Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN)

Posted on July 18, 2007

Mr. President, with this political stunt tonight, the Senate has reached the approximate level of the Iraqi Parliament in dealing with the war on Iraq. There will be no more votes for a fixed deadline for withdrawal from Iraq at 3 a.m. than there would be at 3 p.m. This demeans and trivializes the foremost issue facing our country. It does not show the proper respect for the men and women who have been fighting there and their families. Here we are, issuing milestones, talking about benchmarks to an infant democracy on the other side of the world, issuing reports and report cards about how well they are doing on what we have told them to do, talking to them about why they haven't passed oil sharing and debaathification and why they have not had more elections, and we cannot come up, ourselves, with a consensus about what we are doing in Iraq. Here we are, the oldest democracy in the world, alleging ourselves -– the Senate -– to be the greatest deliberative body in the world, and we are lecturing Iraq, a new democracy, an infant democracy. We are lecturing them for not coming up with a consensus when we can't come up with one ourselves. I think it is important for the American people to know it is not necessarily that way in the Senate. I began this day at 8 a.m. at a breakfast, as I did last week, as I did the week before, which we call our bipartisan breakfast. This morning we had about a dozen Republicans and Democrats around the table -- only Senators. Last week, we had two dozen around a table. Our subject was Iraq and the Defense authorization bill. I will not say any more about what was discussed because one of the benefits of this breakfast is it is the only time during the week, except for our prayer breakfast on Wednesday, when we are not in team meetings, when there is not a group somewhere plotting what this side will do to that side or what that side will do to this side. It is amazing what sort of discussion we can have when we sit down around that sort of table. We have many of the same principals who have talked tonight on the Senate floor, people who have strongly held views and they are different views and they were stated clearly and explicitly and each of us respected those views. We heard them. But at least as strong as the difference of opinion in that bipartisan breakfast -- as it is each week when we talk -- was the feeling that our main job was, as soon as we could, to come to some sort of consensus about where we go from here. Because the single most important thing we can do as a government, other than fund our troops, is to send them a clear signal that we agree on why we sent them there to fight and perhaps be wounded and perhaps to die and we failed in that responsibility. To compound it, we are in the midst of a political stunt which does not do anything to encourage us toward a consensus. In my remarks tonight, rather than heap oil on the fire, what I would like to do is talk for a moment about how we could come to that consensus and about both Democrats and Republicans in this body who are working that way. Mrs. Feinstein, the Senator from California, mentioned a number of Senators who do that. My experience with Members of this body began when I came to work here for the first time 40 years ago this year as a very junior aide. I have only been a Member of the body for 4 years. My experience is that most of us prefer to conduct ourselves like grownups, to not engage in petty kindergarten games, to not have partisan efforts where we taunt one another and try to put one another at a disadvantage but actually recognize we are here to look at big, difficult issues and to see if we can come up with a solution for one. If there is such an issue that demands such a solution, it is America's role in Iraq. How would the Senate -- if I am right that most of us would like to have that kind of result -- how would we go about working toward consensus, when we obviously have strongly held different views? For example, Senator Levin and Senator Reed, two of the most senior Members of our body -- one a distinguished graduate of West Point, one who has served as chairman or ranking member of the Armed Services Committee for a long time -- they strongly believe, as the Senator from California believes, that unless the Congress imposes upon the President a fixed deadline for withdrawal, that we will not have any motion in that direction. I respect that. I disagree with that. I believe that interferes with the constitutional prerogatives of the President. I do not believe it is practical in a time of war to say that a group of legislators, 100 generals here in this body, can guess a year out, even if that is the direction we want to go, exactly how to do it and exactly when to do that. That is why we have a Commander in Chief. The Founders didn't pick this particular President, but they picked a President, a Chief Executive, with that responsibility. I respect that. That is of a difference of opinion. So we have profound and real and honest differences of opinion and they are reflected all the way across our country. I hear them in Tennessee. The Presiding Officer hears them in his State. We hear them everywhere, and we feel them especially strongly because so many of our men and women have been there. In my State, 10,000 members of the National Guard and the Reserves have been to Iraq and Afghanistan; almost all of them more than once. We think of General Petraeus as almost a hometown boy because he commanded the 101st Airborne Division. When he was there as its commander, he was accidentally shot through the heart in a training exercise. His life was saved, when he went to Vanderbilt Hospital, by none other than Bill Frist, our former majority leader, who was then a heart surgeon at Vanderbilt University. So