Moving Forward in Iraq
Senator Barack Obama
Chicago Council on Foreign Relations
It is a privilege to give this speech at the Council on Foreign Relations here in Chicago.
A few months ago, I had the opportunity to visit Walter Reed Army Medical Center. While I was there, I met a young man whose legs had been blown off from mortar fire and who had sustained severe nerve damage in his arms and hands. He was sewing as a means of regaining his small motor skills, and as his wife looked on, they talked about their efforts to piece their lives back together. They talked about the wonderful way their young daughter had embraced her father and told him she loved him despite his disfigurement.
I also met a young man who had lost a leg and an arm and who now had a breathing tube in his throat. He was working with two of the therapists in a mock-up kitchen to cook hamburgers on his own.
We went down to the physical therapy area where I talked to a 19-year-old former track star who had lost both his legs and was working out on one of the weight machines. And I spoke to a sergeant from Iowa who had lost one of his legs but was working vigorously to get accustomed to his prosthetic leg so he could return to Iraq as soon as he could. I then went up to the wards to visit with other injured veterans - to take pictures, talk about basketball, and to say thank you.
Listening to the stories of these young men and women, most of them in their early twenties, I had to ask myself how I would be feeling if it were my son, my nephew, or my sister lying there. I asked myself how I would be feeling if it were me struggling to learn how to walk again? Would I feel bitter? Would I feel hopeless?
I don't know. None of us can answer that question fully until we find ourselves in that situation. What I do know is that the extraordinary men and women that I met seemed uninterested in rage or self-pity. They were proud of their service. They were hopeful for their future. They displayed the kind of grit and optimism and resourcefulness that represents the very best of America.
They remind us, in case we need reminding, that there is no more profound decision that we can make than the decision to send this nation's youth to war, and that we have a moral obligation not only to send them for good reasons, but to constantly examine, based on the best information and judgment available, in what manner, and for what purpose, and for how long we keep them in harm's way.
Today, nearly 160,000 American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines are risking their lives in the Middle East. They are operating in some of the most dangerous and difficult circumstances imaginable. Well over 2,000 men and women have made the ultimate sacrifice - given their full measure of devotion. Thousands more have returned with wounds like those that I saw at Walter Reed.
These men and women are willing to lay down their lives to protect us. When they were told there was danger that needed to be confronted they said, "I will go. I will leave my family and my friends and the life I knew and I will fight." And they went. And they're fighting still.
And so as the war rages on and the insurgency festers - as another father weeps over a flag-draped casket and another wife feeds her husband the dinner he can't fix for himself - it is our duty to ask ourselves hard questions. What do we want to accomplish now that we are in Iraq, and what is possible to accomplish? What kind of actions can we take to ensure not only a safe and stable Iraq, but that will also preserve our capacity to rebuild Afghanistan, isolate and apprehend terrorist cells, preserve our long-term military readiness, and devote the resources needed to shore up our homeland security? What are the costs and benefits of our actions moving forward? What urgency are we willing to show to bring our troops home safely? What kind of answers are we willing to demand from those in charge of the war?
In other words -- What kind of debate are we willing to have?
Last week, the White House showed exactly what kind of debate it wants on future of Iraq - none.
We watched the shameful attempt to paint John Murtha - a Marine Corp recipient of two-purple hearts and a Bronze Star - into a coward of questionable patriotism. We saw the Administration tell people of both parties - people who asked legitimate questions about the intelligence that led us to war and the Administration's plan for Iraq - that they should keep quiet, end the complaining, and stop rewriting history.
This political war - a war of talking points and Sunday news shows and spin - is not one I'm interested in joining. It's a divisive approach that only pushes us further from what the American people actually want - a pragmatic solution to the real war we're facing in Iraq.
I do want to make the following observations, though. First, I am part of that post Baby Boom generation that was too young to fight in Vietnam, not called to fight in Desert Storm, too old for the current conflict. For those like me who - for whatever reason - have never seen battle, whether they be in the Administration or in Congress, let me suggest that they put the words "coward" and "unpatriotic" out of their vocabulary - at least when it comes to veterans like John Murtha who have put their lives on the line for this country. I noticed that the President recognized this bit of wisdom yesterday. I hope others do to.
Second - the Administration is correct to say that we have real enemies, that our battle against radical Islamist terrorism will not be altered overnight, that stability in the Middle East must be part of our strategy to defeat terrorism, that military power is a key part of our national security, that our strategy cannot be poll driven. The Administration is also correct when it says that many overestimated Saddam's biological and chemical capacity, and that some of its decisions in going to war were prompted by real errors in the intelligence community's estimates.
