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Senators Debate Changes in U.S Strategy Toward Iraq

November 13, 2006 at 2:41 PM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: Benchmarks, timetables, phased redeployments; not even a week after voters went to the polls and declared their distaste for the status quo in Iraq, policymakers are now debating these and other potential approaches.

Leading that charge today for the Democrats was Michigan Senator Carl Levin, who in January is slated to become chairman of the Armed Services Committee. He is joined tonight by Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Gentlemen, welcome.

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL (R), Nebraska: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Levin, you said today that we are headed into an abyss in Iraq, and you suggested there be some sort of phased redeployment. How is that different from the fixed timetable that the president has said he will not accept?

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D), Michigan: Well, we believe — those of us who have supported this for many, many months — that we should notify the Iraqis that we will begin a phased reduction, redeployment of our troops in four to six months. And that means that they would be put on notice basically that they have got to address the political problems that divide them.

They would be put on notice that the open-ended commitment of American troops is no longer there, that we cannot stay there in an open-ended, unlimited way, and that they have got to tackle the problems that only they can tackle. That would be the message that we would send, if the president would agree to tell the Iraqis that, beginning in four to six months, we would initiate a reduction in American forces.

We would not try to specify the pace. We would acknowledge very openly that you have to have some kind of a force that would remain there to protect our diplomats, and to have some kind of a counterterrorism force, and perhaps to help an Iraqi army with logistics.

But one way or another, we’ve got to change the dynamic that exists in Iraq, where the Iraqi leader seems to believe that we can solve their problems for them, when our military leaders have been stating for quite some time that there’s no military solution in Iraq; there’s only a political solution, and only the Iraqis can arrive at such a solution.

Training Iraqi forces

Carl Levin
(D) Mich.
If they believe that we are simply there as an ongoing, unlimited security blanket, protecting them in a Green Zone, they are going to be less likely to reach the political compromises that only they can make.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Hagel, four to six months, say, down from the 144,000 troop strength now to 40,000 or 60,000 troops at the end of this unspecified period of time, what do you think about that?

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: First of all, a point that Carl made, I think, is one that we should focus on as we work our way toward -- I hope, and I think is going to be required -- some kind of a bipartisan consensus here on the future in Iraq.

And that is the point that Carl made that -- and I've said for a long time -- the future of Iraq will be determined by the Iraqi people. The future of Iraq's not going to be determined by the United States. Now, we can help support that.

Within what Carl talked about, I think is some consensus evolving -- and I think you'll see some of that come out in the Baker-Hamilton report in the next few weeks as to what new, clear direction we should take, what new strategies we should be employing.

And I think we should all continue to work on the premise that that bipartisan consensus must be in place to work us through that. Will that require some of the dimensions that Carl noted, some kind of a troop time line on when we pull our troops back, or where we would pull them back to, no permanent American bases, some of those areas, regional security conferences, regional security agreements? All those, I think, are part of the fabric that we will need to get to and we will get to.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Levin, given that the sectarian violence doesn't seem to be abating and Iraqi troops don't seem to be getting trained to take over any faster, is there any risk that your strategy might result in chaos, which would make it even more difficult for the United States to withdraw?

SEN. CARL LEVIN: Well, there's risk either way. There's a great risk in continuing on the course that we're on, and that's a proven risk. It's getting deeper and deeper into that morass, closer and closer to an all-out civil war, so we can see very visibly what the status quo is producing, which is moving us right into a civil war, unless we change that dynamic in Iraq.

So, yes, there is a risk, but in my judgment and the judgment of many others -- including, I believe, more and more of our uniform military leaders -- we've got to force the Iraqis to take hold of this situation. If they believe that we are simply there as an ongoing, unlimited security blanket, protecting them in a Green Zone, they are going to be less likely to reach the political compromises that only they can make.

We cannot save the Iraqis from themselves. As Senator Hagel has said, we've given them an opportunity. We can provide some help, and we have for three-and-a-half years, great loss of blood and treasure on our part.

But we cannot force them to, in any specific way, how to amend their constitution. They've got to make those decisions themselves, but they've got to get on with it and no longer just believe that we can do this for them. Only they can do it, as Senator Hagel has said.

Public disapproval of the war

Chuck Hagel
(R) Neb.
That's why you have elections in democracies. They are self-correction processes, and the people speak. And we all better listen carefully, and I think this president is.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Hagel, I know you weren't on the ballot last week, but I'm sure you read the numbers: Six in ten of Americans disapprove of the war in Iraq. A majority favor withdrawal of some kind. Do you think that the outcome of the election last week has changed overall what the approach will be now toward what happens next in Iraq?

