WASHINGTON, D.C.–Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid delivered the following speech today at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Reid laid out a critique of President Bush’s record and current Iraq policy; outlined a sound strategy to fund our troops, change course in Iraq and bring the war to a responsible end; and discussed the impact on U.S. security of staying the current course in Iraq. As conditions deteriorate in Iraq, Reid said, we must choose a new direction. Congress is offering a sound strategy that reflects the advice of military leaders and the will of the American people.
The full text of the speech is below.
Thank you, Third Way, and Wilson Center for the important work you do.
And thank you, Congressman Hamilton. I first came to know and admire you when I arrived in the House of Representatives and served with you on the Foreign Affairs Committee.
And for your work on the 9/11 Commission and Iraq Study Group, America owes you a special debt of gratitude.
In that historic report, you and former Secretary of State Jim Baker – along with eight other Republicans and Democrats – said this:
“Our political leaders must build a bipartisan approach to bring a responsible conclusion to what is now a lengthy and costly war. Our country deserves a debate that prizes substance over rhetoric, and a policy that is adequately funded and sustainable. The President and Congress must work together. Our leaders must be candid and forthright with the American people in order to win their support.”
But just weeks after that report — President Bush ignored the call for bipartisan cooperation.
He went in the opposite direction — and he went alone — by ordering his troop surge – a plan that ignored the advice of the Iraq Study Group, ignored the will of the people, and dismissed the advice of many of his own generals.
Now in the fifth year of President Bush’s mismanagement and mistakes, there is no magic formula. But, there is a way forward that gives us our best chance for a responsible end to the war – that protects our strategic interests, strengthens our security, and brings our troops home.
That way forward is being forged today in Congress, with the help and advice of Democrats and Republicans, civilian experts and retired generals, as well as the good judgment of the American people, who have made their voices heard loud and clear.
Today, I speak of where things stand on the ground in Iraq and in the public discourse at home. I also speak of why an Iraq strategy that a bipartisan majority in Congress supports is our best way forward.
We are at a critical point in the Iraq war and in the Iraq debate here at home. I am proud of the role the Senate and the House are playing in this historic debate. It is a constructive – and long overdue – effort to put some spine in our policy.
The very existence of this debate has already helped. The President’s own Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, said that debate is essential to progress, that our efforts have been helpful to communicate to the Iraqis that American patience is limited.
Secretary Gates is right: American patience is limited. As the peoples’ representatives, our patience is also limited.
Back in December, the Iraq Study Group said that “the situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating.” Unfortunately, since then nothing has changed.
And yet the President on Friday used the word “progress” no fewer than ten times when he gave his Iraq update.
He said that while there were still horrific attacks in Baghdad – and I quote – “The direction of the fight is beginning to shift.” In describing his escalation of American troops – what he calls a surge – he said, “so far the operation is meeting expectations.”
The White House transcript says the President made those remarks in the State of Michigan. I believe he made them in the state of denial.
These are the facts on the ground, the hard truths facing our heroic troops on the front lines:
— American casualties are increasing, not decreasing. Four coalition troops have been killed each day this month, making it one of the deadliest months in the war in over two years. My home state of Nevada has lost 27 since the war began, and hundreds remain in harm’s way, facing some of the most violent days since the war began.
— Untold thousands of Iraqi civilians have died, while over two million more have fled the country as refugees.
— The President used to talk a lot about establishing benchmarks for the Iraqi government. Yet despite our surge in troops and spending, they have failed to take meaningful steps toward achieving them.
— Militias have not been disbanded and continue to cause terror. And now the Iraqi government itself, once the Bush Administration’s greatest pride, stands on the brink of chaos.
— Progress on amending the Constitution in order to ensure minority rights has languished, giving further fuel to the sectarian infighting.
— Power, clean water and oil production – all of which are critical to establishing any kind of economic stability – are still not meeting minimum targets – leaving millions in despair.
— 70% of Iraqi children are suffering from trauma like nightmares, bed wetting, stuttering and fear — that some say could paralyze an entire generation that we had been counting on to harvest the seeds of democracy.
— And to make up for shortages of combat-ready troops, tours of duty have been extended, recently from 12 to 15 months, with many soldiers now on their third or fourth tour.
In short, there is no evidence that the escalation is working – and it should come as no surprise, because, as General Petraeus has said, the ultimate solution in Iraq is a political one, not a military one.
And General Abizaid said, “It is easy for the Iraqis to rely upon to us do this work. I believe that more American forces prevent the Iraqis from doing more, from taking more responsibility for their own future.”
Prior to this troop surge, President Bush had called for three surges – and each time they failed. Yet, despite this writing on the wall, he sent even more troops to battle — and asked again for our patience.
