Former U.S. Officials Discuss Iraq with President Bush
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JIM LEHRER: Today’s Iraq story, it has two datelines. Here in Washington, President Bush met with former secretaries of defense and state to talk about his Iraq strategy, while in Baghdad, Ramadi and Karbala, there was the killing of more than 130 Iraqis and Americans.
We talk about both now with two participants in the White House meeting. Madeleine Albright was secretary of state in the Clinton administration. James Schlesinger was secretary of defense in the Nixon and Ford administrations. Welcome to both of you.
Secretary Albright, was the surge in violence today and yesterday discussed at the meeting?
MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: It certainly was mentioned because there was concern about the violence but there was mostly focus on longer range issues in the meeting.
JIM LEHRER: Did you — did you — were you frustrated by that, Secretary Schlesinger, did you think the violence, 130 people died should have been on the table as well as policy and strategy?
JAMES SCHLESINGER: It was discussed. The largest strategy is to create a security force in Iraq that can deal with these things. There is an upsurge in violence as we see the attempt to form the new government since the parliamentary elections, to a large extent that was anticipated by our forces in the field and by Ambassador Khalilzad.
JIM LEHRER: In general terms, Secretary Albright, was this a fruitful meeting?
MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: I think it was a useful meeting and I was very glad that President Bush had invited all of us.
I hope very much that it’s not a one-time meeting because these kinds of consultations are important. Somebody said there were several hundred years of experience in the room. And I think it was a useful meeting in terms of, one, the briefings, and I think that the president did hear some things that were important for him to hear.
JIM LEHRER: Did you all do most of the talking, or did the president and the briefers?
MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: I would say that the briefers took a considerable amount of time. Ambassador Khalilzad was there by videoconference.
JIM LEHRER: He’s the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq.
MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: To Iraq. And he explained the political situation. I think that Jim would agree with this, General Casey was interrupted more as he was giving the military briefing, because there were an awful lot of former secretaries of defense in the room.
And then we had an opportunity, I think, to speak, though it was basically a short meeting for something –
JIM LEHRER: Forty-five minutes in total.
MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: The whole thing.
JIM LEHRER: In general terms, Secretary Schlesinger, we will get to some of the specifics in a moment, but did you feel you were there to advise, or were you there basically to listen to the president explain his positions?
JAMES SCHLESINGER: We were there to advise as well as to listen to the president. We understand, I think, what the president’s position is. He reiterated today some of the comments that he’s made in public. But by and large we were there to have the exchange with the briefers, with Donald Rumsfeld and Condi Rice who were there as well as Steve Hadley who was a secondary host, if I can put it that way, of the meeting.
JIM LEHRER: Now you have been basically supportive of what the president has done in Iraq, have you not?
JAMES SCHLESINGER: We have — we — we have been supportive of moving towards a security force that can deal with the Iraqi problem. I would have preferred that we had moved earlier but we are now moving in the right direction. We –.
JIM LEHRER: You mean moved earlier post major in — end of major hostility.
JAMES SCHLESINGER: Yes, we didn’t really get started until well in 2004 in developing these forces.
And until such time as we develop these forces, we were not getting the kind of intelligence that we need. One of the interesting statistics that was mentioned today is that there is a tenfold increase in the amount of information, of intelligence that we are picking up which has helped us -
JIM LEHRER: — the Iraqis on the ground.
JAMES SCHLESINGER: Shut down. Those tidbits come to the Iraqi forces. They don’t come to the American forces. It’s the Iraqis that must pick up the intelligence.
JIM LEHRER: Now, Secretary Albright, you have asked some serious questions or you have been raising some serious questions about this. Did you raise any directly with the president today?
MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: I did. And Jim, I decided — first of all I was very glad to be invited. But I also felt that it would be dishonest if I didn’t say the kind of things to the president that I have been saying publicly.
And so I did say that I believed that obviously he’d asked us to talk about future developments, and not about the past, but that I had believed that Iraq was a war of choice, not of necessity. But getting it right now is a necessity and not a choice, and that I didn’t know anybody that didn’t want us to succeed in Iraq.
And then I had some suggestions about some of the things that could be said like having not — having permanent bases in Iraq and the possibility of creating a contact group as we did in the Balkans in order to bring some of the regional countries into a solution.
