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Public Statements

Executive Session

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. McCAIN. Mr. President, I rise in support of the nomination of Leon Panetta to succeed Robert Gates. But first I feel compelled to respond to the statements by the Senator from West Virginia which characterize the isolationist, withdrawal, lack of knowledge, of history attitude that seems to be on the rise in America.

In case the Senator from West Virginia forgot it or never knew it, we withdrew from Afghanistan one time. We withdrew from Afghanistan, and the Taliban came, eventually followed by al-Qaida, followed by attacks on the United States of America.

The Senator from West Virginia has expressed his admiration for the men and women who are serving. I hope he would pay attention to the finest military leader who will now be the head of the CIA, General Petraeus, whose knowledge and background may exceed that of the Senator from West Virginia.

If we leave Afghanistan in defeat, we will repeat the lessons of history. It is not our expenditures on Afghanistan that are the reasons we are now experiencing budget difficulties.

I am pleased the Senator from West Virginia went to Afghanistan once. I would suggest he consult with the people who know best that since 2009, when the surge began, we have had success on the ground in Afghanistan, and we are succeeding.

There are enormous challenges ahead of us. But as Secretary Gates has said: Withdrawal to ``Fortress America''--which is basically the message of the Senator from West Virginia--will inevitably lead to attacks from them on the United States of America. I view the remarks of the Senator from West Virginia as at least uninformed about history and strategy and the challenges we face from radical Islamic extremism, including al-Qaida.

I urge my colleagues in the Senate to vote in favor of this nomination today.

Director Panetta has had an extraordinary career of public service. He served in the House of Representatives, representing his California district for eight terms. He served in the White House as President Clinton's Chief of Staff and Director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Since February 2009 he has been the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, strengthening that agency and forging positive relationships in the interagency process and with the congressional intelligence oversight committees. It is my expectation that Director Panetta will work closely with GEN David Petraeus, the nominee to succeed him at the CIA, and continue the cooperation and commitment that enabled the finding and elimination of Osama bin Laden.

I am certainly hopeful that as Secretary of Defense Director Panetta will successfully lead the effort to find and eliminate Ayman al-Zawahiri, who we are told has assumed leadership of al-Qaida, and other al-Qaida leaders. Zawahiri is a sworn enemy of the United States and our way of life and, like bin Laden, must be dealt with in similar terms.

Before discussing the challenges Mr. Panetta will encounter, I want to express my thanks and admiration for the service of Secretary Gates as he nears the end of his 4 1/2 -year tenure as Secretary of Defense. I recall that through much of 2007 and 2008 we heard about Secretary Gates' countdown wristwatch that displayed the number of days until a new administration would take over in January 2009, and he and his wife Becky could finally return to their peaceful lakeside home and retirement in Washington State. It is fortunate for the country that President Obama asked, and Secretary Gates agreed to postpone retirement, and that he continued to serve and, presumably, discarded that wristwatch.

Secretary Gates testified at his nomination hearing on December 5, 2006, that he agreed to leave Texas A&M University and return to government out of love for his country, and he and his family have provided one of the greatest examples I have seen of that kind of patriotism, answering the call to duty when his talents were most needed. For this, and for innumerable other contributions he has made to the men and women of the Armed Forces, he has truly earned a place in history as one of America's greatest Secretaries of Defense.

In December 2006, at a time when so many Senators were clamoring for a cut-and-run strategy in Iraq--just as they are calling for a cut-and-run strategy in Afghanistan--Secretary Gates made the following statement at his nomination hearing:

While I am open to alternative ideas about our future strategy and tactics in Iraq, I feel quite strongly about one point. Developments in Iraq over the next year or two will, I believe, shape the entire Middle East and greatly influence global geopolitics for many years to come. Our course over the next year or two will determine whether the American and Iraqi people, and the next President of the United States, will face a slowly, but steadily improving situation in Iraq and in the region or will face the very real risk, and possible reality, of a regional conflagration. We need to work together to develop a strategy that does not leave Iraq in chaos and that protects our long-term interests in, and hopes for the region.

Mr. President, you could substitute the word ``Afghanistan'' for exactly what Secretary Gates then said in December 2006. Then we had the surge. There were 59 votes against the surge that would have called for withdrawal in the summer of 2007. Some of us knew what was right and fought for it, and we have succeeded in Iraq, just as we will fight to continue the surge in Afghanistan. We will succeed in Afghanistan, and we will come home with honor, and Afghanistan will not deteriorate to a cockpit of conflict between regional countries that will then cause again the threat of radical Islamic extremism to threaten our very existence--certainly pose threats of attacks on the United States.

Secretary Gates was, of course, correct then about Iraq. Today we must add Afghanistan and Libya to his warning about the future consequences of the decisions we make today. In the next few months, our country faces decisions related to our national security and defense that will echo for decades to come--decisions that will determine whether we remain the world's leading global military power, able to meet our many commitments worldwide, or whether we will begin abandoning that role.

