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McCain on Obama and Iraq: 'History Will Judge This President's Leadership With Scorn and Disdain'


Today, on the floor of the Senate, John McCain (R-AZ), Obama’s rival for the presidency in 2008, pointed out that President Obama had opposed the surge in Iraq that brought victory, and had likely turned that victory into defeat by withdrawing all U.S. troops.

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I thank you, Mr. President.

Today, the President of the United States traveled to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to mark the end of the war in Iraq and to pay tribute to the more than 1.5 million men and women of our armed forces who have served and fought there since 2003.

Those Americans deserve all of the praise and recognition they receive. They’ve given up their comfort and safety. They’ve given up less demanding and more lucrative jobs. They’ve given parts of their bodies, and cherished parts of their lives.

They’ve given the quiet little sacrifices that often go unmentioned, but often hurt the most. The anniversaries spent alone. The birth of a child missed. The first steps not seen, and the first words not heard. They’ve given all of that, and always they are prepared to give more. They deserve to be honored by us all.

I know that the president’s words of praise and appreciation for our troops today were sincere and heartfelt. And I have every reason to believe he will do all in his power to keep his promises to take care of our troops and their families here at home, and to never forget how those noble Americans have done far more than their fair share for the betterment of our nation.

The president is a patriot and a good American, and I know that his heart swells with the same pride and sense of awe that all of us feel when we are in the presence of our men and women in uniform. These are humbling feelings. Feelings of wonderment and gratitude, and that unite all Americans, whether you supported the war in Iraq or not.

But let me point out a fact that the president did not acknowledge today, which is this:

Our men and women in uniform have been able to come home from Iraq by the tens of thousands over the past three years–and not just come home, but come home with honor, having succeeded in their mission–for the simple reason that the surge worked.

All of this is possible because in 2007, with the war nearly lost, we changed our strategy, changed our leaders in the field, and sent more troops.

This policy was vehemently opposed at the time by then-Senator Obama and now the President of the United States and his senior leaders right here on the floor of this Senate.

On January 10, 2007, the day the surge strategy was announced, then-Senator Obama said–quote–“I am not persuaded that 20,000 additional troops in Iraq is going to solve the sectarian violence there. In fact, I think it will do the reverse.”

On November 15, 2007, when it was clear to general David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, where–and many of us–that the surge was working, then-Senator Obama said–and I quote–“The overall strategy has failed because we have not seen any change in behavior among Iraq’s political leaders.”

Finally, on January 28, 2008, when it was undeniable the surge was succeeding, he had this to say: “President Bush said that the surge in Iraq is working and we know that’s just not true.”

At the time, the president’s [Obama’s] preferred alternative was to begin an immediate withdrawal, and have all U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of 2009.

I’ll let future historians be the judge of that proposed policy.

All I will say is that for three years, the president has been harvesting the successes of the very strategy that he consistently dismissed as a failure. I imagine this irony was not lost on a few of our troops at Fort Bragg today, most of whom deployed and fought as part of the surge.

The fact is, the president has consistently called for a complete withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq at the earliest possible date, and he has never deviated from this position as president. Indeed, he has always reaffirmed his campaign promise to end the war in Iraq and withdraw all of our troops.

So perhaps it should not have come as a surprise when the president announced in October that he was ending negotiations with the Iraqi government over whether to maintain a small number of U.S. troops in Iraq beyond this year to continue assisting Iraq’s security forces.

I continue to believe that this decision represents a failure of leadership, both Iraqi and American, that it was a sad case of political expediency triumphing over military necessity, both in Baghdad and in Washington. And that it will have serious, serious negative consequences for Iraq’s stability and our national security interests.

I sincerely hope that I am wrong, but I fear that General Jack Keane, who was one of the main architects of the surge, could be correct again when he said recently–and I quote–“We won the war in Iraq, and we’re now losing the peace.”

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Let me be clear. Like all Americans, I, too, am eager to bring our troops home. I do not want them to remain in Iraq or anywhere else for a day longer than necessary.

But I also agree with our military commanders in Iraq, who were nearly unanimous in their belief that some U.S. forces, approximately 20,000, should remain for a period of time to help the Iraqis secure the hard-earned gains that we had made together.

All of our top commanders in Iraq–by the way, chosen by the President of the United States–all of our top commanders in Iraq, General Petraeus, General Odierno, General Austin–all of them believed that we needed to maintain a presence of U.S. troops there, and they consistently made [that] clear to many of us during our repeated visits to Iraq.

On February 3rd, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, general Lloyd Austin, and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Jim Jeffrey, testified to the Committee on Armed Services that for all the progress the Iraqi security forces had made in recent years–and it’s been substantial–they still have critical gaps in their capabilities that will endure beyond this year.

Those shortcomings including: enabling functions for counterterrorism operations; the control of Iraq’s airspace; and other external security missions, intelligence collection and fusion; and training and sustainment of the force.

Our commanders wanted U.S. troops to remain in Iraq beyond this year to continue assisting Iraqi forces in filling these gaps in their capabilities. Indeed, Iraqi commanders believed the exact same thing.

