Senator Joe Lieberman made an eloquent statement against the legislation that would require US troops to leave Iraq by October 1, 2007. This is probably the longest item I've ever posted on SDP, but here it is in full:
Earlier this week the Senate Majority Leader spoke at the Woodrow Wilson Center and laid out the case for why he believes we must do this—why the bill now before this chamber, in his view, offers a viable alternative strategy for Iraq.
I have great respect for my friend from Nevada. I believe he has offered this proposal in good faith, and therefore want to take it up in good faith, and examine its arguments and ideas carefully and in depth, for this is a very serious discussion for our country.
In his speech Monday, the Majority Leader described the several steps that this new strategy for Iraq would entail. Its first step, he said, is to "transition the U.S. mission away from policing a civil war—to training and equipping Iraqi security forces, protecting U.S. forces, and conducting targeted counter-terror operations."
I ask my colleagues to take a step back for a moment and consider this plan. When we say that U.S. troops shouldn't be "policing a civil war," that their operations should be restricted to this narrow list of missions, what does this actually mean?
To begin with, it means that our troops will not be allowed to protect the Iraqi people from the insurgents and militias who are trying to terrorize and kill them. Instead of restoring basic security, which General Petraeus has argued should be the central focus of any counterinsurgency campaign, it means our soldiers would instead be ordered, by force of this proposed law, not to stop the sectarian violence happening all around them—no matter how vicious or horrific it becomes.
In short, it means telling our troops to deliberately and consciously turn their backs on ethnic cleansing, to turn their backs on the slaughter of innocent civilians—men, women, and children singled out and killed on the basis of their religion alone. It means turning our backs on the policies that led us to intervene in the civil war in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the principles that today lead many of us to call for intervention in Darfur.
This makes no moral sense at all.
It also makes no strategic or military sense. Al Qaeda's own leaders have repeatedly said that one of the ways they intend to achieve victory in Iraq is to provoke civil war. They are trying to kill as many people as possible today, precisely in the hope of igniting sectarian violence, because they know that this is their best way to collapse Iraq's political center, overthrow Iraq's elected government, radicalize its population, and create a failed state in the heart of the Middle East that they can use as a base. That is why Al Qaeda blew up the Golden Mosque in Samarra last year. And that is why we are seeing mass casualty suicide bombings by Al Qaeda in Baghdad now.
The sectarian violence that the Majority Leader says he wants to order American troops to stop policing, in other words, is the very same sectarian violence that Al Qaeda hopes to ride to victory. The suggestion that we can draw a bright legislative line between stopping terrorists in Iraq and stopping civil war in Iraq flies in the face of this reality. I do not know how to say it more plainly: it is Al Qaeda that is trying to cause a full-fledged civil war in Iraq.
The Majority Leader said on Monday that he believes U.S. troops will still be able to conduct "targeted counter-terror operations" under his plan. Even if we stop trying to protect civilians in Iraq, in other words, we can still go after the bad guys. But again, I ask my colleagues, how would this translate into military reality on the ground? How would we find these terrorists, who do not gather on conventional military bases or fight in conventional formations?
By definition, targeted counterterrorism requires our forces to know where, when, and against whom to strike—and that in turn requires accurate, actionable, real-time intelligence. This is the kind of intelligence that can only come from ordinary Iraqis, the sea of people among whom the terrorists hide. And that, in turn, requires interacting with the Iraqi people on a close, personal, daily basis. It requires winning individual Iraqis to our side, gaining their trust, convincing them that they can count on us to keep them safe from the terrorists if they share valuable information about them. This is no great secret. This is at the heart of the new strategy that General Petraeus and his troops are carrying out.
And yet, if we pass this legislation, according to the Majority Leader, U.S. forces will no longer be permitted to patrol Iraq's neighborhoods or protect Iraqi civilians. They won't, in his words, be "interjecting themselves between warring factions" or "trying to sort friend from foe."
Therefore, I ask the supporters of this legislation: How, exactly, are U.S. forces to gather intelligence about where, when, and against whom to strike, after you have ordered them walled off from the Iraqi population? How, exactly, are U.S. forces to carry out targeted counter-terror operations, after you have ordered them cut off from the very source of intelligence that drives these operations?
