Chaos in Iraq: A conversation with Senator John McCain and General Jack Keane

Chaos in Iraq: A conversation with Senator John McCain and General Jack Keane

DANIELLE PLETKA: Good afternoon everybody,
and welcome to the American Enterprise Institute. I’m Danielle Pletka. I’m the vice president
for Foreign and Defense Policy Studies here at AEI. I’m joined here today by two of
my personal heroes – I have to confess to you – Senator John McCain and General Jack
Keane. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on long biographical introductions. For those
of you who don’t know them, why not? SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ): I wish you would.
(Laughter.) MS. PLETKA: We have a lot to talk about here
today. And I don’t – I also want to make sure that we have enough time to hear from
the audience and to take some questions from everybody. So let me start the conversation
out. There’s a lot to talk about on Iraq. It’s
been a week with an incredible amount of news, some of it very, very small, but pretty good,
and a lot of it bad. There’s really been nothing but bad news coming from the Middle
East for such a long time now that I suppose we shouldn’t have been surprised to see
the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq coming to the forefront, taking territory inside
Iraq, moving towards Baghdad, and threatening all of Iraq at this point. But, nonetheless,
that is the state of play. The question before us is, what is the United
States going to do? And I think that there are a lot of questions hanging in the air
about just how involved President Obama wishes the United States to be. There’s no shortage
of people giving him lots and lots of advice, all of us here on the dais included. And we’re
all waiting to hear what comes next. Senator McCain, I’m just going to turn to
you first and ask you, very generally, how do you see the situation, how do you see it
moving, and what do you think the options are?
SEN. MCCAIN: I think we would all agree that the situation is dire, that there are now
the largest and richest territory in history for a terrorist organization, ISIS, in Iraq
and Syria, and I don’t think in this discussion we can leave Syria and the events that led
up to the situation in Syria out of our assessment of the overall situation. I don’t believe
that they will directly – that they have the capability – to directly take Baghdad.
I do think we could see the kind of return of the situation in Baghdad we saw – four,
five and six bombings, assassination, Shiite militias, that kind of disorder.
But I think it’s also apparent that not only is the Iraqi military, such as it is,
incapable of defending Baghdad very effectively, but the question of whether they would be
able to retake the areas that have already been overrun by ISIS. And, remember my friends,
it’s – what, General? – 10,000 ISIS that –
GENERAL JACK KEANE (RET.): That would be at the high end. Yeah.
SEN. MCCAIN: Yeah. That have basically caused the collapse of an army that we built up of
well over 100,000. So I guess then – and I’ll try to make it short – there are
no good options. There’s no good option because this is the culmination of a number
of failed policies and decisions that led up to it.
So when we talk about options, there will always be some rebuttal to it. I mean, airstrikes,
yeah. Who, where and how, and how do you identify them? Additional troops – how do you do
that? How can you do better? You know, there are no good options right now. But the worst
option is to do nothing. The worst option is to let this situation continue to deteriorate
into chaos. General Keane is much more of an expert on
exact kinds of tactics to be used with air power, et cetera, than I am, so I’d like
to leave it up to him. But I do believe that air power is much more than just the lethality
of it. Air power is a psychological factor, too. When troops are on the ground, whether
you’re for them or against them, and planes fly over, it changes your thinking. It has
an effect on you. And so the fact that we’re apparently now – at least for the time being
– ruling out air power, I think is another unfortunate decision that the White House
is making. But you and General Keane had a piece in the
“Wall Street Journal” which I think lays out what our options are. And, again, I get
almost angry – not angry – but when the first allegation is these guys want to send
troops on the ground, we know that that’s not a viable option – that that’s a straw
man. But for us to say that we can do nothing and sort of sit by and watch it happen like
hurricanes do or earthquakes is certainly not, I think, a viable course of action.
MS. PLETKA: Jack, I wanted to ask you about what Senator McCain just said and about what
our options are that you see on the ground. But when you answer, would you also talk a
little bit about how it is that we can spend so much time, so much treasure, with possibly
the best trainers that you can have on the ground, our own military forces, and yet the
Iraqi army at the first sight of a terrorist group just sort of evanesces?
GENERAL JACK KEANE: Yeah. Well, let’s just start there. I think most of us believe that
we executed the surge in Iraq in ’07 and ’08 and that was successful. By ’09, there
was a 90 percent reduction in violence, and it was well within the Iraqi security forces’
capability to handle that. But coincidental to that – that period of
time – Maliki began to move against his political opponents, not viewable to many
except true insiders. It started before 2011, but it was really put – it really was accelerated
after 2011. Not only his political opponents who were part of the political class were
being purged, but then he began to purge those in the military. And many of the leaders in
the military had distinguished themselves during the surge period. And I saw a lot of
that myself up front and close. And they were very capable and they had a certain amount
of devotion from the troops because of what they were able to accomplish. They fought
side by side with us and they distinguished themselves.
Many of those leaders – battalion, brigade and division commanders – were removed from
their positions and replaced by cronies and hacks who did not have the respect of their
troops. And, over time – this doesn’t happen overnight – but over time, in the
course of a number of years, the morale in those organizations became – was depleted
so much so that to strength in some of these organizations is only 50, 60 percent. And
so that army that ISIS faced is a mere shadow of its former self, and it helps to explain
why there was such an immediate collapse in the face of a determined, somewhat ruthless
and brutal enemy. And the fact of the matter is things are not
reversing, but in the last couple days the momentum that was achieved initially has changed.
There hasn’t been a town or a city of any consequence that has fallen. The resistance
has stiffened. But ISIS still has tactical initiative. They are choosing where the fight
is going to take place, but there is now some resistance to that. And most of this is taking
place north of Baghdad. We don’t believe that, despite the success
that ISIS has had, that they have the force generation – I apologize for the military
term – or the combat power to take Baghdad. I mean, Baghdad, if you look at it, looks
like Los Angeles in terms of the sprawling nature of the city, multiple egress and entrance
routes. There’s no terrain that wedges the city to speak of other than the rivers that
go through it. And the fact of the matter is that would take a considerable force to
do that – nor do they have the capability to evict the central government.
