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National Security Advisor, Senator React to President’s Speech on Iraq

June 29, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT

GWEN IFILL: Now, two newsmaker interviews focusing on the president’s Iraq speech, the first with national security advisor Stephen Hadley. I spoke with him moments ago from the White House.

Stephen Hadley, welcome.

STEPHEN HADLEY: Thanks, nice to be here.

GWEN IFILL: The president last night in his speech mentioned Sept. 11 five times and alluded to it several more times. Yet, half of Americans say that they don’t believe — this is in this latest Gallup Poll everybody’s been talking about today — say they don’t believe there’s a connection between what’s happening in Iraq and what happened on Sept. 11. What do you say to that?

STEPHEN HADLEY: The president talked about Sept. 11, because that’s, of course, the day that the war on terror came to the United States. And the point he wanted to make is that the terrorists who are behind Sept. 11 share the ideology of terrorists that are also against us in Iraq. There are terrorists that have come largely from outside Iraq; they have joined criminal elements; they’ve joined former regime elements and some Iraqi extremists.

But his point is that Iraq is really part of the war on terror because a number of the folks who are doing damage to Iraqis and to American citizens — men and women in uniform in Iraq — share the same ideology as those who brought us 9/11. That’s the point. That’s why Iraq is really part of the war on terror, and why it’s so important for that reason as well that we prevail there.

GWEN IFILL: Recently there was a document that was circulated from the CIA, which concluded that Iraq has actually replaced Afghanistan as a major training ground for the kinds of outsiders, the foreign fighters that you were just alluding to. It’s kind of a chicken and the egg question, I guess. Which created this uprising? Was it America’s presence in Iraq, or were these people in Afghanistan and then they came to Iraq?

STEPHEN HADLEY: Well, we know some of them, of course, were in Iraq. Zarqawi, who is really one of the most senior and most in many ways lethal terrorists in Iraq was in Iraq during the period of Saddam Hussein before the war began, and Saddam had also — was a regime supporter of other terrorist groups, particularly Palestinian terrorist group. And if you look back and the rationale that was used for going to war in Iraq, it was, of course, the threat that WMD posed to regional stability to us, but it was also Saddam’s support for terror; it was also Saddam’s treatment of his own people.

So there was always a terrorist element in this. Obviously, in the period since Saddam has fallen, there are terrorist groups and individuals who have come to Iraq because that is the place where they can confront the United States and pursue the war on terror, so it is — terrorism was an issue with Iraq before the invasion and before Saddam was toppled. And of course the terrorists have now chosen that as a central front on the war on terror, and that’s why it’s so important that we prevail there.

GWEN IFILL: We, of course, have heard a lot of the points the president was making last night about the political and the military track in Iraq. What would you say, after probably taking part and helping to draft the speech and then listening to it last night, was new in what the president was telling the American people?

STEPHEN HADLEY: The president made clear that we are continuing to pursue a strategy that he laid out about a year ago. What he wanted to do was indicate the success we’ve had to date, the progress we’ve made on that strategy. He also wanted to say to the American people that there are going to be difficult times ahead; there’s hard work ahead that needs to be done.

But he wanted to give a progress report to the American people, but also tell them a little bit more, a little bit more than he said publicly, about how we are pursuing both the military track and also the political track; the military track, some of the things we are doing to enhance the capability of Iraqi units, so they can take the fight to the terrorists, and as the president said, as they step up, we can step back.

And the other thing he wanted to do was to talk about the political agenda going forward, the importance of helping the Iraqis to bring all groups into the political process, draft the constitution on time, have it adopted by the Iraqi people, and then go to the elections in December of a permanent government.

It is the interaction between the political track and the military track that the president believes is the way to move forward in our strategy, which is to have an Iraq able to govern itself, able to defend itself, and take responsibility for its own defense and be an ally in the war on terror. That’s clearly what we want; that’s clearly what the Iraqi people want.

GWEN IFILL: And yet some of your supporters are the ones who seem to be getting the most nervous about the situation right now. We heard from Sen. Chuck Hagel, Republican from Nebraska, who says the administration seems to be making it up as they go along; Sen. Lindsey Graham from South Carolina, another Republican, saying that the people in his home state, great patriots all, are nervous now; that it feels as if this is headed on the route to Vietnam. They almost sounded like cries for help up on Capitol Hill. What do you say to them?

STEPHEN HADLEY: The president needed to be talking about Iraq to the American people. There have been a lot of other subjects in the national debate over the last couple of months. We’ve talked about judges; we’ve talked about Social Security. It was important for the president to go back and re-engage with the American people, give them, as he said, a status report on the challenges we face and the way ahead. That was important for the president to do, and I think the reactions that we have heard is that people are pleased the president made the statements he made.

Obviously the proof of progress is going to be on the ground, whether we can make the kind of gains in competence of the Iraqi security forces and keep to the political timetable. So it was important for the president to re-engage the country, and it is going to be important that we pursue the agenda that he laid out. And I think if we do that, I think if you read the press today, I think some of these same names you were suggesting, I think that we will be able to hold the American people in this effort, because as the president said, and as most commentators have said, we really cannot afford to fail in Iraq. Success is really where we need to be.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about the situation on the ground, the insurgency that the president described and talked about how difficult it is. How long can Americans expect it to last and how virulent is it?

STEPHEN HADLEY: Well, obviously we don’t know in terms of how long it will last, and in terms of its virulence it is killing American men and women in uniform; it’s killing a lot more Iraqis. And what I think we hope going forward is that the combination of the military strategy we have talked about and the political strategy will do what is most important, which is turn Iraqis as a group against the insurgency.