we have unusual respect for General Petraeus. We are the "Volunteer State." We have sent more men and women to fight, we think, than almost any State, and we instinctively have great respect for the President of the United States. That is where we start in our State. But, still, there are a great many Tennesseans who say to me it is time for a new strategy in Iraq. It is time for a change. We have helped depose Saddam Hussein. We have helped Iraq have an opportunity to have a democratic government. We have stayed a long time to help build their security. But now it is time for us to agree on a different strategy. How would a country and how would a body such as the Senate go about that? One way to do it might be to pick 10 people from outside the Senate, 10 of the most distinguished Americans, and say to them: We are stuck here. We have a problem. The country has a problem. We need a shift of direction. We have a Senate that is divided, a President who is insisting on his constitutional prerogatives, and we have men and women fighting and dying in Iraq -- what do we do? Ten Americans, let's pick five Democrats and five Republicans, to give it a little bit more prestige. That happened last year. Frank Wolf, a Representative from Virginia; John Warner, Senator from this body, was a part of this as well -- they created something called the Iraq Study Group. The Iraq Study Group was cochaired by Jim Baker, the former Secretary of State for President Bush, and by Lee Hamilton, the former Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. There were 10 prestigious Americans who served on the Iraq Study Group -- if all of us were to put in a hat the names of Americans who might be good members of such a commission to help us unravel this problem, the 10 who were picked would come out of that hat pretty fast, in pretty good order, with a lot of Members on both sides of the aisle suggesting them. For example, Larry Eagleburger, the former Secretary of State for the first President Bush; Vernon Jordan, the former president of the National Urban League and a very close associate of former President Clinton; Ed Meese, President Reagan's Attorney General; Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who was the first woman to be appointed to the United States Supreme Court by President Reagan; Leon Panetta, who was President Clinton's Chief of Staff and who now in California has his own institute, the Leon & Sylvia Panetta Institute for Public Policy in Monterey, CA; Chuck Robb, our former colleague, married to Lynda Bird Johnson. We have been thinking about that family these past 2 weeks with Lady Bird's death; Chuck Robb, a former marine, former Senator, a member of that panel; Allen Simpson, who had the No. 2 position right over here, a whip in the Senate from Wyoming; and, at one point, Robert Gates, the current Secretary of Defense, was a member of this panel before he had to step aside when he went to the administration. So those 10 people -- five Democrats, five Republicans. It would be hard to improve on that. Then, let's say you said to this group of 10: This is an especially difficult problem. The Senate is fractured, the President is insisting on his prerogative, and the country is divided and tired, and we need a solution. So what we need for you to do, commissioners, is not come back with a majority vote, not come back with a filibuster, not come back with an all-night political stunt, but come back with a unanimous set of recommendations of where we go from here in Iraq, you five Democrats, you five Republicans with years of experience. That is precisely what they did in December of last year, after 9 or 10 meetings all over America, and meetings in Iraq, with a distinguished staff that consisted of an honor roll list of generals and experts. They visited with former President Clinton, former Vice President Mondale, former Secretary of State Albright, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Warren Christopher, they visited with Colin Powell and George Shultz, Tony Lake, General Scowcroft, to ask about everybody whose judgment one would hope they would ask, and they came up with 79 recommendations in December, and they released it to the public. They unanimously agreed in 9 months about what to do in Iraq. They also did not pull any punches. They said in December, even though this was chaired by Jim Baker and Lee Hamilton, they said: The situation in Iraq is "grave and deteriorating." They said there is no magic bullet. But they did unanimously agree, unlike the Levin-Reed amendment, that we did not need a fixed deadline. They unanimously agreed that troop deployments should be subject to conditions on the ground. So what did they recommend? Well, in a few minutes I cannot summarize 79 recommendations, but I can boil it down to three points. First, we should move our troops from a combat mission to a support, equipping, and training mission as soon as we honorably can. They said, as a goal, that should happen in about a year, which then would have been the first quarter of 2008. Now, some time has gone past since then. But they said in about a year. The practical effect of that would have been to remove about half our combat forces –- to reduce the number of American forces in Iraq by about half. And, rather than subject that goal of reducing troops to a fixed deadline, as the Levin-Reed amendment says, they said it should be subject to developments on the ground, which is practical in a time of war, and respects the Commander in Chief's constitutional prerogative. They said, No. 2: We should have a long-term interest in Iraq. It should be a limited interest, but there should be sufficient troops to help make certain that in that new mission we deal with that interest. They listed some of the things the troops would be expected to do who stayed: guard the Embassy, search and