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A Newsmaker Interview with Gen. Richard Myers

July 1, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now to our Newsmaker interview with Air Force General Richard Myers, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Gen. Myers, welcome.

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: Jim, good to be with you.

JIM LEHRER: Just on a personal level, what was your reaction when we were sitting here watching all of this just now. How do you feel as the head of the U.S. military watching that?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: Actually, I think there are a couple of lessons that you can take from this that I take from this. One is that this is pretty good evidence that American has fulfilled its promise to liberate the Iraqi people. I mean – and the second one is that the Iraqi government is now in charge. Those are the things that were running through my mind.

I mean, the Iraqi government is taking charge of their own affairs; they have Saddam Hussein, 11 of the senior former regime leaders there all being arraigned today, and I think it’s – it’s a great picture. And then we heard debate in Iraqi society about what they think about it, which is a good thing; that’s what democracies do. And they’re not a democracy yet, but they’re clearly on the path.

JIM LEHRER: If by chance during the pretrial process or even the trial process something happens that the U.S. Government doesn’t approve of, does it have any power to step in and say, hey, you can’t do that?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: This is the Iraqi government exercising their powers as a sovereign country. Of course, they have the backing of the U.N. in that, the current U.N. Resolution 1546 and so forth, so I think they’re going to look for advice and counsel along the way, just like they are in the security realm. That’s a little bit outside my lane, but no, this is the Iraqi government doing what they feel they need to do in this case.

JIM LEHRER: So even if we don’t like the verdict, we’re out of this now? We’re out of this now, we’re out of this picture?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: I think for all intents and purposes, we’re out of it, yes. This is the Iraqi government handling the situation.

JIM LEHRER: On a more general level, as head of the U.S. Military, how do you feel after only three days now, the handover has gone?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: I think the handover has gone very, very well. In Istanbul at the NATO summit, I had the good fortune with Secretary Rumsfeld to meet with the new minister of defense for Iraq and the foreign minister. They’ve got a vision for where they want to go. They’re exhibiting a lot of courage daily just to go to work and do what they do because they’re obviously targets for anti-regime elements and foreign terrorists. And I feel very positive about this direction.

I’ve got to say, though, the challenges are not over. There are people who do not want Iraq to make any progress. And we see that from time to time with vehicle-born improvised explosive devices. They’re killing innocent men, women and children. They’re also targeting Iraqi officials. Clearly they’re still targeting the coalition members, as well, the armed forces members.

So it’s going to be a rocky road, but I just talked to Gen. Abizaid today. He participated in the change of command from Gen. Sanchez to Gen. Casey, that will be head of all the multinational forces in Iraq. And he said the mood there with the Iraqis that were present at the ceremony, with the U.S. personnel, the other coalition personnel is very upbeat, very positive, very optimistic about the future.

JIM LEHRER: But he also said, I read from the wires, he said in the public ceremony that, “We remain very much in awe about what we still have to do over here.”

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: Yes. And I hope I said that. There are going to be many, many challenges. There is going to be much to do. Clearly the Iraqis and the security sector, which I focus on, in the security sector, they need lots of help. We have formed this partnership with them. We’re going to work their training, equipping of their security forces. There is a lot to do. We know that. There’s… it’s a huge commitment on the part of the coalition.

JIM LEHRER: Has it changed any at all in the last three days for the U.S. troops on the ground?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: I would say no. I mean, it’s relatively calm right now, but that’s probably short term. There are still those… I think we just go back to January, the letter from this man, al-Zarqawi, just to remind your viewers, who is a foreign terrorist in Iraq, who has essentially international reach, and he wrote that, you know, we can’t defeat the coalition militarily, but maybe what we need to do is start a civil war between the Sunni and Shia populations inside Iraq.

He is not going to give up. This is for him, an extremist, he’s going to fight this until the end.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of Zarqawi, I reported in the News Summary a moment ago that U.S…. the U.S., the coalition bombed another house in Fallujah aimed at getting him. Did we in fact get him?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: No. We have no evidence that we got him. And I think the reporting that I have is that we’re not going after Zarqawi specifically. We have had three attacks in the Fallujah area with bombs. We’ve gone after elements of terrorists there and extremists. We had a very, very good strike. We know it was good intelligence and we got good results, but…

JIM LEHRER: You didn’t get Zarqawi?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: …we didn’t get him and I don’t think we anticipated getting him in that particular strike.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah. All right. Back to how the security works now, the chain of command. Let’s say, just in practical terms, the new interim government of Iraq sees a security situation somewhere, and they want the coalition to do something about it. Do they just call you and you do it, or how does that work?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: There is a national security committee that is run by the Iraqis. It’s the interim Iraqi government’s committee. There’s membership there for other folks like Gen. Casey now, who leads our forces in Iraq, perhaps Gen. Metz, who is the tactical level commander under him, to participate in that.