You know, I think that, Gwen, there are a lot of Iraqis who are a little bit on the fence: Is democracy going to be the future of Iraq, or is it going to fall back to either the prior order, or to chaos? And the more Iraqis can have confidence that they are going to have a democratic country, that their own security forces are going to be able to take the lead in dealing with these terrorists, I think you’re going to see Iraqis being much more effective against the terrorists and against those elements. And in the end of the day it’s going to be the Iraqis that are going to win this fight. We can help but they are going to have to win this fight.

GWEN IFILL: Pardon me. You talk about the Iraqis and the Iraqis, especially the Sunnis, seem to be nervous about when the United States is going to leave. People on this side of the ocean seem to be looking for some sort of measurable benchmarks, ways of telling when is — there’s success. Is it the number of troops trained; is it the number of attacks reduced; is it the number of Sunnis who take a role in the government after having initially been shut out? What would you say those benchmarks ought to be?

STEPHEN HADLEY: Well, first of all, as the president made clear last night, we all want to have the mission succeed, Iraqis able to take responsibility for their own defense and for the coalition to go home. That’s what the president wants; that’s what the American people want, and that’s what the Iraqis want.

I think the progress of getting there will really be all of the things you have mentioned, progress on the political front, but especially progress in standing up and making more capable those Iraqi security forces that will increasingly take responsibility for dealing with the terrorists. So I think as you see the competence of those Iraqi security forces go up, you’ll be able to see Americans step back, stand down in terms of a direct engagement in the war on terror. And that will I think be the best indicator of progress.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Hadley, today we are hearing that 17 troops were killed in a helicopter shoot-down in Afghanistan. The president alluded to the conflict in Afghanistan briefly last night but didn’t really choose to focus on that, talking about Iraq. Why was that?

STEPHEN HADLEY: Well, the president, of course, wanted to address the issue of Iraq. That’s what Americans have been — had not heard him talk about for a period of time.

Obviously, what happens in Afghanistan is very important. It is important that the Afghan people are assisted in consolidating democracy, training their own forces, so they can take responsibility for their security.

I think people have forgotten that Afghanistan remains an important theater, and that it is going into an election period in September, and what we know and what we believe is that the Taliban forces in Afghanistan were really set back by the presidential election that occurred and are trying to regroup and trying to stay relevant and trying to derail the elections that are now scheduled for September.

So, regrettably, we’re going to probably see continuation of violence as they try and make one last stand to try and derail the progress of democracy there. Our men and women in uniform are doing a terrific job; they understand that’s going to be a challenge between now and September.

And we think working with Afghan security forces they’ll be able to contain that challenge and we will have a successful election. And Afghanistan can continue on a process towards democracy. So, again, some work ahead of us in Afghanistan, but I think our people on the ground there are optimistic.

GWEN IFILL: National security advisor Stephen Hadley, thank you very much for joining us.

STEPHEN HADLEY: Thanks very much, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: Now, as promised, the Democratic reaction to President Bush’s speech on Iraq policy. Ray Suarez has that.

RAY SUAREZ: And that response comes from Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware. He’s the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, welcome. Just a few moments ago Stephen Hadley called the president’s speech last night a progress report to the American people. Was it?

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN: Well I think it was partially that. I think the most important thing it was, it was the president distancing himself from rhetoric of the vice president and the secretary of defense saying everything is fine, the insurgencies is in its last throes. I think the president was more realistic with the American people, and I agree with him that we shouldn’t be setting timetables, and that if — for us to leave now or any time in the near term would be a real disaster for us. The disappointing part was he didn’t say much about how he was going to alter the strategy to change the circumstance on the ground to reach the result we want, which is to stand up an Iraqi army and be able to send home Americans.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, what kind of specifics were you looking for that you didn’t hear?

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN: Well, for example, I was looking for him to tell the American people that it’s going to take us at least another year to train up a sufficient number of Iraqis where they can have a real impact on their own security. I was hoping he would tell us that we were working with the international community, essentially setting up a board of directors to be able to collectively put positive pressure upon the Shia to include the Sunni more into the operation because without a political solution, no military solution is available. And that requires the Sunnis to buy in.

I was hoping he would tell the American people to keep them with us, because they’re tough and they’ll stay with us, the American people, that now the hard part’s coming. The hard part’s just beginning. They have to write their constitution. They have to have a referendum on the constitution. They have to have a vote, and to tell them ahead of time this is going to get tougher now and I need your help, I need you to stay, but here is my plan on how we’re going to get this done.

I was hoping he would do that, because I think, Ray, the American people aren’t leaving this endeavor in terms of their support because of the loss of American life, as tragic as that is. I think the American people are doubting whether or not there is a strategy to succeed.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you mentioned you would have liked to hear more specifics. One thing the president was specific about was his belief that no more troops are needed in Iraq. He said that that would send the exact opposite message of the one he wants to send to the Iraqi people and forces.

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN: Well, all I can say to you is he’s been saying that for the last year and a half. You asked me — not you, Ray, someone asked me on this show about a year ago when I was saying we needed more forces, the president said we need no more forces, the generals aren’t asking for them.

Now, do you doubt — a rhetorical question you can answer — do you doubt or anyone else doubt that we needed more forces in the beginning?

They’re telling me — your crew is telling me we have to evacuate the Senate. There’s an alarm going off. I don’t know what it’s about, hopefully a false alarm. But I apologize — me and your crew have to leave, sorry.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, senator, I can hear the sirens in the background. It’s obviously a very unusual circumstance, but I guess we have to let you go. I hope everything is OK over there.

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN: I hope I can come back, thanks.