In August, the chief of staff of Iraq’s armed forces could not have been any clearer. He said–I quote–“The problem will start after 2011,” he said. “The politicians must find other ways to fill the void after 2011.

“If I were asked about the withdrawal,” he stated, “I would say to politicians, the U.S. Army must stay until the Iraqi army is fully ready in 2020.”

During repeated travels to Iraq with my colleagues, I have met with all of the leaders of Iraq’s major political blocs and they, too, said they would support keeping a presence of U.S. troops in Iraq.

So let’s be clear. This is not what our commanders recommended. It is what Iraqi commanders recommended, and it is what all of Iraq’s key political leaders said privately that they were prepared to support.

So what happened? What happened?

Advocates of withdrawal are quick to point out that the current security arrangement, which requires all U.S. troops to be out of Iraq by the end of this year, was concluded by the Bush Administration–and that is true.

But it’s also beside the point.

The authors of that agreement always intended for it to be renegotiated at a later date to allow some U.S. forces to remain in Iraq.

As former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, whose State Department team negotiated the security agreement, has said– quote–“There was an expectation that we would negotiate something that looked like a residual force for our training with the Iraqis.” She stated, “Everybody believed it would be better if there was some kind of residual force.”

So if that’s not the reason, I ask again: what happened?

The prevailing narrative is that the U.S. and Iraqi leaders could not reach agreement over the legal protections needed to keep our troops in Iraq. To be sure, this was a matter of vital importance. But while this may have been a reason for our failure, the privileges and immunities issues is [sic] less a cause than a symptom of the larger reason why we could not reach agreement with the Iraqis.

Because of his political promise to fully withdraw from Iraq, the president never brought the full weight of his office to bear in shaping the politics and the events on the ground in Iraq so as to secure a residual presence of U.S. troops.

This left our commanders and our negotiators in Baghdad mostly trying to respond to events in Iraq, trying to shape events without the full influence of the American president behind them.

Last May, I traveled to Iraq with the Senator from South Carolina, Senator [Lindsay] Graham. We met with all of the major Iraqi leaders, and all of them were ready to come to an agreement on a future presence of U.S. troops in Iraq. But as Prime Minister [Nouri al-]Malaki explained to us, the administration at that time and for the foreseeable future had not given the Iraqi government the number of troops and missions it would propose to keep in Iraq.

For weeks after, the administration failed to make a proposal to the Iraqis. And when the Iraqis finally united together in August, and publicly asked the administration to begin negotiations, the response from Washington was again characterized by delay. This ensured that a serious negotiation could not begin, much succeed.

I know Iraq is a sovereign country. I know it has an elected government that must answer to public opinion. And I know there could be no agreement over a future U.S. military presence in Iraq if Iraqis did not agree to it and build support for it.

So this is as much a failure of Iraqi leadership as it is of American leadership. But to blame this on the Iraqis does not excuse the fact that we had an enormous amount of influence with Iraq’s leaders, and we did not exercise it to the fullest extent possible to achieve an outcome that was in our national security interest.

In fact, in the view of many, they deliberately refused to come up with a number. They deliberately refused to engage in serious negotiation with the Iraqis, with the ultimate purpose of fulfilling the president’s campaign pledge that he would get all troops, United States troops, out of Iraq.

That’s not a violation of sovereignty. That’s diplomacy. That’s leadership. Leaders must shape events and public opinion, not just respond to them.

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Starting in early 2009, from their desire to accelerate our withdrawal from Iraq faster than our commanders recommended, to our hands-off approach of government formation last year, to their record of delay in passivity on the question of maintaining a presence of U.S. troops beyond this year, this administration has consistently failed at the highest level to lead on Iraq.

I say again: perhaps this outcome should not have been a surprise. It’s what the president has consistently promised to do, and that decision makes good political sense for this president. But such decisions should not be determined by domestic politics.

The brave Americans who [have] fought so valiantly and given so much did so not for political reasons but for the safety and security of their fellow citizens, for their friends, for their families, for their children’s futures, and for us.

This is a decisive moment in the history of America’s relationship with Iraq, and with all of the countries of the broader Middle East. This is a moment when the substantial influence that we have long enjoyed in that part of the world could be receding–in fact, is receding.

We cannot allow that to be our nation’s future. We must continue to lead. We must not let short-term political gains dictate our longer-term goals. We need to continue to shape a freer, more just, and more secure future both for Iraq and for the peoples across the Middle East, for it is in our own national security interests to do so.

Over 4,000 brave young Americans gave their lives in this conflict. I hope and I pray that these decisions–made in large part for political reasons–I pray that their sacrifice is not in vain. I hope that their families will not mourn the day that their sons and daughters went out to fight for freedom for the Iraqi people.

Unfortunately, unfortunately, it is clear that this decision of a complete pullout of United States troops from Iraq was dictated by politics and not our national security interests.

I believe that history will judge this president’s leadership with the scorn and disdain that it deserves.


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