We see it as a partnership where we will agree on the security situation in a particular place, and then we’ll decide how we’ll act. Obviously the first choice is that Iraqis take care of the situation themselves, like they did in Mosul during the unrest in April. Iraqis did all that with U.S. forces standing by in case they wanted them, but it was the… it was the Mosul government, the police force there in Mosul, this Iraqi Civil Defense Corps that quelled that violence. So it’ll be a partnership. There will be a lot of give and take I’m sure.

JIM LEHRER: But who will finally decide?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: Well, Iraqis are going to finally decide, but in U.N. Resolution 1546, it says that the multinational force Iraq, which is led by Gen. Casey, that leads the coalition forces there, that they can use all means necessary to provide security for Iraq. So it’s going to be partnership. And, like all partnerships, there’s not going to be… nobody’s going to have a veto. It’s just going to have to be worked out, and it will be worked out like it is in Afghanistan, essentially how we work in Afghanistan today. There are proposals sometimes from the Karzai government that U.S. forces do this. And those become a partnership item that we work out together.

JIM LEHRER: We had a report here on the NewsHour the other night that right after the handover, literally the day of the handover, U.S. troops seemed to take a lower profile, particularly in Baghdad. They weren’t on the streets as much any more. They were taking down barbed wire and all of that. Is that a… is that as a result of a big decision to do that?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: No, this will be gradual. I don’t know about the specific instances because I looked on a screen that tracks where our forces are at any given time, and they were all over Baghdad like they had been the day before. So this is not going to be a dramatic moment where one moment we’re there, the next moment we’re not. This will be gradual over time as Iraqi forces become more capable, better equipped, well-led, very good chain of command that goes all the way up to the political level in Iraq.

Over time they’ll start to replace U.S. forces certainly, and we’ll do it by priority, by sector. We worry about Baghdad. We worry about other cities, the infrastructure, protecting the key personnel in the interim Iraqi government. All of that will be taken into account, but it will be gradual over time.

JIM LEHRER: How do you commanders explain to the average soldier, marine on the streets of Iraq as to why there are targets of the Iraqi people, why some of the people hate them so, are not treating them as liberators?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: I think when you go to the individual troop on the ground, they probably understand this better than any of the rest of us because they’re out there day in and day out with the Iraqi people. I think for most of them they form very good relationships with the Iraqi people. They know that the majority of the Iraqi people actually support what the coalition is doing to try to bring stability to that country.

The violence is still constrained pretty much to the same area that it’s always been constrained. That’s Baghdad and the quarter out to Fallujah, or Ramadi up to Tikrit and Mosul. That’s the area where many of the former regime people came from, and so it’s the heartland of where they get their support today.

But in the North, in the South, our coalition forces are in fact appreciated. They also understand what’s at stake. They know that the foreign terrorists in there led by al-Zarqawi, affiliated with al-Qaida but not al-Qaida, have extremist views that they’ll perpetrate their extremism. If it’s not Iraq, it’s going to be some other place, and that they have to be defeated. I think our forces understand that, and they understand what’s at stake here besides Iraq. It’s the whole extremism threat to our way of life.

JIM LEHRER: You think the soldiers carrying a rifle, walking down the street thinks in that sophisticated terms?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: You bet. And I think you saw some of that during combat when they’d stick a microphone in the front of somebody that had a stripe or two on his sleeve. And I thought their responses were superb. None of them rehearsed. All of them were very candid. You could do the same thing today. In fact, you ought to beam, if you could just beam one of them down right now, pick one random, beam him down and say, “what do you do?”

There was this young man in the hospital, Walter Reed. He had his leg shot up — he didn’t lose his leg — and I said, “What were you doing?” He said, “I was helping with the municipal government in Kirkuk.” I said, “Well, my goodness, what’s your specialty in the army?” “I’m an artilleryman.” I said, “Well, how did you feel about doing that? ” He said, “I felt like a rock star because all these Iraqis would gather around me every day and would take pictures with me.” I said, “What do you want to do when you get well?” He said, “I want to go back to Iraq, because I feel like as a 21 year old where can I make a difference like I was making there.”

So that is the much more prevalent attitude than folks, more so than our troops feeling like the Iraqis don’t like them; they know what’s at stake here.

JIM LEHRER: The announcement yesterday that 5,600 U.S. troops are going to be called… they’ve already served. They’re going to be called back to active duty. This is a kind of undeclared draft, is it not?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: That’s not the way I look at it, Jim. The first thing, let’s just put the context. We’re a 20th century force in a 21st century security environment. There are lots of changes that have to happen to this force. They’re under way. It will take six months, a year, a year and a half, two years, three years, probably four or five years before we get this force set to have the kind of skills where we need them to do the kind of things we need to do in this security environment.

In the meantime we have to rely on other tools. The individual ready reserve has been called up by the Marines consistently now for a couple of years, and so the Army is going to use that to bring certain skills to bear. They’re going to call up I think fifty-five or fifty-six hundred. There are 1,000 volunteers, by the way, from the army’s Individual Ready Reserve who want to serve, and this was a management tool.

