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Admiral William H. McRaven: “We cannot restrict Muslims from coming into the United States”

The retired Navy admiral says the U.S. is already at war with ISIS — whether Americans want to admit it or not — and questioned whether the military will ever draft women for a full-scale conflict

Retired Navy Admiral William H. McRaven says preventing Muslims from entering the United States is not a solution to the current terrorism threat and would be at complete odds with the values Americans pride themselves on. “I think the president just laid it out magnificently in his remarks the other day, that if we get to the point that we are no longer the America that people want to come to because we are free, because we can express our ideas, because we have those freedoms and values that nobody else in the world has. When we get to that point, then ISIS has won,” McRaven said. “We cannot restrict Muslims from coming into the United States.”

The remarks came during an interview with Tina Brown at the Women In The World Salon in San Antonio on Monday. The discussion was wide-ranging and touched on women in the military, McRaven’s experiences rising through the ranks in the Navy and the threat of homegrown terror, among other things. McRaven, who became a national hero for commanding the teams that captured Saddam Hussein, rescued Captain Richard Phillips from Somali pirates and ended the manhunt for Osama Bin Laden, suggested that a policy such as Republican frontrunner Donald Trump’s widely panned “complete and total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” is anathema to American ideals.

“This idea we would restrict refugees, immigrants coming into Europe or coming into the United States — because we think those are American values, restricting them? — I think we’ve got it backwards,” he said. “As we look at these families coming out of Syria, my plea to the American people would be ‘Imagine they’re your families.'”

The retired admiral implored the U.S. to be “as open and as welcoming as we can to these great folks,” saying that the nation needs to make sure its voices are heard, but “if the voices of intolerance win out, then maybe this isn’t the America we thought it was.”

McRaven added the only way America will defeat ISIS is to put “boots on the ground” in Iraq and Syria, and that the American people need to find it within themselves to commit to a potentially arduous and expensive ground operation. Otherwise, he cautioned, it’s possible the threat posed by the extremist group will arrive “on our shores” and “at our borders” in the not-too-distant future.

Just two days after President Obama delivered an address to the nation on the threat of ISIS and repeated his stance that the U.S. should avoid engaging in another ground war, McRaven suggested ground forces are critical to overcoming the rising extremist group. “We should not be drawn once more into a long and costly ground war in Iraq or Syria,” President Obama had told Americans in his address on Sunday night. “That’s what groups like ISIL want.”

McRaven said a more aggressive strategy is necessary. “Why can’t we vanquish ISIS?” Brown asked him. McRaven responded telling Brown and the audience that he’s long advocated for the U.S. to pursue ISIS “with boots on the ground.” It’s a phrase he repeated several times throughout the interview. “We need to have a strategy that fully commits to winning. I don’t think we can marginalize our efforts against this threat.”

McRaven cautioned that such an operation cannot be undertaken without the popular support of Americans whom, he argued, expect the president to make the “hard decisions” alone.

“This is not just about the president. The president has been taking a lot of heat about this, his national security team has been taking heat,” he said.

As McRaven sees it, the U.S. is already at war with ISIS. “We need to accept that we are in a war — whether we choose to think of it that way or not, I guarantee you ISIS thinks of it that way — so we need to come up with a strategy to defeat them.” He lauded top military officials including Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Joint Chiefs of Staff Joe Dunford and Lloyd Austin, the general who runs U.S. Central Command, as “people who know how to do this.”

Brown pressed McRaven on whether or not the strategy of committing the U.S. military, which has been engaged in the region for 14 years, to possibly years’ worth of further multiple deployments is a wise one. “The fact of the matter is, this is an all-volunteer force, and I will tell you — at least on the special operations side — our guys are committed to this,” McRaven replied. “They understand that if we don’t deal with this now, certainly in Iraq and Syria and Yemen and North Africa and other places, we’ll have to deal with it as it comes to our shores. People will sometimes say, ‘You’re fear-mongering. Will they really arrive on our shores? Will they be on our borders? Will they be able to take down our airliners?’ I think all of that is possible if we’re not aggressively pursuing success against ISIS.”

McRaven said he gives Obama credit for moving to position more special forces on the ground in Iraq, but thinks the U.S. still needs to do more. “We need to root ISIS out of Mosul [Iraq], out of Ramadi [Iraq], and we need to be prepared to go into Raqqa [Syria] if necessary, and root them out of there,” he said. His full remarks on a strategy for dealing with ISIS can be heard in the video above.

In an engrossing conversation, the four-star admiral who retired last year after 37 years in the Navy and as a member of the famed SEAL Team 6 and a host of other commander roles throughout the years, reflected on his distinguished career and pondered the influence of his mother — a very tough, “classic Texas woman,” who taught him the value of hard work. One of the rules he lives by, he said, is, “If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed,”: a wisdom he had shared previously with University of Texas graduands, during a 2014 Commencement Address.

This he learned during Navy SEAL training. He explained that discipline and attention to detail matter, because “if you can’t do the little things right … then how will you do the important things well?” McRaven also discussed the evolving role of women in the military — asking whether America would be prepared to draft women — and the vital role of military spouses, which he called the “toughest job.”

“Are we prepared to draft women?,” he said. “This is an issue we don’t talk about a lot. But if we really have to go to war — if we have to go to war in South Korea, if the North Koreans come south and we have to go to war, and now we’re not talking about chasing bad guys in Iraq or Afghanistan, we’re talking about a full-scale war, and now we need to draft American citizens, are we going to draft women?”

“I do think we have to be careful about thinking that the war we’re in today, and have been since 9/11, is going to be the war that we’ll be in in the next generation.” He went on to explain. “We do have to recognize there are just physical differences in men and women. If you’re talking about the war today, in Iraq, I think it would have been easy for us to incorporate women. Afghanistan would have been a lot more difficult, because you’re talking about missions that are up in the Hindu Kush — 8,000-9,000 feet — carrying 80-100 pounds of gear on your back and having to patrol for 15-16 kilometers. That is just physically demanding. And that’s not to say that there aren’t some women who can do that. But I think we have to ask  the question: Are we in fact trying to build the very best units we can or trying to build units reflective of the social status we have today? I do think we need to be a little bit cautious about moving down that road too quickly, but the decision’s been made.”

Since his retirement in August 2014, McRaven has taken up a rather tough job as Chancellor of the University of Texas. In his first few months in the post, he quickly set the tone by launching the largest and most comprehensive multi-year study of campus sexual assault that’s ever been conducted. “We’re aggressively looking at this — we have to,” he said. He also took the unpopular stance of opposing a bill that allowed concealed carry on the University of Texas campus. But in the wake of the recent flurry of mass shootings in the United States, he said he is making sure that all the steps are in place in case the University was ever confronted with an active shooter situation, saying, “We can’t be naive about this. We have to be prepared to deal with that when it happens.”


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