rescue, intelligence, special forces to go after al-Qaida –- the point being, even though our troops have a different mission, out of a combat role into a support, equipping, and training mission, there would be enough of them there to send a message to the Middle East and the rest of the world: Stay out of Iraq. Give Iraq a chance to succeed, while also protecting U.S. forces that remained there. That was the second point. The third point was step up. Step up the political and diplomatic efforts in the region by a significant amount, including talking with everybody in the region, to try to bring a result in Iraq. So those are the three points. One, move out of the combat mission to the support, equipping, and training mission over about a year, without a deadline; two, a long-term but limited interest in Iraq, with some specifics; and, three, step up political and diplomatic efforts. Plus, the Iraq Study Group emphasized that we would still have a considerable presence in the region in Qatar and Kuwait and in Bahrain. So that is what the Iraq Study Group said. What happened with the Iraq Study Group report? Well, I was very disappointed by the reaction to the report, especially when I saw that the recommendations were unanimous. When I first saw who were the distinguished members of that panel, I was convinced that at the State of the Union Address, President Bush would seat them in the gallery, and at the appropriate time, as President's often do, he would say: There they are, from the Reagan administration, from the Clinton administration, from my father's administration, and they have unanimously agreed on where we go from here in Iraq. And it is not exactly my proposal, it is their proposal, but because it is important to our troops and to our country and to the world that we move forward in a unified way, I accept their recommendations. I will develop a plan based upon their report. I ask you and the Congress to accept it. I think there is a good chance that the Congress would accept such a plan, and an important part of that reason is because even the President needed someone else to help him develop support for whatever proposal he came up with. So that would be the first thing I think we would do if we were trying to solve this problem: go ask 10 of the most distinguished Americans of both parties to tell us what to do in specific recommendations, and do it unanimously. Now, what is the second thing we would do? Well, I think we would come to this body and say: Every time we turn around there is a political stunt going on. Someone has had an early morning meeting and decided we are going to do this to the Republicans, and then some Republicans get excited, and they have an early morning meeting and say: We are going to do this to the Democrats. And you do not have the kind of discussion that these 10 Americans had or the kind we have in our bipartisan breakfasts. But the second thing that needs to be done to move us in a consensus on where we go from here in Iraq would be to find some Senator in this body who would say: We are going to accept this Iraq Study Group report, and we are going to ask that the President agree to it and develop a plan based upon it and report to us on it in 90 days. That is precisely what Senator Salazar did with his legislation. After saying in January that I was disappointed the President did not adopt the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, I made a speech on the floor in March. I find that sometimes you have to say things more than once in order to have anybody pay attention. I said: Why didn't the President, in March, take the Iraq Study Group down off the shelf and use it for something other than a book end? And then I made another speech to that effect, and Senator Pryor of Arkansas came by to see me and said: We need to do something about this. We need to find a way to work together rather than to continue to have Democratic and Republican votes on Iraq. Then Senator Salazar called me and said: I have been working with Secretary Baker, and with Lee Hamilton and their staffs. I put together legislation that accurately reflects the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group. And it simply adopts those recommendations as our law. If the President agrees to it, he is asked to develop a comprehensive plan based on those recommendations. Since that time, there are now 14 of us in the Senate on both sides of the aisle who are cosponsors of that idea. Senator Salazar is the leader. He has done a terrific job on that. He is a Democrat from Colorado. In addition to my cosponsorship, we have been joined by Mark Pryor, a Democrat from Arkansas; Bob Bennett, a Republican from Utah; Robert Casey, a Democrat from Pennsylvania; Judd Gregg, a Republican from New Hampshire; Blanche Lincoln, a Democrat from Arkansas; John Sununu, a Republican from New Hampshire; Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine; Pete Domenici, a Republican from New Mexico; Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Florida; Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from Louisiana; Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri; and Kent Conrad, a Democrat from North Dakota. My guess is that if the Democratic Senate leadership would back off a little bit, if the President would be more flexible, there are probably 60 votes coming from both sides of the aisle for the Baker-Hamilton report, and if that should be adopted by the Congress, we can move forward, which brings me to my final point. What would be the third step in having a bipartisan consensus for our country that would say to our troops and the world: We agree on why you are there, and we support that mission? It would be for the President to embrace the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group. The President of the United States does not want to do