Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) today made the following speech at the 2005 Eisenhower Institute Prize Dinner:
Thank you, Senator Hagel, for that kind introduction, and thank you to the Eisenhower Institute for giving me this great honor. Thank you to General Scowcroft, institute chairman, and to Susan Eisenhower, and thank you to Chris Matthews for serving as emcee. Now maybe you’ll go a little easier on me during my next Hardball appearance.

It truly is an honor to receive this award and to be with you tonight. To be associated with Dwight Eisenhower would be an honor for anyone, but for me it has special meaning. In 1958, as I was finishing my four less-than-distinguished years at the Naval Academy, President Eisenhower spoke at the commencement of my graduating class. In those days only the first 100 graduates were called up to receive their diplomas from the President. I, graduating fifth from the bottom, received neither a place on the dais nor a handshake. But I admired the President from afar that day; all of the midshipmen did, in our sea of white uniforms. To us, Dwight D. Eisenhower was the model of what a leader could and should be.

It was only later that my view of that great man and his gifts deepened. I came to realize how his internationalism led him to confront, and defeat, the forces of isolationism and fortress America in the Republican Party. I discovered how his drive and intelligence spurred his relentless planning and coordination. And I learned how his rigorous and nonpartisan pursuit of policy solutions led to outcomes good for the country, not for the special interests.

His insights, words, and warnings, so valuable decades ago, seem no less relevant today. Because above all, President Eisenhower was a leader, and he knew that leadership is synonymous with responsibility – taking responsibility, managing it, and ensuring those that have responsibility fulfill it. And so tonight I’d like to briefly touch on three responsibilities that I think we in Washington face right now, particularly in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita – natural disasters that have truly altered our politics, changed our fiscal outlook, and impacted our foreign and domestic policy.

The first responsibility is short term – indeed, immediate – and that is to bolster our emergency response. I divulge no secrets when I say that the initial local, state, and Federal responses to the hurricane were inadequate and unacceptable. Katrina constituted the first great post-9/11 test of our homeland security preparedness, and we failed. This disaster must serve as our final wakeup call, because we cannot afford another belated and uncoordinated emergency response.

While Katrina made clear that many elements of our disaster management approach need fixing, one thing is already evident: our country’s local, state and Federal first responders remain unable to communicate with each other during an emergency response. We saw the horrors brought on by the lack of communications on 9/11 when New York’s fire, police and Port Authority officers were unable to talk with one another when responding to the collapse of the Twin Towers. Similar problems apparently occurred in Louisiana, because New Orleans and the three nearby parishes each use different radio equipment and frequencies. In addition, Federal officials use entirely different communications systems than localities, which further hindered relief efforts.

We knew this was an issue four years ago, and lives were doubtless lost again in Katrina because of the very same problem. What we need is to provide first responders with the broadcast spectrum required to respond to catastrophic events, so that they can all communicate using the same radio frequencies and equipment during an emergency. This was one of the central recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, and I have introduced legislation in the last two Congresses to get it done, but the broadcast lobby has been effective in blocking it.

Congress must make interoperability a top priority, and while it does so, it also needs to look at clarifying the role of the U.S. military in responding to disasters. It’s clear that only the military has the personnel, logistical capacity, and airlift capability to respond immediately to the worst disasters in the worst conditions, and yet the lines of authority remain unclear. This requires looking at the Posse Comitatus Act, which bars federal troops from engaging in law enforcement, and the Insurrection Act, which allows the President to use federal troops to enforce U.S. laws. There are some complicated questions here, but all of them need to be resolved before the next disaster. We cannot have troops that might save lives waiting in the wings while government lawyers try to determine what set of rules applies.

Another aspect of coordination is the need to revamp local homeland security and disaster relief plans and link them to those at the Federal level. Here, remembering President Eisenhower’s consistent emphasis on the importance of planning would do us well. The President has directed the Department of Homeland Security to review the emergency plans in every major American city. That’s a good start, but every local government, big and small, will have to take this duty seriously.

The second great responsibility that I believe we face at the moment deals with our foreign policy. Iraq is, obviously, our greatest foreign policy challenge and remains our greatest foreign policy opportunity. We face tough times there, as anyone who reads the newspaper or watches CNN knows all too well. And yet we must prevail. General Eisenhower reminds, in his blunt way, that “When you appeal to force, there’s one thing you must never do – lose,” and if that is a general maxim, it is all the more true of Iraq. The stakes there could not be higher.

We simply cannot afford failure in Iraq, with all the implications that a failed state in the heart of the Middle East would have for our security – not to mention the bloodshed that a true power vacuum would unleash on the Iraqi population. Defeat in Iraq risks giving way to a failed state and a terrorist sanctuary, one in which extremists could train and plan attacks with impunity. We could have, in other words, another pre-9/11 Afghanistan.

But while the consequences of failure are unacceptable, the benefits of success in Iraq remain profound, not just for that country but throughout the region. It’s no secret that the road to democracy there has been rocky, and the path ahead is likely to remain arduous. But the Iraqis have already, despite a lack of security, and despite decades of brutal dictatorship, done what so many others in the region have not. They have held national elections that brought millions to the polls. They have crafted a constitution that, while it may have flaws, enshrines critical democratic rights that go far beyond the standard elsewhere in the region. And in so doing the Iraqis have issued a challenge – if, with all the violence and factional fighting that plague their country today, the Iraqi people can hold free elections and write a democratic constitution, why can their prosperous and peaceful neighbors not do the same?

