For Immediate Release
Office of the Vice President
April 21, 2008
Vice President's Remarks to the Manhattan Institute
New York, New York
10:30 A.M. EDT
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much. Well, thank you, Larry, for the introduction. And I appreciate the opportunity to join all of you this morning. Larry, you mentioned some of my career highlights, but left out the fact that one of your New York senators has recently taken to calling me "Darth Vader." (Laughter.) I didn't take that personally. (Laughter.) I've been asking -- asked my wife Lynne if the nickname didn't bother her, and she said, no. She said, "It humanizes you." (Laughter.) So it gives you some perspective on the difficulties I face as Vice President. (Laughter.)
But I'm delighted to be here. I have a lot of good friends here at the Institute, and it's always great to be back in New York City. I'm grateful to have had the honor last night of bidding farewell to Pope Benedict as he departed for Rome.
In a few hours I'll be headed back to Washington. And there's one thing I could bring along with me from this city, it would be a good supply of the common sense and the fresh thinking of the Manhattan Institute. The scholars and fellows of the Institute have built one of the most impressive think tanks in the country. And you do more than dwell in the world of ideas -- you know how to build a case for reform and how to set events on a new track. Your influence has made the difference in fields from welfare reform and crime reduction, to education policy and the fight against terrorism. You're able to persuade policy makers because you state clear principles, gather solid evidence, and bring to the dialogue a spirit of good will and unyielding standard of intellectual honesty.
We could use that spirit, and that fresh thinking, in the nation's capital -- because Congress does have a way, at times, of missing big opportunities and losing sight of big responsibilities. In the field of international security at present, the House leadership has allowed a critical statute to expire -- the FISA, or Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a law that gives intelligence professionals the tools they need to monitor terrorist-related communications. This is not an old law we're talking about. It was enacted just last summer, by the House and by the Senate. But they passed it for a period of only six months. Then they passed it again, but this time for only 15 days. And while the Senate has acted, the House has not. Now they've let it go entirely with the result that the United States now has less ability to track the plans of the enemy than we did a few months ago.
In the field of international relations, the House Democratic leadership is trying to derail a free trade agreement with Colombia that's been in the work for many years. So there's a good base of support for the agreement in both houses of Congress. The problem is the House leadership is refusing to bring it to a vote -- and has even changed the rules to keep it off the floor. If they persist in unfair action, the result will be a tremendous setback for one of our closest allies in Latin America, severe damage to our nation's credibility in the region, and a boost of confidence for demagogues who want to subvert democratic values in our own hemisphere. In both of these cases -- both with respect to surveillance of the enemy, and the Colombian free trade agreement -- Congress has resorted to gimmicks, from meaningless expiration dates to last-minute switches in the rules. With these tactics, they only undermine the American people's confidence in the legislative branch of government.
But I didn't come here today to dwell on the current shortcomings of Congress. After all, you haven't got all day. (Laughter.) But I do intend to talk about the ongoing mission in Iraq, and where matters stand at present.
Iraq is another area where we've seen plenty of efforts in Congress to cause trouble, and to force the mission into failure. Fortunately, those efforts have come up short. And all the while, our people on the ground in that country have spent the last year doing a huge amount of work that has been equal parts difficulty and danger. And thanks to them, we're now looking at a much improved picture in the central front in the global war on terror.
General Dave Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker were in Washington two weeks ago to report on the progress that's been made since President Bush made the decision to surge operations there last year. The progress has been broad and it's been significant. Sectarian violence is down dramatically. Civilian and military deaths are also down. And our coalition, working closely with Iraqi forces, has struck powerful blows against al Qaeda and its affiliates across Iraq. A good many neighborhoods once controlled by the enemy have now been liberated, and many of the enemy's sanctuaries taken away.
We are keeping our word and continuing to train Iraqi forces so that, ultimately, they'll have the front-line responsibility for securing the country and to defending their own nation. More than 540,000 Iraqis now serve in those forces. As General Petraeus told Congress, Iraqis are already taking the lead in many operations, "standing and fighting and sustaining tough losses" -- losses that, recently, have come at a rate far higher than our own. Half of Iraq's 18 provinces are now under Iraqi control, with more to follow in the months ahead.
