Weekly Column of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) - A Not-So-New Strategy for Iraq

Posted on March 8, 2009

President Obama has told Marines at Camp Lejeune and the world how the United States plans to end the war in Iraq. The plan turns out not to be so different than the agreement President Bush signed with Iraq just before he left office. Senator McCain, in a speech on the Senate floor the day of President Obama’s announcement, said he generally supported the decision. And so, for the first time, I think it can be said we have a bipartisan consensus – and a consensus between the Congress and the White House – about how to honorably and successfully conclude the war in Iraq. Ironically, this is a bipartisan consensus that comes two years later than it could have. Because what President Bush and President Obama and Senator McCain seem to agree on is also consistent with the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group headed by former Republican Secretary of State James Baker and former Democratic House Foreign Affairs Chairman Lee Hamilton. Unfortunately, for the last two years, instead of having a consensus between the Congress and the President, we made it clear to our enemy and to our troops that we were divided in Washington on the course of the war. I offered legislation two years ago – which attracted bipartisan support from nine Democratic and eight Republican senators, and 27 Democrats and 35 Republicans in the House of Representatives – that would have made the principles of the Iraq Study Group the course upon which the United States would embark to successfully conclude the war in Iraq. I don't know that, had we done that in 2007, the war would have been more successful, or if Iraq would have been better stabilized, or if troops would have come home sooner and perhaps even American and Iraqi lives might have been saved. But I do know that we jeopardized the ability of the American people to have the stomach to see this mission all the way through to the end – an essential requirement of any military endeavor in which the United States engages. President Obama also announced his plan to send 17,000 more Americans to Afghanistan. He is doing so after only a month in office. He says, quite candidly, that he does not yet have a strategy – or, in his words, “an exit strategy.” The lesson of Iraq and of our failure to come to some agreement over the last two years is that we should give our new President time and support in his efforts to develop a strategy and then Congress should insist that we agree with him. If Congress can't agree with the plan he creates, then he should adjust it until we can, so that we as a nation can have a compelling purpose, a clear set of goals, and the money to supply more than enough force to reach those goals. Our enemies and our troops should hear clearly that the American people have the stomach to see the mission in Afghanistan all the way through to the end. The Iraq war reminds us that nation building costs many billions of dollars and many lives. Whenever possible, we should use our military forces to defend America and allow our image as a “shining city on a hill,” which President Reagan talked about so often, to serve as an example to spread freedom. If we must become involved in another country, as we are in Iraq and Afghanistan, then we must have a compelling reason, a clear mission, and the overwhelming force to make certain we reach our goals. But in order to reach those goals, we have to persuade the American people to see the mission all the way through. It is much better if the President and the Congress, even if they are of different political parties, agree on that mission. We saw in Iraq that failure to come to an agreement made the war harder and longer and President Bush’s term in office much less successful. It is also indispensible that we honor those who serve our country. Sometimes in airports now – unlike in the Vietnam era – passengers burst into applause when a group of servicemen and women appear. A great many Tennesseans have been to Iraq and Afghanistan. More are going this week to Afghanistan. Many have served two or three tours already – including men and women from the Tennessee National Guard and the 101st Airborne – and 100 of them have bravely given their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hundreds more have suffered wounds that will change their lives. They have performed heroically. I am glad to see that after six years, we finally seem to be united on a path which will bring the war to a successful conclusion and hasten the time when most of those serving can come home. But it is disappointing that two years ago we could not agree on the principles of the Iraq Study Group. We had that opportunity. It might have shortened the war. It might have stabilized Iraq more rapidly. It might have saved lives. We should remember that as we look ahead to Afghanistan. We do not want to succeed Bush's war with Obama's war. Whenever we go to war, it should be an American war and the President should make certain he has bipartisan support in Congress.