However, I think what is also true is that the Administration launched the Iraq war without giving either Congress or the American people the full story. This is not a partisan claim - you don't have to take my word for it. All you need to do is to match up the Administration's statements during the run-up to the war with the now declassified intelligence estimates that they had in their possession at the time. Match them up and you will conclude that at the very least, the Administration shaded, exaggerated and selectively used the intelligence available in order to make the case for invasion.
The President told the American people about Iraqi attempts to acquire yellow cake during the State of the Union. The Vice-President made statements on national television expressing certainty about Iraq's nuclear weapons programs. Secretary Rice used the words "mushroom cloud" over and over again.
We know now that even at the time these unequivocal statements were made, intelligence assessments existed that contradicted these claims. Analysis from the CIA and State Department was summarily dismissed when it did not help the Administration make the case for war.
I say all this not to score cheap political points. I say this because war is a serious business. It requires enormous sacrifice, in blood and treasure, from the American people. The American people have already lost confidence in the credibility of our leadership, not just on the question of Iraq, but across the board. According to a recent Pew survey, 42% of Americans agree with the statement that the U.S. should "mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own" - a significant increase since the immediate aftermath of 9/11. We risk a further increase in isolationist sentiment unless both the Administration and Congress can restore the American people's confidence that our foreign policy is driven by facts and reason, rather than hopes and ideology. And we cannot afford isolationism - not only because our work with respect to stabilizing Iraq is not complete, but because our missteps in Iraq have distracted us from the larger threat of terrorism that we face, a threat that we can only meet by working internationally, in cooperation with other countries.
Now, given the enormous stakes in Iraq, I believe that those of us who are involved in shaping our national security policies should do what we believe is right, not merely what is politically expedient. I strongly opposed this war before it began, though many disagreed with me at that time. Today, as Americans grow increasingly impatient with our presence in Iraq, voices I respect are calling for a rapid withdrawal of our troops, regardless of events on the ground.
But I believe that, having waged a war that has unleashed daily carnage and uncertainty in Iraq, we have to manage our exit in a responsible way - with the hope of leaving a stable foundation for the future, but at the very least taking care not to plunge the country into an even deeper and, perhaps, irreparable crisis. I say this not only because we owe it to the Iraqi people, but because the Administration's actions in Iraq have created a self-fulfilling prophecy - a volatile hotbed of terrorism that has already begun to spill over into countries like Jordan, and that could embroil the region, and this country, in even greater international conflict.
In sum, we have to focus, methodically and without partisanship, on those steps that will: one, stabilize Iraq, avoid all out civil war, and give the factions within Iraq the space they need to forge a political settlement; two, contain and ultimately extinquish the insurgency in Iraq; and three, bring our troops safely home.
Last week's re-politicization of the war makes this kind of focus extremely difficult. In true Washington fashion, the Administration has narrowed an entire debate about war into two camps: "cut-and-run" or "stay the course." If you offer any criticism or even mention that we should take a second look at our strategy and change our approach, you're branded cut-and-run. If you're ready to blindly trust the Administration no matter what they do, you're willing to stay the course.
A variation on this is the notion that anything short of an open-ended commitment to maintain our current troop strength in Iraq is the equivalent of issuing a "timetable" that will, according to the Administration, undermine our troops and strengthen the insurgency.
This simplistic framework not only misstates the position of thoughtful critics on both sides of the aisle - from Republican Senator Chuck Hagel to Democrat Russ Feingold. It completely misses where the American people are right now.
Every American wants to see a peaceful and stable Iraq. No American wants to leave behind a security vacuum filled with terrorism, chaos, ethnic cleansing and genocide. But no American wants a war without end - a war where our goals and strategies drift aimlessly regardless of the cost in lives or dollars spent, and where we end up with arbitrary, poll-driven troop reductions by the Administration - the worst of all possible outcomes.
It has been two years and seven months since the fall of Baghdad and any honest assessment would conclude that the Administration's strategy has not worked. The civilian efforts to rebuild Iraq, establish a secure environment, and broker a stable political framework have, thus far, come up short.
The Administration owes the American people a reality-based assessment of the situation in Iraq today. For the past two years, they've measured progress in the number of insurgents killed, roads built, or voters registered. But these benchmarks are not true measures of fundamental security and stability in Iraq.
When the Administration now talks about "condition-based" withdrawal, we need to know precisely what those conditions are.
This is why the amendment offered by Senator Levin and the one that passed from Senator Warner are so important. What the Administration and some in the press labeled as a "timetable" for withdrawal was in fact a commonsense statement that: one, 2006 should be the year that the Iraqi government decreases its dependency on the United States; two, that the various Iraqi factions must arrive at a fair political accommodation to defeat the insurgency; and three, the Administration must make available to Congress critical information on reality-based benchmarks that will help us succeed in Iraq.