They can do suicide attacks, vehicles, and other things. They can mortar and rocket – very
similar things to what they did in 2006 and were very skilled at it. And we took all that
capability away from them. They’re going to try to move around the
belt of Baghdad, which is the suburbs, try to isolate the city and try to gain control
of that. It would be much more difficult than the eastern side. For obvious reasons, that’s
where the Shia strength is. But that will still be challenging for them.
I think they would accept a line of division in Iraq which gives them the west and most
of the north – not all of it but most of the north; coupled with what they’ve achieved
in Syria would be the largest radical Islamist piece of ground and territory and influence
that this movement has achieved since it began in the 1980s. And that in of itself is consequential.
And that would pose a significant threat to the region, to Iraq’s and Syria’s neighbors,
to Europe, and to the United States. And I’ve always said, while this is – certainly
immediate attention – is about Iraq, it’s not just about Iraq. This is about the United
States’ national security here. And anybody that doesn’t understand that just doesn’t
have a clue as to what is actually happening in front of us.
SEN. MCCAIN: Could I also add, you know, on what to do. There are two people that I think
are most trusted, and that’s Ryan Crocker and David Petraeus. I would call them to the
White House along with General Keane, the architect of the surge, and I would send them
to Baghdad. They’re trusted. They’re respected. And I would send other professional planners
to Baghdad to try to help make some sense out of this chaos if we can have enough of
the stiffening of the Iraqi military. Otherwise, you’re going to see the Shia militias, which
were the main enemy back during the period of the surge, really the preponderant military
force there. And, again, I don’t want to revisit the
past, but we’ve predicted it and the fact is we could have had a residual force there.
And I’ll be glad to go into an explanation of how I know that because Lindsey Graham
and I were there on the ground with Maliki, Allawi, and with Barzani.
But since we’re looking forward, I really believe that there also has to be a provision
for a transition government. And I don’t know exactly when that should take place,
because that’s not our first priority now. Our first priority is security. But I believe
there has to be a transition government into a coalition government headed by a Shia, but
a moderate one and a respected one, to effect national reconciliation.
MS. PLETKA: So do you think Maliki has to step down? Because there is a coalition government
now. SEN. MCCAIN: I do believe that he has to – yes.
But our first priority is stability of the military situation. There must be a coalition.
Now, what’s the problem? While we are having meetings at the White House and while the
president flies out to golf games and fundraisers, the Iranians are moving in. Probably the most
evil man on earth, at least in my estimation, the head of the Quds force, was already in
Baghdad. And there are published reports that Iranian forces are already in Iraq.
Well, while we’re trying to make up our minds, who will Maliki turn to? The Iranians.
And there’s every risk that we can see a significant Iranian influence, which there
already is, but even greater influence and even Iranian military there in the fight.
That is not good. That is a terrible turn of events. I don’t know – I haven’t
asked General Keane how he – what he thinks might happen there.
MS. PLETKA: I want to press you back, and I want General Keane to answer that question,
you as well, but here’s the question for you, how does this work? The president last
week in the Rose Garden suggested that there needed to be political changes. Jack has laid
out a whole series of problems and bad choices that have been made in Baghdad by the current
government. Okay. At the same time as we’re saying that, we’re saying, but don’t turn
to the Iranians. I can promise you the Iranians are not telling Nouri al- Maliki that he needs
to step aside. So as he sits there and weighs the options, doesn’t this thrust him into
their hands? SEN. MCCAIN: I’m afraid it does. And the
longer we wait to take decisive action, the more likely that is. And that’s –
MS. PLETKA: So how do – how do we square that contradiction? You just said you think
that he needs to step aside. SEN. MCCAIN: I think that we need, as I say,
to send Petraeus in, Crocker and some others, we also have communications with Maliki, and
say, look, we’re going to do everything we can to stabilize this situation, not sending
American ground troops, but we’re going to help you in every possible way, but you’re
going to have to also have a transition and we expect it. And is that a quid pro quo?
I don’t think so because I think the first priority is that the military situation has
to be stabilized. But the political situation cannot be stabilized, in my view, with Maliki
remaining because he has alienated so much of the Sunni population.
MS. PLETKA: I understand. SEN. MCCAIN: Yeah. I don’t know if General
Keane agrees with that or not. GEN. KEANE: I think the fact that we’re
seeking conditions and concessions from Maliki before we would commit military force is misguided.
The fact of the matter is that’s all rhetoric. What’s going to make a difference is the
leverage that the military assistance provides to the regime so that the regime can be sustained.
We have to solidify the defense of Baghdad. That’s job one.
Second, militarily, we have to conduct a counteroffensive to take away the territory and ground that
ISIS has been able to seize. And the fact of the matter is by providing that military
assistance to ISIF and its forces, that would give us the leverage that we don’t have
right now because we have a seat at the table. The senator is right. The person that has
a seat at the table outside of those who were in the regime are the Iranians. That would
change dramatically if the United States came to provide tangible military assistance that
actually changes things on the ground. It becomes decisive in assistance with those
ground forces. So you’re seeking a political answer here,
which is obviously a coalition government. Remember, the election on April 30th, Maliki
did not have enough votes to form that government. His opponents do, if they gathered together
and formed a coalition government. So we had this confluence of what is in the constitution
and the fact that a government has to be formed at the same time this crisis is going on.