One of these decisions that will have perhaps the most impact on this outcome is our response to the President's stated goal of cutting $400 billion in national security spending by 2023--on top of the $178 billion in efficiencies and top line reductions that Secretary Gates already has imposed.

Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen have sounded the alarm against misguided and excessive reductions in defense spending that cut into the muscle of our military capabilities. If we get this wrong, it will result in a dramatic drop in U.S. influence and, as Secretary Gates has said, ``a smaller military able to go fewer places and do fewer things.''

Defense spending is not what is sinking this country into fiscal crisis, and if the President and Congress act on that flawed assumption they will create a situation that is truly unaffordable: the decline of U.S. military power and influence.

It is inevitable there will be cuts to defense spending, and some reductions are no doubt necessary to improve the efficiency of the Department of Defense. But I also remember GEN Edward Meyer, then-Chief of Staff of the Army, who warned in 1980 that excessive defense cuts over many years had produced a ``hollow army.'' That is not an experience we can or should repeat in the years to come. We must learn the lessons of history.

I sincerely hope Director Panetta, upon assuming office, will not focus exclusively on how but on whether the President's proposal should be implemented and will apply his independent judgment in providing advice to the President on the cuts that can be made without damage to our national security.

Last week, the Committee on Armed Services completed its markup for the Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2012. In a very tough fiscal environment, this markup represents an effort to support our warfighters and bolster the readiness of the U.S. military. Unfortunately, the committee chose to authorize hundreds of millions of dollars in unnecessary and unrequested porkbarrel projects and rejected my efforts to stop the out-of-control cost overruns of the F-35 program.

The Defense authorization bill is an important piece of legislation while our country continues to be engaged in two wars; therefore, I voted to move the bill out of committee. Nevertheless, I will continue my efforts to fight the egregious and wasteful spending during debate on the floor of the Senate, and I will urge Director Panetta, once he is confirmed, to favorably endorse the proposals I will make to properly use precious national defense dollars.

In addition, especially in this budget environment, it will be important to continue to eliminate weapons programs that are over cost, behind schedule, and not providing improvements in combat power and capabilities. After 10 years of war, we must continue to eliminate every dollar of wasteful spending that siphons resources away from our most vital need: enabling our troops to succeed in combat.

One of the key criteria I am looking for in the next Secretary of Defense is continuity--the continuation of the wise judgment, policies, and decisionmaking that have characterized Secretary Gates' leadership of the Department of Defense. As Director of the CIA, Mr. Panetta has demonstrated that he possesses the experience and ability to ensure that we achieve our objectives in the three conflicts in which U.S. forces are now engaged: Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.

In Iraq, the key question now is whether some presence of U.S. forces will remain beyond the end of this year, pending an Iraqi request and approval, to support Iraq's continuing needs and our enduring national interests. I believe such a presence is necessary, and I encourage the administration to work closely with the Maliki government to bring about this outcome.

In Afghanistan, the main question is the size and scope of the drawdown of forces beginning this July. Here, too, I agree with Secretary Gates that any drawdown should be modest so as to maximize our ability to lock in the hard-won gains of our troops through the next fighting season. I hope Director Panetta, as the Secretary of Defense, will support ``modest'' reductions and take no action that would undermine the hard-won gains in Afghanistan.

Finally, we know that there is growing opposition to continuing the U.S. involvement in Libya. There has already been one legislative attempt to bind the President's authority as Commander-in-Chief, and there will likely be others. In short, the accumulated consequences of the administration's delay, confusion, and lack of meaningful consultation have been a wholesale revolt in Congress against the administration's policy.

Although I have disagreed, and disagreed strongly at times, with aspects of the administration's policy in Libya, I believe the President did the right thing by intervening to stop a humanitarian disaster in Libya. Amid all of our present arguments about legal and constitutional interpretations, we cannot forget the main point: In the midst of the most groundbreaking geopolitical event in two decades, as peaceful protests for democracy were sweeping the Middle East, with Qadhafi's forces ready to strike Benghazi, and with Arabs and Muslims in Libya and across the region pleading for the U.S. military to stop the bloodshed, the United States and our allies took action and prevented the massacre that Qadhafi had promised to commit in a city of 700,000 people. By doing so, we began creating conditions that are increasing the pressure on Qadhafi to give up power.

Director Panetta has been nominated to lead our Armed Forces amid their tenth year of sustained overseas combat. Not surprisingly, this has placed a major strain on our forces and their families. And yet, our military is performing better today than at any time in our history. That is thanks to the thousands of brave young Americans in uniform who are writing a new chapter in the history of our great country. They have shown themselves to be the equals of the greatest generations before them. And the calling that all of us must answer, in our service, is to be equal and forever faithful to the sacrifice of these amazing Americans.

I have outlined some of the challenges that lay before Mr. Panetta. I have the highest confidence, however, that he is their equal.


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