It has now been three months, and despite the President’s happy talk, no progress has been made. The time for patience is long past.
The Philosopher George Santayana once wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I remember when President Johnson, trying to save his political legacy, initiated the first of many surges into Vietnam in 1965.
At this point, the United States had lost a few thousand troops in Vietnam. Following the surges, and by the end of the war, more than 50,000 more were added to that casualty list.
We cannot afford to forget the past, nor should our President condemn us to repeat it. He is the only person who fails to face this war’s reality – and that failure is devastating not just for Iraq’s future, but for ours.
Maj. Gen. John Batiste, who had commanded the First Infantry Division in Iraq says this:
“Here is the bottom line: Americans must come to grips with the fact that our military alone cannot establish a democracy…We cannot sustain the current operational tempo without seriously damaging the Army and Marine Corps… our troops have been asked to carry the burden of an ill-conceived mission.”
And as our troops carry that burden, our nation’s ability to meet other challenges and face down other foes is being dangerously eroded.
We should be addressing a nuclear Iran.
And we should be addressing the resurgence of al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
And we should be addressing the instability and genocide in Africa.
And we should be addressing democratic retrenchment in Russia.
And we should be addressing anti-Americanism in Latin America.
These challenges require American leadership and they will determine our future in the world.
As conditions deteriorate in Iraq and our world focus continues to narrow, we must choose a new direction.
One road leads to endless war, with consequences for America’s future security extending well past the borders of Iraq.
The other road leads to a responsible end, gives Iraq the best chance for success and allows us to refocus on the challenges we face throughout the world.
Some in the Administration and Congress deny that choice exists. According to the President – there is no “Plan B.”
He tells us it’s “surge or nothing.” He tells us it’s “stay the course or fail.”
With all due respect, our President is wrong. And the new Congress will show him the way.
A viable strategy for Iraq does require a surge — but not a surge in troops.
We need a surge in diplomacy to bring warring factions to the negotiating table.
And we need a surge in accountability, to compel the Iraqi people to take responsibility for their own destiny. The destiny of their own country.
The President has done the just the opposite.
He has put the burden of solving Iraq’s problems squarely on the shoulders of American men and women in uniform.
He has failed to work toward a regional consensus and new framework for security in the Middle East.
He has failed to launch any meaningful diplomatic efforts.
And he has failed to address the corruption and mismanagement that continue to plague the reconstruction efforts, costing American taxpayers billions of dollars.
It is unquestioned that we have long term security interests in seeing Iraq become stabilized, peaceful, and yes, one day, a functioning democracy. The President’s current path does not take us there —
— But let me offer you that different course – one that is supported by majorities of the House and the Senate, and I believe reflects the will of our military leaders and the American people.
Our first step immediately transitions 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.
This transitions our mission to one that is aligned with U.S. strategic interests, while at the same time, reducing our combat footprint. U.S. troops should not be interjecting themselves between warring factions, kicking down doors, trying to sort Shia from Sunni or friend from foe.
Our second step calls for beginning the phased redeployment of our troops no later than October 1, 2007 with a goal of removing all combat forces by April 1, 2008, except for those carrying out the limited missions I just mentioned.
This puts pressure on the Iraqis to make the desperately needed political compromises;
It reduces the specter of the U.S. occupation which gives fuel to the insurgency;
It allows some of our forces to be moved to other areas of the world where they are needed, such as Afghanistan;
And it allows our badly strained military force a chance to rebuild. With not a single non-deployed Army unit battle- ready, this is critically important.
Our third step imposes tangible, measurable and achievable benchmarks on the Iraqi government so that they will be held accountable for making progress on security, political reconciliation, and improving the lives of ordinary Iraqis who have suffered so much.
Our fourth step launches the kind of diplomatic, economic and political offensive that the president’s strategy lacks, starting with a regional conference working toward a long-term framework for stability in the region.
And our fifth step rebuilds our overburdened military to give them the manpower and support they need to face the daunting challenges that lie ahead. We call for an end to the deployment of non-battle ready forces and we include billions to improve the military health system.
Our five-point plan is part of the $120 billion emergency supplemental funding bill the Senate passed with bipartisan support.
Today, our House and Senate Conference Committee is meeting to hammer out the details of the bill that we will send to President Bush.
It will contain the elements I have JUST outlined.
This plan is a strategy for success. President Bush’s response has not been to rebut our plan on the merits, but rather to attack us for developing a new plan. And in an all too familiar tactic, he has deployed the Vice President as chief attack dog.
This is the same Vice President who said Iraq has weapons of mass destruction — that we would be greeted as liberators — and that we know Saddam Hussein had links to al Qaeda. To suggest he lacks credibility would be an understatement.