I see that as an opportunity for us to leverage that and put together a coalition that makes
sense. This doesn’t happen overnight. And I agree
with the senator’s recommendation. We have a lot of people here that are highly skilled
in working with this government, but also have significant relationships with the Sunni
tribes who are now working with ISIS. There are those that are not reconcilable, and there
are two or three of them, JRTN, 1920s Brigade – I don’t want to get into too
much detail here. But there are many that are reconcilable who we reconciled with in
the past. And we have those relationships. And I’m convinced that they saw positive
change taking place politically where they’re back into the political infrastructure of
the country, and it’s serious and real and not smoke and mirrors, then I think we have
a different situation also on the ground. And, by the way, militarily, these people
are not 10 feet tall. Good Lord, I mean, they’re carrying – they’re well armed with light
weapons. Now, they have some other weapons that they took from ISF. They changed from
a terrorist organization conducting terrorist activity to a terrorist organization conducting
a military operation in relatively large groups. And the more they get into large groups in
staging areas and move down roads, the more vulnerable they are to us in terms of our
application of military force, particularly air power coordinated with ground forces.
More challenging was 2007 and 2008 in various neighborhoods inside Iraq, same people in
eight to 10-man cells living in the population and we’re having to go in there and win
that population to our favor and then dig these guys out there. We did all of that,
but that was much more challenging militarily than what we have in front of us today.
SEN. MCCAIN: Could I just add on this issue of Maliki? We’re not going to have any influence
on Maliki if we’re not involved, if we’re not engaged. I mean, why should he pay any
attention to whatever we say? That’s why I think it’s important for us to do everything
we can within reason and not American boots on the ground in a combat role to stabilize
the situation, and then exercise the leverage that we would have. Without any leverage,
then who fills the vacuum? I think it’s pretty obvious who fills the vacuum, and that’s
the Iranians and the rise of the Shiite militias which took us three years to put down thanks
to the surge. MS. PLETKA: I want to press Jack on some of
the things that he just laid out, but I also want to – there’s so many things to talk
about here, and I apologize to all of you for jumping around a little bit. But, you
know, if you were a cynic, why not say, you know, if the Iranians want to do this job,
the Iranians want to expend their soldiers and their firepower and their credibility,
such as it is, getting rid of ISIS, fine. Why not?
SEN. MCCAIN: The Iranians remain one of the greatest threats to the security of the United
States of America. You can go back to the bombings of the Marine barracks. You can – attempts
to assassinate the Saudi ambassador here. The most important thing to me, and I’m
sure to any veterans here, is the supplying and training of these people that planted
these most efficient, if you want to use that word, IEDs, the copper tipped ones that were
responsible for the deaths of many, many, many Americans, and the training they provided
to these people who carried out these acts. These are the worst actors, in my view, in
the world today. And for us to somehow rely on them for anything that would be in America’s
national interest would contradict the entire behavior and rhetoric, propaganda and well-known
positions of the Muslim clerics in Tehran. MS. PLETKA: So you don’t agree that we could
make a partnership a la Stalin and Roosevelt. SEN. MCCAIN: It’s the best – you know,
the general and I were talking about that. Stalin never attacked the United States, so
that comparison, I think, is not valid. But also, if anybody can convince me where it
would be in our interest to see the Iranians even in more influence and control in Iraq,
I would have to see it. And it is a clear record that we’re the great Satan and they
will utilize everything they can within reason and in their power to destroy the United States
of America. MS. PLETKA: You talked about what was necessary
militarily, and I want to press you a little bit more on that, General Keane. And, also,
your use of the word we, because you also don’t think that there’s a role for boots
– we all now say boots on the ground, it’s become such a trope. But there’s no role
for U.S. combat soldiers in Iraq. But what do you see as – what do you see as the necessary
cooperation that the Iraqis need from us? GEN. KEANE: Yeah. Well, first and foremost,
they need to get an intelligence architecture that – we wouldn’t give them the architecture.
We would have it there, which we don’t have now, and we would download all of our national
theater and local intelligence systems. So we have true situational awareness – military
term, that tells you what is the enemy doing, where is the enemy, who, what, when, where,
and we need that. When we pulled out there in 2011, that screen
for Maliki went blank. We took all that capability with us, never left any of it there for him.
We have to put that back because all we can see is down the road. We need to see what’s
happening in Syria, what the lines of communications are, where the staging areas are, what’s
happened in northern, western Iraq. We can get all of that back in the useful hands of
military practitioners – these would be Iraqis – who will be able to take action
against them. That’s number one. Number two, they need some planners. We need
people to help them think through this process, not so much (to consolidate ?) the defense
of Baghdad, which they could use some help with, but the counteroffensive. And we have
highly skilled people who know how to do this. They also need some advisors down at the – at
least down at the division level – to help the division commanders work through the challenges
that they’re facing. And I also would clandestinely employ some
Special Operations Forces that would target critical staging areas or critical things
– command and control nodes if we found them – but also would target their leaders.
We wouldn’t talk about where that’s coming from or who’s doing it, but we would just
do it – things that we do every single night in Afghanistan or used to do every night in
Iraq when we were there. They’re highly skilled. They don’t need to be dependent
on a lot of people, but, nonetheless, it would be a significant combat multiplier.
And then, the last thing is air power itself. We need to get intelligence surveillance and
reconnaissance of the battlefield and we have to go out and take look at it to see it. And
that will help us get targets. I’m not suggesting that the targets are going to be available
to us like when we invaded Afghanistan and we ran sorties every single day, or when we
invaded Iraq and we had hundreds of sorties every day. That was an air campaign. This
is not what we’re talking about here. This is a limited and selected use of air power.
So you need something to look at it, acquire the targets, and then you conduct – military
term – an air interdiction against those targets. Those targets are staging areas,
lines of communication where they’re moving supplies, safe haven sanctuaries. And they’re
in Syria to be sure. This enemy that we’re fighting doesn’t recognize that border.
Now, the height of folly would be for us to conduct military operations and recognize
that border. And that makes no sense, so we have to go deep and take away their support
structure if we’re going to push against this force.
