Out of Iraq

Senate Floor Speech, December 7, 2006.

I know it is probably appropriate to speak of our colleagues, and I will do that on the record. I rise tonight, however, to speak about a subject heavy on my mind. It is the subject of the war in Iraq.

I have never worn the uniform of my country. I am not a soldier or a veteran. I regret that fact. It is one of the regrets of my life. But I am a student of history, particularly military history, and it is that perspective which I brought to the Senate 10 years ago as a newly elected Member of this Chamber.

When we came to the vote on Iraq, it was an issue of great moment for me. No issue is more difficult to vote on than war and peace, because it involves the lives of our soldiers, our young men and women. It involves the expenditure of our treasure, putting on the line the prestige of our country. It is not a vote taken lightly. I have tried to be a good soldier in this Chamber. I have tried to support our President, believing at the time of the vote on the war in Iraq that we had been given good intelligence and knowing that Saddam Hussein was a menace to the world, a brutal dictator, a tyrant by any standard, and one who threatened our country in many different ways, through the financing and fomenting of terrorism. For those reasons and believing that we would find weapons of mass destruction, I voted aye.

I have been rather silent on this question ever since. I have been rather quiet because, when I was visiting Oregon troops in Kirkuk in the Kurdish area, the soldiers said to me: Senator, don’t tell me you support the troops and not our mission. That gave me pause. But since that time, there have been 2,899 American casualties. There have been over 22,000 American men and women wounded. There has been an expenditure of $290 billion a figure that approaches the expenditure we have every year on an issue as important as Medicare. We have paid a price in blood and treasure that is beyond calculation by my estimation.

Now, as I witness the slow undoing of our efforts there, I rise to speak from my heart. I was greatly disturbed recently to read a comment by a man I admire in history, one Winston Churchill, who after the British mandate extended to the peoples of Iraq for 5 years, wrote to David Lloyd George, Prime Minister of England:

At present we are paying 8 millions a year for the privilege of living on an ungrateful volcano.

When I read that, I thought, not much has changed. We have to learn the lessons of history and sometimes they are painful because we have made mistakes.

Even though I have not worn the uniform of my country, I, with other colleagues here, love this Nation. I came into politics because I believed in some things. I am unusually proud of the fact of our recent history, the history of our Nation since my own birth. At the end of the Second World War, there were 15 nations on earth that could be counted as democracies that you and I would recognize. Today there are 150 nations on earth that are democratic and free. That would not have happened had the United States been insular and returned to our isolationist roots, had we laid down the mantle of world leadership, had we not seen the importance of propounding and encouraging the spread of democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and the values of our Bill of Rights. It is a better world because of the United States of America, and the price we have paid is one of blood and treasure.

Now we come to a great crossroads. A commission has just done some, I suppose, good work. I am still evaluating it. I welcome any ideas now because where we are leaves me feeling much like Churchill, that we are paying the price to sit on a mountain that is little more than a volcano of ingratitude.

Yet as I feel that, I remember the pride I felt when the statue of Saddam Hussein came down. I remember the thrill I felt when three times Iraqis risked their own lives to vote democratically in a way that was internationally verifiable as well as legitimate and important. Now all of those memories seem much like ashes to me.

The Iraq Study Group has given us some ideas. I don’t know if they are good or not. It does seem to me that it is a recipe for retreat. It is not cut and run, but it is cut and walk. I don’t know that that is any more honorable than cutting and running, because cutting and walking involves greater expenditure of our treasure, greater loss of American lives.

Many things have been attributed to George Bush. I have heard him on this floor blamed for every ill, even the weather. But I do not believe him to be a liar. I do not believe him to be a traitor, nor do I believe all the bravado and the statements and the accusations made against him. I believe him to be a very idealistic man. I believe him to have a stubborn backbone. He is not guilty of perfidy, but I do believe he is guilty of believing bad intelligence and giving us the same.

I can’t tell you how devastated I was to learn that in fact we were not going to find weapons of mass destruction. But remembering the words of the soldier–don’t tell me you support the troops but you don’t support my mission–I felt the duty to continue my support. Yet I believe the President is guilty of trying to win a short war and not understanding fully the nature of the ancient hatreds of the Middle East. Iraq is a European creation. At the Treaty of Versailles, the victorious powers put together Kurdish, Sunni, and Shia tribes that had been killing each other for time immemorial. I would like to think there is an Iraqi identity. I would like to remember the purple fingers raised high. But we can not want democracy for Iraq more than they want it for themselves. And what I find now is that our tactics there have failed.

Again, I am not a soldier, but I do know something about military history. And what that tells me is when you are engaged in a war of insurgency, you can’t clear and leave. With few exceptions, throughout Iraq that is what we have done. To fight an insurgency often takes a decade or more. It takes more troops than we have committed. It takes clearing, holding, and building so that the people there see the value of what we are doing. They become the source of intelligence, and they weed out the insurgents. But we have not cleared and held and built. We have cleared and left, and the insurgents have come back.

I, for one, am at the end of my rope when it comes to supporting a policy that has our soldiers patrolling the same streets in the same way, being blown up by the same bombs day after day. That is absurd. It may even be criminal. I cannot support that anymore. I believe we need to figure out how to fight the war on terror and to do it right. So either we clear and hold and build, or let’s go home.

There are no good options, as the Iraq Study Group has mentioned in their report. I am not sure cutting and walking is any better. I have little confidence that the Syrians and the Iranians are going to be serious about helping us to build a stable and democratic Iraq. I am at a crossroads as well. I want my constituents to know what is in my heart, what has guided my votes.

What will continue to guide the way I vote is simply this: I do not believe we can retreat from the greater war on terror. Iraq is a battlefield in that larger war. But I do believe we need a presence there on the near horizon at least that allows us to provide intelligence, interdiction, logistics, but mostly a presence to say to the murderers that come across the border: We are here, and we will deal with you. But we have no business being a policeman in someone else’s civil war.

I welcome the Iraq Study Group’s report, but if we are ultimately going to retreat, I would rather do it sooner than later. I am looking for answers, but the current course is unacceptable to this Senator. I suppose if the President is guilty of one other thing, I find it also in the words of Winston Churchill. He said:

After the First World War, let us learn our lessons. Never, never believe that any war will be smooth and easy or that anyone who embarks on this strange voyage can measure the tides and the hurricanes. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.

That is a lesson we are learning again. I am afraid, rather than leveling with the American people and saying this was going to be a decade-long conflict because of the angst and hatred that exists in that part of the world, that we tried to win it with too few troops in too fast a time. Lest anyone thinks I believe we have failed militarily, please understand I believe when President Bush stood in front of “mission accomplished” on an aircraft carrier that, in purely military terms, the mission was accomplished in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But winning a battle, winning a war, is different than winning a peace.

We were not prepared to win the peace by clearing, holding, and building. You don’t do that fast and you don’t do it with too few troops. I believe now that we must either determine to do that, or we must redeploy in a way that allows us to continue to prosecute the larger war on terror. It will not be pretty. We will pay a price in world opinion. But I, for one, am tired of paying the price of 10 or more of our troops dying a day. So let’s cut and run, or cut and walk, or let us fight the war on terror more intelligently than we have, because we have fought this war in a very lamentable way.

Those are my feelings. I regret them. I would have never voted for this conflict had I reason to believe that the intelligence we had was not accurate. It was not accurate, but that is history. Now we must find a way to make the best of a terrible situation, at a minimum of loss of life for our brave fighting men and women. So I will be looking for every opportunity to clear, build, hold, and win or how to bring our troops home.

I yield the floor.

Gordon Smith is the Republican senator from Oregon.



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