Feb 20 2007

Shelby talks about Iraq, illegal immigration during Athens visit

Athens News Courier

By Karen Middleton

"There’s been a lot of mistakes made in Iraq – big ones,” said U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby Monday in a town-hall meeting at the Athens Senior Center.

However, the senior senator from Tuscaloosa, who serves on the Defense Appropriations Committee, said denying more troops or material support for the troops already on the ground will further compound the problems of U.S. involvement in Iraq.

Shelby said he canceled town-hall meetings in South Alabama that were scheduled for Saturday to be present for the vote on a non-binding Democratic bid to repudiate President Bush’s deployment of an additional 21,500 troops. Shelby’s vote helped insure that the Senate vote fell four short of the 60 needed to advance the measure. On Friday, the House had passed the measure.

“I voted against the Democratic measure,” said Shelby, although seven GOP senators voted with the Democrats. “I think it would send a negative message to our troops. We are deeply challenged in Iraq. Four years ago, we had great success in about three weeks time in toppling Saddam. Once the conventional war was over we didn’t plan for the insurgency.”

The House and Senate have not yet begun to debate the president’s request for another $93 billion to fight the war.

“At the end of the day, I’m for the troops and I will never vote to cut off support when they are in harm’s way,” Shelby said. “The Democrats say to the troops we support you but we want you out. That is an ambiguous statement. Our troops are all volunteer. Some of them have been there three or four times. Morale is very important. I wish we’d have sent 200,000 troops two years ago. But we don’t have that many troops to send.”

Shelby said withdrawing from Iraq without a resolution to the sectarian violence would invite it to spill over onto western nations.

“If we can get out of Iraq without being run out, there’s a lot to be said for that,” Shelby said. “But there would be a rude awakening if [war critics] think that the terror would stop if we came home.”

Of the biggest mistakes in Iraq, Shelby said was not having enough troops initially to seize all the weapons.

“We’re where we are and we must stabilize the situation,” he said.

During the question-and-answer portion of the meeting, local resident Eural Claxton begged Shelby to use his influence to get the U.S. out of Iraq.

Shelby, however, could not offer much hope for a quick end to the conflict.

“We’re going to be in a struggle with Islamic nations for the next 75 to 100 years,” Shelby said. “There is such a big divide with western civilization that if we had a pure democracy throughout the Mideast, we would still have fundamentalism. We should protect our interests but not try to police these nations.”

He said two-thirds of the world’s oil comes from Iraq and Iran.

Immigration

The senator also called on taking a hard on line on illegal immigration. Shelby cited the often-used figure of 12 million illegal immigrants currently living in the U.S., but he said the figure could easily go as high as 15 million.

“The big fight is over amnesty,” Shelby said. “When you hear the word ‘reform’ the truth is it’s about amnesty.”

The president has said he is against amnesty for illegal immigrants, but advocates a “Guest Worker Program” that provides legal pathways to citizenship because of the heavy dependence of some industries on migrant labor.

“I’m going to vote against amnesty because it flies in the face of our legal system,” Shelby said. “Many come here and disappear into our 300 million people. Do they contribute to our economy? Absolutely. They are hungry and they work, but they should abide by our laws.”

Trade imbalance, deficit

 Shelby said if the U.S. does not stop borrowing money we are dooming our grandchildren to repay our excesses.

“The deficit has gone down but we’re not balanced yet,” Shelby said. “If we keep borrowing money it will put the debt on our grandchildren and affect their quality of life.”

The senator said the country is still importing more than it is exporting and that the nation has one of the lowest savings rates in the world.

“Who holds our debt?” he asked. “Japan is 29 percent, mainland China 15. 8 percent, the United Kingdom is 10.2 percent, and our oil exporters is 4.4 percent. We have to stop letting foreigners finance our debt.

The senator illustrated the allocations of the $2.7 trillion budget by carving up the American dollar. It showed 21 cents going to Social Security, 19 cents to defense, 12 cents to Medicare, 8 cents to Medicaid, 7 cents to interest on debt, 19 cents on non-defense discretionary spending and 14 cents on mandatory entitlements.

Shelby said the economy is “good,” and that Alabama ranks below the national average in unemployment. But, to keep both the national and state economy strong would take more skilled workers, especially in engineering and science, he said.

He has secured $300 million for the state’s universities to “rebuild their engineering programs,” he said.

“We need $1 billion,” he said. “We are building for our grandchildren.”