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Iraq Up Close: Senators Joseph Biden and Chuck Hagel

June 25, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now, to Margaret Warner for a conversation with two U.S. Senators who just returned from Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: With me are two members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: The ranking Democrat Joe Biden of Delaware; and Republican Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. They returned yesterday from Baghdad, the end of a four-day trip to the region that also took them to a meeting of the World Economic Forum in Jordan. Welcome to you both, senators. I would like to begin by asking you both beginning with you Senator Hagel when did you see and learn on this trip that was new or different or gave you greater insight into something about the situation in Iraq than perhaps you had seen or thought here in Washington?

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: Margaret, always an onsite assessment is the best kind of assessment. We can deal in theory. We can deal in history, we can deal in policy and programs but until you are on the ground like we were in Iraq and there’s a lot of course we did not see. We didn’t have the time. We were there about 14 hours. But we did see a lot. But what I came away with in a more dramatic way than when I went in was that awesome, awesome task, the immensity of the task ahead. The heavy responsibility that we now have in taking a nation the size of California with around 25 million inhabitants, and trying to build a nation that can govern itself and sustain itself in a very short period of time. And I guess that’s the bottom- line assessment.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Biden, what fresh insights did you get from this trip?

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN: Remarkable people we have in place with incredibly talented, with vastly under funded and under manned in my view. We went to a police station for example. This is the only police station in all of Iraq. A training academy. We have people who I have worked with over the years chairman of Judiciary Committee from back here in law enforcement. They have about Kosovo, they’ve been in Bosnia, they’ve been in Afghanistan, they know exactly what they need. You walk into the building that they are going to be in. They had their first brigade. It was almost comical. It was almost comical – not our people, but as these guys tried to present the Iraqi policemen we’re training, there are about 25. As they tried to put on a parade for us, in effect – I mean, they were trying hard, but it was comical how unprepared they were. And it is, and realizing that we have could come up with somewhere around 78,000 police nationwide. And we’re so woefully unprepared because of judgments made from the failure to plan before we went in of what we were going to do in the aftermath. It is an awesome task. But again, I’ll emphasize the talent we have over there. We have guys like Bremer who is first rate. We have a guy Ambassador Crocker who picked up the pieces in Afghanistan — one of the most talented diplomats — Walt Slocum, one of smartest guys on the key fence part of equation. We have serious people. They don’t say this because they are loyal, by the numbers, but they are seriously deficient in the amount of help they have and the resources and the international component.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Hagel, what is your freshest conclusion about what it’s going to take to stop the attacks on the U.S. troops and really get a handle on the security situation? It seems to be just getting worse by the week.

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: We’re into something Margaret that we have never been in before. It’s a complicated land with a complicated history. It’s very dangerous. I think Joe is right in his evaluation of we’re probably undermanned. That’s why it’s critically important that we bring our institutional and international partners into this. NATO, the United Nations, individual nations to help us. We can’t carry this burden alone. It’s too wide and too deep and too heavy even for the United States. But we have to recognize that it is going be dangerous there for some time to go. What Jerry Bremer and his team are trying to do in putting together a new functioning government, infrastructure, building a police force, building an army, putting just the basic necessities back together, building an economy, this is all want universe of the hostilities. We’re still pulling combat missions – search and destroy missions and combat patrols. And it does get continuously dangerous and more dangerous, but that’s part of what we’re facing, and I suspect we didn’t anticipate that. I suspect we didn’t think about that or plan for that, but that’s the reality that these people are having to work within. It would be difficult even within a rather pristine universe to try to do this, but trying to defend yourself all the time makes it even more complicated. That’s why we need help.

