WASHINGTON—After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, U.S. Adm. Joe Sestak commanded a carrier battle group in combat near Afghanistan, then in the Persian Gulf in the run-up to the Iraq war.
Now a freshman member of the House of Representatives, Sestak, a Pennsylvania Democrat, has introduced a bill calling for withdrawing all American forces from Iraq by the end of this year, while strengthening the U.S. military presence in the region and in Afghanistan.
Sestak, who defeated 10-term Republican incumbent Curt Weldon in November, has a Ph.D. in political economy and government from Harvard University. He served as the director for defense policy on President Clinton's National Security Council and once was the director of the Navy's anti-terrorism unit.
His bill would cut off most money for military operations in Iraq by Dec. 31.
"I honestly believe that in the next few months we will move to this position," Sestak said in an interview. "It may not be my bill, but it will be something very similar."
The main reason, he said, is that the war in Iraq is hurting American national security: It's diverted resources and attention from the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and from other challenges to U.S. interests around the world.
"We diverted our attention, our resources and our forces ... to Iraq," he said. "To my mind Afghanistan is the poster child for what isn't being done in this world where the real war on terrorism is elsewhere, not Iraq."
While focused on Iraq, he said, the military has been unable to move effectively from World War II-era tanks to 21st-century high-tech communication and intelligence.
Spending on the war also has diverted investment from what he calls three "pillars of national security": health, education and economic development at home.
He rejects the worst-case scenario arguments that Iraq will descend into genocide and a regional war if the United States leaves.
"It changes all the incentives," Sestak said of his withdrawal plan.
Iraqi sectarian leaders would realize that without the American military holding down the violence, "they would have to accept the consequences that if they go too far, the retaliation against them might go too far."
Iran and Syria want to see the United States bleed in Iraq, Sestak said. But once the United States is gone, they'd want to avoid getting into a proxy war. Moreover, mostly Shiite Muslim Iran doesn't want Sunni Muslim terrorists growing powerful next door, he said.
Sestak's bill calls for moving Iraq-based American forces to bases outside the country but nearby and to Afghanistan or other trouble spots and sending some home. A strong U.S. presence near Iraq would permit special forces to be sent in on counterterrorism missions or to support Iraqi forces from the air, he said. American efforts to rebuild Iraq's government and economy would shift to diplomacy.
Sestak said that what got him into politics wasn't Iraq but his little daughter, Alexandra, age 5, who was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor in July 2005. She's doing well after surgeries and chemotherapy, and Sestak hopes that buys time until a cure is found.
The walls of Sestak's office are covered with his child's art. He wears her blue plastic bead bracelet. Life in the cancer ward, he said, made him realize that he was fortunate to have access to top care, and inspired him to ponder how to improve the nation's health system. When doctors advised him to resume a normal life, he opted for politics. He serves on health-related House subcommittees and on the Armed Services Committee.
Q&A WITH REP. JOE SESTAK
Q. If U.S. forces left, would Iraq become embroiled in even worse violence? Would it spill over into a regional war?
A. "I don't think the violence is going to end immediately, but I don't believe it's going to spiral without control endlessly." Mostly Shiite Muslim Iran and mostly Sunni Muslim Syria don't want to fight one another in a proxy war, he said. However, both want to see the United States take losses in Iraq. "Having more troops just makes us bleed more profusely. If we aren't there, their incentives change. They don't want instability in Iraq."
Q. Would a pullout give terrorists a new base?
A. "I don't agree with those who say this is the central front on terrorism." Most of the violence is by Iraqis, not foreign fighters, he said.
Also, Shiites in Iraq and Iran oppose Sunni extremists, including al-Qaida. "They're after their own interests, but they happen to coincide with ours."
Q. What do you propose for Iraq?
A. First, set a date to withdraw.
"Those who are fighting understand that as we referee this civil war, there's a certain level of violence above which the U.S. military is able to control things. When that lid is taken off, this is the first time leaders of various sides have to accept the consequences. If they go too far, the retaliation against them may go too far.
"Second, we'll give you economic aid and we'll give you some military assistance from the air and special forces."
Sestak also thinks that the United States should lead other countries in pushing for an Iraqi political reconciliation. Iraq's neighbors "have real incentives not to have this go out of control," he said.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.