And so that’s air interdiction. We take those targets down. And then, as they get
closer and fight the Iraqi security forces in places they’re doing now, to facilitate
the use of air power, we cannot let the pilot just release those bombs so close to friendlies
because they’ll be killed or civilians will be killed.
What we do, just to understand it, is we have air ground controllers who take charge of
the bombs that are in the airplane. They laser it – the guy drops – gravity drops the
bomb and we laser it to the target, with a 95 to 98 percentage of probability that’s
going to be within 30 meters of the target, pretty high precision weapons. We also provide
digital coordinates to the bomb, it’s gravity dropped, and it flies to the target. We take
control of the munitions away from the pilot – not that he’s not important, he is – but
this is how we deliver accurate munitions in the place of friendly forces that do not
harm, and also in the face of civilians who are in populated areas and be effective with
that. That requires, I believe, Special Forces on the ground to do that, who have the skill
sets to do that, speak the language of the Iraqis, are used to operating with host military
forces. That’s all they do is work with military forces from other countries.
So this is – this is the sort of the suite of things that are available to us. It’s
very different from a big, large campaign. It doesn’t require a lot of resources to
do it, but, nonetheless, it would be quite effective and it would empower the Iraqi security
forces to have some success, and then we begin to leverage the situation because the United
States has provided a capability that is becoming more and more decisive, and we obviously have
a seat at the table in terms of what the final outcome would be politically.
MS. PLETKA: So let’s talk about Washington politics. We lay out the set of options that
way, Washington and American politics. And we say that Iraq and Syria and the challenge
in the two really are not divisible. All I can think to myself is what would happen if
this got put to a vote? If the president had not in fact decided, as the “Wall
Street Journal” reported today, that air power is not going to be an option for him
right now, what would happen? SEN. MCCAIN: I think it depends on leadership,
Dany. This is all about leadership. And, frankly, I grow a little tired of this, Americans are
war weary. Do you think the Americans weren’t war weary after World War Two, and North Korea
invaded South Korea, and Harry Truman said, look, we’re going to stop this. And we lost
– I believe 30,000 dead and I don’t know how many wounded. Do you think that Americans
were weary when – after World War Two when we had really so many thousands of casualties,
but we had the kind of leadership that was there, the kind of leadership that when on
several occasions after the Vietnam War everybody was war weary then?
But it requires a president who will sit in the Oval Office and look into the camera and
say, my fellow Americans, what’s happening in Iraq and Syria today is a direct threat
to the United States of America. These are the pictures of the slaughter that’s taking
place. These are the atrocities that are going on. And these are the things that these people
have said, that when I was at New York, we are next or something like that, one of their
guys said – that our Director of National Intelligence and Secretary of Homeland Security
– have both said that these people will be planning attacks on the United States of
America. That way is how you get the American people to understand what’s at stake here.
And I say this – I shouldn’t say it, but it doesn’t mean going to play golf. It means
that you get together with your national security team and you stay there and you talk, and
you listen to every possible person that you can who has experience. I say it with respect.
General Keane should be there. David Petraeus should be there. The ones who were the architects
of the surge that won, and we had it won, and some of the best minds you can find, both
for intervention and against it. And so it requires American leadership. I
saw or read recently that when – at one point, 15 percent of the American people thought
we ought to stay and fight in Korea. And yet, Harry Truman, even at the risk of his presidency,
knew that, think of what Asia would look like today if we had withdrawn from Korea and the
Korean Peninsula had become an outpost for – obviously, we see their offspring up in
North Korea. So it requires leadership. And Americans I believe are very intelligent people,
and when they have this laid out for them, I think they will respond positively.
MS. PLETKA: But is that going to happen? SEN. MCCAIN: Not that I know of, but I continue
to hope so. I continue to pray so because I think that the Director of National Intelligence
is right. I think that the Secretary of Homeland Security is right that if this continues along
this path, we will see plots – how many – I think there are 100 Americans now is
it that are – that are fighting over there already. There’s thousands of – when you
total them all up – of Europeans that are there fighting. The first American – last
week or the week before, was the first American citizen to blow himself up as a suicide bomber
in Syria. And so if this contagion could be – if I thought it could
be contained, then I would have a very different outlook on this whole situation.
MS. PLETKA: The president met with members of Congress today. I haven’t read any reporting
about that, but presumably he wanted to lay out what he was thinking moving forward. He
laid the groundwork by saying that we’re not going to use air power. What other –
SEN. MCCAIN: You mean ground troops. Yeah. Yeah. MS. PLETKA: Or – well, ground troops.
SEN. MCCAIN: Or air power either. MS. PLETKA: Yeah.
SEN. MCCAIN: You know, it’s my understanding of the meeting today he’s having with congressional
leaders that he’s just going to describe the situation with them and not propose any
specific course of action. It’s time to come up with a course of action.
It’s – Rome is burning here. And, you know what – 500,000 people, the city of
Mosul, are now refugees, 500,000; the 1,700 that they claim they executed? A lot of us
have seen on the Internet these pictures. They’re horrible. And I think we also know,
again – I’m insulting everybody’s intelligence, but reminding that not even al Nusra likes
these guys. I mean, these are the worst. Al Qaeda doesn’t like them. These are the worst,
these ISIS people. And, by the way, the Iraqi people do not reflect the extremism – the
view and attitudes of the Iraqi people do not reflect those of ISIS.
MS. PLETKA: We’ve mentioned Dave Petraeus a whole number of times. And there’s – I
know there’s no shortage of admirers of General Petraeus and friends in this room.
Jack and I were talking about this just before we came in. He was at a conference sitting
in; the newspapers reported and said that he thought that we should not – we should
not have an air campaign over Iraq. GEN. KEANE: That surprised me. I had been
with him Saturday night. I felt we were pretty much in sync. And the stated reason is because
we’re supporting Shia militias? MS. PLETKA: Right. We should not be the – what
was the line? We should not be the air force for Shia militias in Iraq.
