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The Future of Iraq (Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies)
Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, John's Hopkins University, Washington, D.C. Campus, Monday, December 05, 2005

Thank you very much, Dean Einhorn. I see here Ruth Wedgwood in the front row, a member of the Defense Policy Board, and a couple of friends here from 30 or 40 or even more years back. Bill Coleman and Hal [inaudible], it's good to see you. Colonel Hickey, thank you for all you do, as well as you gentlemen.

This is an impressive institution, with a well-deserved reputation as one of the important centers of strategic thought in America. And I'm certainly pleased to be with you. And I thank you for your invitation.

This School, of course, is named for one of the giants of the Cold War, Paul Nitze, who I knew and worked with over the years.

Paul was a driving force here, as has been my friend, Paul Wolfowitz, who led this School before returning to government in the Pentagon first and now at the World Bank.

And I am pleased to be here to discuss America's ongoing mission in Iraq -- and the importance of it succeeding.

The other day, I came across an interesting set of statistics that I'd like to mention. It seems that the Pew Research Center asked leaders in the United States their views of the prospects for a stable democracy in Iraq.

Here were some of the results:

  • 63% of the people in the news media thought the enterprise would fail;
  • So did 71% of the people in the foreign affairs establishment; and
  • 71% in the academic settings or think tanks.

Interestingly, opinion leaders from the U.S. military are more optimistic about Iraq by a margin of about 64 percent to 32 percent favorable. And so is the American public, by a margin of 56 percent to 37 percent.

And the Iraqi people are optimistic. I've seen this demonstrated repeatedly -- in public opinion polls, in the turnout at the elections, the referendum on the constitution, in the number of tips that the Iraqi people are providing to the Iraqi Security Forces and to the Coalition forces. They've grown from 483 a month to 4,700 tips per month.

This prompts the question: which view of Iraq is more accurate? The pessimistic view of the so-called elites in our country -- or the more optimistic view expressed by millions of Iraqis and by the some 155,000 U.S. troops on the ground?

But, most important is the question: why should Iraq's success or failure matter to the American people?

I'd like to address these questions today, before responding to your questions which I look forward to.

First, should we be optimistic or pessimistic about Iraq's future?

The answer may depend on one's perspective to a certain extent. Indeed, one of the reasons that views of Iraq are so divergent is that we may be looking at Iraq through different prisms of experience or expectation.

For starters, it must be jarring for reporters to leave the United States, arrive in a country that is so different, where they have to worry about their personal safety, and then being rushed to a scene of a bomb -- car bomb -- or a shooting, and have little opportunity to see the rest of the country.

By contrast, the Iraqi people see things probably somewhat differently: they can compare Iraq as it is today, to what it was three years ago -- a brutal dictatorship where the Secret Police would murder or mutilate a family member sometimes in front of their children, and where hundreds of thousands of Iraqis disappeared into mass graves. From that perspective, Iraq today is on a vastly different, and a greatly improved path.

A distinguished academician, I don't have the exact quote so I won't name him, said something to the effect that the situation in Iraq is terrible, and it's never been better.

If one is viewing events through a soda straw, they should know that they are by definition selectively focusing on some facts that may highlight their view and not seeing some other perspectives. A full picture of Iraq comes best from an understanding of both the good and the bad, and the context for each.

Among the continuing difficulties to be sure are:

  • Bursts of violence, including continued assassination attempts, attempts to intimidate Iraqi leaders and those who support the legitimate Iraqi government;
  • Hostage taking;
  • Continued U.S., Coalition, and Iraqi casualties;
  • Iran and Syria continue to be unhelpful. We know that;
  • Calls for Coalition withdrawal from some quarters that encourage those who are opposing the legitimate Iraqi government and aid their fundraising and their recruiting.