We need to know whether the Iraqis are making the compromises necessary to achieve the broad-based and sustainable political settlement essential for defeating the insurgency.
We need to know how many Iraqi security forces and police and the level of skill they will require to permit them to take the lead in counter-insurgency operations, the defense of Iraq's territory, and maintaining law and order throughout the country.
We need to get accurate information regarding how many Iraqi troops are currently prepared for the transition of security responsibilities, and a realistic assessment of the U.S. resources and time it will take to make them more prepared.
And, we need to know the Administration's strategy to restore basic services, strengthen the capacities of ministries throughout the country, and enlist local, regional, and international actors in finding solutions to political, economic, and security problems.
Straight answers to critical questions - for the most part, that is what both the Levin Amendment and the Warner Amendment call for. Members of both parties and the American people have now made clear that it is not enough to for the President to simply say "we know best" and "stay the course."
As I have said before, there are no magic bullets for a good outcome in Iraq. I am not the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of State, or the Director of National Intelligence. I have neither the expertise nor the inclination to micro-manage war from Washington.
Nevertheless, given the best information I have, and in an effort to offer constructive ideas, I would suggest several broad elements that should be included in any discussion of where we go from here. I should add that some of these ideas have been put forward in greater detail by other senators and foreign policy experts - I claim no pride of authorship, but rather offer my best assessment of the steps we need to take to maximize the prospects for success.
First and foremost, after the December 15 elections and during the course of next year, we need to focus our attention on how reduce the U.S. military footprint in Iraq. Notice that I say "reduce," and not "fully withdraw."
This course of action will help to focus our efforts on a more effective counter-insurgency strategy and take steam out of the insurgency.
On this point, I am in basic agreement with our top military commander in Iraq. In testimony before Congress earlier this year, General Casey stated that a key goal of the military was to "reduce our presence in Iraq, taking away one of the elements that fuels the insurgency: that of the coalition forces as an occupying force."
This is not and should not be a partisan issue. It is a view shared by Senator Chuck Hagel, a decorated Vietnam veteran, and someone with whom I am proud to serve on the Foreign Relations Committee.
I believe that U.S. forces are still a part of the solution in Iraq. The strategic goals should be to allow for a limited drawdown of U.S. troops, coupled with a shift to a more effective counter-insurgency strategy that puts the Iraqi security forces in the lead and intensifies our efforts to train Iraqi forces.
At the same time, sufficient numbers of U.S. troops should be left in place to prevent Iraq from exploding into civil war, ethnic cleansing, and a haven for terrorism.
We must find the right balance - offering enough security to serve as a buffer and carry out a targeted, effective counter-insurgency strategy, but not so much of a presence that we serve as an aggravation. It is this balance that will be critical to finding our way forward.
Second, we need not a time-table, in the sense of a precise date for U.S. troop pull-outs, but a time-frame for such a phased withdrawal. More specifically, we need to be very clear about key issues, such as bases and the level of troops in Iraq. We need to say that there will be no bases in Iraq a decade from now and the United States armed forces cannot stand-up and support an Iraqi government in perpetuity - pushing the Iraqis to take ownership over the situation and placing pressure on various factions to reach the broad based political settlement that is so essential to defeating the insurgency.
I agree with Senator Warner that the message should be "we really mean business, Iraqis, get on with it." Without a time-frame, this message will not be sent.
With the Shiites increasingly in control of the government, the U.S. is viewed as the military force that is keeping the Shiites in power, picking sides in the conflict, driving a wedge between the factions, and keeping the Sunnis out of the government.
Wrong as these perceptions may be, they are one of the key elements unifying the insurgency and serving as its best recruiting slogan.
We need to immediately recognize and address this problem.
On October 25, Ambassador Khailizad stated that he believes that the United States is on the right track to start significant reductions of U.S. military forces in the coming year. Earlier in the year, when I pressed Ambassador Khalizad on this during his confirmation hearing to be more specific about a time-frame for withdrawal, he said that there would not be a U.S. presence in Iraq a decade from now. That's at a start - but I think we need to be clearer than somewhere between one and ten years.
Third, we need to start thinking about what an Iraqi government will look like in the near term.
The post-election period will be critically important in working with the Shia and Kurdish leaders to help address Sunni concerns and to take steps to bring them into the government.
In testimony before Congress, Secretary Rice stated that while she believed it was possible to create a multi-ethnic, democratic Iraq under a unified national government, it was also possible that, in the near term, Iraq may look more like a loose federation and less like a tightly-knit, multi-ethnic society. According to the deal struck in the writing of the Constitution, the structure of the national government may still be altered by discussion among the three major factions. If it is the Administration's most realistic assessment that the Iraqi government will take the form of a loose confederation, then we need to be thinking about how we should calibrate our policies to reflect this reality. We cannot, and should not, foist our own vision of democracy on the Iraqis, and then expect our troops to hold together such a vision militarily.
