Sen. Nelson at the Council on Foreign Relations
Sen. Nelson's remarks
January 30, 2007
These are difficult and turbulent times; and, as each of you keenly is aware, we face challenges in the conduct of our foreign affairs that do not lend themselves to simple or easy solutions. This is why I, for one, am especially grateful for forums like this; and, the overall assistance the Council on Foreign Relations has given to our nation’s foreign policy-makers over the past nine decades. Today, two of the major issues before the world community are Iraq and proliferation. This week, a more narrowly defined question before the U.S. Senate will be the tangle in Iraq. Specifically, the Senate will continue to consider the president’s new plan, including debate on a resolution that declares a lack of confidence in his call for 21,000 more soldiers in the war zone. I can tell you - this senator disapproves of the president’s latest plan. And there is little doubt that a majority of my colleagues in the Senate feel the same way. Like so many Americans, we supported the war in Iraq. Most of us have been, and will continue to be, fierce defenders of our military. And we have been frequent supporters of this president. But in retrospect, over and over again, we haven’t been told the truth. We weren’t told the truth about weapons of mass destruction, about troop levels, about the cost of the war or about the sectarian violence. And now, many of us can no longer give consent to the administration’s plan for a military buildup in Iraq – a plan that some of our own generals say won’t work. Knowing debate and a decision on Iraq strategy loomed early in the new Congress, I set out last month on a 12-day fact-finding trip to Iraq and eight other countries in the region. I wanted fresh facts, timely observations and different perspectives – which I am here to share with you today. In advance of my trip, Gen. Hayden, the director of the CIA, urged me to add Saudi Arabia to my itinerary. As the general noted at the time, there had not been a congressional delegation to visit this important strategic ally in more than two years. The general asked me to convey to the Saudis how they could help bring stability in Iraq by using their tribal ties with Iraqi Sunnis to persuade them to tamp down the insurgency. I delivered that message, succinctly and directly, to King Abdullah. Most of you probably have already heard about another of my visits - because it drew, shall we say, unfavorable notice from the White House during one of its daily press briefings. I went to Syria. I went because I had been there twice before, and because the Iraq Study Group had just recommended engaging Iraq’s neighbors in finding a solution to the crisis there. But let me tell you, I did not go without caveats. One was that I was speaking only for myself, not negotiating for the administration or on behalf of the United States. Another was that I would harbor no illusions about the character of the Syrian leadership. This is not a nice regime, either to its citizens or its neighbors. In short, I approached this visit with realism, not optimism. I met with President Assad and his foreign minister, Walid Moualem, for over an hour. Our conversation covered nearly every issue between our two nations, including some pretty significant grievances: Syria’s arming of Hezbollah, for example. It’s support of Hamas. It’s undermining of the Siniora government in Lebanon. Its lack of full cooperation with the tribunal investigating the assassination of Rafik Hariri. And, its alliance with Iran. Assad, of course, stuck to his usual rhetoric of denial. But where there was a slight crack in the door was on the question of controlling the Iraqi-Syrian border. The border has been an entry point for jihadis, who fly into Damascus and make their way into Iraq along ancient smuggling routes. Once inside, they fight our military. After my last visit with Assad, some three years ago, there was limited cooperation between our governments on enforcing border security. But any such cooperation ended abruptly, following the Hariri assassination in 2005. In our meeting last month, Assad indicated an interest in resuming border cooperation with the U.S. or the Iraqi army. I told him that would serve Syria’s interest in two ways; it would stem the flow of Iraqi refugees into Syria; and, it would permit the construction of an oil pipeline from Kirkuk through Syria to the Mediterranean. Now, I have no illusions about the possible impact on U.S.-Syrian relations from one politician’s conversation with Assad – or from four senators’ visits, for that matter, as I was followed in Damascus by Sens. Specter, Dodd and Kerry. But I think even the very limited opening I perceived illustrates why the administration should take the Iraq Study Group’s recommendation very seriously. Logic instructs us we cannot succeed in stabilizing Iraq without the cooperation of all of Iraq’s neighbors. And so, rather than simply making demands of governments who often do not share our interests, our effort should be focused on finding those limited areas where our interests overlap and developing them. The diplomatic dialogue would not have to give up anything on areas where we disagree with Syria. But it most certainly can include the discussion of the costs to Syria of continued conflict, such as the imposition of additional sanctions under the Syria Accountability Act. And it should be coordinated with the diplomatic efforts of our allies. Yet the administration has adopted the approach of an ostrich. And make no mistake: it is not working. Now, does the same instructive logic apply to Iran? To a degree, it does. But with Iran