A Critical Crossroad
An NRO Primary Document
Editor’s note: Senator Joseph Lieberman (D., Conn.) delivered this speech on the Senate floor on the evening of Monday, February 5.
Mr. President, our nation has reached a critical crossroad in the war in Iraq. More than four years ago, this chamber voted to authorize the use of force against Saddam Hussein, a tyrant who slaughtered his own people, attacked his neighbors, and threatened our security. Thanks to the courageous service of the men and women of our military, that evil regime was overthrown. And in its place came hopes of democracy in the heart of the Middle East and a victory in the war for the hearts and minds of the Muslim world.
As of today, those hopes have not been realized. Because of the ruthless conduct of our enemies, as well as our own failures, we instead today find ourselves on a knife’s edge in Iraq.
Now, a new course has been chosen. A new commander is in place in Iraq, confirmed by this Senate. A new Secretary of Defense is in place at the Pentagon, confirmed by this Senate. And a new strategy has begun to be put into action on the ground in Iraq by our troops.
It is altogether proper that we debate our policy in Iraq. It should be a debate that is as serious as the situation in Iraq and that reflects the powers the Constitution gives to Congress in matters of war.
But that, sadly, is not the debate that the Warner-Levin resolution invites us to have. I am going to speak strongly against this resolution because I feel strongly about it. I do so with respect for my colleagues who have offered it, but I believe its passage would so compromise America’s security, present and future, that I will say so in the clearest terms I can.
The resolution before us, its sponsors concede, will not stop the new strategy from going forward. As we speak, thousands of troops are already in Baghdad, with thousands more moving into position to carry out their Commander’s orders. This resolution does nothing to alter these facts.
Instead, its sponsors say it will send a message of rebuke from the Senate to the president, from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other. But there is a world beyond Pennsylvania Avenue that is watching and listening.
What we say here is being heard in Baghdad by Iraqi moderates, trying to decide whether the Americans will stand with them. We are being heard by our men and women in uniform, who will be interested to know whether we support the plan they have begun to carry out. We are being heard by the leaders of the thuggish regimes in Iran and Syria, and by Al Qaeda terrorists, eager for evidence that America’s will is breaking. And we are being heard across America by our constituents, who are wondering if their Congress is capable of serious action, not just hollow posturing.
This resolution is not about Congress taking responsibility. It is the opposite. It is a resolution of irresolution.
For the Senate to take up a symbolic vote of no confidence on the eve of a decisive battle is unprecedented, but it is not inconsequential. It is an act which, I fear, will discourage our troops, hearten our enemies, and showcase our disunity. And that is why I will vote against cloture.
If you believe that General Petraeus and his new strategy have a reasonable chance of success in Iraq, then you should resolve to support him and his troops through the difficult days ahead. On the other hand, if you believe that this new strategy is flawed or that our cause is hopeless in Iraq, then you should vote to stop it. Vote to cut off funds. Vote for a binding timeline for American withdrawal. If that is where your convictions lie, then have the courage of your convictions to accept the consequences of your convictions. That would be a resolution.
The non-binding measure before us, by contrast, is an accumulation of ambiguities and inconsistencies. It is at once for the war but also against the war. It pledges its support to the troops in the field but also washes its hands of what they are doing. It approves more troops for Anbar but not for Baghdad.
We cannot have it both ways. We cannot vote full confidence in General Petraeus, but no confidence in his strategy. We cannot say that the troops have our full support, but disavow their mission on the eve of battle. This is what happens when you try to wage war by committee. That is why the Constitution gave that authority to the President as Commander in Chief.
Cynics may say this kind of thing happens all of the time in Congress. In this case, however, they are wrong. If it passed, this resolution would be unique in American legislative history. I contacted the Library of Congress on this question last week and was told that, never before, when American soldiers have been in harm’s way, fighting and dying in a conflict that Congress had voted to authorize, has Congress turned around and passed a resolution like this, disapproving of a particular battlefield strategy.
I ask each of my colleagues to stop for a moment and consider this history carefully. Even during Vietnam, even after the Tet Offensive, even after the invasion of Cambodia, Congress did not take up a resolution like this one.
Past Congresses certainly debated wars. They argued heatedly about them. And they clashed directly with the Executive Branch over their execution. But in doing so they accepted the consequences of their convictions.
This resolution does no such thing. It is simply an expression of opinion. It does not pretend to have any substantive effect on policy on the ground in Iraq.
But again, I ask you: what will this resolution say to our soldiers? What will it say to our allies? And what will it say to our enemies?
We heard from General Petraeus during his confirmation hearing that war is a battle of wills. Our enemies believe that they are winning in Iraq today. They believe that they can outlast us; that, sooner or later, we will tire of this grinding conflict and go home. That is the lesson that Osama bin Laden took from our retreats from Lebanon and Somalia in the 1980s and 1990s. It is a belief at the core of the insurgency in Iraq, and at the core of radical Islam worldwide. And this resolution—by codifying our disunity, by disavowing the mission our troops are about to undertake—confirms our enemies’ belief in American weakness.
This resolution also sends a terrible message to our allies. I agree that we must hold the Iraqi government to account. That is exactly what the resolution Senator McCain and I have offered would do. But I ask you: Imagine for a moment that you are a Sunni or Shia politician in Baghdad who wants the violence to end—and ask yourself how the Warner-Levin resolution will affect your thinking, your calculations of risk, your willingness to stand against the forces of extremism. Every day, you are threatened by enemies who want nothing but to inflict the most brutal imaginable horrors on you and your loved ones. Will this resolution empower you, or will it undermine you? Will it make you feel safer, or will it make you feel you should hedge your bets, or go over to the extremists, or leave the country?
And finally, what is the message this resolution sends to our soldiers? I know that everyone here supports our troops—but actions have consequences, often unintended. When we send a message of irresolution, it does not support our troops. When we renounce their mission, it does not support our troops.
We heard recently in the Senate Armed Services Committee from General Jack Keane, who said of this resolution. “It’s just not helpful… What the enemy sees is an erosion of the political and moral will of the American people… Our soldiers are Americans first. They clearly understand there’s a political process in this country that they clearly support… But at the end of the day, they are going to go out and do a tough mission, and I certainly would like to see them supported in that mission as opposed to declaring non-support….”
Everyone here knows that the American people are frustrated about the lack of progress in Iraq. Everyone here shares that frustration. And as elected representatives of the people, everyone here feels pressure to give expression to that frustration.
This is not a new challenge. It is one that every democracy in every long, difficult war has had to confront.
Nearly a century and a half ago, at a site not far from here, an American president wrestled with just this problem. It was in the midst of a terrible war—a civil war—in which hundreds of thousands of Americans were fighting and dying to secure the freedom of millions long and cruelly denied it.
“We here highly resolve…”—that was Lincoln’s message at Gettysburg. It was a message of resolution, of conviction against adversity, of hope against despair, and of confidence in the cause of freedom, which is America’s cause.
Today, in the depths of a terrible war, on the brink of a decisive battle for Baghdad, let us have a serious debate about where we stand and where we must go in Iraq. That is the debate we should have—but it is not the debate that this resolution would bring.
The sixty vote requirement to close debate was put in place by our predecessors as a way to stop the passions of the moment from sweeping across our country and through Congress in a way that will jeopardize our future. Because I believe this resolution, if passed, would have such an effect, I will respectfully oppose the motion for cloture.
I thank the President and yield the floor.