I'm not surprised that King Abdullah [II of Jordan] did not— canceled his visit. Seventy percent of his population, roughly, is Palestinian. I mean, so, it wouldn't be surprising that it would get a negative reaction to start with. But I hope what this does is jump start the peace process.

And let me just add, since this is the last question, one other important point: why is it the Europeans don't like us? The Europeans don't like us for one reason, obviously, is envy. And that's part of it. But it goes a whole lot deeper than that.

The Europeans believe that we are arrogant and, on certain policies that are important to them, not only not in agreement, but dismissive. Climate change is one of those issues. In Europe, that is a very important issue. We should reopen negotiations with the European Community about the issue of climate change.

The International Criminal Court— I'm not prepared to see a young American soldier go before an International Criminal Court, because— well, they wanted to get [former Secretary of State] Henry Kissinger before one, remember? [Laughing.] Not a bad idea. But any— [laughter]--but— and—

PETERSON: And John, we're on the record, you know. [Laughter.]

McCAIN: Yeah. I love—

PETERSON: And Henry is very sensitive, as you probably know.

McCAIN: I love and admire Henry Kissinger as much as any human being. I really love him. [Laughter.]

QUESTIONER: [Inaudible.]

McCAIN: And he can still take a joke. [Laughter.] There are issues that are issues that are important. I don't know what you do about the French, because the French have announced they're a counterweight to the United States. I don't know how you can be an ally to a country that views themselves as a counterweight.

But we should emphasize the positive. The Germans are in Bosnia. They're in Kosovo. They're in Afghanistan. Our NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] allies are everywhere, with us. We should emphasize the positive. We should be a lot more humble. We can afford to be humble. And we should start opening negotiations on issues that we can identify that are very important to our European friends. And the real upshot of all this is an economic isolationism between our two trading blocs, and that can, of course, have the most devastating consequences for our long-term future.

So I would start reaching out to them, recognizing that we are— well, I'd do exactly what [former President] Teddy Roosevelt admonished us to do, and I think that those attempts should be made sooner, rather than later.

I want to thank you, Pete, I want to thank you, Nancy, for inviting me back again. It's always a pleasure. I'll be trying to respond to this for some period of time. [Laughter.] It's always a pleasure to be here.

ROMAN: Thanks for coming.

McCAIN: Thank you very much. [Applause.]

PETERSON: Nancy Roman— I'd like you to give a hand to Nancy and her staff for the job they do. [Applause.]

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Primary Sources

McCain on Iraq Policy

The following is the text of a speech on Iraq by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) given on April 11, 2007 at the Virginia Military Institute.