it is complicated by the very real threat posed by an Iran actively seeking nuclear weapons, and willfully undermining governments across the region. In every capital I visited, the menace of Iran was foremost on the agenda of my hosts. In fact, the two most similar descriptions I heard of the threat posed by Iran came from none other than Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Likud party leader, and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. That should tell you something. But again, an international effort to stabilize Iraq must include all of Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran. Can Iran be a spoiler in these talks? Absolutely. But it would come at the cost of increasing their isolation. Should our effort to force Iran to end uranium enrichment continue concurrently? Without question, and it should include the imposition of tougher sanctions than those imposed by the U.N. last month. Should we rule out military options if Iran closes in on acquiring nuclear weapons, threatens shipping in the Gulf or attacks its neighbors? Nothing should be off the table – and, another carrier group in the Gulf is a good way to remind Iran of that fact. But right now, stabilizing Iraq needs to be our top priority. Failing to do so leads only to disaster: more dead American soldiers and Marines, possible ethnic cleansing and bloodletting on a scale we have not yet seen, destabilization of key Middle East nations, and a serious weakening of our ability to contain Iran. I certainly hope that some of the actions taken by Iraqi forces in recent days, with the support of the U.S. military, are a sign of things to come. The task at hand will require a kind of political leadership that has not yet shown itself in Iraq – leaders with the wisdom and maturity to confront extremists even in their own communities, as well as those across the divide. The Iraqi government must use its security forces to combat militias and insurgents without regard to sectarian affiliation. Without this fundamental change in approach, the violence will continue. And herein lies the flaw in the president’s plan to send more troops to Iraq. Based on everything I saw last month; and, based on my conversations with Iraqi officials, our own military leaders and rank-and-file soldiers, I am convinced more troops won’t end the sectarian violence. If we had 200,000, or 300,000 more soldiers in Iraq, maybe. It might make a difference in temporarily restoring order. But the global mandates on our military make that impossible. Our only hope of stabilizing Iraq depends largely on three successful initiatives: 1) an aggressive diplomatic effort led by the U.S. with Iraq and its neighbors to quickly find a political settlement between Iraq’s warring factions; 2) Iraqis taking responsibility for providing for their own security; and, 3) a massive and effective international reconstruction program. The first of these, an intense diplomatic effort aimed at helping Iraq with a political settlement has been discussed many times. It must include: sufficient autonomy for Iraq’s various regions and communities, but a stake for all in the central government; an oil revenue sharing law; a reversal of de-Baathification, and a revised constitutional amendment process. The lack of a major diplomatic effort to build an international coalition to support a political settlement is truly baffling. Iraq is in full-blown crisis. We need at least one, if not several, high-level special envoys, empowered by the president and endorsed by the congressional leadership. Working together, they need to be on the ground every day, throughout the Middle East, in Europe and Asia, and at the United Nations. The goal should be - within a month - to assemble an international conference at which all of Iraq’s neighbors and other key nations would endorse the framework of a political settlement. It became painfully evident during my trip that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki either lacks the will, or he lacks the nerve, to take on the Shiite militias on whose backing he depends for power. His rushed execution of Saddam Hussein – certainly justified but horribly carried out – spoke volumes about his insensitivity to the concerns of Sunnis. As for Iraqis taking responsibility for their own security, this will only take place if U.S. troops begin to pull back from the primary combat role they now play, and shift into an advisory capacity. The Iraq Study Group offered this recommendation, as well. Rather than increasing our forces in Iraq, we should be transitioning the troops there to training and advising Iraqi troops, antiterrorism missions and border security. Finally, the massive reconstruction effort requires an Iraqi reconstruction czar – a person of the highest integrity, who will cut through the red tape, demand our agencies produce results working together and deliver reconstruction assistance quickly and directly to Iraqi communities. Concurrently, this official should convene a donors conference to elicit pledges of assistance from our international partners and hold them accountable for delivering this aid quickly. In short, the costs of failure in Iraq will be catastrophic – in growing threats to us and our allies, and in more American and Iraqi lives lost – if we do not awaken to the reality that diplomacy, not military might, is what is needed to end the sectarian violence in Iraq. To paraphrase something President Kennedy said in 1961, we must always be ready and willing to bear arms to defend our freedoms, but as long as we know what comprises our vital interests and our long-range goals, we have nothing to fear from diplomacy.