GEN. KEANE: Yeah. Well, the fact of the matter is, if you look at the fight that’s taking
place right now, in Tal Afar, you’ve got Iraqi commando forces there and also local
tribes that are there that help sort of defending, you know, their way of life and their livelihood.
(They’re not ?) Shia militias. And the fight that’s taking place in Baqubah
is much the same. We have Iraqi military in there also. And at Baiji today, where the
refinery is, the resistance there as well and they’ve moved forward different commando
and counterterrorism units to deal with this. I do believe Shia militias, when the cleric
Sistani does something that’s highly unusual, the Fatwa that he has for – or against ISIS
– and asks people to volunteer, so many – that is going to thicken the defense of
Baghdad and particularly neighborhoods. When it comes time to conduct a counteroffensive
against the north, the Iraqi military will be a part of that operation to be sure. I
would hope that the Kurds are a part of that. And I’ll say again, if we take a limited,
narrow focus on the use of air power and not tie to it the political consequence, that
will lead you maybe to not doing it. But if you tie it to a political consequence, which
is the opportunity to have a coalition government here, then I think it’s more than an acceptable
risk to use. If we don’t do anything, the Iranians will
be there. Maliki doesn’t want to become a client state of Iran. He has a relationship
with Iran that has increased ever since we pulled back our relationship with them, which
started, coincidentally, all the way back in 2009 when this administration took over.
He knew that he was dealing with a completely different administration that had a totally
different view of Iraq. So that relationship has grown with Iran over time. All that said,
he does not want to be a client state of Iran. He doesn’t want them in his hip pocket.
If it means preservation of the regime, he’ll take the deal. He’ll take it. And that – it
will be what it is. It will be like Syria. Syria’s a client state of Iran. And then
Iraq will be that. The Iranians will not drive ISIS out of Iraq.
They’re not interested in it. They’ll take the divided Iraq. As long as they have
the shrines, they have – the Shia population is protected, they have 70 percent of the
oil, they’ll take that deal. And ISIS will stay there with this incredible safe haven
and sanctuary they have which then will threaten its neighbors, and Iran will take that deal.
Who are the neighbors they’re going to threaten? Those are the strategic adversaries of Iran.
They’re not going to do anything to interfere with any of that.
So this doesn’t make any sense to me, if we do half measures and we pull back, we get
caught up in narrow views in the application of force and not see it strategically in what
it really means in terms of the local political situation, what it means in the much larger
strategic context in terms of helping stabilize this region against radical Islam.
SEN. MCCAIN: Dany, I think the nature of your question highlights what the dilemma is. There
is no good option now. There’s the least of bad options. The worst option, in my view
certainly, is to do nothing. And every one of these proposals that we are discussing
has a downside to it. And I don’t mean to beat a dead horse, but
we are looking at the results of bad decisions that were made a long time ago. When the decision
was made not to pursue a residual force in Iraq, that began a train of events which now
leads us to where we are today in a situation where we have to select from a group of bad
options trying to pick the better one of the bad options.
If we had left a residual force behind – in my view, we had a situation where, you know,
during the days of the surge, Ryan Crocker and David Petraeus were literally in Maliki’s
office every other day making sure that he was steered in the right direction, that the
government was inclusive, that he was making the right decisions. Then, of course, they
were replaced by an ambassador who had no experience in the region whatsoever.
But the lack of not only U.S. military – which was all supportive, not combat – and the
removal of that influence on Maliki, I think, was a – was a perfect storm, plus the Arab
spring, plus what happened in Syria. You look at – lump that all together and you find
where we are today, we’re choosing from a better of bad options.
MS. PLETKA: A lot of people have been talking about the redrawing of the borders that were
drawn at the beginning of the 20th century. And I think, for some, I know Vice President
Biden is always interested in talking about the dissolution of the country that we’re
operating in, Afghanistan and Iraq being the two that he suggested should be divided up.
But we’re talking once again about the division – the potential division of Iraq. Some are
talking also about the division of Syria. Has anybody talked about how this affects
our national interests? SEN. MCCAIN: I was just going to say, you
know, it’s nice to talk in general terms about dividing up that part of the world.
Then, when you get down to details as to exactly where that line is, it gets a lot more complicated.
We know that the Kurds have just moved into Kirkuk. I don’t think they’re going to
be out for a long period of time. I think the Kurds are looking even more longingly
toward a Kurdish state. But I, then, of course – well, how do the Turks react to that idea?
You know, every one of these – well, you would just divide it up between Sunni, Shia,
Kurds; it gets a little – a lot more difficult when you decide exactly where those boundary
lines are. And in addition to that, there’s not a solid Shiite population in southern
Iraq and not solid in – anyway, and Syria, of course, is another aspect of it.
I do believe that if nothing happens, you will have a de facto partition, Kurd, Shia,
Sunni, and God knows about Syria, but where Iraq is concerned – but that is also something
that is going to alarm the neighbors. And, by the way, we haven’t even mentioned the
ISIS and Syrian threat to Jordan in particular, Lebanon and the other countries that are bordering
on this cauldron. MS. PLETKA: Let’s talk for a minute – before
we open up to questions, let’s just talk about our allies in the region. We spent a
lot of time in years past talking about our allies. What are they thinking looking at
this, the Jordanians, the Saudis, the Emirates? We’re certainly hearing from our friends
in the Gulf about what’s going on in Iraq. What message are we sending them and what
conclusions are they going to draw? What are they going to do?
GEN. KEANE: Well, I think, you know, for a number of years now, they – anybody that’s
gone to the region pretty much gets the same feedback from our allies, and that is that
the United States is disengaging from the region, and we’re not sure if you’re going
to be there if and when we’re threatened. And one policy after another would indicate
that. And I think they’re surprised by the scale
and magnitude of what has happened. They’re troubled by what this movement would mean,
you know, to their countries and their sovereignty – radical Islam actually growing not two
mountain ranges away in Pakistan but right in the Levant. That is a stunning achievement
for radical Islamists and a significant threat to them.
