Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) spoke at the Jewish policy conference AIPAC on Tuesday.
Video of Sen. McConnell’s Speech at AIPAC 2017
Transcript of Sen. Mitch McConnell’s Speech at AIPAC 2017
Good morning. Thanks for getting up early. Great to see so many of you here today — Howard Kohr, Lillian Pinkus, Mort Fridman, Bob Cohen and of course, all the Kentuckians that are here with us. There are thousands of students and of course, it’s great to be with you this year.
Just after our last address, this Conference in 2015, Prime Minister Netanyahu gave an important address to Congress. He warned about the dangers of then President Obama’s plan for a nuclear deal with Iran. The Obama Administration ignored him. It was hardly the only time Israel would feel let down over the last eight years. That culminated in what we saw at the U.N. in December.
The U.S.-Israel relationship was in a terrible state when the new administration took office. We all agree on the importance of reaffirming our relationship in charting a new way forward, but to do so, I believe we first need to examine what went wrong over the last eight years and that starts at the beginning.
Former President Obama and I have very different opinions about America’s role in the world. It won’t surprise any of you to hear that. We disagreed about the alliance with Israel, we disagreed about whether the post-war order remains in our nation’s interest; we just had a fundamentally different approach to the world. President Obama formulated a policy based on fulfilling campaign promises made in 2008 and pursued politically expedient solutions to whatever stood in the way.
That was his approach. In his first week in office, he signed a series of executive orders that made this clear. He attempted to close Guantanamo without a credible plan for either the terrorists housed there or the terrorists we need to detain there in the future. He pushed a withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq without regard to threats posed by the Taliban or Al-Qaida or the fragile political situation in either country, especially Iraq.
The absence of American leadership and presence created a strategic vacuum filled by countries like Russia and China and Iran. All of them grew more aggressive toward us. The natural result of Obama’s strategic imperative to avoid conflict with other nations even when American interests were challenged was this, our enemies learn not to fear us, our allies learn not to trust us and friends like Israel felt abandoned.
But my friends, today we have the chance—really, the need—for a fresh start. The U.S. and Israel share many values, we share many goals, we share many interests, one of which is seeing the end of ISIL’s ability to control territory in the Middle East and to attack beyond the Middle East. Just consider what the spread of ISIL, along with the wider conflict between Iran, its Shia proxies and our Sunni partners has meant for Israel.
ISIL and the Sinai threatens Israel’s western land border. The civil war in Syria has brought a group sympathetic to ISIL to Israel’s north and of course, Russia and Hezbollah are active within Syria. Iran tried to expand its area of influence through the use of Shia militias within Iraq now employed to the west of Mosul; and through the use of other Shia fighters within Syria and through supporting Shia proxies in Yemen and Lebanon and Bahrain.
Now, thankfully the new administration has now undertaken a counter-ISIL policy review and the coalition has also made progress in taking ground from ISIL. We know that U.S. commanders are now planning for the liberation of Raqqa, the capitol of ISIL’s so-called caliphate. Like you, though, I understand that the liberation of Raqqa hardly represents the end of the conflict.
The fight against ISIL will go on and the Iraqi security forces will still require coalition assistance. Importantly, last week in testimony before the Senate, Secretary of Defense Mattis supported maintaining a residual force inside Iraq. We all know such a presence can bolster Iraqi forces, lend stability, deter and watch for further Iranian advances and provide reassurance to our regional allies.
That’s important, because as we remember, ISIL’s predecessor Al-Qaida in Iraq, was an incredibly resilient terrorist organization. When we withdrew from Iraq on a political timetable, it gave AQI the space and time to regroup and ultimately grow into ISIL. We can’t make that mistake again. What Syria looks like post-Raqqa matters immensely to both of our countries. Which groups will fill the void?
How will the regional’s Sunni/Shia balance be effective? Will the Shia militias postured west of Mosul create a land bridge to Syria? There are many, many questions. There are, as yet, few answers. But I want you to know this, whatever post-Raqqa Syria looks like, the United States will stand with Israel. We will support Israel against al-Nusra and Al-Qaida. We will support Israel against Hezbollah.
If any of these groups are left with a presence in the Golan Heights, we’ll be there for you. Groups like Hezbollah would hardly pose the same level of danger without their patrons, of course, in Tehran. And President Obama’s deal with the regime should not have led to ignoring other aspects of Iran’s aggressive behavior. As Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Schultz warned Obama’s deal, quote, “risk empowering Iran’s hegemonic efforts in the region,” and of course, they were right.