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN: You know, Margaret, we met with a lot of… we’ve met with generals, we met with a lot of colonels. The way they talk about it is the war is not over. I mean, this is not… they’re not into peacekeeping. They say a the war is not over. One star who will remain nameless– I don’t want to get him in trouble– is riding along with us and saying, look, every single patrol he sends out he says that “you’re going into a war zone.” And they pointed out to us the following: They said, “you know, this is not just random attacks that are coming at our guys.” They realized there was an actual flyer that went out and to the old Fedayeen that’s still around, it just … it just, you know, melted into the walls, you know, the Republican Guards — our guys wear chest armor and our guys wear helmets. They’re instructed — these guys who kill them come out of crowds, we were told by our military, and pick the four inches between the helmet and the flack jacket and blow their heads off from the back. These are not a bunch of, you know, random acts. And until we get Saddam Hussein — I mean, how many people told us over there that Saddam Hussein is an overwhelming impediment because people who might otherwise cooperate with us, particularly in that Sunni area between the two no-fly zones in the past, that those folks think he’s… this guy’s coming back– maybe not into power, but he’s still around. And so this is still a war. We need 5,800 European police officers in there within the next month or so. We need probably… and that’s a hard number the police guys tell us. In addition to that, while we’re training them up, in addition to that, we probably need another thirty to forty thousand guys that can shoot straight from other countries. I mean NATO countries. We should accept French troops, we should accept NATO troops. There’s a lot to do, but we can do this. It can be done, but it’s preposterous– and Chuck will probably disagree with me, and I understand it– but Mr. Rumsfeld’s statement that we’ll be down to 30,000 troops by the end of the year I think is absolute fantasy, and we should stop playing with people and tell them, “this requires international help and assistance, and the war is not over yet.”

MARGARET WARNER: So Senator Hagel, what… you both said it needs international troops, international help. What’s the impediment?

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: As to why we don’t have more help?

MARGARET WARNER: Right, right.

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: Well, I think finally the administration is reaching out and working with our friends and allies to get troops in there. This should have been done prior to ever going into Iraq, but we are where we are. And we need to focus on this accomplishment, and it’s an important accomplishment for America’s security and stability in that region. So I think every effort is being made. We met with Secretary Powell while we were in Jordan. We’ve been working with a number of high-ranking administration officials. I think the president, Secretary Powell, Dr. Rice, is going over in that area this week, Secretary Rumsfeld– all are talking to our allies about getting our allies in there. But understand: When our allies see, for example, yesterday six British troops being killed, eight seriously wounded– we had another American, I understand, killed today– when nations see that, they’re not going to be very anxious to put their people in harm’s way, but we need them. We must have, not only the legitimacy of other nations in there, especially other Arab nations in there, but we need the help and we need the effort and we need the manpower and we need the expertise that goes with it. Because it is going to be a while, as Joe said, before we’re able to even stabilize that country and get on with…

MARGARET WARNER: Several years?

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: Well, it’s… I don’t know how many years. Nobody knows. But Senator Lugar, Senator Biden have both talked about probably five years we’re in there. I think that’s probably accurate. Could be more, could be less, but this is going to take some time.

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN: Margaret, we could stabilize it relatively soon, meaning in months. And I’m of the view– Senator Hagel didn’t happen to be with me when I ran into Lord Robinson, the guy that heads up NATO. I said “George, where is NATO?” He said, “you have to ask us.” Now, the senator may know something I don’t, but up to now, I don’t think the president of secretary of defense has specifically asked for a commitment, a hard number of NATO troops in the area. I was told that France was ready to send several thousand recently. And they were told no. I don’t know that to be true, but that’s what I was told. But I want to find that out, because while we’re asking the Indians and the Bangladeshis to help send troops, which is a very helpful thing, I want the gang that can shoot straight. I want guys who can shoot and kill. I want guys that can protect our guys as well as themselves. And in the meantime, Margaret, if we don’t bring in at least 5,000 trained policemen now into Baghdad and into that country while we’re putting this together, I think we are going to reap the whirlwind. So it’s direct proportion. The quicker we do this, the quicker we can stabilize it, and the sooner we can leave. The longer we wait…

MARGARET WARNER: Speaking of quickly, let me ask you both briefly, Senator Hagel, beginning with you: Did you learn anything new on the search for weapons of mass destruction, either anything promising or why it’s so difficult and frustrating?

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: The short answer is no. And just an additional sentence or two, we need more help in there as well in that effort. This chapter is not closed. It shouldn’t be; it’s a big country. We continue to look for any evidence or the weapons or the supplies themselves, but we didn’t learn anything new, or at least I didn’t.

MARGARET WARNER: Did you, Senator Biden, maybe when you weren’t Senator Hagel?

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN: No, I didn’t learn a single thing new. The only thing I learned was that even people– our people– on the ground are asking me in Iraq about weapons of mass destruction.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you mean they’re asking you?

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN: In other words, there are civilian people over there saying, “are we going…” they’re asking me, “are we going to find weapons of mass destruction?”

MARGARET WARNER: All right, thanks. Senator Biden and Senator Hagel, thanks a lot.