that. I respect that. He has an absolute constitutional right to say: Our Framers created the Executive, I am the Commander in Chief, we cannot have 100 generals, I will develop the plan, and I will command the troops. That is my job. He is right about that, except he has another part to his job. George Reedy, who was the Press Secretary to former President Lyndon Johnson, wrote a book called, "Twilight of the Presidency." In it he defined the President of the United States. He said, No. 1, his job is to see an urgent need; No. 2, to develop a strategy to meet the need; and No. 3 is to persuade at least half of the people that he is right. I do not believe that President Bush, even if he is right in September, is likely to be able to persuade enough people to support his strategy to be able to sustain the strategy. Let me say that again. Even if he is right in September, even if he takes many parts of the Baker-Hamilton group and announces it as his strategy, at this stage in our history, I do not believe he can persuade enough Americans to support his strategy to sustain the strategy. I believe this strategy should be sustained. So how does he do that? The way he does that is to embrace those who wrote this and those who support this so that it is not just his strategy, so that it is our strategy, so that he can say to the troops in the Middle East, and to the rest of the Middle East, and to the world: The Congress and I have come together around a set of principles. I am developing a plan on those principles. And not everyone agrees, but a consensus of us agree, which is why I would say to the Democratic leader, with respect, I do not mind requiring 60 votes on the Iraq issues. We need a consensus. We do not want to have an Iraq policy that passes by 51 to 49. We need a consensus. I believe we can have it. There are some who say adopting the Iraq Study Group principles, the Salazar-Alexander legislation, is toothless. I respectfully disagree. My grandfather was a railroad engineer, a Sante Fe railroad engineer. He lived in Newton, KS, and his job was to drive the big locomotives onto the roundtable it was called. And that was how you turned a locomotive around. A locomotive might be about as hard to turn around as a country in the middle of a war. But that is what my grandfather did. He turned that locomotive around. And it was turned around. They put it on a different track and off it went in a different direction. If we and the President were to agree on the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, it would be just like my grandfather putting that big locomotive on the roundtable in Newton, KS. It would be turned around and sent down a different track. And, for now, at least, those on the other side would pick another engineer. But the engineer cannot do much about that track once he is on it. It would be headed down the track, the world would know it, and in good faith we could work together. When I was an impatient young man working in the White House 40 years ago, a wise man named Bryce Harlow said to me: Lamar, just remember that here -- he meant the White House -- just a little tilt makes big waves out there. If this Congress and this President adopted together the Iraq Study Group recommendations this week, that would make big waves out there, and that would be a new consensus for our country. Some said: Well, the Iraq Study Group is a little stale. It is out of date. It was done in December. Lee Hamilton, the Democratic cochairman said: No. He said: We said in December the situation was grave and deteriorating. It still is. We said in December we need to move from a combat mission to support, equipping, and training. We still do. This week he said: In addition, we need to have a long-term limited role in Iraq. And we still do. And finally he said: We need to step up our diplomatic and political efforts in Iraq, and we still do. To the President, I would say with the greatest respect, because he is a member of my own party, and I have talked with him about this before, I would say: Mr. President, I do respect your prerogative. I know you can draw the plan up. I know you want to sit down first with General Petraeus, whom we all respect and whom I especially do, as a friend, because he spent so much time in Tennessee. But the Salazar-Alexander legislation has no chance of taking effect until September. And all it asks you to do is to draw up a comprehensive plan based upon the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group. The first person you sit down with can be General Petraeus. And I would ask the President whether it be better for him to ignore the Iraq Study Group and come up with his own plan, or would it be better for him to come to the Congress and say: Congress, I will adopt these. Why don't you adopt these and let's send our troops a message that we are united in what they are fighting for? So there are 14 of us, 8 Democrats, 6 Republicans at this point, who support and cosponsor the Iraq Study Group. But I believe there are many more of us who could be comfortable with it, who could vote for it, even if it is not our first choice. So I regret this all-night political stunt, but I respect this body. I see it every week in those bipartisan breakfasts, talking like the people of this country wish we always would when confronted by a major issue. I salute Senators Salazar and Pryor and those on that side, and Senator Gregg, Senator Bennett, Senator Collins, and those on this side who are working together to fix that. I hope more of our colleagues will join us soon. The President and the Congress could agree on the Baker-Hamilton recommendations, and we would say to our troops: We not only will fund you, but we can now also say to you and to the Middle East that we agree on your mission, on why you are fighting, and why you are being wounded, and why you are dying.