So to follow our mission in Iraq through to success would not only avoid an outcome of catastrophic proportions, it would reap profound benefits. The question is, of course, how we get to victory. Some have argued that the coalition presence in Iraq makes matters worse, and that withdrawal, by ending the sense of occupation, will calm the violence. But to follow this line of thought involves a huge gamble. What if it is wrong? What if we withdraw and the violence actually worsens, full scale civil war ensures, or terrorists enjoy safe haven to plan attacks against America? Do we then face the options only of tolerating this situation in perpetuity or re-invading the country?

I will use this opportunity to mention just one element I believe to be critical to our pursuit of victory on the ground. Apart from those who advocate withdrawal, there has been talk of a partial drawdown of American troops, both within and outside the administration. I believe that to be a serious mistake, for we are still lacking in end strength, forcing us into seasonal offensives that take – and retake – the same cities and territories, unable to hold ground. So long as that remains the case, any talk of withdrawing coalition forces is premature, even as the deployment of National Guard troops to hurricane affected areas further strains our forces.

While the U.S. and its partners are training Iraqi security forces at a furious pace, these Iraqis should, for the time being supplement, not substitute for, the coalition forces on the ground. We have to hold down violence to the absolute minimum and support the new Iraqi state while the Iraqis themselves hash out political settlements to the issues that now divide them. They can get there, but we need to do everything possible to provide the security necessary to allow this to happen.

Part of this means looking anew at our overall political-military strategy. One idea that I believe deserves serious consideration is the so-called “oil spot strategy” of counterinsurgency warfare, which calls for a shift of emphasis from killing insurgents in search-and-destroy missions to protecting civilians in particular areas, then steadily expanding authority. The benefit of such an approach is that it would avoid the repeated “sweeping and clearing” strategies that have led to repeated engagements with insurgents in the same areas. The cost of the oil spot strategy, of course, is that it would require more time, more resources, and more commitment. But these we must devote in order to prevail.

And while we commit these forces to the effort on the ground, the latest anti-war protests at home show that we need a renewed effort to explain to the American people precisely what is at stake. Part of this effort includes relying less on rosy aspirations for near term improvements in Iraq’s politics or security situation, and more in accurately portraying events on the ground, even if they are negative. The American people have heard many times that the violence in Iraq will subside soon – when there is a transitional government in place, when Saddam is captured, when there are elections, when there is a constitution. Better, I believe, would be to describe the situation as it is – difficult right now, perhaps, but not without progress and hope – and to announce that things have improved when they in fact have. As in all wars, there are two fronts, the battlefield and the homefront, and we must tend to each.

The third and final responsibility I’d like to discuss briefly is fiscal. When it comes to war, President Eisenhower reminds us, “There is no victory at bargain basement prices.” Afghanistan, Iraq, and the broader war on terror are costing us hundreds of billions of dollars. Domestic spending has risen to stratospheric heights over the past several years, and pork barrel spending is literally out of control. And now we have the Katrina costs – the Congress has already appropriated $62 billion in Katrina relief, not a dime of which has been paid for. There are many billions more to come, and the Louisiana delegation has requested a quarter of a trillion dollars in federal reconstruction funds.

Now do not misunderstand me – we can and should pay what it takes to save these destroyed areas, although I have serious concerns about the aforementioned $250 billion proposal, containing what looks to be more an appropriations wish list than a sober assessment of reconstruction needs for Louisiana. One thing Americans do in times of need is help each other, and government is no different. But lost in all this is any sense of fiscal discipline or sacrifice. I know that the American people are sacrificing – they are giving money to the Red Cross, volunteering, opening their homes, sending care packages – one news story even said that so many doctors and nurses have gone down to disaster areas that there wasn’t enough work to go around. The only people who are conducting business as usual are those of us in Washington.

Here in Washington, we won’t even give up our earmarks. On the recently passed highway bill, there was $24 billion in pork – 6,140 earmarks. But a war and the reconstruction of a major American city hasn’t yet induced Congress to look at that bill again. We must. We also passed the prescription drug benefit, a program now estimated to cost $724 billion in the first 10 years and as much as $2 trillion in the second decade. But we won’t consider delaying it for all but the lowest-income seniors. We want to have it all without making any sacrifices, so we simply borrow the money, pushing off the obligations onto our children and our grandchildren.

Once again I think we’d be wise to remember the words of President Eisenhower. “As we peer into society's future,” he said in his farewell address, “we - you and I, and our government - must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.” And yet, my friends, if we don’t change course, that is what precisely what we risk.

Politicians in Washington were sent here to lead, and like Dwight D. Eisenhower, that is what we must do. While perhaps none of us will quite measure up to the model he provided, we must work to build the country that he devoted his life to serve.

As we gather tonight, I wonder what Dwight Eisenhower might make of an America that more fully addresses the three responsibilities I have described here. An America that plans extensively for its homeland emergencies. An America that takes its international responsibilities seriously no matter what. An America that watches its finances with discipline. I wonder what President Eisenhower might make of an America like that. Though part of me dares not to judge, I must say, I think he might be proud of it.

Thank you again for this great honor, and good evening.