And then I have to say that I felt that it was important for me to say something as a former secretary of state, which is that I’m very concerned about America’s position in the world, and that our — that Iraq has taken an awful lot of energy, and that there are issues such as Iran and North Korea, and the Middle East and especially now with Prime Minister Sharon’s illness, in Latin America, Russia, China, that I think need more attention.
And so I appreciated the fact that the president had invited us. And I felt that it was appropriate for me to state my views.
JIM LEHRER: Did he react to what you said? Did he have anything to say in response?
MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, he did. He said that he felt that he, that the Bush administration was doing well across-the-board. But I have to say –
JAMES SCHLESINGER: He said something more which was, this is an administration that can walk and chew gum at the same time.
JIM LEHRER: That’s a direct quote?
JAMES SCHLESINGER: No, that was not a direct quote, that is my paraphrase.
JIM LEHRER: Okay.
JAMES SCHLESINGER: — that it can do various things at the same time, that it was not locked down to dealing with one issue.
JIM LEHRER: And your point is that that may be the case but they’re not doing it very well?
MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, I feel that way. And I’m very concerned about it because I care a great deal about America’s power and position and I am very worried about Iran and North Korea, two powers that are developing.
North Koreans have nuclear power and the Iranians are thinking about it. So I was very worried. But I have to say that I appreciated the opportunity of being able to say this and having the president listen. And I think that it is worthwhile to have meetings like this. And I just hope that this is not a one-off.
JIM LEHRER: First of all do you agree with Secretary Albright? Did you say yes, I agree with you Secretary Albright, I agree with Secretary Albright?
JAMES SCHLESINGER: No, I didn’t say that.
JIM LEHRER: You don’t agree then?
JAMES SCHLESINGER: And I’m not going to say it now.
JIM LEHRER: Right.
JAMES SCHLESINGER: Mrs. Albright makes one very important point that we must all pay attention to, that whether or not you think that we should have gone in, whether it was the right choice initially, we are where we are. And doing well, succeeding in Iraq is not a choice, it is a necessity.
We are dealing with a problem in Iraq in which if we fail, we are going to have serious troubles. We have the likelihood of a failed state, and a movement into Iraq of the kinds of terrorist groups that we saw in Afghanistan.
We don’t want to see Iraq move in that direction. And it will be a triumph for Osama bin Laden who says we are the weak course.
JIM LEHRER: Let me get to some specifics here. There has been increasing commentary from both people on the conservative side and the liberal side, Republicans and Democrats, that this debate about Iraq for the future has become oversimplified and simplistic, that on one side the president is saying we have to stay there for victory, and it’s hard to understand what victory is.
On the other side there is Congressman Murtha who’s saying let’s have a withdrawal of troops, a withdrawal timetable. And then there is Sen. McCain who says let’s send in more troops. Is that essentially what the debate is now in your opinion? Was that the tone of the discussion at that table?
JAMES SCHLESINGER: Mrs. Albright made that important point. Mrs. Albright doesn’t say let’s withdraw the troops. We have got to recognize the necessity of succeeding in Iraq.
JIM LEHRER: But if it isn’t one of those three, what is it?
MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, I think –
JAMES SCHLESINGER: Well, we’re drawing down the forces in accordance with what General Casey says, what Khalilzad says to some extent.
The president has been meticulous in listening to what the people in the field say. And they understand the problems of the American footprint, and they are making recommendations. We are moving down towards 130,000 troops.
MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Jim, I think this discussion is a very important one. And it’s unfortunate that it was not held more fully before the decision was to go in because I had always said that I understood the why of this war, but not why now, or what next.
And your report out of Afghanistan today shows that we should have kept our eye on the ball more on Afghanistan. And I never believed that Saddam Hussein was an imminent threat. I do – I am not one of the people who believes that we should have a timetable, date-certain for withdrawal.
But I do welcome the discussion that Congressman Murtha has started because I think it is very appropriate for us to have this kind of discussion. I don’t think it undermines the morale of the troops. And people of goodwill need to be talking about this. And that’s why I appreciate having had the meeting at the White House, so that the discussion goes on.
But I do think it is essential that we get a political settlement there, that the security situation is worked out with the Iraqis taking over, and that the economic reconstruction happen and that the money that has been appropriated be spent wisely and completely.