However, there are also some positive developments to be seen, if we look for them:

  • The political process is on schedule. Iraqis now have a constitution that they wrote, that they voted for, and that they now are proceeding towards elections under that constitution in less than two weeks -- a week and a half -- December 15.
  • There are hundreds of candidates who are politicking in those elections;
  • There seem to be growing divisions among the enemies of the Iraqi people, particularly after the bombing of a wedding reception in Amman, Jordan, where now even Zarqawi's family is demonstrating against him;
  • Iraq's neighbors now seem to believe that this new democracy might in fact succeed, which they doubted I think for some period, and they seem to be moving to get right with the Iraqi people and the prospective Iraqi government. And they're more active in their support, which is a good thing;
  • A vital and engaged media is emerging, with some 100 newspapers in Iraq now, 72 radio stations, 44 television stations, incredible number of cell phones, which is an entirely new thing in that country; and
  • The Sunnis are increasingly taking part in the political process, and further isolating those who still oppose the government of Iraq;
  • The stock market is alive and well in Iraq.

To be responsible, it seems to me, one needs to stop defining success in Iraq as the absence of terrorist attacks. As Senator Joe Lieberman recently suggested, a better measure of success might be that a vast majority of Iraqis -- tens of millions -- are on the side of the democratic government, while a comparatively small number are opposed to that government. I would suggest that this gives the Iraqi people an enormous advantage over time.

The other question I posed is of critical importance, and that was: why does Iraq's success or failure matter to the American people?

Consider this quote:

"What you have seen, Americans, in New York and Washington D.C. and the losses you are having in Afghanistan and Iraq, in spite of all the media blackout, are only the losses of the initial clashes."

The speaker was Zawahiri, a senior member of al-Qaeda, and a top leader in the effort to defeat U.S. and Coalition forces and I should add moderate Muslim regimes around the world. The terrorists' methods of attack, simply put, are slaughter. They behead. They bomb children. They attack funerals and wedding receptions.

This is the kind of brutality and mayhem that the terrorists are working to bring to our shores. And if we do not succeed in our efforts to arm and train Iraqis to help defeat the terrorists in Iraq, this is the kind of mayhem that these terrorists, emboldened by a victory, will bring to our shores -- let there be no doubt.

Indeed, the most important reason for our involvement in Iraq -- despite the costs -- and they're considerable -- is often overlooked. It is not only about building democracy, although democracies tend to be peaceful and prosperous and are in and of themselves good things to be sure. And it's not only about reopening Iraqi schools, hospitals or rebuilding infrastructure, though they are proceeding apace and these things are desirable and ultimately essential to stability in that country.

But, simply put, defeating extremist aspirations in Iraq is essential to protecting the lives of the American people.

Imagine the world our children would face if we allowed Zawahiri, and Zarqawi, and bin Laden, and others of their ilk to seize power and operate with impunity out of Iraq. It would turn Iraq into what Afghanistan was before September 11th -- a haven for terrorist recruitment, training and a launching pad for attacks against U.S. interests and our fellow citizens. Iraq would serve as the base of a new Islamic caliphate to extend throughout the Middle East and which would threaten the legitimate governments in Europe, Africa, and Asia. This is their plan. They have said so. We make a terrible mistake if we fail to listen and learn.

In my view, quitting is not a strategy. Quitting is an invitation to more attacks and more terrorist violence here at home. This is not just a hypothesis. The U.S. withdrawal from Somalia emboldened Osama bin Laden in the 1990's. We know this. He said so.

The message that retreat in Iraq would send to the free people of Iraq and to moderate Muslim reformers throughout the region and the world would be that they cannot count on America. The message it would send to our enemies would be: that America will not defend itself against terrorists in Iraq and it will not defend itself against terrorists anywhere.

What is needed in my view is resolve, not retreat; courage, not concession. Rather than thinking in terms of an exit strategy, we should be focused on a strategy for success.

The President's strategy focuses on progress on the political, and economic, and security fronts. You can read that strategy paper on the White House web site.

