Retired Vice Admiral and Rep. Joe Sestak (D-PA) is the highest-ranking military officer ever to serve in the House of Representatives. Recently he brought his experience and authority about the military to a Center for American Progress Action Fund event about the United States’ involvement in Iraq. Sestak discussed plans for a responsible redeployment from Iraq, enhancing United States interests in the greater Middle East, and transforming the military to meet a new era of strategic demand.
Sestak, a 31-year Navy veteran, commanded 30 ships and 15,000 men and women in combat operations in Afghanistan and in precursor operations in Iraq. He was first elected to Congress in 2006.
At the Center, Sestak presented a set of principles, recommendations, and realities to guide United States policies in the Middle East. He noted that there has been some progress in reducing violence in the Sunni-dominated Anbar Province, but emphasized that political progress and reconciliation is the one real hope for a stable Iraq. He recalled meetings in a recent trip to Iraq with both Sunni and Shiite sects who seemed disinterested in taking any steps in that direction.
To put pressure on those ethnic leaders to reach political solutions, we need to set a certain date for a safe, strategic redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq. This would put new pressure on the sectarian leaders to come to an agreement. Sestak’s proposal echoes a centerpiece of “Strategic Reset,” the Center for American Progress’s newest report on Iraq and the Middle East. Sestak estimated that a safe redeployment could be completed within 15-24 months.
The Congressman also cautioned accepting wholesale General David Petraeus’s report on the state of Iraq and the effectiveness of the United States’ military mission there. He urged the public to view in context any report by a military person who by nature believes he or she can complete the mission. Any strategy that focuses only on a temporary fall in violence will mean nothing unless the parties can also reach a political settlement.
To help make this a reality, Sestak said that in addition to setting a firm date for withdrawal, we must engage with Iran to halt any disturbances that regime may be creating in Iraq. The Iranians would have no choice but to work with the United States, since Iran likely does not want to deal with an unstable, fractured Iraq.
The U.S. army is stretched to its breaking point and since we have no standing unit available to address other emergencies around the world, the United States should begin redeployment from Iraq by the spring.
Sestak said that the military must both shift its focus from Iraq toward rooting out an Al Qaeda that was allowed to escape from Afghanistan southward toward Pakistan, as well as fundamentally change its structure and approach to adapt to the demands of the 21st century. Emphasis on technology and intelligence must be at the forefront of military development so that we can better predict and respond to attacks.
To make these changes, Sestak said the civilian leaders must focus on the three things that motivate military personnel: patriotism, promotions for those who embrace the changes (and a threat of no promotion for those who do not), and money. This last incentive would involve placing money into a joint fund that parcels money out to each branch of the military if they make changes. This will assure oversight and maximum efficiency with the funds.