JIM LEHRER: So let me make sure I understand what each of you are saying here. You agree with what the president is doing, you think he is on the right course and he shouldn’t do anything differently, right now.
JAMES SCHLESINGER: Basically, that’s right.
JIM LEHRER: And that if he continues to do what he is doing everything is going to end up what way?
JAMES SCHLESINGER: Well, we cannot guarantee success. But we do know that if we quit now we will be in serious trouble.
JIM LEHRER: But I’m not talking about quitting. I mean — you know, there are many ways to do things. The question wasn’t to quit or not to quit. The question is: what do you do, and you are saying what is president is doing is going to work, in your opinion.
JAMES SCHLESINGER: It is essential for us to retain our forces there while we build up the Iraqi security capabilities.
JIM LEHRER: Now do you agree that if we continue on the course we’re on now all the things that you want to happen too, Secretary Albright will, in fact, happen?
MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: No, I’m concerned about various parts of this. I think that it is still unclear to me about how the Iraqi forces are being built up and whether they are going to be capable of doing what Gen. Casey and the president want because we’re kind of dealing with a split screen.
At the moment that Gen. Casey is telling us that there are more and more capability, in the last two days there have been 100 people killed. And I recognize the fact that something that Dr. Schlesinger said which is that as we get closer there is more violence. But it doesn’t seem to be moving in the right direction.
So I am very worried that if we don’t move faster in building up the forces and if we don’t get some recognition by other countries that they will help more in the reconstruction, so I have a various number of suggestions and fixes that need to be done here.
JIM LEHRER: What about this idea — you mentioned it earlier, well, this should be expected, this rise in violence — but really should American people have expected this based on everything that has been said up until now, that 130 — here we are, this far into this war and 130 more people died today?
JAMES SCHLESINGER: The American people should have expected this.
JIM LEHRER: Why, why should they have expected it?
JAMES SCHLESINGER: On the other hand, your second part of your point is, based on what they have been said, perhaps they shouldn’t have expected this because there has been more happy talk than there should have been.
JIM LEHRER: Is the happy talk over now, do you think?
JAMES SCHLESINGER: I think that the happy talk is over. We recognize that this is a longer-run problem in dealing with is the broader attitudes in the Islamic world. I brought along a quote here from Zarqawi that is –.
JIM LEHRER: The head of al-Qaida in Iraq, right.
JAMES SCHLESINGER: Right. “Killing can the infidels is our religion. Slaughtering them is our religion until they convert to Islam or pay us tribute.”
We’ve got to recognize that Iraq is part of — Iraq is now part of the larger war against the terrorists. And we cannot afford to lose that.
JIM LEHRER: But in a more specific sense do we have to also expect and get used to the fact there are going to be more 130 victims days before this thing ends?
JAMES SCHLESINGER: Before we create a government, before a government is created, I think that you will see a substantial number of casualties.
But let me emphasize one thing: We tend to look at our problems. We must bear in mind what is happening on the other side. The al-Qaida and the insurgency had two objectives: One was to stop the political process. As Zarqawi has said, Democracy is against God’s law. You shouldn’t vote. They failed in that objective.
We are creating the Iraqi security forces. They were going to prevent that; they failed in that objective. So they have their serious problems. And we don’t focus enough as a country on them.
JIM LEHRER: The — is it going to be — is it possible to focus on the country on those kinds of questions with the death rates that we are still experiencing?
MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: I don’t think so because I think that the casualty numbers are very high for us. They keep going up, and also for the Iraqis and I think that the American people have not been prepared for that. I’m not sure the Iraqi people were prepared for that.
And it may be fitting academically in saying the closer we get to peace the more there is violence. It is very hard for the people on the ground to deal with that. And so I — I am concerned about the direction in which we’re going.
I — I accept the fact that President Bush says he’s listening to the military commanders. But I think we are a long way from a solution in Iraq.
JIM LEHRER: Okay, we have to leave –
JAMES SCHLESINGER: Just remember that in World War II, in a day we lost five times as many people as we’ve lost in this entire engagement. We are not used the level of casualties we are experiencing there.
JIM LEHRER: Thank you both.
MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Thank you.