It bestowed a windfall of billions for the Iranian regime to distribute to its proxies. Obama’s deal with Tehran prevented his administration from taking a regional approach to stop Iran, because it feared that Iran would step away from the deal. But today we can take a different approach with a new administration. Today we can combat Iran’s capability to fund, arm and train terrorists like Hezbollah and Hamas and its proxies in Syria.
And it leads to a broader point as well, the best way to bolster Israel’s security in the region is to enhance America’s influence in the region. In my view, the best way to do so is by focusing on three areas, rebuilding our capabilities here, rebuilding our partnerships and frankly, rebuilding our will. So the first step is to rebuild our capabilities. We need a multiyear plan to rebuild our own military.
Our total force needs to be rebuilt if America is to remain capable of fulfilling its traditional role as guarantor of the international order. During the Obama Administration, we had times where our commanders lacked sufficient aircraft carrier presence or tactical units, like marine expeditionary units to meet competing demand. The Trump Administration has taken the first step in repairing the damage by seeking supplemental funds to address acute readiness challenges and will seek a defense increase in fiscal year 2018.
But this is going to require a multiyear plan, one that will help modernize our military and prepare us for the threats of tomorrow. I know Senator John McCain will work tirelessly to prepare next year’s defense authorization legislation and Senator Thad Cochran is working hard on next year’s defense funding legislation too. The second step, very important, we’ve got to rebuild our partnerships.
The past eight years gave witness to a serial degrading of our alliances and partnerships all across the globe. America needs to be forward-deployed with capable military forces and we must reassure our allies that America is simply not retreating from the world. Instead of alienating our Sunni Arab partners, we need to let them know we’ll stand with them as well. So instead of picking fights with Israel, we should be reasserting the strong and enduring bond between our countries.
And instead of telling the victims of Iranian coercion or aggression to, quote, “share the neighborhood,” we should push back against it; don’t you think? And that, my friends, would be a welcomed change from what we saw the last eight years. So what is the third step? We’ve got to rebuild our will. The Obama Administration allowed Iran to use the nuclear deal to hold hostage all other areas of our foreign policy.
We cannot allow that to continue. We have to push back against Iran’s maligned behavior, its use of proxies and its cyber warfare. When Iran attacks our ships in the Persian Gulf by armed proxy groups like the Houthis or helps Hezbollah secure advanced weaponry, we have to work with our allies and use all elements, all elements of American power to end those actions. So sanctions and diplomacy are starting points, but we need to use all elements of our power.
Only when Iran fears the consequences of aggression will it cease such action. It’s called deterrence. It should be at the centerpiece of our strategy vis-à-vis the regime and where deterrence fails we must respond. I made a commitment when I addressed this group in 2012 before Obama’s deal with Iran. I said that if at any time the intelligence community presents Congress with an assessment that Iran had begun to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels or if it had taken a decision to develop a nuclear weapon, I would consult with the president and joint congressional leadership and introduce an authorization for the use of military force.
And so I restate that commitment today. As I said then, the authority would be focused to assure the people of Iran and the international community that our disagreement is not with the population of Iran or with the Muslim world, this would not prevent an administration from pursuing diplomatic measures and consultations and in fact, would actually strengthen those efforts. In short, it’s the best way to ensure the world that our leaders are united in confronting Iran.
And for Israel’s sake, it will ensure that Iran cannot enter into a zone of immunity from which it can coerce and intimidate other nations. But look, I hope we won’t get there. With the right deterrence measures, we shouldn’t. What is needed is something the last administration did not provide and that is a clear, clear declaratory policy that says what we will do and why. The relationship between the United States and Israel spans generations.
It has been tested, twisted and bent over the decades, especially in recent years, but it is, in the end, unbreakable; and I’m here to tell you this relationship between Israel and the United States is indeed unbreakable. The bond between us is more than just an alliance of interests, though we do have a lot of interests aligned, it’s a statement of our common values—democracy, individual rights, freedom and an unyielding spirit.
These are the things that define Israel. They are also the things that define the United States. It’s a shared heritage and it’s the foundation of an enduring alliance. I believe this deeply. I know our new ambassador to Israel shares the same heartfelt commitment. I was proud to join my colleagues in voting to confirm David Friedman just last week. We all wish him the best of luck in a difficult, but important task that lies before him.
And let me share another wish. This one is from Prime Minister Netanyahu in his 2015 address to Congress. Here’s what he said, “May Israel and America always stand together strong and resolute. May we neither fear nor dread the challenges ahead and may we face the future with confidence, strength and hope.”
I couldn’t have put it better myself. No matter what the world throws our way we’ll continue to walk by Israel’s side. Thank you.