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Call for Withdrawal

November 17, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: The debate that keeps growing over the Iraq war and to Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: It’s been a week of fierce argument over Iraq. Two days ago, the Senate debated and defeated a Democratic proposal to set a firm timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops. But it did vote 79-19 to make next year a period of — quote — significant transition of security back to the Iraqis.

Today, the argument took a dramatic turn in the House when Congressman John Murtha of Pennsylvania, the ranking Democrat on the Defense Appropriations Committee, a decorated Vietnam veteran who voted for the war, said it’s time for the U.S. to leave. His remarks brought a swift rejoinder from leading defense Republicans. We join that debate now, first with Congressman John Murtha.

And, Congressman, welcome. Explain to us why you have now rejected the president’s policy, which is the U.S. simply cannot leave Iraq until the Iraqis are ready to take on the security duties themselves.

REP. JOHN MURTHA: Well, Margaret, as I said in my comments in the news conference, this is a flawed policy wrapped in illusion. From the very start, they said the oil production would pay for any rehabilitation. It would only cost us a few billion dollars, that there would be a big coalition supporting us, and we’d get all kinds of money from everybody else. They expected to be able to do this with a lot less troops. They thought they’d have only forty or fifty thousand troops the first year.

Now I listened to, that I looked at the intelligence, and I thought, well, maybe they’re right. And we gave them a club, hoping that he would be able to get an international coalition together.

MARGARET WARNER: Right.

REP. JOHN MURTHA: The intelligence was, obviously, wrong. I think everybody agrees to that. But the policy’s been so flawed. They went in with inadequate number of troops to keep the thing under control in the transition to peace, and then after that, they disbanded the Iraqi army, which was the biggest single mistake that they made.

MARGARET WARNER: But Congressman, if I may interrupt, for instance, Sen. McCain, who is also critical of the way the war is being waged, is nonetheless saying the answer isn’t to cut and run. The answer is to, if anything, send in more troops. I mean, what about the argument that it will just descend into civil war.

REP. JOHN MURTHA: Margaret, let me just tell you this: The time has come when 80 percent of the Iraqi people are saying that they want us out of there, that 45 percent of the Iraqi people say that the United States — it’s justified to kill Americans. So you have a country that wants us out of there, and we’ve become the enemy. We are the target.

When I went to Iraq two months ago, I talk to the commanders at Adefa, the Marine commander, and I saw some of the explosive devices that were used. Incidents have increased in Iraq from 150 a week in a year to 700 a week in the last week. So we’re losing that type of activity. They won the military victory in Iraq. They toppled Saddam Hussein. They defeated the army, but the incidents — the economic situation has gotten worse.

So when I look at the reports, when I go out to the hospitals every week, and I see these young Americans in the hospitals and I see them with legs off, I see them with arms off, and they are so self-sacrificing, they don’t ask for anything for themselves. They don’t complain about their injuries. And they shouldn’t. They’re disciplined. They understand how it works.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you about those soldiers because the Republicans – there were a lot of Republican critics came out today to take aim at your proposal, and they said if the U.S. leaves now before the job is done, it will simply devalue the sacrifice that the more than 2,000 Americans who died made, and all of these many, many–

REP. JOHN MURTHA: Margaret, Margaret, the flawed policy is what’s devaluated their service. They had inadequate forces when they went in, and then they disbanded the army.

These troops are disciplined. They can’t speak for themselves. It’s up to the Congress of the United States. Only the Congress can send our nation to war, and the Congress — and I voted to go to war. When I looked at the intelligence, I believed the same way they believed.

But now I believe the opposite. I believe we’ve done everything we can do. I believe we have become the enemy. And I’ll tell you this: The Iraqis are not going to do the fighting unless we turn it over to them. They’re going to let us continue.

If we allow our measurement to get out of their up to the Iraqis, we’ll never get out. It’s going to be up to us to decide when we get out of there.

Now, when I say redeploy our troops, I’m talking about to Kuwait, if they allow us to redeploy there, to Okinawa where we can be over the horizon, go back in, in case there’s more terrorist activity.

You have got to remember, Margaret, there was no terrorist activity in Iraq at all before we went in there. There’s been an increase. The State Department said there’s been an increase in terrorist activity in the last couple of years, before they stopped putting the report out.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay. But the president does say, as you know, that for whatever reason Iraq –

REP. JOHN MURTHA: But the president said a lot of things, and they turned out not to be true. The president said there are weapons of mass destruction. The president said oil would pay for it. The president cut taxes at a time when we’re in a war.