Fourth, we have to do a much better job on reconstruction in Iraq.
The Iraqi people wonder why the United States has been unable to restore basic services - sewage, power, infrastructure - to significant portions of Iraq. This has caused a loss of faith among the Iraqi people in our efforts to rebuild that nation and help it recover from decades of brutal tyranny.
The Administration tells us there can not be reconstruction without security, but many Iraqis make the opposite argument. They say Iraq will never be secure until there is reconstruction and citizens see that a better future awaits them.
The Administration also tells us that they are making progress, but can not publicize the specific successes out of security concerns.
If we are unable to point out the progress, how are Iraqis - especially ones we are trying to persuade to claim a bigger stake in the future of their country - ever to know that the Americans efforts are helping to make their lives better? How does this approach help to quell the insurgency?
We need to break this cycle. We have to get more Iraqis involved with the reconstruction efforts. After all, it is the Iraqis who best know their country and have the greatest stake in restoring basic services.
We need to work with the best and brightest Iraqis, inside and outside of government to come up with a plan to get the power back on in Baghdad and help to restore the faith of the Iraqi people in our important mission in Iraq.
Fifth, we have to launch a major diplomatic effort to get the international community, especially key neighboring states and Arab nations, more involved in Iraq. If one looks at the Balkans - our most recent attempt to rebuild war torn nations - the international community, from the European Union to NATO to the United Nations, were all deeply involved. These organizations, driven largely by European countries in the region, provided legitimacy, helped with burden-sharing, and were an essential part of our exit strategy. Ten years later, conditions are not perfect, but the blood-shed has been stopped, and the region is no longer destabilizing the European Continent. And so a part of any strategy in Iraq must more deeply integrate Iraq's neighbors, international organizations, and regional powers around the world.
Finally, it is critical for this Administration, and Congress, to recognize that despite the enormous stakes the United States now has in seeing Iraq succeed, we cannot let this mission distract us from the larger front of international terrorism that remains to be addressed. Already we are getting reports that the situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating. Our progress in improving our intelligence capabilities - particularly human intelligence - has lagged. Iraq has absorbed resources that could have gone into critical homeland security measures, or in improved coordination with our global allies and partners. At the outset of this war, I challenged the Administration's assertion that deposing Saddam Hussein was the central measure in our war on terrorism. And although I believe we must stabilize Iraq, I continue to believe that the Administration's tendency to equate the military defeat of the Iraqi insurgency with the defeat of international terrorism is dangerously short-sighted.
Long the before the war in Iraq, international terrorism posed a grave security threat to the United States. Well over two years after the start of the Iraq war, these threats to our way of life remain every bit as serious. Some have argued that these threats have grown. The Administration has to be capable of finding a solution in Iraq and strengthening our efforts to combat international terrorism.
In the end, Iraq is not about one person's legacy, a political campaign, or rigid adherence to an ideology.
What is happening in Iraq is about the security of the United States. It is about our men and women in uniform. It is about the future of the Middle East. It is about the world in which our children will live.
Responsible voices from all parts of the political spectrum are coming forth to say this in increasing numbers.
Colin Powell had the courage to call his presentation to the United Nations on Iraq a "blot" on his distinguished record. And recently John Edwards said he made a mistake in voting to go to war in Iraq, and accepted responsibility for this decision.
It is no coincidence that both Mr. Edwards and Mr. Powell no longer serve the government in Washington. Those of us in Washington are falling behind the debate that is taking place across America on Iraq. We are failing to provide leadership on this issue.
Iraq was a major issue in last year's election.
But that election is now over.
We need to stop the campaign.
The President could take the politics out of Iraq once and for all if he would simply go on television and say to the American people "Yes, we made mistakes. Yes, there are things I would have done differently. But now that we're here, I am willing to work with both Republicans and Democrats to find the most responsible way out."
Nearly four decades ago, John F. Kennedy took responsibility for the Bay of Pigs Invasion. He admitted that mistakes had been made. He didn't spend a good deal of time publicly blaming the previous Administration, or the other party, or his critics. And through these decisive actions, he earned the respect of the American people and the world - respect that allowed his diplomacy to be trusted a few years later during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Americans everywhere are crying out for this kind of leadership today. They want to find pragmatic solutions to the difficult and complicated situation in Iraq. They want to move forward on of the greatest foreign policy challenges that this nation has faced in a generation. And they want to get it right for every American son and daughter who's been willing to put their lives on the line to defend the country they love. It's time for us in Washington to offer the rest of the country this leadership. Thank you.