This is precisely why the congressional micromanagement of life-and-death decisions about how, where, and when our troops can fight is such a bad idea, especially on a complex and changing battlefield.
In sum, you can't have it both ways. You can't withdraw combat troops from Iraq and still fight Al Qaeda there. If you believe there is no hope of winning in Iraq, or that the costs of victory there are not worth it, then you should be for complete withdrawal as soon as possible.
There is another irony here as well. For most of the past four years, under Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, the United States did not try to establish basic security in Iraq. Rather than deploying enough troops necessary to protect the Iraqi people, the focus of our military has been on training and equipping Iraqi forces, protecting our own forces, and conducting targeted sweeps and raids—in other words, the very same missions proposed by the proponents of the legislation before us.
That strategy failed—and we know why it failed. It failed because we didn't have enough troops to ensure security, which in turn created an opening for Al Qaeda and its allies to exploit. They stepped into this security vacuum and, through horrific violence, created a climate of fear and insecurity in which political and economic progress became impossible.
For years, many members of Congress recognized this. We talked about this. We called for more troops, and a new strategy, and—for that matter—a new secretary of defense. And yet, now, just as President Bush has come around—just as he has recognized the mistakes his administration has made, and the need to focus on basic security in Iraq, and to install a new secretary of defense and a new commander in Iraq—now his critics in Congress have changed their minds and decided that the old, failed strategy wasn't so bad after all.
What is going on here? What has changed so that the strategy that we criticized and rejected in 2006 suddenly makes sense in 2007?
The second element in the plan outlined by the Majority Leader on Monday is "the phased redeployment of our troops no later than October 1, 2007." Let us be absolutely clear what this means. This legislation would impose a binding deadline for U.S. troops to begin retreating from Iraq. This withdrawal would happen regardless of conditions on the ground, regardless of the recommendations of General Petraeus, in short regardless of reality on October 1, 2007.
As far as I can tell, none of the supporters of withdrawal have attempted to explain why October 1 is the magic date—what strategic or military significance this holds. Why not September 1? Or January 1? This is a date as arbitrary as it is inflexible—a deadline for defeat.
How do proponents of this deadline defend it? On Monday, Senator Reid gave several reasons. First, he said, a date for withdrawal puts "pressure on the Iraqis to make the desperately needed political compromises." But will it? According to the legislation now before us, the withdrawal will happen regardless of what the Iraqi government does. How, then, if you are an Iraqi government official, does this give you any incentive to make the right choices?
On the contrary, there is compelling reason to think a legislatively directed withdrawal of American troops will have exactly the opposite effect than its Senate sponsors intend. This, in fact, is exactly what the most recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq predicted. A withdrawal of U.S. troops in the months ahead, it said, would "almost certainly lead to a significant increase in the scale and scope of sectarian conflict, intensify Sunni resistance, and have adverse effects on national reconciliation."
Second, the Majority Leader said that withdrawing our troops, and again I quote, will "reduce the specter of the U.S. occupation which gives fuel to the insurgency." My colleague from Nevada, in other words, is suggesting that the insurgency is being provoked by the very presence of American troops. By diminishing that presence, then, he believes the insurgency will diminish.
But I ask my colleagues—where is the evidence to support this theory? Since 2003, and before General Petraeus took command, U.S. forces were ordered on several occasions to pull back from Iraqi cities and regions, including Mosul and Fallujah and Tel'Afar and Baghdad. And what happened in these places? Did they stabilize when American troops left? Did the insurgency go away?
On the contrary—in each of these places where U.S. forces pulled back, Al Qaeda rushed in. Rather than becoming islands of peace, they became safe havens for terrorists, islands of fear and violence. So I ask advocates of withdrawal: on what evidence, on what data, have you concluded that pulling U.S. troops out will weaken the insurgency, when every single experience we have had since 2003 suggests that this legislation will strengthen it?
Consider the words of Sheikh Abdul Sattar, one of the leading Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar province who is now fighting on our side against Al Qaeda. This is what he told the New York Times when asked last month what would happen if U.S. troops withdraw. "In my personal opinion, and in the opinion of most of the wise men of Anbar," he said, "if the American forces leave right now, there will be civil war and the area will fall into total chaos."
