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John M.
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  • Fallujah

    by Senator John McCain

    Posted on 2014-01-09

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    McCAIN. Some of us were in the Senate 10 years ago in 2004 when U.S. troops led two major offensives against Al Qaeda and other militants in the Iraqi city of Fallujah. Some of us remember how 146 of our brave men and women in uniform lost their lives and more than 1,000 were wounded. Those fights were some of the bloodiest and toughest battles since the Vietnam war. Success was costly, but success we had. Ten years later, Al Qaeda fighters have once again raised their black flags over Fallujah, and they are battling to control other parts of Iraq.

    This tragic setback is leaving many of our brave Iraq war veterans-- and especially those who shed their blood, risked their lives, and lost their friends in fighting against Fallujah--questioning what their sacrifice was worth. Sadly, they find themselves agreeing with Congressman Duncan Hunter, a former marine who fought in Fallujah.

    He said: We did our job. We did what we were asked to do, and we won. Every single man and woman who fought in Iraq, and especially in those cities, feels a kick in the gut for all they did, because this President decided to squander their sacrifice.

    Prior to 2011, President Obama frequently referred to a responsible withdrawal from Iraq, which was based on leaving behind a stable and representative government in Baghdad and avoiding a power vacuum that terrorists could exploit.

    The President's Deputy National Security Adviser Antony Blinken in 2012--and I am not making this up--stated that ``Iraq today is less violent, more democratic, and more prosperous . . . than any other time in history.'' Based on the President's own markers, the administration is falling short of its own goals. The illusion of a stable and representative government has been shattered by increasing sectarian tension, and it is clear terrorists are exploiting the power vacuum left behind.

    The Obama administration blames Iraqis for failing to grant the necessary privileges and immunities for a U.S. force presence beyond 2011. This is misleading--in fact, false--because as we saw firsthand, the administration never took the necessary diplomatic effort to reach such an agreement.

    The Senator from South Carolina and I traveled to Iraq in May 2011, only several months away from the deadline that our commanders had set for the beginning of the withdrawal. We met with all the leaders of Iraq's main political blocs and we heard a common message during all of these private conversations: Iraqi leaders recognized it was in their country's interest to maintain a limited number of U.S. troops to continue training and assisting Iraqi security forces beyond 2011.

    But when we asked Ambassador Jeffrey and the Commander of U.S. Forces in Iraq Lloyd Austin, while in a meeting with Prime Minister Maliki, how many U.S. troops remaining in Iraq would perform and how many the administration sought to maintain, they couldn't tell us or the Iraqis. The White House still had not made a decision.

    It went on like this for the next few months. By August 2011, leaders of Iraq's main political blocs joined together and stated they were prepared to enter negotiations to keep some U.S. troops in Iraq. An entire month passed and still the White House made no decision. All the while, during this internal deliberation, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff GEN Martin Dempsey later testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the size of a potential U.S. force presence kept cascading down from upwards of 16,000 to an eventual low of less than 3,000. By that point, the force would be able to do little other than protect itself, and Prime Minister Maliki and other Iraqi leaders realized the political cost of accepting this proposal was not worth the benefit.

    To blame this failure entirely on the Iraqis is convenient, but it misses the real point. The reason to keep around 10,000 to 15,000 U.S. forces in Iraq was not for the sake of Iraq alone. It was first and foremost in our national security interest to continue training and advising Iraqi forces and to maintain greater U.S. influence in Iraq. That core principle should have driven a very different U.S. approach to the SOFA--the status of forces agreement--diplomacy.

    The Obama administration should have recognized that after years of brutal conflict, Iraqi leaders still lacked trust in one another, and a strong U.S. role was required to help Iraqis broker their most politically sensitive decisions. For this reason the administration should have determined what tasks and troop numbers were in the national interest to maintain in Iraq and done so with ample time to engage with Iraqis at the highest level of the U.S. Government to shape political conditions in Baghdad to achieve our goal.