JIM LEHRER: But none of this was anticipated, was it, that you would need to do these kinds of things, keep people over there longer than originally planned, now bring these 5,600 back to active duty?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: What we’ve tried to do is react to the situation we find it, to react to the requirements of the combatant commanders. And when we had that increased violence in April, which was anticipated, we knew coming up to 30 June that there would be increased violence trying to stop the progress that I think was epitomized by the tapes of Saddam Hussein in that courtroom. I think that said it all really. We knew that was going to happen. And we’ve increased our force over there. And there are certain skills in terms of combat support, combat service support which, as you look at the skills that are coming up in this individual ready reserve column, that’s drivers and engineers and so forth that we knew we’d probably need that.

JIM LEHRER: There’s continual talk that we may have to keep 145,000 or so troops over there for an indefinite period of time. Can the U.S. military do that?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: We can do that and we’ve got plans to do that for as long as it takes because this will be event driven, not time line driven. It will be events on the ground and commander’s estimates that will help us there.

Now, one of the things that Gen. Abizaid, the commander, has said, is let’s see how this transition to the interim Iraqi government goes. Let’s wait a couple or several months and then he said, I’ll give you a new estimate. Part of it is how fast Iraqi security forces come up to speed in terms of their training, their equipping and their leadership and their command chain, which is all very important in this.

JIM LEHRER: Retired Army General Barry McCaffrey was on MSNBC last night, and he said that the U.S. Army is undermanned by at least 80,000. The marines are undermanned by 25,000 and in two or three years, he said we will break the United States Army in the coming two or three years at this rate.

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: That’s something that I keep an eye on. That’s something the Joint Chiefs of Staff keep an eye on. I wouldn’t agree with his estimate, but I have a lot of respect for Gen. McCaffrey; I know him well.

This is something that we talk about as joint chiefs of staff regularly. This is something Gen. Schumacher, the chief of staff of the army is working hard… every day this is what consumes his time, is trying to develop an army that has more capability than today.

The way the chief of staff of the army looks at it is we’ve got a number of forces, and the question is: How many of them are usable? So he is restructuring the army, and he’s going to get 25 percent more effective combat power out of that army without an increase in manpower. Now, he’s been authorized up to 30,000, and the secretary said I’ll give you more if you need it, 30,000 more above their…

JIM LEHRER: You mean the total army, not just in Iraq?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: No, total army, total army. I think their end strength, as we call it, authorized right now is 485,000 – four hundred eighty-four, four hundred and eighty-five thousand. They’ve been authorized 30,000 above that due to the emergency powers that the president and the secretary have now because we’re at war. In that shock absorber of people, the secretary or the chief of staff of the Army have going to refashion his army to get more usability out of the forces that are already authorized. He thinks that’s a preferable first step. And then in a couple years after he’s done that, if we need more forces, as Gen. McCaffrey thinks we do, then we can take an off ramp and we can go to more forces, but the first thing we ought to do and the first thing the taxpayers of this country ought to demand is that we get the most usability out of the forces that we already have.

JIM LEHRER: In retrospect, General, do you think Gen. Shinseki was right that you should have sent more troops? He said hundreds of thousands of troops should have been sent to Iraq at the beginning. Was he right?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: Let me put this in context. That was a statement he made in a hearing on Capitol Hill to a very specific question. What do you think it will take after major combat? And, if you read the transcript, he says, “No, I don’t know. No, I haven’t talked to the combatant commander.” And when pressed, he said, “I think several hundred thousand and – but we had – subsequently, we’ve had many discussions about the troop strength required with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with the combatant commanders, and there was no push that it should be any higher than the numbers we’ve seen, and those numbers are dictated essentially by the combatant commanders.

JIM LEHRER: Of course, Gen. Shinseki was head of the Army at the time; it cost him his job for just saying that. Did you support that?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: No, it did not – that is – that may be an urban myth; it is not correct. Gen. Shinseki served for four years very honorably; he was a great chief of staff of the Army; he’s a personal friend of mine, but it’s wrong to say that it cost him his job. That was just simply incorrect. He was – the normal length of tour for a chief of any of the services by law – by law is four years; he served his four years.

JIM LEHRER: Well, he was certainly jumped on by Secretaries Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz for saying what he said publicly.

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: Maybe a different matter, but, I mean, he was not, he was not terminated. He was certainly an active part of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and valued member of the military advice – of the folks who put the military advice together for the secretary and president.

JIM LEHRER: So finally, there’s no residue from that incident among members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other high ranking officers in American military about speaking up and telling what they believe in response to a question from Congress?

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: It would be irresponsible for senior military leaders not to speak up and provide their best military advice to the president and to the rest of the National Security Council to include Secretary Rumsfeld and it would be dereliction of duty, and, no, I don’t think – there’s no problem with the current Joint Chiefs of Staff speaking up; I can guarantee you that.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Gen. Myers, thank you very much.

GEN. RICHARD MYERS: Thank you, Jim.