The Vice President demeans himself and diminishes his office by offering wildly irresponsible and inaccurate attacks on us and our strategy. He seems more interested in sound bites than sound policy – and his record shows it.
You deserve to know the facts:
First, our strategy is a responsible, strategically-driven redeployment, not a precipitous withdrawal. Troops in harm’s way will always have the resources to do the mission their leaders ask of them.
Second, it ensures that Al Qaeda remains on the run, addresses refugee and humanitarian crises, and launches the diplomatic and political “surges” necessary to prevent regional instability.
It allows us to provide the longer-term investments in the political solutions that are needed in Iraq. It prevents the jihadists from being able to claim victory over America, and begins to restore America’s prestige, power and influence in the region.
In the supplemental spending bill, we are sending the Administration a strong message that the American people want a new direction. Nonetheless, I understand the restlessness that some feel. Many who voted for change in November anticipated dramatic and immediate results in January.
But like it or not, George W. Bush is still the commander in chief – and this is his war.
We have made tremendous progress this year, but it has come with a slim majority of 51 in a body that requires 60 to do business.
That means every step forward has required the cooperation of Republicans who are willing to put partisanship aside.
But there have only been a few of them – and every day we hope to find a few more by forcing them to make the choice of sticking with an isolated president or standing on the side of the American people.
As long as the President remains obstinate and his Republican allies stick with him, we will continue to face an uphill climb. But the American people deserve to know that we hear them and we’re standing up for them. The president has had a long time to dig the ditch we’re in, but we’re working very hard every day to dig out of that ditch.
The Iraq supplemental bill is only one step in that process, and we have used our new majority to change course at every opportunity.
We passed the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission in two months, something the previous Congress couldn’t do in more than two years.
After five years of silence from Congress, Iraq is now openly debated on the Senate floor and as a result, bipartisan majorities supported two resolutions expressing our determined opposition to the President’s war policy.
And we have finally administered real oversight. The founders mandated checks and balances in our Constitution for good reason, but until this year, Congress gave the president a rubber stamp and a blank check.
As Thomas Ricks wrote in his book Fiasco, a searing indictment of the Iraq war, “There were many failures in the American system that led to the war, but the failures in Congress were at once perhaps the most important and the least noticed.”
No more will Congress turn a blind eye to the Bush Administration’s incompetence and dishonesty.
We have already held more than 50 hearings on Iraq, we have already exposed the false and misleading evidence the administration sold the world and the American people as it swaggered toward war.
We may not be able to prevent President Bush from vetoing our supplemental bill, but we can and will keep trying to change his mind.
What a shame that after five and a half years, so many lost lives and so much treasure depleted, President Bush hasn’t budged from the shoot-first, talk-never style that one national magazine described as “cowboy diplomacy” — that got us into this mess in the first place..
Winning this war is no longer the job of the American military. Our courageous troops have done everything asked of them and more. They routed the Iraqi military, captured Baghdad in days, deposed and then captured the dictator.
The failure has been political. It has been policy. It has been presidential.
The president has dug in his heels in this fight, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Only through accommodation, on both sides, and some degree of compromise, can we make progress.
We are anxious to have that conversation, but so far the President is not. Democrats are reaching out to Republicans in Congress in hopes of bipartisan cooperation.
Only the President is the odd man out, and he is making the task even harder by demanding absolute fidelity from his party.
We don’t have meetings with the President – not real, substantive meetings. He holds carefully scripted sessions where he repeats his talking points.
Yes, he is our President, but we are the people’s representatives. We will meet with him any time he calls upon us to discuss war policy.
But he owes it to us to listen as we represent the American people.
Our timetable is fair and reasonable. We have put our plan on the table. If the president disagrees, let him come to us with an alternative.
If he believes more time is needed, let him tell us why. If he has new benchmarks to finally hold Iraqis accountable, let him propose them. He says repeatedly that we cannot leave until we have achieved victory. Let him define victory.
Instead of sending us back to square one with a veto, some tough talk and nothing more, let him come to the table in the spirit of bipartisanship that Americans demand and deserve.
The night before the 9/11 Commission’s report was released more than three years ago, I met with Lee Hamilton in the Capitol. He told me something that night that I will never forget.
He said that there are a finite number of terrorists who must be killed or captured. Nothing we can do will rehabilitate or deter them.
But beyond those few who must be hunted lies 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. That is the great challenge of our time.
If we fail — this so-called “war on terror” will become a multi-generational struggle.
If we succeed, we can protect our national security, rebuild our battered and betrayed military, and fight a real war on terrorism that drives the terrorists back into the darkest corners, caves and crevices of human existence.
But to win that war, we must choose a new path in Iraq.
The choice is ours. All of ours. And now is our time to make it.