This is a man whose father was killed by Al Qaeda, who is risking his life every day to work with us—a man who was described by one Army officer as "the most effective local leader in Ramadi I believe the coalition has worked with... in Anbar [since] 2003."
In his remarks earlier this week, the Majority Leader observed that there is "a large and growing population of millions—who sit precariously on the fence. They will either condemn or contribute to terrorism in the years ahead. We must convince them of the goodness of America and Americans. We must win them over."
On this, I completely agree with my friend from Nevada. My question to him, however, and to the supporters of this legislation, is this: how does the strategy you propose in this bill possibly help win over this population of millions in Iraq, who sit precariously on the fence? What message, I ask, does this legislation announce to those people in Iraq? How will they respond when we tell them that we will no longer make any effort to protect them against insurgents and death squads? How will they respond when we declare that we will be withdrawing our forces—regardless of whether they make progress in the next six months towards political reconciliation? Where will their hopes for a better life be when we withdraw the troops that are the necessary precondition for the security and stability they yearn for?
Do my friends really believe that this is the way to convince Iraqis, and the world, of the goodness of America and Americans? Does anyone in this chamber really believe that, by announcing a date certain for withdrawal, we will empower Iraqi moderates, or enable Iraq's reconstruction, or open more schools for their children, or more hospitals for their families, or freedom for everyone?
Mr. President, with all due respect, this is fantasy.
The third step the Majority Leader proposes is to impose "tangible, measurable, and achievable benchmarks on the Iraqi government." I am all for such benchmarks. In fact, Senator McCain and I were among the first to propose legislation to apply such benchmarks on the Iraqi government. But I don't see how this plan will encourage Iraqis to meet these or any other benchmarks, given its ironclad commitment to abandon them—regardless of how they behave.
We should of course be making every effort to encourage reconciliation in Iraq and the development of a decent political order that Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds can agree on. But even if today that political solution was found, we cannot rationally think that our terrorist enemies like Al Qaeda in Iraq will simply vanish.
Al Qaeda is not mass murdering civilians on the streets of Baghdad because it wants a more equitable distribution of oil revenues. Its aim in Iraq is not to get a seat at the political table. It wants to blow up the table—along with everyone seated at it. Al Qaeda wants to destroy any prospect for democracy in Iraq, and it will not be negotiated or reasoned out of existence. It must be fought and defeated through force of arms. And there can be no withdrawal, no redeployment from this reality.
The fourth step that the Majority Leader proposed on Monday is a "diplomatic, economic, and political offensive... starting with a regional conference working toward a long-term framework for stability in the region." I understand why we are tempted by these ideas. All of us are aware of the justified frustration, fatigue, and disappointment of the American people. And all of us would like to believe that there is a quick and easy solution to the challenges we face in Iraq.
But none of this gives us an excuse to paper over hard truths. We delude ourselves if we think we can wave a legislative wand and suddenly our troops in the field will be able to distinguish between Al Qaeda terrorism and sectarian violence, or that Iraqis will suddenly settle their political differences because our troops are leaving, or that sweet reason alone will suddenly convince Iran and Syria to stop destabilizing Iraq.
Mr. President, what we need now is a sober assessment of the progress we have made and a recognition of the challenges we face. There are still many uncertainties before us, many complexities. Barely half of the new troops that General Petraeus has requested have even arrived in Iraq, and, as we heard from him yesterday, it will still be months before we will know just how effective his new strategy is.
In following General Petraeus' path, there is no guarantee of success—but there is hope, and a new plan, for success. The plan embedded in this legislation, on the other hand, contains no such hope. It is a strategy of catchphrases and bromides, rather than military realities in Iraq. It does not learn from the many mistakes we have made in Iraq. Rather, it promises to repeat them.
Let me be absolutely clear: In my opinion, Iraq is not yet lost—but if we follow this plan, it will be. And so, I fear, much of our hope for stability in the Middle East and security from terrorism here at home.
UPDATE: Also see Senator Lieberman's op-ed in today's Washington Post.