The Iraqis, now wearing their country's uniform, and going into harm's way under their country's flag, are living symbols of the character of Iraq. Having endured decades of tyranny, Iraqis have shown their own commitment to the institutions of democracy by voting in massive numbers in several elections. And lately they've shown their toughness in forming a vital movement called the Awakening -- in which tribal leaders, starting in Anbar Province and outward from there, have firmly rejected the merciless authoritarianism of al Qaeda and other extremists, and have fought bravely against those enemies. These tribal actions, General Petraeus rightly noted, are among the most important developments in recent months.
A more recent significant development is the bold decision by Prime Minister Maliki to combat the militias, the criminals, and the violent extremists in Basra, the second largest city in Iraq. There's been much discussion about the events in Basra, and much of it misses the point. This was an Iraqi initiative for their security forces loyal to the government to take back a city that had become overrun by extremists and thugs. And this is exactly the kind of initiative we seek from Iraq's leaders. In general, Iraq's security forces accomplished their mission, and have taken back most of the city.
This show of strength by Iraq's democratically elected government against an Iranian-backed militia has inspired a new unity of purpose among Iraq's political leaders, Shia, Sunni, and Kurd alike. It has generated widespread popular support among the Iraqi people -- especially those in southern Iraq and Baghdad subjected to the intimidation and the exploitation of these gangs. The Iraqis have difficult tasks ahead of them, but it is clear that Prime Minister Maliki's efforts to enforce the rule of law against all violators, regardless of ethnicity or religious conviction, is an important milestone -- and a real victory for Iraq's new democracy and the people that it serves. The Iraqi people are themselves producing a good deal of political progress at the local and provincial level, and this is having a positive influence on the national government.
Iraq's young democracy still has a distance to travel. Yet the elected leaders have passed imperative legislation in recent months -- including a budget and an amnesty law. These steps have been considered vital to national reconciliation, and they are now, in fact, going forward. Few can doubt that this progress has been accelerated by the higher level of security made possible by the surge of American forces.
It's worth remembering that some in Washington predicted the surge in Iraq would have no effect whatsoever. Indeed, last year prominent opponents of the operation pronounced the war unwinnable, and said that it had already been lost. Yet now we're seeing good news on all the crucial fronts. Our coalition and the Iraqi forces have seized the initiative in a major way, and put the enemies of Iraqi democracy on the run. The critics have been proved wrong. The surge is working, the forces of freedom are winning. (Applause.)
Now that we've turned the momentum of events in decisive fashion, President Bush is determined to sustain that momentum. The work will continue to be demanding. As General Petraeus has put it, the achievements thus far have been fragile, and they are reversible. So it's necessary, first of all, that we keep sufficient troop levels on the ground in Iraq. The plan is to withdraw all the five surge brigades by the end of July. By then we'll be back to the pre-surge levels of 15 combat brigades. At that point, General Petraeus and the command staff will make a full and candid assessment, and give further recommendations on future troop levels to the President.
By now all Americans know exactly how the President will make that decision. He will not look at the polls, listen to the pundits, or read the editorial pages. He will look at all the facts -- and then he'll do what's right for the United States, for our long-term security, and for the cause of peace and freedom in Iraq. (Applause.)
Our mission in Iraq is still being debated intensely on Capitol Hill and out on the campaign trail. There's nothing wrong with a vigorous discussion about an issue that is so important to the future of the country. But from those who demand a hasty exit from Iraq -- whether by a sudden, precipitous withdrawal, or by an arbitrary time line, or by a date randomly chosen on the calendar -- we've heard very little concern about what might come afterward, or what might be the consequences of their proposals. Those who insist that we leave Iraq should at least give some thought to what we would leave behind. And thinking the matter through, I hope they'll remember the case of Afghanistan a few years ago.
Back in the 1980s, we were heavily engaged in Afghanistan, lending support to the Mujahadeen in their struggle against the Soviet Union. It was a successful policy -- but afterwards, after we succeeded, and the Soviets had evacuated from Afghanistan, everybody walked away and forgot about Afghanistan. What followed, of course, was a civil war, and then the emergence of the Taliban, and finally, of course, in 1996, an invitation to Osama bin Laden to come have a sanctuary, a safe haven, in Afghanistan. He did that, set up training camps, trained an estimated 20,000 terrorists in the late '90s -- some of whom came here to New York on 9/11 and killed thousands of Americans.
Those who now say we can afford to turn our backs on Iraq are inviting the same kind of outcome that we saw in Afghanistan: a period of chaos and recrimination, a violent power struggle won by a brutal minority, a safe haven for terrorists. The difference is that now we're in the midst of a global war on terror -- so failure in Iraq would have even more serious and far-reaching consequences.
