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President Bush and Senator Kerry Discuss their Plans for Iraq

September 20, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: Joining the Iraq debate now are representatives of the Kerry and Bush campaigns. Susan Rice is a senior adviser to Senator Kerry on national security affairs. She was assistant secretary of state for African Affairs during the Clinton administration. And with the Bush campaign is Richard Falkenrath. Until earlier this year, he served as deputy assistant to the president and deputy homeland security advisor.

Susan Rice, let’s start with you. The particulars, what Senator Kerry called the four imperatives in his speech today. President Bush, you just heard him, said those are the things we’re already doing. Are they really that different?

SUSAN RICE: They’re quite different, Ray. The difference is that George Bush has been talking about doing these things but hasn’t done them. John Kerry has offered a specific road map for what he would be doing if he were sitting in George Bush’s chair today.

It’s not enough to say that we’re working to bring in our allies. They’re not coming in. In fact, they’re leaving. George Bush has an opportunity this week when all the world leaders gather in New York, to use that to bring them together in a summit, to force them to meet their commitments that they made when we passed the last U.N. Security Council resolution. Instead he’s doing photo ops with Prime Minister Allawi.

He could be training Iraqi security personnel effectively. Instead we read in the New York Times today that General Portrayis doesn’t even have half the personnel he needs to get that job going. Less than 5,000 Iraqi police have been fully and properly trained. We are in a very dangerous situation. When it comes to reconstruction, President Bush says he’s doing it. Congress appropriated $18 billion a year ago. They’ve spent about $1 billion. They’re not getting the job done. He says we’ll have elections in January. I hope very much that we do. But if that’s going to happen, this administration has to get off the dime and start taking critical steps.

We’ve got to get a protection force in there for the U.N. so they can get on the ground and prepare for elections. We’ve got to get the money out the door so that the Iraqi Electoral Commission can get about the task of completing the preparations. We’ve got to secure these no-go zones where terrorists are launching attacks against us and intimidating Iraqi citizens. It’s a lot of talk from the Bush administration. But when you look at what they’re actually accomplishing on the ground, it’s precious little.

RAY SUAREZ: Richard Falkenrath, Senator Kerry called it over-promising and under performing. You just heard Ms. Rice. How do you respond?

RICHARD FALKENRATH: The four-point plan that Senator Kerry announced today is just a repackaging of the president’s plan which he articulated in May of this year. And I think we’ll hear from Prime Minister Allawi this week when he addresses the U.N. General Assembly on how it’s going, how the reconstruction is going.

Everything in Senator Kerry’s plan is in the current actions of the Bush administration and its international partners. It’s all proceeding and quite a bit more. To suggest that nothing has been accomplished is preposterous.

We have got a unanimous United Nations Security Council resolution that laid the political framework for a transition of sovereignty back to the Iraqi people to create conditions where democracy can flourish hopefully with the elections in January. We have a prime minister now who has credibility and viability at home. And he will be making an historic address to the United Nations this week, and the entire world will be able to hear how it’s going from his own mouth.

And I think what you will hear from the prime minister is words of gratitude for the United States and the commitment it and the president have made to its successful political transition.

RAY SUAREZ: The United States… excuse me, Mr. Falkenrath, the United Nations says the conditions are not present on the ground for them to be able to run elections. Is the United States… does the United States feel it’s on track in getting the situation ready in Iraq to be able to hold those elections?

RICHARD FALKENRATH: I believe so, yes. I believe the elections are scheduled for January and they will occur in January. The prime minister is committed to them. It is vital that they proceed. And that is something the president is unalterably committed to. One difference I think that you see between Senator Kerry and President Bush is that the president’s commitment to success in Iraq is absolutely unwavering. He’s completely committed to a successful transition.

And what we get out of Senator Kerry is sort of a defeatist rhetoric that simply says yes that it’s a mess that has no end and that it will be a war for all time. And this is really an exaggeration. There are difficulties in Iraq. There’s no question. It’s a hard security situation there. There are security problems. There are insurgent forces, foreign fighters who are attacking Iraqi people, its forces, our forces, but there is also hope at the end. And there’s a possibility of returning sovereignty to the Iraqi people with the dictator behind bars.

RAY SUAREZ: Ms. Rice, earlier you referred to a specific road map from Senator Kerry. One of the things he suggested was that he would be able… he would be more successful in gaining foreign support for America’s initiatives in Iraq than President Bush has. Does it really look like foreign support is forthcoming when it hasn’t been over the past two years?

SUSAN RICE: What John Kerry said today is that given George Bush’s failed policies, his failure to bring our allies along when they offered to come with us, to take the help of the United Nations over a year ago when it was offered, to basically stiff-arm our friends and allies, to shut them out of contracts, to give them no stake in Iraq’s future has been a grave mistake.

And it has certainly made the task of bringing our allies on board more difficult. You know, the United States taxpayer is paying virtually 90 percent of the costs of the operation in Iraq. Our troops are bearing 90 percent of the burden and the casualties. Contrast that with when President Bush’s father went to war in the Gulf and 95 percent of the costs were paid for by our allies and partners. This has been a failure of diplomacy, of colossal proportions.

What John Kerry is saying is that when we have a commander in chief who tells our allies the truth, whose judgment they trust, who is willing to give them a real political and economic stake in our common venture in Iraq, that, yes, we do think that there will be an opportunity for more allies to come on board. But that’s only one piece of it. Training Iraqi security personnel and police is absolutely critical. For over a year after the end of hostilities, this administration was AWOL on that job. They finally put in place Gen. Portrayis, who is a great guy doing a very good job but they’re not giving him the resources to get the job done.

