“The United States is not involved in the Middle East because we labor under the illusion that our presence will solve every problem, but because the stability of the region is vital to our national interests and international security alike. Middle Eastern instability tends to travel far beyond its borders. The region’s importance to the global economy that Americans benefit from and depend upon cannot be underestimated. But if we keep sleepwalking on our current trajectory, we could wake up in the near future and find that American influence has been pushed out of one of the most important parts of the world.” – Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain Speaking on the Senate Floor Today
Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, delivered the following remarks on the Senate floor today on the importance of developing a comprehensive strategy for the Middle East:
“In recent months, United States and coalition forces have achieved major gains against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Building upon the retaking of Mosul in July, U.S. coalition partners have liberated ISIS’s former capital of Raqqa in Syria, the pocket of Hawija in northern Iraq, and, just days ago, the border town of Al-Qaim in western Iraq. The so-called caliphate that terrorists claimed would overrun the Middle East is now a shadow of its former self—a shrinking swathe on a map once defined by an open reign of terror.
“Unfortunately, however, our challenges in the region remain daunting despite these hard-fought tactical victories. Our relentless focus on destroying ISIS—which is, of course, essential—has obscured a troubling reality: the United States lacks a clear, comprehensive strategy that addresses the Middle East in all of its complexity.
“This is part of the unfortunate legacy that the Obama Administration left for its successor. But nearly one year into the Trump Administration, we lack clarity on essential questions about our nation’s role. And we are left to observe the intensifying symptoms of a collapsing regional order as bystanders. While in some cases we are bystanders who take action, we do so with unclear and often unstated objectives.
“The United States has committed to the sale of over a hundred billion dollars of weapons to Saudi Arabia. We have announced an outline of a strategy to counter Iran while providing only minimal detail. We remain conspicuously silent on the future of our role in Iraq and Syria beyond eliminating ISIS—as the Assad regime and its partners consolidate power.
“Our power and influence is diminishing in the Middle East as a result of our lack of direction, and the vacuum has been filled by forces working contrary to American interests. Consider the events that have swept the region in recent months.
“In Iraq, Iranian forces are working to sew discord as we recently saw in Kirkuk, where the presence of Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani exacerbated tensions among the Kurds and the government in Baghdad. Iranian-backed militias continue to gain power and aim to turn next year’s election into a setback that drives American influence out of Iraq. Meanwhile, the scourge of ISIS remains despite recent military successes. The terrorist attack last week in Manhattan shows its persistent appeal; its rise in the wake of U.S. withdrawal years ago demonstrates the danger of leaving before winning the peace.
“Across the border in Syria, the Assad regime, backed by Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and an array of militias has retaken most of the country, including many eastern areas that are strategically important. The consequences of the resulting humanitarian crisis have spilled beyond its border for years, destabilizing nations far beyond Syria and paving the way for radicalization. Forces that are hostile to both our interests and our values are shaping the future on the ground while we remain silent, focused on the immediate defeat of ISIS.
“On Saturday, the Lebanese Prime Minister resigned, claiming that he faced death threats from Iran—leaving the United States with one less valuable partner in a divided government in which Hezbollah plays a major role.
“A web of Iranian proxies and allies is spreading from the Levant to the Arabian Peninsula, threatening stability, freedom of navigation and the territory of our partners and allies, including with advanced conventional weapons. Iran itself continues menace its neighbors, use its sanctions relief windfall to harmful ends, test ballistic missiles, and spread weapons throughout the region.
“According to our allies and partners, just days ago Houthi rebels in Yemen launched an Iranian-provided missile at the airport in Riyadh. Meanwhile, our Arab allies are embroiled in infighting and diplomatic disputes that weaken regional cooperation and coalition efforts in the face of these pressing threats.
“Saudi Arabia itself is in the midst of monumental change. The recent appointment of a new crown prince, the arrest over the weekend of a number of prominent Saudi citizens, and the Kingdom’s ongoing war in Yemen—which has spawned a humanitarian crisis of its own—indicate a forcefulness that promises progress but also raises concerns about internal stability and regional conflict. And, ultimately, it could serve to strengthen Saudi rivals.
“In Turkey, President Erdogan continues to consolidate power, abuse human rights and rule of law, and stifle democracy while growing closer to Russia and straining the relationship with NATO.
“Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin’s Russia casts a long shadow throughout the region as it reestablishes itself as a power broker hostile to American interests—and wholly unconcerned about human rights.
“These challenges are daunting, confusing, and complex, borne of years of neglect punctuated by crises and aggravated by weeks filled with the events of decades.
“The questions that a comprehensive strategy must address are formidable:
- “What are our political and military objectives in the region?
- “How should we prioritize our pursuit of objectives given the numerous regional challenges, and how should we measure our success?
- “What roles and responsibilities should our allies and partners play, and what support will they need to do so?
- “What should be the size, roles, missions, and capabilities of U.S. forces in the region, whether in Iraq, Turkey, the Persian Gulf, or elsewhere?
- “How will the United States facilitate humanitarian relief, stabilization, reconstruction, and political reconciliation where possible?
“And these questions—many of which we require the President and Department of Defense to answer in the National Defense Authorization Act—are not academic.
“The United States is not involved in the Middle East because we labor under the illusion that our presence will solve every problem, but because the stability of the region is vital to our national interests and international security alike.
“Middle Eastern instability tends to travel far beyond its borders. The region’s importance to the global economy that Americans benefit from and depend upon cannot be underestimated. But if we keep sleepwalking on our current trajectory, we could wake up in the near future and find that American influence has been pushed out of one of the most important parts of the world.
“And that we cannot abide. The world faces an unprecedented array of challenges, of which instability in the Middle East is only one. Most importantly, the United States faces growing threats from Russia and China, both of which are eager to tilt the balance of power in Europe and Asia towards them rather than towards us and the majority of the world that favors greater freedom and openness.
“We need to prioritize those critical challenges by rebuilding military readiness, reorienting our force structure, investing in needed capabilities to deter near-peer competitors, and strengthening alliances with likeminded partners and allies.
“If we neglect to consolidate our gains against ISIS and address the threats to American interests throughout the Middle East, our gains will easily be overtaken. As my friend and former Secretary of State George Shultz once observed, if you have a garden and want to see it flourish, you have to tend to it. We could find ourselves enmeshed in conflicts far more costly in lives, power, and opportunity if we neglect to care for a particularly frustrating part of the world.
“Our elected leaders must articulate a comprehensive strategy that reflects these judgments with specificity and detail rather than piecemeal offerings and tactical victories. Congress, with our constitutional role as a co-equal branch of government, and more importantly, the American people deserve no less.”