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Debating Iraq War Strategy

November 21, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: Vice President Cheney today became the latest administration official to criticize House Democrat Jack Murtha’s call to get out of Iraq in the next six months.

VICE PRESIDENT CHENEY: I disagree with Jack and believe his proposal would not serve the best interest of this nation. But he is a good man, a Marine, a patriot, and he is taking a clear stand in an entirely legitimate discussion.

RAY SUAREZ: Unlike congressional Republicans and the White House spokesman, Cheney refrained from personal attacks on the twice wounded Marine Corps Vietnam War veteran. Murtha, one of the most hawkish Democrats on Capitol Hill, surprised many in Washington last week.

REP. JOHN MURTHA: It is time to bring them home. They have done everything they can do.

RAY SUAREZ: Murtha says a withdrawal would force Iraqis to take control of their own security sooner. His proposal also specified that U.S. troops remain in the region.

Reaction from the White House was swift. Spokesman Scott McClellan linked Murtha’s position to that of left wing filmmaker Michael Moore.

Late Friday House Republicans tried to force Democrats to go on record in support of or opposed to Congressman Murtha’s call; they brought a resolution to the floor that would pull the troops out of Iraq immediately. Democrats called it a political stunt.

REP. JAMES McGOVERN: Sadly, this Republican resolution is consistent with the dishonest political way the Republican leadership has acted in the past three and a half years.

RAY SUAREZ: The battle boiled over when freshman Republican Jean Schmidt of Ohio, most junior member of the House told of a phone call she just received from a Marine colonel back home.

REP. JEAN SCHMIDT: He also asked me to send Congressman Murtha a message that cowards cut and run; Marines never do.

SPOKESMAN: The House will be in order.

RAY SUAREZ: Democrats booed in protest shouting Ms. Schmidt down and bringing the House’s work to a halt. Schmidt later withdrew her remarks from the congressional record saying they weren’t directed at Murtha. The resolution to pull troops out ultimately failed by a vote of 403-3.

In Korea over the weekend, President Bush told an audience of U.S. troops that politicians in Washington will not influence his decisions in Iraq.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: So long as I’m the commander-in-chief our strategy in Iraq will be driven by the sober judgment of our military commanders on the ground.

RAY SUAREZ: Defense Secretary Rumsfeld echoed the president’s remarks on several Sunday morning news programs and said withdrawal of U.S. troops would jeopardize the American public.

DONALD RUMSFELD: There’s no doubt in my mind but that were we to pull out precipitously that the American people would be in greater danger than they are today.

RAY SUAREZ: Rumsfeld said troop levels will remain at 160,000 as Iraqis prepare for elections Dec. 15 and will be reduced to 130,000 when conditions on the ground warrant it.

At today’s speech in Washington, Vice President Cheney presented several questions to those advocating withdrawal from Iraq.

VICE PRESIDENT CHENEY: Would the United States and other free nations be better off or worse off with Zarqawi, bin Laden and Zawahiri in control of Iraq?

Would we be safer or less safe with Iraq ruled by a man intent on the destruction of our country?

It is a dangerous illusion to suppose that another retreat by the civilized world would satisfy the appetite of the terrorist and get them to leave us alone.

In fact, such a retreat would convince the terrorists that free nations will change our policies, forsake our friends, abandon our interests whenever we are confronted with murder and blackmail.

RAY SUAREZ: The political back and forth continued this afternoon as a senior Senate Democrat, Delaware’s Joe Biden, criticized the administration for not having an exit strategy, but he did not endorse Murtha’s position.

RAY SUAREZ: Two views now on Congressman Murtha’s get out of Iraq proposal. Retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Bernard Trainor who is co-authoring a book on the inside story of the Iraq war, and retired Army Lt. Gen. William Odom, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, his latest book is “America’s Inadvertent Empire.” Gen. Trainor, what do you make of Congressman Murtha’s proposal, which would see the United States out of Iraq by the middle of next year?

LT. GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR (Ret.): Right. I can understand the congressman’s views; I’m sympathetic with his views. But, to me, it is ill-conceived what he is proposing. It’s a little bit like a Pontius Pilate act, you know; he’s washing his hands of the whole thing and then moving out. I think it probably will have unintended consequences that would probably be worse than the situation that we are facing right now.

RAY SUAREZ: Gen. Odom, Pontius Pilate?

LT. GEN. WILLIAM ODOM (Ret.): Quite the contrary. I think maybe does or maybe he doesn’t, but objectively, he understands that we need a basic strategic change of direction. And unless we make it, we’re going to pay a higher and higher price over a longer time until we eventually do do it. I don’t think that we will still have troops in there by the year 2007. I think the Army is already broken. You can already see signs the administration is giving hints of troop draw-downs.