And I think the other thing they’re worrying about as they watch this unfold geopolitically,
is the influence that Iran has had in Syria. That state is there, still propped up because
of Russian and Iranian influence, period. That’s the reality of it. And they would
see Iraq and Iran having undue influence in Iraq as well.
So when I think they look at this, they – it’s got to be significantly unsettling for them
because they’ve been telling us that there’s danger ahead. And here it is. It is right
in front of us now. It is here. And I’m sure they’re sitting there looking at this
and they don’t know if the United States is going to do anything. Imagine that. I’m
convinced that they have serious doubts as to whether the United States, even now, with
the magnitude of this threat, will do anything. SEN. MCCAIN: And, you know, Dany, they have
to stay in the region. The United States, for better or for worse, can leave the region.
So they have to accommodate to the realities on the ground. I think I read that the Saudi
foreign minister flew to Tehran and spent some time there.
So my concern is if they believe that – well, that they have to live in the region and they
have to accommodate, and the worst thing that they would want to do is accommodate to the
Iranians, but at the same time, if it’s a question of survival they will at least
explore other options if they think that the United States is not the stabilizing force
that we’ve been in the region for many, many, many years.
MS. PLETKA: I want to ask you one last thing. And I’m sorry. I was switching bait. I promised
to let you all ask, but I have to ask you this: one of the things – as I’ve talked
about this in the press and with many others that I have constantly heard, is none of this
would be a problem if Saddam Hussein were still there. If only we hadn’t upset the
careful balance, the dual containment. You said something very shrewd a number of years
ago that I often quote, and that is the assumption always is that the status quo would
have remained the status quo and that we just upset the applecart, otherwise he just would
have remained there. I think that’s absolutely true, but I wonder what you think.
SEN. MCCAIN: I believe that Saddam Hussein sooner or later would have been a threat to
the United States of America. It’s clear that although he did not have weapons of mass
destruction, certainly those were his ambitions. And one of my deep regrets is that the information
that was provided to us and to the American people that turned out not to be true – that
he had a stock of weapons of mass destruction – turned out not to be true.
But the facts that were presented to me and to the now Secretary of State, Senator Clinton,
and many other Democrats caused the vote that we took. If I were presented with the same
information today, I would cast the same vote. I mean –
MS. PLETKA: Unlike Mrs. Clinton. SEN. MCCAIN: Yeah. But under – but the fact
is that Saddam Hussein – not to mention his brutality and all that; there are a lot
of brutal dictators in this world – had ambitions. And those ambitions were threatening
to the United States of America. I don’t think that Saddam Hussein would have restrained
himself in his quest for domination – that everything about his behavior in the past,
including the war that he waged with the Iranians, indicates that he would be satisfied with
the status quo and the status quo would have remained. I don’t know how General Keane
– GEN. KEANE: Let’s take some questions. Come
on. MS. PLETKA: Sorry, folks. The young man in
the front. If I can just remind you all our house rules: please wait for a microphone.
I’ll call on you. Wait for a microphone. Identify yourself. And ask a question. Don’t
make a statement, please. This gentleman upfront. Q: Thank you. My name is Rakif Ketab (ph).
I’m a graduate of the Georgetown and American Universities. I’m from Kabul, Afghanistan.
Senator McCain, you stand for the best of what America is and what makes America exceptional,
so in my book, you and Lindsey Graham and a bunch of others in the Senate are true American
heroes. You talk about options – SEN. MCCAIN: I’m glad you (called on him
?). (Laughter.) MS. PLETKA: I know. We worked this beforehand.
Q: You talk about options in Iraq. I think determining the type of action requires establishing
the true nature of chaos in Iraq and I see a dichotomy of diverging, discombobulating
narratives being put before the American people and the world. The established facts are that
this is an onslaught by an Islamist radical extremist group committed to establishing
an Islamist state. And the administration is calling it a sectarian
conflict and, therefore, their problem, and thus justifying inertia or lack of action.
What are your thoughts on that? And would things, as the administration is,
you know, taking certain attitudes towards Afghanistan, similar attitudes, would things
unravel in the same way in Afghanistan as well? Thank you.
SEN. MCCAIN: I think that if we stick to this decision to remove all U.S. forces by 2017
that we will see the same movie again. I believe the Taliban and the testimony of experts has
been resurgent. I also believe that they can wait. I believe they also have sanctuary in
Pakistan, and I think that the same events can transpire.
I’m glad we had another presidential election, but there’s a great fragility to this civil
society in Afghanistan today. And, my friends, look at how far they have come, but it’s
very fragile. And I think an enduring United States presence, which both of the candidates
were in favor of, not just the BSA, but a continued American presence. I hope that the
president will learn from the lesson of Iraq and not repeat it in Afghanistan. He can always
change his policy. I wonder if General Keane, you –
GEN. KEANE: Well, I just would add something. I agree with what the Senator said. I hope
that what comes out of this is a true understanding and coming to grips with the fact that we
really do not have a comprehensive strategy to deal with the spread of radical Islam.
I mean, it doesn’t exist. I’ve provided testimony on this. I’ve been challenged
on it. And I’ve asked them, tell me what it is if we have one? We don’t have one.
And now we have it spreading rather significantly. It is in the Levant now. It is in North Africa.
And we’ve got to come up with a strategy to deal with this.
And the only way to deal with this is the way we dealt with the other ideology we faced
in the world, and that was communism. We came together because of common political beliefs
that this was bad for the world and we established political and military alliances to curb it
and stand up to it. And that’s what we need now: political and military alliances, shared
intelligence, training, equipment, technology, help to train other people’s forces to cope
with this problem, and not about our people fighting all of it, but us certainly leading
an effort to do this. And I hope now that this is an awakening in
our administration and policymakers that despite the fact that al Qaeda has been decimated
in Pakistan, radical Islam and its threat to the world is on the rise unequivocally.
