Weekly Column of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), “One Hot Day in Baghdad”

Posted on March 21, 2008

Last August, I visited with General David Petraeus at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. I was glad to be indoors. Outside, soldiers struggled in 120-degree weather. During our visit, the general edited a one-page proposal I had handed him that began with these words: "It is time for a new strategy in Iraq." For eighteen months, I had been urging President Bush to adopt the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group (ISG). This was, I thought, the path most likely to unite our country and successfully conclude the war in Iraq. Democratic Senator Ken Salazar of Colorado and I had written legislation that would make the ISG recommendations national policy. This had attracted nine Democrat and eight Republican Senators - and, in the House of Representatives, 27 Democrats and 35 Republicans. At that time we were having vote after vote on Iraq. Some senators wanted "immediate withdrawal." Others wanted "victory" of the kind the U.S. won in Japan and Germany. I thought the ISG recommendations made the most sense. First, the ISG recommended, over the next year move most U.S. forces out of combat and into supporting, equipping, and training Iraqi troops as security conditions on the ground permit. This could include a "surge" of troops. General Petraeus' first edit was that shifting the mission of "most" forces within a year might be ambitious. And the new role of U.S. forces needed to include his counterterrorism strategy. The second ISG recommendation said maintain a long-term U.S. presence in Iraq. "Steadily diminishing," the general added. Third, step up diplomatic efforts in the region - "which have already begun," Petraeus said. Seven months now have passed since that hot day in Baghdad. The Petraeus strategy is a success. Violence is down. Whole provinces are reasonably safe. And this new strategy is basically the path recommended by the Iraq Study Group, as edited by General Petraeus. The troops' mission is shifting. More troops are coming out than are going in. The American role is steadily diminishing. The U.S. is engaged in multiple diplomatic efforts in the Middle East. As we mark the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war, here are three of my observations: 1. The Iraq war reminds us that nation-building costs many years, many billions of dollars, and many lives. Whenever possible, we should use our military forces to defend America and use our "shining city on the hill" example to spread freedom. 2. I still believe the president and Congress should have come together on a unified message, such as the ISG recommendations, edited by Petraeus. This was a message our troops deserved to hear and our enemy needed to hear. 3. We have learned a lesson from Vietnam about how to honor those who have served in Iraq. Sometimes in airports passengers burst into applause when a group of servicemen and women appear. Last week, Congress met in the Capitol to honor those who have served. These include the 101st Airborne and 14,000 from the Tennessee National Guard. Many have served two or three tours. Eighty-two Tennesseans have given their lives in Iraq. Hundreds have suffered wounds that will change their lives. They have performed heroically. I am glad to see now that, after five years, we finally seem to be on a path which will bring the war to a successful conclusion and hasten the time when most of those serving can come home. ***** Lamar Alexander, Tennessee's senior United States Senator, is also chairman of the Conference of Republican Senators.