People are becoming more and more aware of that it is not in our interest to be there. And the unfortunate thing about the debate is a refusal to go back and look at the war aims and look at whose interests were really served best. It is clear that Iran’s interests were served by our invasion and that al-Qaida’s interests because it could not break [in] there until we came in. If we were to get out fairly precipitously, you can bet al-Qaida will be run out, too. They don’t operate in the Kurdish area now, and the Shiites and the Iranians hate the al-Qaida.

RAY SUAREZ: Gen. Trainor, how do you respond to that idea, that war aims are no longer those of the United States?

LT. GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR (Ret.): Well, the question right now is not so much how did we get into this mess; the problem is: How do we get out of it? And the congressman talks about having more authority in the hands of the Iraqis, let them pick up more of the burden, and this is exactly what we are trying to do.

Now I think we’ve made a mess of the training of the Iraqi security forces up to this point. But that seems to have finally gotten on track. But the idea is to turn this sort of thing over to the Iraqis and draw down, and I think this is something that people would understand.

But he also talks about getting out within, as he says here, to immediately redeploy U.S. troops consistent with the safety of U.S. forces. Well, you know, there’s a lot of wiggle room in that and I’m sure he doesn’t mean that we’re just going to pull up stakes and leave.

But the key to the whole thing is to pass the burden over to the Iraqi security forces. If we don’t do something like that, and we do pull out, I think you have the possibility and indeed the probability of a civil war because after all, this is a power struggle. We are incidental to it. It is a power struggle who at the end of the day is going to exercise power in Iraq.

The second thing is, and I certainly agree with my colleague here, that the al-Qaida problem, situation, is one that we have to keep our eye on. I’m not sure that I agree with him, that the – they’re going to chase the al-Qaida out of Iraq. Hopefully that would happen but there’s no guarantee of that.

But the whole thing is, if we leave precipitously, I think we are inviting chaos not only within Iraq but within the region. So the thing is to get out on some sort of a balanced basis when the Iraqi forces are in a position to carry out the security and stability functions.

LT. GEN. WILLIAM ODOM (Ret.): If that’s a move for earlier withdrawal, I will support it. But we know a priori if we put our clear thinking into gear, that the force, the security forces will never be up to the task.

The problem is not training security forces; the problem is political consolidation and it is not taking place. Gen. Trainor mentioned the danger of civil war there. We have a civil war now. The only thing that the U.S. withdrawal will change is the configuration of that war to some degree. It will probably not be as bad and as long as we thought, or as predicted.

And I also think that there will be a lot of bloodshed no matter how long we stay of Sunnis by Shiites because of old scores they’re going to settle.

Now we can’t really manage a strategic stabilization of the region unless we get out first. We’re in trying to stabilize the region, more or less by ourselves. The Europeans will not join us unless we move out.

If we start a withdrawal — and to use the word “precipitous” is kind of dodging the issue — I don’t know what precipitous means– but fairly quickly, then I think the Europeans will decide we can no longer engage in schadenfreude, enjoy American pain. They will probably be open to some sort of American-led coalition to do something about the large region.

RAY SUAREZ: Congressman Murtha made two suggestions that got a lot of attention but are interlinked, I think: One was that the continued presence of American troops makes them a target and a proximate cause for continued violence inside Iraq. And he suggested that if they leave, that would force Iraqis to do some of the things they have been asked to do faster. What do you think of those twin propositions?

LT. GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR (Ret.): Well, I agree with them in this sense: That if we send a clear signal, first of all, I agree, you know, us being there is a problem. We are creating a problem. The question is: Are we creating a bigger problem than would be created if we left there. But, I mean, nobody likes to be occupied by foreigners. That’s one thing.

The second business, and this I think has a kernel truth, the business of getting the mission transferred to the Iraqis as soon as possible, that they are becoming — have created a dependency where the regime is dependent upon us and looking to us. And we have to kind of force them into taking up more of the burden.

We have said both to the Shias and Sunnis, look, we are going to be leaving here before too long, without being quite specific about the thing, and you fellahs have got to work this thing out. It is a political problem they’d have to work out – Mr. Shias, who are going to dominate the area, you have to start to pick up the burden, and Mr. Sunni, when we leave, unless you people have worked out some sort of deal amongst yourself that’s tolerable to the Iraqi people, you’re going to be left to attend to the tender mercies of the Shias, and you certainly don’t want to do that; and that gets back to the civil war aspect of it.

LT. GEN. WILLIAM ODOM (Ret.): The kind of solution he suggests is just not an option for us. The reason it is not an option is that people who dislike each other this much are not going to settle some sort of a deal. This is a civil war, and just as it was in both invasion and civil war in South Vietnam, and it won’t be stable until one side has prevailed. The longer we stay in there, the longer it will be before that is determined.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Let me jump in, because Gen. Trainor has used the word “precipitous” a couple of times and you had — took some difference with that, but is there such a difference as leaving too quickly?