Failure in Iraq would embolden al Qaeda and other like-minded groups by handing them a staging area for further attacks, with America as the target. The last time you and I gathered, I spoke of the many terrorist attacks directed at us in the years before 9/11. The United States responded to those attacks, if at all, only in an ad hoc fashion -- and sometimes our response was to change our policy, as the terrorists expected. So the attacks kept coming, and the danger to our country only grew.
But 9/11 changed everything. Since that day, we've treated terrorism as a major strategic threat to the country -- to be dealt with systematically until it can be destroyed. Suddenly, withdrawal from Iraq would be a massive setback in the war on terror. And it would validate the enemy's long-held belief that America doesn't have the stomach for the fight -- that if they hit us hard enough, or hold on long enough, we'll change our policy or will run away.
Failure in Iraq would also tell America's friends that we cannot be counted on. We have to remember that in the broader Middle East, untold numbers of people have made a stand for freedom because the United States has led the fight. In Iraq, you've got the elected officials, hundreds of thousands of people in the security services, all of the millions of citizens who defied killers to go to the polls and choose their own leaders. It would be the gravest wrong to turn our backs on them and leave them to their fate.
And the impact of any such betrayal would be felt far beyond the borders of Iraq. The message would be heard in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and many other places where men and women of good will have joined us in this endeavor. Friends would hear that message, and so would potential adversaries. The regime in Tehran, for one, would conclude that we don't have the will to follow through on a matter of principle -- whether the principle is the defense of democracy today, or the prevention of nuclear proliferation tomorrow.
The plain truth is that the Middle East is going to require our close attention for a very long time to come. The region is home to important allies, to valued friends, and to trading partners. Its resources and commercial routes are at the very heart of the global economy. Its history and its holy sites have deep meaning to hundreds of millions of people in many, many countries. And the Middle East has been a breeding ground for hateful ideologies that threaten the free world with destruction by way of repeated acts of sudden, spectacular violence.
An ideological struggle is underway -- and in that struggle we can be confident. We are doing the right thing. We are confronting the violent, protecting the innocent, liberating the oppressed, and aiding the rise of freedom and democracy, as America has done so many times in the past.
And just as failure would have consequences, so would success. A free, democratic Iraq will be a strategic partner in the heart of the Middle East, helping us fight and win the war on terror. And that outcome will send a message to moderates throughout the region. From Syria to Lebanon to Iran, advocates for democracy and human rights will take heart, and will be reassured that the free world is not indifferent to their future. As hopes rise in the Middle East, a vital and troubled region can move in the direction of peace and stability. And the day will come when terrorists and terror states no longer pose a danger to the United States or to our friends.
Our strategy is the right strategy. In fact, the only way to lose this fight is to quit. And if there is one indispensable element in this battle, it is the skill and the character of the young men and women fighting it. Last month I spoke to several thousand of our troops at Balad Air Base, north of Baghdad. And I remember the strong response they gave on one point in particular -- when I said we're going to get this job done right, so that another generation of Americans doesn't have to go back to Iraq and do it all over again. (Applause.)
That's the business at hand. Five years ago we led a coalition to take down Saddam Hussein, and we promised not to let another dictatorship seize control in that country. The enterprise has not been easy. It has not been cheap. It has not been predictable in its course. And some who professed enthusiasm for sending in the troops have, over time, lost the desire to support those troops on to victory. But the fact remains that our soldiers and diplomats are serving fundamental American ideals. They are doing good things for the right reasons. We admire them, and we respect their families, who also make many sacrifices during long and difficult deployments. We can never thank them enough.
History will hand down its own judgments. But right now it's for us to live and write that history, in the choices we make and the promises we keep. And we can be proud of our country. The world is often untidy and dangerous. But for millions who suffer under tyranny, or who struggle to maintain newly won freedom, there would be little hope without the active commitment of the United States.
As much as a nation of influence, we're also a nation of character. And that sets us apart from so many other great powers in history -- from ancient empires to the expansionist regimes of the last century. We're a superpower that has moral commitments and ideals that we not only proclaim, but that we act upon. Today, in a tough fight, we are turning events toward victory. And the world will be a better place because of what the United States of America did.
Thank you very much. (Applause.)
END 10:49 A.M. EDT