On the security side, today some 214,000 Iraqi security forces have been trained and equipped. They are of varying degrees of experience. Each day and each week and each month that goes by, they gain more experience and more capability. Working with Coalition forces, they are steadily improving in experience:

  • Coalition forces have handed over military bases to Iraqi control and also a complex of palaces in Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit;
  • The Shiite areas of Najaf and Karbala and Sadr City, the scenes of battles last year, are more peaceful today; and
  • In Tal Afar, 5,000 Iraqi troops took a key role in liberating and securing what had been a base of operations for extremists' networks and foreign networks.

I began these remarks by mentioning the contrast between what the American people are reading and hearing about Iraq and the views of the Iraqi people. I don't think we can close a discussion on Iraq without mentioning the media coverage and the current political debate that's taking place.

Recently, a member of the Associated Press Managing Editors Association reported on the intense discussions within the A.P. over whether or not their coverage of Iraq has been slanted or fair. For my part, almost every time I meet with troops, I am asked the same question: they ask why aren't the American people being given an accurate picture of what's happening in Iraq?

But let me say something in defense of the media. They have a tough job. It's not easy. And a number of them have put their lives at risk, and some have been killed.

The media serves a valuable -- and indeed an indispensable -- role in informing our society and holding government to account. But it's important also for the media to hold itself to account. Government has to reassess continuously, and we do. So to, it's useful I believe for the media to reassess.

We have arrived at a strange time in this country where the worst about America and our military seems to so quickly be taken as truth by the press and reported and spread around the world -- often with little context and little scrutiny -- let alone correction or accountability after the fact. Speed it appears is the critical determinant. Less so, context.

Recently there were claims by two Iraqis on a speaking tour that U.S. soldiers attacked them with lions. It was widely reported around the United States. It is still without substantiation. And yet that story was spread across the globe. Not too long ago, there was a false and terribly damaging story about a Koran that was supposedly flushed down a toilet in Guantanamo, and in the riots that followed in several countries, some people were killed. And a recent New York Times editorial implied that America's armed forces -- your armed forces -- our armed forces -- use tactics reminiscent of Saddam Hussein.

I understand that there may be great pressure on many of them to tell a dramatic story. And while it is easy to use a bombing or a terrorist attack to support that interest, it is not always the most accurate story or at least not the full story.

Consider this: You couldn't tell the full story of Iwo Jima simply by listing the nearly 26,000 Americans that were casualties in a brief 40 days at Iwo Jima; or you couldn't explain the importance of Grant's push into Virginia just by noting the savagery of the battles. And they were savage. So too, in Iraq, it is appropriate to note not only how many Americans have been killed -- and may God bless them and their families -- but what they died for -- or more accurately, what they lived for.

So I suggest -- and I take for granted the good intentions of the people in the media -- I suggest that we ask: how will history judge -- if it does -- the reporting some decades from now when Iraq's path is settled?

I would urge us all to make every effort to ensure -- government and the media -- to make every effort to ensure that we're trying to tell the whole story.

Further I think it's worth noting that there are 155,000 or 156,000 today Americans in uniform who are sending back e-mails to their friends and families, telling them what they're seeing. And it's a slice of what is actually happening. It's not the total picture. But it's a slice. And it's an accurate slice. It's the truth as they see it. And much of it is different than what those in the United States are seeing and reading.

Our country is waging a battle unlike any other in history. We are waging it in a media age that's unlike any war that war fighters have ever known. Think of it. This is the first war of the 21st Century. It's the first war to be conducted with talk radio, and 24-hour news, and bloggers, and emails, and digital cameras, and Sony video cams, and all of these things that bring so much information near instantaneously to people. And in this new century, we all need to make adjustments -- government and the media alike. And change is hard -- let there be no doubt.

We are all Americans. We are all in this together. And what we do today will not only impact us, but it will surely impact our children and our grandchildren, and the kind of world they will live in.

Thank you. I'd be happy to respond to some questions.