If you look at the field of operation, if you look at the political and the military situation, is there a prudent speed at which to leave versus one that would be improved?

LT. GEN. WILLIAM ODOM (Ret.): The only prudent speed is the safety of your forces because I don’t think we can predict that it will be better if you modulate the amount of time to two months, four months or six months.

Most of the things he has said will happen and others have said will happen were inevitable the minute we invaded and staying longer won’t make them not inevitable. We’re going to have to pay the price of accepting these consequences. They were eminently foreseeable and the longer we put it off, the bigger the price we will pay, and the longer it will take us to restore some kind of alliance effort for the larger region.

Those people who want to stay the course now are just, in my view, very much feeding the forces they think they are against al-Qaida and other radical movements in the region.

The quicker we get out, the quicker it will re-stabilize and the quicker we will have an option to do something about it with true allies as opposed to those we paid to come and join the coalition.

RAY SUAREZ: So, Gen. Trainor, if you want to save American lives, there’s no such thing as leaving too fast?

LT. GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR (Ret.): No. I disagree completely with what was said. I think that sounds kind of like an academic approach.

If we leave, too soon, there is indeed going to be civil war, and there will be a lot of bloodshed and the outcome of that civil war is the Shias are going to win. They are the majority of the people in there and they probably will be supported by the Iranians; they are going to win.

And the people that are going to suffer are those who are of the Sunni persuasion, but the thing is to have some sort of structured draw-down of our forces as the Iraqis are able to take up more of the burden and put the pressure on them to take up more of the burden. And that, I think, is the policy that the administration is following.

I think that is the only practical policy to follow at this particular juncture. Coming out of there too soon is just going to create a bigger problem than us staying in there. Is it going to cost some more American lives? Yes. But, you know, we went in there as a military force to do — to take out Saddam Hussein and to also to establish some sort of a democratic regime there, and the larger one, kind of reordering the deck chairs out there in the Middle East; I think all of that has gone by the board.

Right now we just want to get out of there with some sort of a stable and legitimate government in place.

LT. GEN. WILLIAM ODOM (Ret.): It is an illusion to think you could leave a stable military there. What you are leaving is a more competent set of militias, which we are training under the illusion that they are the Iraqi security force and police are essentially a front for militias putting their forces in there.

The Shiites are going to win this because of the electoral system we’ve set up. The Shiites are going to get this any way you go. So the idea that you stay in to keep the Shiites from having the power is excessively academic, not to mention a total illusion.

RAY SUAREZ: One thing –

LT. GEN. WILLIAM ODOM (Ret.): No matter — there’s no way we’re going to leave a regime there that’s going to be pro-American. If we left a Kurdish regime in charge, we might do that, but I don’t think we can do that.

So this notion that you stay in longer in order to reach something you couldn’t reach early on is simply an unwillingness to face the realities. And I think, you — Bernie, I know you have been talking to some of the people out there, lots of the trainers at the tactical level know that we’re not going to train a security force up; they know these people are more loyal to militias than they are to any Iraqi regime. That is a fact that staying three more years won’t change.

RAY SUAREZ: One thing that Congressman Murtha suggested, which has also gotten some speculative attention, is that we wouldn’t leave the theater entirely but would pull over, as he said, to the horizon. And if things, I guess, reignited inside Iraq, there would be forces that could be sent back into the country. Is that a feasible suggestion?

LT. GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR (Ret.): Well, I think Gen. Odom and I are probably on the same sheet of music on this. That’s totally impractical. He used the terms “to create a quick reaction force in the region and to create an over-the-horizon presence of Marines.”

I don’t know what, how that would operate. I mean, if you are over the horizon, where are you going to be? If you are hundreds of miles away from where the problem is, which is up in the central portion of Iraq and in terms of regional force, where would you be — in Jordan? It’s the same thing. You have a long distance to go. All you would be doing is walking an ambush. I don’t think that has any particular merit at all.

What the Americans I know what to do, though, is to set up quick reaction forces outside the built-up areas, some of the major cities there in the Anbar Province and turn up the security business to the Iraqis but knowing that, you know, if necessary, they can come in and help. Something of that I think is within the realm of possibility but his plan of having some sort of over-the-horizon quick reaction force I think is totally improbable.

RAY SUAREZ: And a quick response from Gen. Odom.

LT. GEN. WILLIAM ODOM (Ret.): I would say that he has the nub of a very important idea. We should not leave the region; we should get together with allies after we pull out and begin to discuss how we balance this region in the chaotic state in which we are leaving it. And that’s the way to approach it. It might involve use of military forces.

But don’t get the military forces part of the equation before the strategic political decisions are made about how you’re going to do it.

RAY SUAREZ: Gen. Odom, Gen. Trainor, good to talk to you both.

LT. GEN. WILLIAM ODOM (Ret.): Thank you.