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Former National Security Advisors Clash on Iraq Policy

February 1, 2007 at 6:30 PM EDT

SEN. JOE BIDEN (D), Delaware: This hearing will come to order.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Senate Foreign Relations Committee heard separately today from Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski. Scowcroft, who served under President Ford and the first President Bush, said American troops in Iraq should concentrate on supporting the Iraqi army.

BRENT SCOWCROFT, Former Adviser to President George H.W. Bush: With respect to the surge, I consider it a tactic rather than a strategic move. If it is successful in stabilizing Baghdad, that could begin to change the climate and bring a new self-confidence to Iraqi forces, which could be important.

But it will not end the problem; as I say, it is a tactic rather than a strategy. Our troops should concentrate on training the Iraqi army, providing support and backup to that army, combating insurgents, attenuating outside intervention, and assisting in major infrastructure protection.

That does not mean that the American presence should be reduced. That should follow success in our efforts, not the calendar or the performance of others.

As I said at the outset, there are no easy answers to the problems we face. As we move ahead, we will not find impatience, a quick fix, or seeking partisan advantage a friend to the U.S. national interest over the long run. It is going to be hard to make a bad situation better; it will be easy to make it worse.

Measuring success in Iraq

KWAME HOLMAN: An exchange with Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel became heated, as Scowcroft explained his view of the difficulty of measuring success in Iraq.

BRENT SCOWCROFT: When you're training your child with training wheels on the bicycle, how do you know when to take the training wheels off? I don't know.

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL (R), Nebraska: Well, again, I wouldn't use that analogy, either. And when you've got 70 percent or more of the Iraqi people who don't want us there, and over 60 percent say it's OK to kill Americans, and we're going to put a number of new troops in Baghdad, which you have just noted that you don't, I guess to some extent, agree with -- you've noted that sectarian --those are sectarian issues -- so then isn't there some jumble in all this?

And when you say we ought to have, in your words, "a success in our efforts," well, how do you measure a success in our efforts?

BRENT SCOWCROFT: It would be nice to be precise and to have all these benchmarks that everybody can see and so on. This is not that kind of a problem. We're in a mess, and we've got to work our way out of it.

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: Well, that's true, but how do you do that?

BRENT SCOWCROFT: And we've got to work our way out of it, not into a bigger mess, a regional mess, where one of the results will make $60 oil look like a bargain.

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: You do that by continuing to put more troops in Baghdad?

BRENT SCOWCROFT: I did not say put more troops in.

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: Well, how do you work your way out of the mess?

BRENT SCOWCROFT: Well, I can repeat what I said. You focus on training; you focus on backing up the army; you focus on lines of communication; you focus on infrastructure; you focus on keeping outsiders from intervening; and you encourage reconciliation and consolidation of the government.

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: Then, how do you measure that?

BRENT SCOWCROFT: The way you measure anything.

SEN. NORM COLEMAN (R), Minnesota: If they don't reach benchmarks, how do we insist or let them know that they've got to do some things that have to be done for us to continue with the sacrifice of blood and treasure?

BRENT SCOWCROFT: The problem with benchmarks is, as this government struggles, if they don't meet the first benchmark, we draw down some, almost making certain they can't meet the second benchmark. And so it begins to look like a recipe for withdrawal and blaming the Iraqi government.

KWAME HOLMAN: Several senators quoted from a Scowcroft opinion piece in the New York Times last month in which he said, "American combat troops should be gradually redeployed away from intervening in sectarian conflict."

But today Scowcroft said that does not mean he opposes the president's plan to send more combat troops into Baghdad.

BRENT SCOWCROFT: Baghdad is a special case. And if one can stabilize Baghdad, then it would have a great psychological impact in the country and also might give the Iraqi forces a greater sense of self-confidence than the article that you read indicates that they have. But it won't change the situation fundamentally in Iraq.

'A significant change in direction'

KWAME HOLMAN: The man who once served as President Carter's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, testified next for a shorter time and with fewer questions because of Senate floor votes. He made his position clear at the outset.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI, Former National Security Adviser to President Carter: I think it is obvious, therefore, that the American national interest calls for a significant change of direction.

KWAME HOLMAN: Brzezinski provided a scenario in which further deterioration in Iraq could lead to U.S. military action against Iran.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: If the United States continues to be bogged down in a protracted, bloody involvement in Iraq -- and I emphasize what I'm about to say -- the final destination on this downhill track is likely to be a head-on conflict with Iran and with much of the world of Islam at large.

The plausible scenario for a military collision with Iran involves Iraqi failure to meet the benchmarks, followed by accusations of Iranian responsibility for the failure, then by some provocation in Iraq or a terrorist act in the United States blamed on Iran, culminating in a, quote, unquote, "defensive" U.S. military action against Iran, that plunges a lonely America into a spreading and deepening quagmire eventually ranging across Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

KWAME HOLMAN: Brzezinski said some administration officials have overstated the threat Iran poses.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: It is economically weak because it is an economy that hasn't been thriving, and it's one-dimensional, and it's relatively isolated. And I think our policy has unintentionally -- I hope unintentionally; maybe it was devilishly clever, but I think unintentionally -- helped Ahmadinejad consolidate himself in power and exercise a degree of influence, which actually his position doesn't justify.

Fear of expanding war theater

KWAME HOLMAN: And the former national security adviser warned of what might happen in Iraq without a significant change in direction.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: My horror scenario is not a repetition of Saigon, the helicopters on top of the embassy, and the flight out of the country. My horror scenario is that, by not having a plan -- and I understand my friend discussed yesterday perhaps the possibility of a secret plan that the administration has -- my fear is that the secret plan is that there is no secret plan.

SEN. JOE BIDEN: It's a good bet.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: My horror scenario is that we simply stay put, this will continue, and then the dynamic of the conflict will produce an escalating situation, in which Iraqi failure to meet the benchmarks will be blamed on the Iranians. There'll be then some clashes, collisions, and the war expands.

Now, as far as dealing with the rebuilding of Iraq in a setting in which we commit ourselves to disengage, and the commitment to disengage set jointly becomes a trigger for an international conference, I think a great deal depends, not on us engaging in nation-building, but on the surfacing of a genuine Iraqi motivation.

I personally view with great skepticism all this talk about us creating an Iraqi national army, creating a nation, nation-building and so forth. The problem is we have smashed the state; we have given an enormous opportunity for narrow sectarian interests and passions to rise.

KWAME HOLMAN: Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden, who held this series of Iraq hearings, said the committee soon will turn its attention to Iran.