And we have to do something about it. MS. PLETKA: Paul Wolfowitz.
Q: Hi. Paul Wolfowitz, AEI. SEN. MCCAIN: I think we recognize you. (Laughter.)
Q: Thank you, sir. And thank you both for your service to our country and for your willingness
to speak the truth. To pick up this question, starting from what Jack said about our strategy
in the Cold War, which I think among the most important things was helping people who are
on the front lines of that fight. We heard for the last three years that if we do anything
to support opposition to Assad in Syria, it will lead to radical Islam emerging in Syria.
Well, guess what? We didn’t do anything and now we have the largest radical extremist
group in Syria. My question is, given that the Free Syrian
Army seems to be among the few people willing and able to fight ISIS, what would be wrong
with applying the same strategy that Jack proposed for Iraq to apply it to the Free
Syrian Army if, let’s say, the Turks would be willing or the Jordanians would cooperate?
GEN. KEANE: Well, I totally agree with that. And I think that this is an opportunity because
the only people in Syria that have fought ISIS is the Free Syrian Army, as Secretary
Wolfowitz mentioned. That’s the harsh – that’s the harsh reality of it.
The fact of the matter is Assad’s regime forces and ISIS really do not engage one another.
ISIS has been about territory and governance and has not been about trying to attack the
regime and take it down. The Free Syrian Army, who has seen ISIS as a threat to the larger
Syria, has engaged them and has had some success with them. Jamal Maroof, to be specific, he’s
one of the tribal leaders – one of the military leaders who’s had that kind of success.
What needs to be done is robust arms to the Free Syrian Army. They are getting TOW missiles
now, and every indication of that program – pilot program, has been good. In other
words, those weapons are staying in the hands of the people that we’ve given them to.
The Saudis have given them weapons for a long time and none of those weapons have fallen
into others’ hands. I think this is a policy recommendation that
should have been adhered to a long time ago. Secretary Clinton, Director Petraeus and the
Pentagon recommended to the president in the summer of 2012 to arm the Free Syrian Army
because the leaders had been vetted. That still hasn’t happened in a robust way and
we need to train them in a robust way. And you have to connect the dots here in terms
of what is happening in Syria and what is happening in Iraq. And we do have an opportunity
here to push back on ISIS in both countries, use the ISF in Iraq on the ground to push
back, but also use the Free Syrian Army in Syria to push back, not just on ISIS but also
on the – (inaudible). SEN. MCCAIN: If we had done two, three years
ago, even two years ago, what we’re doing now – and I am not on the Intelligence Committee
– I only know reports that we’re giving them, weapons and some training, which has
been stepped up dramatically, it would have shifted the momentum on the battlefield. It’s
not enough now. Now you’re going to take out their air and that’s going to give them
the missiles to do so. And I believe you’re going to have to have a humanitarian
zone as well, where these refugees and training and army and a lot of things can go on.
I don’t think it’s enough to do what we are doing now. If we were doing what we’re
doing now, before 5,000 Hezbollah came in the fight at the demand of the Iranians, then
we could have succeeded then. And that, I think, will be one of the great tragedies
in history. I wish every American could go to a refugee
camp on the Turkish or Jordanian border. I’ll never forget being there. There were only
100,000 some refugees there, and a school teacher was taking me around. And there were
children everywhere, and she said, Senator McCain, you see all these children? I said,
yeah. And she said, they believe that you Americans have abandoned them and they’re
going to take revenge on you when they grow up.
We are sowing the wind, my friends, by not acting in Syria and by allowing this slaughter
to go on, and Bashar Assad will go down in history among one of the greatest mass murderers.
MS. PLETKA: The gentleman over here. Q: Thank you very much for both of you for
this excellent panel. Abes Gardem (ph) with SAIS. The question that I have is maybe two
questions, one for either. Senator McCain, my question to you, this trying
– many people trying to couple any aid on a condition that Maliki makes immediate reforms
before any aid is received. And given the fact that, you know, political reform takes
time and takes negotiations and the events on the ground are moving so fast, you know,
aren’t we trying to tell Maliki that you have a choice between failing militarily or
failing politically, and that would definitely make him move to the next ally that will give
him the aid without conditions? And you mentioned, of course, Iran. We all know that they’re
the alternative. I would like your thoughts on that.
And for the general, thank you for your service, for both of you of course, is this. You mentioned
that you left a good Iraqi army behind and that Maliki pretty much did a lot of things.
Now, Maliki probably did many things that undermined some of the military. But, definitely,
the U.S. left an Iraqi military without an air force, without logistics, without many
other essential elements for winning. In fact, the military that we are seeing now
fighting and that has been fighting in Anbar and other places is the exact capability that
it was when it was fighting along American forces. What happened in Mosul is not with
the Iraqi military. It’s an anomaly. And we see that the military is back to its capacity
when the U.S. left it. I would like your thoughts on that. And, again, thank you for this panel.
SEN. MCCAIN: This is really one of the most difficult dilemmas we face is your question.
I believe that the pressing crisis now is military. And so, therefore, I think we have
to do what’s necessary, prescribed by General Keane and others. At the same time, make it
clear that we believe that a coalition government has to be formed. But the urgency of the military
situation leads me to the conclusion that we need to move forward with whatever assistance
we can give them to fight back this immediate threat to – existential threat – that
they are facing. GEN. KEANE: Well, I apologize if no one heard
that last answer. My microphone disappeared here so I’ve got this spare.
The Iraqi military – it is true that when we left in 2011, there was a lot of unfinished
business with the Iraqi military. They had not built their entire logistics infrastructure.
They had not built the intelligence systems that they totally needed.