We’re in a very difficult situation. It’s time for us to realize that if we’re going to change the reality in Iraq, we need a president who is prepared to face reality in Iraq. This president continues to white-wash the situation, sell it to the American people as a resounding success, say if he had it to do all over again, he wouldn’t do one thing differently. He would have rushed to war. He wouldn’t have waited for our allies. He wouldn’t have let the inspectors do the job. He wouldn’t have given our troops the body armor they needed. He wouldn’t have planned for the post-war phase when the lion’s share of our casualties have been suffered. He would have done it exactly the same.

John Kerry is saying that is a very disturbing point of view. That gives us a real perspective on how George Bush would govern if given another four years. What is the next country he’s going to walk into where we don’t face the threat that he portrayed as imminent, where there is no WMD, where there is no link to a-Qaida, and then execute the post war operation with such striking incompetence? That’s a very worrisome prospect.

RAY SUAREZ: Mr. Falkenrath we heard the president repeatedly promise to stay the course. Today in New York John Kerry said there was a turn of the page needed, a fresh start. You just heard Susan Rice describe this as stubbornness, not being willing to shift course when things aren’t working. What’s the virtue in it for the president? What does he see when he says these things.

RICHARD FALKENRATH: Well, I think the president is committed to success in Iraq. That’s clear. And he’s going to do what it takes to have a successful political transition in Iraq. He will see through the difficulties with steadfastness and resolve. I think your question though to Dr. Rice was really on point.

You asked about international support. The president has worked hard to get international support for Iraq. We have a 15-0, a unanimous Security Council resolution that laid the framework for political transition. We have a G-8 endorsement of that framework with assistance promises. We have NATO committing to train and assist in the training of Iraqi security services. We have over 30 countries with troops on the ground.

Senator Kerry continually claims that he would be more successful at getting international support for the Iraqi transition and in particular the commitment of troops on the ground into that difficult security situation. This is completely hollow promise. It’s the empty rhetoric that comes from a political candidate.

They’ve never named a country that’s promised them forces for Iraq if they were to win the election. But they continually hold out this notion which I believe is an illusion that they of know of some countries that will commit forces that aren’t committing them today to Colin Powell, as he goes and works the diplomacy around the Iraq operation. So this is really an incredible claim that they’re making, and they make it repeatedly.

RAY SUAREZ: Have the countries that have promised to donate to the future reconstruction of Iraq come through with the money they promised?

RICHARD FALKENRATH: I believe there has been money committed to the reconstruction effort. Obviously not all the checks have been written but I believe they’re coming. And international leaders are typically good for their word. And the United States expects them to follow through on their word. And if they’ve committed the money, they will be held to the expectation that they will commit to it, and this is – look, it is a difficult transition in Iraq. There’s no question. The security situation there is hard but the president never suggested this was going to be easy. And he is committed to seeing it through to the end.

What I think was really interesting about Senator Kerry’s speech today is that he basically said if he had been President, Saddam Hussein would still be in power. He would never have invaded Iraq even if he had gotten congressional authorization for the use of force, and Saddam Hussein would still be in power.

It’s a remarkable thing to be saying on the week that the new prime minister of Iraq will be addressing the United Nations’ general assembly, a man whom Saddam Hussein tried to assassinate in his home in 1978 who bears the scars of an assassination attempt, and John Kerry is saying if he had been president, that man would still be in office in Baghdad. It’s quite a claim.

RAY SUAREZ: Ms. Rice, is that what John Kerry said today if he had been president, Saddam… we wouldn’t have invaded Iraq and Saddam would still be president.

SUSAN RICE: Absolutely not. That’s a gross distortion of what John Kerry said. What he said was that if we knew as we do today that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction, no links to al-Qaida and posed no imminent threat to the United States, had he been commander-in-chief, he would not have taken the decision to take our country to war. That is what George Bush said he would do and do again. John Kerry….

RAY SUAREZ: So how would Saddam Hussein – excuse me — have been removed from office then and be in prison today?

SUSAN RICE: If Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction and no links to al-Qaida and was as weakened as he turned out to be, he would be contained. And as George Bush said in October 2002, a Saddam Hussein without weapons of mass destruction is effectively a changed regime.

John Kerry’s point is that the war in Iraq has proved to be a dangerous diversion from the war on terror. It’s not part of the war on terror. It’s a diversion. Instead of going after Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida, keeping our forces and our intelligence assets focused on al-Qaida in Afghanistan, we diverted them to Iraq.

Instead of working to build our alliances so we had maximum cooperation in the war on terror, we ruptured them, running into Iraq. And once we got to Iraq, we created such a mess in the postwar phase that Iraq has become another failed state virtually almost like Afghanistan with terrorists staging out of there and attacking us. This has made it us grossly weaker.

RAY SUAREZ: Let me get a quick response –

RICHARD FALKENRATH: I think Susan has admitted that John Kerry would have pursued a policy of containment which is what he said in his speech. He said exactly –

SUSAN RICE: There were no weapons of mass destruction.

RICHARD FALKENRATH: — he would have tightened the noose and continued the policy of isolating Saddam Hussein which leads me to believe, at least, that Saddam Hussein would still be in power. I think Senator Kerry has also said that Iraq is part of the war on terror.

He now may have a different tune, but in the past he said it is part of the war on terror. The president certainly believes that Iraq is one of many fronts in the war on terror. It’s a very important one; it’s one where many terrorists have gone around the world to fight U.S. forces and Iraqi civilians and that is where we are engaging, and we believe it is preferable to engage them abroad in Iraq than it is elsewhere.

RAY SUAREZ: Richard Falkenrath and Susan Rice, thank you both.