    We focus on this failure not because U.S. troops would have made a decisive difference in Iraq by engaging in unilateral combat operations against Al Qaeda and other threats to Iraq's stability. By 2011, U.S. forces were no longer in Iraqi cities or engaged in security operations. However, residual U.S. troop presence could have assisted Iraqi forces in their continued fight against Al Qaeda, it could have provided a platform for greater diplomatic engagement and intelligence cooperation with our Iraqi partners, it could have made Iranian leaders think twice about using Iraqi airspace to transit military assistance and weapons and arms and equipment to Assad and his forces in Syria and, most importantly, it could have maintained the significant diplomatic influence the United States at that time possessed in Iraq-- influence that had been and still was essential in guaranteeing Iraq's nascent political system, reassuring Iraqi leaders they could resolve their differences peacefully and politically, despite their mistrust of one another, and checking the authoritarian and sectarian tendencies of Prime Minister Maliki and his allies.

    The administration's failure in Iraq has been further compounded by its [[Page S198]] failure in Syria. In Syria, where President Obama has refused to take any meaningful action, the initially peaceful protests of early 2011 were met by horrific violence by the Assad regime.

    This President and this administration have stood back and watched while over 130,000 people have been brutally killed and a fourth of the population displaced. In his promise to avoid military action and reduce the U.S. footprint in the Middle East, we have seen the resurgence of Al Qaeda throughout the region, Hezbollah and Iran emboldened in Syria, Russia reasserting its principal presence for the first time since it was kicked out of Egypt by Egyptian President Sadat in 1973, and the destabilization of the region in ways that will inevitably reverberate here in America.

    Again, there are those who may applaud President Obama's decision to disengage, arguing this isn't America's problem to solve. That the United States is fundamentally limited in its ability to influence developments in the Middle East is a consistent theme within the administration. No one denies there are limits to what the United States can do. That is always the case. But as Secretary Hillary Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as she was leaving office: Let me underscore the importance of the United States continuing to lead in the Middle East, North Africa and around the world. When America is absent, especially from unstable environments, there are consequences. Extremism takes root, our interests suffer, and our security at home is threatened.

    Nowhere do her words ring more true than in Syria and Iraq today, begging the question that by fleeing Iraq and sidestepping Syria has the administration helped empower terrorist forces in ways that have created long-term threats to U.S. national security? I am afraid it is hard to argue the answer is no.

    The administration must recognize its failed policies and change its course. America has lost credibility and influence over the past years, and we simply can't afford to remain disengaged. It is time that America stands and take its rightful role in resolving these conflicts to best serve American interests. It is time we adopt a comprehensive strategy for addressing the growing threats that are now emanating from the region and move forward from a position of strength. A return of Al Qaeda to Anbar Province is a sobering reminder for the administration that the tide of war is not receding.

    I see my colleague from South Carolina is here. I am sorry I didn't realize he had come to the floor. I know the Senator from South Carolina and I need to discuss a recent unfortunate development in Afghanistan, but before we do, could I recall for my friend from South Carolina the many visits--and I have lost count, but many visits--we made to Iraq from 2003 really up to 2012, and that one of the most interesting visits we had was when we were in Ramadi and Colonel MacFarland announced to us that the Sunni sheiks had come over--that the major sheik had come over, and he had sent some tanks over--and that was the beginning of what we know as the Anbar awakening--a turning point in the entire conflict. That, coupled with the surge, changed the fortunes of war in Iraq.

    By the way, the surge was opposed vehemently by the President of the United States and the former Secretary of State, then Senator Clinton, who stated in a hearing with General Petraeus that she would have to have a ``willing suspension of disbelief in order to believe that the surge would succeed.'' But setting that aside, later, when we came back again to Fallujah and Ramadi, the Senator from South Carolina and I walked down the main street of Ramadi--down the main street--with Iraqis everywhere, proving the success of the surge in Anbar Province. Yet now, on the same streets we walked down--the exact same streets--there are now vehicles filled with Al Qaeda, flying the black flag of Al Qaeda.

    The bloodiest war of the conflict that was fought during our entire involvement with Iraq was the second battle of Fallujah. There were 95 brave Americans killed and over 600 wounded. What do we tell these young people and their families? What do we tell them? I tell you what we have to tell them. We have to tell them their sacrifice was squandered by an administration that wanted out and didn't want to remain and consolidate the gains that were made through the sacrifice of American blood and treasure.

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