MARGARET WARNER: So do you reject -

REP. JOHN MURTHA: Just because he says it doesn’t make it so. The American people don’t believe this president.

MARGARET WARNER: But may I ask you, sir, if you believe — he says — for whatever reason, Iraq has become the center of terrorism – that if the U.S. appears to retreat in the face of that, that it will be a blow to the American fight against radical Islamic terrorism? What do you say to that?

REP. JOHN MURTHA: Well, I say that the fight against Americans began with Abu Ghraib. It began with the invasion of Iraq. That’s when terrorism started. It didn’t start when there was criticism of this administration. This administration doesn’t want to listen to any ideas.

This is an idea of how we can save lives, of how we can be on the periphery of Iraq and send troops back in, in case there is an increase in terrorism that we need to go back in.

The Iraqis have to control this themselves. They’re proud people. They’ve got to realize this election — and I’m saying this before the election because I believe the Iraqis have to — when they elect somebody, they’ve got to unify that country, and we have got to ask for international help to work through the problem. I think terrorism would stop. I think it would be the opposite. We’re the enemy. We’re reason they’re — we’re the ones they’re attacking for heaven’s sake. We’re the only thing that could unify the Iraqis.

MARGARET WARNER: You said something today, and I’m going to quote you, you said, “The future of our military is at risk if the U.S. stays in Iraq much longer.”

REP. JOHN MURTHA: Yes.

MARGARET WARNER: Explain in a nutshell what you meant by that.

REP. JOHN MURTHA: Yes. And this is really a problem. We have got $50 billion worth of ground equipment which needs to be rehabilitated, and I’ve told all the CEO’s that’s where they ought to be looking because we’re not going to be able to buy ‘em anything.

We only bought four or five ships this year. They cut back $5 billion out of defense this year, and what I worry about, it takes 18 years to put a system in place, and we don’t know what the threat is. Is China the threat down the road?

We don’t want to — there to be a misperception that we’re not prepared to fight a war. We don’t want somebody miscalculating like they did in Korea. George Washington said the best way to preserve peace is to have — be prepared with your military, and that’s what we have to be.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you about something the vice president said last night, and the president has said it. And they are saying that it’s irresponsible for Democrats like you, who saw the intelligence before the war, who voted for the war, to now be out criticizing the war and undercutting it. What do you say to that?

REP. JOHN MURTHA: Well, I say that it’s time to return our troops — I say to redeploy our troops out of Iraq. I say it’s time to change direction in Iraq. The American people are way ahead of us. You know, Cheney, he is a good friend of mine. The president, they may believe what they’re saying, but it’s an illusion.

A year from now, if we stay in there, we’re going to be – we’ll have the same number of casualties, if not more; this thing is not going to get better.

MARGARET WARNER: Republicans who have worked with you on defense issues for decades were stunned by this, what did you today. Was it hard for you to come to this?

REP. JOHN MURTHA: Well, it’s not a matter of being hard. It’s what I decided. My conclusion was, that in measuring every element that I’ve seen, and a number of Republicans came to me and said they thought it was a very thoughtful statement. But the point is I came to this conclusion by measuring the casualties, by measuring the criteria for success which they sent over themselves, and then looking and seeing no progress at all, economically, or on the ground.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, Congressman, do you think the fact that you as a defense hawk have now come to this position, do you think this represents a tipping point? Are you hearing from other Democrats who voted for the war that they’re coming to this view themselves?

REP. JOHN MURTHA: I hope this is a watershed. I hope a lot of people think about what I’ve said and we can begin to withdraw our troops immediately from that area and put them on the horizon, or over the horizon, so if they have to they can go back in.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Congressman John Murtha, thank you so much.

REP. JOHN MURTHA: Nice to be here, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: Now the Republican response; it comes from Congressman Duncan Hunter of California, also a Vietnam veteran and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

Congressman Hunter, you today said that Congressman Murtha was just plain wrong. What is wrong with the idea that the military has done as much as it can, and it’s just time to leave?

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER: Well, Margaret, moving — leaving in a precipitous manner — that is, before we fully train up the Iraqi military and give them the ability to sustain their own security — is a recipe for disaster.

And we saw that when we tried to move green Iraqi troops into the battle in Fallujah before they were trained and we noticed they didn’t show up for formation the next day.

So we’ve walked through this series of milestones for the elections and the approval of the constitution and we’re moving toward a permanent government. And we are standing up the Iraqi military. We are training them, and they’re taking on larger responsibilities every day.

