Edward Teller, the father of the American hydrogen bomb, once asked me something that I have never forgotten: “How hard would you work for your family to survive after a nuclear war?” I said I would do anything. And he said, “Wouldn’t it be better to do it before there’s a nuclear war?”
Those words were on my mind this week as I spoke to two groups that are critical to ensuring America’s national security and the security of one of our closest allies — Israel. On Tuesday afternoon, I testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on “The Cost of Defeat in Iraq and The Cost of Victory in Iraq.” And on Tuesday morning, I spoke to the Herzliya Conference on Israeli and Middle Eastern peace and security.
America and Israel have long been bound together as fellow democracies. But what binds us together today is something even stronger: the threat to our survival from fanatics armed with nuclear and biological weapons.
If Our Enemies Get Nuclear Weapons, They Are Going to Use Them
In both my talks, I was as frank and direct as our enemies have been in their threats to us. In our country, we face the greatest crisis in American civilization since the Civil War. In Israel, the threat to that nation’s very survival has not been this great since the 1967 war. And the reason for the current danger is this: If our enemies get nuclear weapons, they are going to use them.
For America, that could mean losing one or more cities.
For Israel, a three-nuclear-weapon event is a second holocaust.
Our enemies are explicit in their desire to destroy us. But we are sleepwalking through their threats to destroy America and Israel and their relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons, as if diplomatic engagement will somehow cause dictators who have pledged our destruction to turn around and love us.
There are those of us who know it’s a dangerous world and that we should take fanatics at their word when they say they want to kill us.
And then there are the elites whose first instinct is to appease, to avoid conflict at all costs, to bury their heads in the sand and pin their hopes on yet another empty report or fruitless diplomatic negotiation.
The Cost of Victory in Iraq — And the Cost of Defeat
Before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I outlined 18 key steps to victory in Iraq which you can read here.
But more fundamentally, the survival of America is dependent upon Americans’ confronting directly how real the threat is, acknowledging how obvious the threat is and rejecting the timidity of our elites in trying to hide from it.
We are in a real war, and we are in a long war. In this context, victory in Iraq is vital. Just as the campaigns in Sicily and Guadalcanal were vital to American and Allied victory in World War II, the war in Iraq will set the course for the long war against the forces of fanatical Islam and their allies.
Two Very Hard Paths Forward in Iraq
America has a choice to make.
We can accept defeat in Iraq. But what those who advocate this have a responsibility to describe is what defeat means. Simply put, defeat in Iraq means accepting the fact that the enemies of freedom who are fighting us in Iraq — evil men, vicious murderers and sadistic agents of atrocities — will have defeated both the millions of Iraqis who voted for self-government and the American people and their government.
Our other difficult option is victory.
We can insist upon defeating the enemies of America, Israel and the Iraqi people. We can develop the strategies necessary to force victory despite the incompetence of the Iraqi government, the unreliability of Iraqi leaders and the interference of Syria and Iran on behalf of our enemies.
Both these paths are hard. Both involve great risk. Both have unknowable difficulties and will produce surprise events.
Not Doing Enough to Win, But Doing Too Much to Leave
Instead of confronting this difficult choice, today we are caught in an unsustainable middle ground.
We have a strategy that relies on the Iraqis’ somehow magically improving their performance in a very short time period. Yet the argument for staying in Iraq is that it is a vital American interest. If we are seeking victory in Iraq because it is vital to America, then we need a strategy that will win even if our Iraqi allies are inadequate. We did not rely on the Free French to defeat Nazi Germany. We did not rely on the South Koreans to stop North Korea and China during the Korean War. When it mattered to America’s vital interests, we accepted all the help we could get, but we made sure we had enough strength to win on our own if need be.
The Washington Bureaucracy Is the Biggest Obstacle to Winning in Iraq
I am painting a tough but realistic picture of our prospects for winning in Iraq and the wider war against fanatical Islam. And just like others who are critical of our efforts there, I have a responsibility to describe what I think we should be doing differently.
So what should we do?
I believe that the bureaucracy in Washington is the biggest obstacle to winning in Iraq. Only one aspect of our government bureaucracy has been effective there, that is the combat element of American military power. Our greatest failures have been in non-combat power: intelligence, diplomacy, economic aid, information operations, and civilian support operations. Failures in these areas are among the major reasons we have done so badly in Iraq.
Changing this state of affairs will be difficult. But, if we start now, victory is still possible in Iraq. The President could start today by appointing a retired four star general or admiral to be his deputy chief of staff in charge of implementing operations in Iraq across the different bureaucracies on a daily basis. And then we need to really start thinking outside the box, like creating an Iraqi Jobs Corps to gainfully employ young Iraqi males (something Mayor Rudy Giuliani and I have jointly proposed). Another idea is to give American commanders leverage with local communities by giving them the capability to spend money on local activities. Finally, we must not only tell Iran and Syria that there will be consequences if they continue to interfere in Iraqi self-government, there must be consequences.
The Lessons of Verdun for American Civilization
In 1958, long before Dr. Teller and I had our conversation about survival in the nuclear age, I learned my first, pivotal lesson about the fragility of American civilization.
My father was a career solider and an infantryman, and we were stationed in Orleans, France. We went to the battlefield of Verdun and saw the cost of the First World War in human terms — on the largest battlefield in the Western front. We stayed with a friend of my father who had been drafted in 1941, sent to the Philippines, survived the Bataan death march and spent three and a half years in a Japanese prison camp. Over the course of one weekend, touring the battlefield and the museums that described a nine-month battle in which 600,000 people were killed, I learned a powerful lesson. I learned that civilizations can die. I realized that seemingly invulnerable societies could collapse at the hands of their political leaders.
That weekend at Verdun convinced me that the quality of what we do in our public life is central to our ability to sustain a free and prosperous society. I have spent my life living with that lesson in mind and remembering this: The free and democratic civilization that those men who died on the battlefield of Verdun fought to preserve is the greatest gift I can give — that we all can give – to the next generation of Americans.
P.S. – There is still time to plan to be in New York on February 28 and Washington, D.C., on March 3! Join me in New York on February 28 at historic Cooper Union where I will engage in a dialogue with former New York Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo in a kind of discussion we hope will serve as a model for the 2008 presidential campaign and beyond. Also, come to Washington in March for the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) where I am planning to speak to the general session and have an exclusive “meet up” with members of the Winning the Future movement.
P.P.S. Two weeks ago, I helped announce a new initiative that you should know about. It’s called the National ePrescribing Patient Safety Initiative, and this important program could literally save thousands of lives every year. There are more than 3 billion medication prescriptions written every year, and the Institute of Medicine has reported that more than 1.5 million Americans are injured every year by medication errors, killing more than 7,000 citizens. An easy way to eliminate these errors is through electronic prescribing, which replaces illegible handwriting with sophisticated technology. Led by technology companies, like Allscripts, Microsoft and Google, along with health insurers such as WellPoint and Aetna, the National ePrescribing Patient Safety Initiative is a national effort to give this technology away for free to every doctor in the country. I encourage you to ask your doctor if they are participating in the program, and if they are not, urge them to do so. It could save your life. Find out more at the Center for Health Transformation.