Look, by and large, the units – we had a lot of confidence in the organizations themselves,
which is essentially mostly an infantry organization. But they did not have any air power to speak
of. They were acquiring that from us and helicopter support was at a minimum. And all of that
was slowly going to grow into the force. And the other thing we wanted to do was leave
some advisers there to also assist them as they go forward. The on-scene commander at
the time, General Austin, recommended a residual force of 23,000 to provide many of the functions
that I just described and also to provide a counterterrorism force. And that quickly
resulted in no force. It’s a false argument when you hear people
say to you that the reason why no forces were left is because Maliki put on the table immunity
as an issue, and that became a contentious issue for the United States and we walked
away with no forces. That’s not true. Our first recommendation, after the general recommended
23,000 – by the president’s personal envoy, was 10,000. Maliki knew that was not a serious
proposal and that actually got negotiated down even lower than that. And at that point,
the immunity issue came out as political cover for himself within his own political class
because he knew he was going to have no American forces staying. And certainly the issue over
immunity with a force less than 10,000 made no sense whatsoever.
Now, understand this. The government of Iraq knew full well that we have 40 of these SOFA
agreements all over the world and our soldiers have immunity in every one of them. They knew
full well that we were not going to ever stay there unless we had the same arrangement with
them that we have with every single host country. They knew that for a fact that that was a
non-negotiable item. So that was thrown out there for political cover. And now it’s
using – it’s being used as the bellwether reason for why no forces are left. That’s
rubbish. It’s just not true. MS. PLETKA: In the middle.
Q: Hi. My name is Lauren Farmen (ph). I’m a student at Duke and an intern here at AEI.
And my question is that do you think that the situation in Iraq could develop to the
point where it would be necessary to put troops on the ground or else risk American security
interests? And if so, do you think that there’s a need for people to acknowledge that possibility
to preserve it as a politically viable option? SEN. MCCAIN: I don’t think it’s politically
viable. And I think we can succeed without it. So I believe that, as General Keane has
described, we could have some Special Forces people. We could even have some forward air
controllers. We could have some people in Baghdad to help them with their planning and
perhaps logistic support that we may be able to provide them with. But it’s just a reality
that there are not going to be combat units on the ground there, certainly not until something
worse would happen. GEN. KEANE: Just even from the military perspective
– take the politics out of it – I don’t think it’s necessary. I’m convinced with
the forces that are available and the Iraqi security forces that are available there,
with the thickening of those forces, certainly with additional volunteers and the use of
U.S. air power, well-coordinated with those forces, that they will systematically be able
to take back the ground and territory that they lost. That’s all militarily possible
and it’s only – we don’t need to start pouring in U.S. brigades to do that.
I mean, this is largely the Iraqis’ fight. And we trained them for this and let’s get
on with it. They certainly had some problems up in the north, as we indicated. And I tried
to give you an explanation of why that is. No excuse. I mean, that’s horrific what
took place there. But I think they’re slowly recovering and the resistance is stiffening.
I’m not going to be Pollyannaish about it. The fact of the matter is we’re nowhere
near reversing what took place. That will take a plan. That will take some coordination.
And it will take some additional resources and also leadership and will to want to do
it. And that remains to be seen. But I do think it’s possible and we certainly don’t
need brigades of infantry from the United States to do this for them. This is up to
them, but we can help them. MS. PLETKA: I’m sorry. The history of the
end of the Cold War is the United States helping armies and militias help themselves. Why is
that – why is that no longer part of our strategy?
SEN. MCCAIN: I don’t know, Dany, except that politics does play a role. President
Obama – many political observers believe that the reason why he won the nomination
for the presidency of the Democrat Party was because of his vote against the Iraq war.
The president stated in the campaign that he and I were in – by the way, after I lost,
I slept like a baby, sleep two hours, wake up and cry; sleep two hours, wake up and cry.
(Applause.) Anyway, that he was going to get out. And that was the stated objective that
the president had. And even well into his presidency he stated
the tide of war is receding. We’re going to get out. It’s not an accident that the
plan that he articulated about Afghanistan is that in January of 2017, when he turns
over the presidency to his successor, that we will have been out of both wars. That was
a great plan of his. And I also don’t think that this president
understands the requirement for United States influence in the world, much less that region.
When vacuums are created, they are filled. And I think we have seen these vacuums filled
not only in the Middle East, but in many other parts of the world because of the perception
– not the perception that America is weak; the perception that we’re unreliable. The
seminal decision, I think, of the presidency was the Syria decision. That message reverberated
throughout the globe. MS. PLETKA: Very good. Let me acknowledge
a guest of ours who I have not called on or spoken to, the ambassador of Iraq, Lukman
Faily, who’s one of the busier men in Washington, so I’m not going to burden him any further
by making him take part in this conversation. I’m sure you’re taking part in many similar
conversations around town. Let me thank General Keane, Senator McCain
and all of you for joining us. The conversation will continue. Thank you both. (Applause.)


  1. McCain was in Syria last year hanging out with ISIS at about the time they got a major amount of American weapons. I'm sorry he didn't address this since he starts off by acknowledging how the situation in Syria has contributed to the present situation in Iraq.

  2. Proven again  SEN MCCAIN  is WRONG in analysis of the real threat to US interest and people still ask his views about the delicate political  issues which require intelligence. Sen. Mccain supported arming FSA with US weapons against president ASSAD's regime and the result is ISIS. Sen. McNUT  also supports the fucking fascists in UKRANIA government  for  daily bombing and killing helpless people. 

  3. I guarantee America will eventually send in ground troops for one purpose or another. And its noteworthy that Malaki stepped down just a couple months afer this. Or should I say virtually forced out of power by Obama.

  4. McCain has no right to talk in regards to our military he was a Traitor a songbird in Vietnam our others Soldiers were beaten but McCain wasn't touched. His arm was damaged when he jumped from the Plane. Nixon gave him a Pardon for his action against this Country. He has no right or being in anyway about our Military safety. General Keene is an A plus General who is highly respected. McCain needs removal from Senate.

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