They’re taking over areas like Najaf and Sadr City that heretofore were guarded only by Americans, and the decision to leave should be based solely on the judgment of the combatant commanders on the ground who say, “My Iraqi counterparts can now handle this particular area of the country on their own with minimum American support or with no American support.” When they can do that, we should leave.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay, but Congressman as you know, even the generals say there are almost no battalions that are ready — Iraqi battalions ready to do that, and Congressman Murtha says until the Iraqis know for sure we’re getting out, there’s very little incentive for them to actually assume the responsibilities themselves.

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER: Listen, I like John very much. He’s a very fine guy, and we stand together on lots of issues.

But you always have that balancing that requires judgment. You don’t want to do everything for the force that you’re training up. You have to make sure that they get out and start taking on additional responsibilities.

On the other hand, you don’t want to push them out too early as we did in Fallujah where they don’t show up for formation the next day. So it’s a balancing act.

But certainly there’s no military leadership who agree that you could turn over the country tomorrow to the Iraqi forces and just simply leave and leave them in place and not expect them to have incredible problems, take enormous casualties and to have disastrous consequences.

And what we need is an Iraqi military that is capable of protecting this government. It doesn’t have to be an Iraqi military that can handle an invading army with seven armored divisions. It only has to be a military that’s capable of stabilizing their own country and protecting this fragile democracy that we are growing. That’s what they have to do.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what about Congressman Murtha’s point, though, which is he says the fact of the U.S. presence there is in fact fueling the insurgency, that 80 percent of the Iraqi people want us out, that we are — well that our very presence, as I said, is an instigating factor in the level of violence, and that U.S. troops would be much better off being, what he says, over the horizon — in Kuwait, somewhere where they can come in and help, but not right in the Iraqi people’s face.

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER: Here’s the problem, Margaret: To train up this force and to make sure that you’ve got a competent Iraqi force that does two things, that gets respect for commands that come down from the chain of command, and secondly, respects the civilian government, you have to train them. And you can’t train them from 10,000 miles away. You have to be there up close and personal to train them.

And right now, the capability of our military, which is now — which is now being used in this training phase, is being reflected in the new competence of the Iraqi military.

And this thing about only one battalion being totally self-standing is a little bit misleading, because you have a 200,000-person force trained and equipped to some degree, and you have lots and lots of them, many thousands of them, which are involved in combat operations every day.

So if you want a force equivalent to the United States force in quality, there’s probably no — in fact, there are no nations in the Middle East that have it. But if you have — if you’re look for a force that’s competent to protect its government, we can do that.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay, do you agree from where you sit as chairman of Armed Services, with Congressman Murtha’s point, that the U.S. military is being really stretched way too thin now by this, in terms of equipment, weapons, manpower, personnel, and has been put in a position where it’s not necessarily ready for the next threat?

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER: I disagree with that. In fact, the American military — and I say this as a guy who has watched a number of conflicts and served in Vietnam and my son served, as you know, in the Marines in Fallujah, did two tours there — the quality of our military is superb right now, and it’s unprecedentedly effective.

So the idea that these folks are being stretched to the point where you’re going to have a breakdown in the military I think underestimates the capability, the endurance, the staying power and the quality of our military. It’s actually finer than it’s ever been. We do have to replace a lot of equipment that’s getting chewed up in the desert sand, and that’s our responsibility in Congress.

MARGARET WARNER: One last quick question, Congressman Murtha said he hoped what he had to say today would be a watershed. Are you sensing with the polls heading south in terms of approval of the war that even among Republicans there’s at least a growing desire for some kind of firmer timetable than we have right now for getting U.S. troops out?

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER: No, Margaret, the timetable has to come from one place, and that’s from the judgment of the combatant commanders who say, “My counterpart unit in the Iraqi military can now handle this particular town or this particular area that heretofore American troops have been handling has got to come from judgment on the ground.” And you know this is the second phase that always happens in a conflict.

The first phase, the attack phase, there’s lots of flags waving, there’s 90 percent approval; the Congress is cheering, giving standing ovations to our military leaders.

This is the middle phase where you’re taking some casualties, you’re making incremental gains, and the polls are going down because people don’t like it see casualties on television.

This is a time when America has to stay steady. If we stay steady, and we’re going to continue to tick off these milestones, including having a permanent government, we’re going to be able to have an Iraqi — an Iraq that may not be perfect but it’s not going to be an enemy of the United States it’s not going to be a springboard for terrorism. That will be a successful mission.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Congressman Duncan Hunter, we have to leave it there, thank you.

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER: Thank you, Margaret.