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: Well, it certainly has engaged a new political reality into the future policy that this administration wants to employ in Iraq. We know that, without sustained American public support, you have no policy, and I think the president's very much aware of that.

And that's why you have elections in democracies. They are self-correction processes, and the people speak. And we all better listen carefully, and I think this president is.

I think that's why this president is reaching out. That's why I think that some of the things that Carl has been proposing, Joe Biden, myself, Jack Reed, Dick Lugar, others over the last few years in the Senate, are now in play and need to be shaped and molded to bring about a new direction, a new policy, a new strategy for Iraq.

Because you asked the question about options. We don't have many options in Iraq right now, and the options we do have are pretty limited. That's just the force of reality that's in play.

And we have to be mindful of that reality, not just from the electoral, the political reality, but what's going on in Iraq. We're in a lot of trouble in Iraq, and I believe there is a civil war raging in Iraq. And we have got to be wise now in what course we move toward over the next few months.

The role of American politics

Carl Levin
(D) Mich.
This whole mantra about staying the course, staying the course, and if you suggest anything else, you're somehow or another unpatriotic, you're cutting and running, that no longer works

GWEN IFILL: Senator Levin, how much of what happens in the next few months will have to do with Iraq -- will be driven by Iraqi politics, instead of by American politics?

SEN. CARL LEVIN: Both. There are two realities that need to be faced. One is by the Iraqi government, which is that our presence there is not unlimited, that's it for them to make the political compromises which only they can make. It's for them to consider amendments to their constitution, to share power and share resources fairly, which only they can make. That's the reality that they must be forced to face.

But our own administration now has got to face a reality which they have ignored. The president just a few weeks ago said that we absolutely are winning in Iraq; that is not facing reality at all. The vice president said just a few weeks ago we should go "full-steam ahead" with our policy in Iraq; that is not reality either.

Our policy is not working in Iraq. We've got to change course. This whole mantra about staying the course, staying the course, and if you suggest anything else, you're somehow or another unpatriotic, you're cutting and running, that no longer works, because the American people resoundingly rejected that kind of a stay-the-course approach.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Levin, I just want to stay with you for a moment on that. In your opinion, is what is happening now in Iraq no longer -- does it signal that there is no longer room or expectation of an enduring American-style democracy?

SEN. CARL LEVIN: No, I think there's going to have to be an Iraqi-style democracy that fits their particular needs at the time and at this time. They've got to work out those kinds of solutions; we cannot impose an American solution on them.

We've got to help them reach their own conclusions, but we've got to force them to do it, as well, because the easiest path for them right now is to not take those very difficult steps of sharing power, sharing resources, which they need to make to avoid the cataclysm of an all-out civil war.

Non-binding resolution

Chuck Hagel
(R) Neb.
This is a very serious issue that we have in front of us. We have the entire Middle East probably the most combustible it has been since 1948, and we have to factor all of this into the larger equation.

GWEN IFILL: And, finally, to both of -- start with you, Senator Hagel -- Senator Levin has proposed a non-binding resolution to support his ideas on this. Is that something you would support? And is it something that makes a difference if it is, indeed, non-binding?

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: Well, first, I'd want to look at the resolution. I've had many opportunities to talk with Senator Levin over the last three years about this issue. He's one of the real serious leaders on this issue.

I would want to see, before I would most likely sign onto any resolution, what opportunities might come from the Baker-Hamilton commission, give us all, including the Congress, that needs to play far more significant role than we have in the past on setting policy there, the Congress, president, seeing if we can find that bipartisan consensus to move toward a new direction in Iraq.

Now, if we can't find that, then that is going to force the Congress, I believe, to probably take some action on its own. We don't want to do that, it seems to me, and I don't think Senator Levin, Senator Biden and the Democrats want to do that, either.

This is a very serious issue that we have in front of us. We have the entire Middle East probably the most combustible it has been since 1948, and we have to factor all of this into the larger equation.

GWEN IFILL: And, Senator Levin, to you, what about this non-binding resolution? What difference will it make?

SEN. CARL LEVIN: It would make a huge difference if Congress, on a bipartisan basis, expressed the opinion to the president that he should notify the Iraqis that we're going to be begin a phased redeployment from Iraq in four to six months.

That would make a huge difference. It would have a big impact, I believe, on the president. And Senator Hagel, who again is one of the most thoughtful people you could ever have around here in the Senate or in the Congress, Senator Hagel's right: We want it to be bipartisan.

But we also have got to wait for that Baker-Hamilton report, if we possibly can, and we can. We also should wait for the uniform military leaders, who are also engaged in reviewing all the possible options. Hopefully, their review would also be completed by the middle of December so that then we can try to move forward on a bipartisan resolution.

But the fact that it is not technically binding does not limit its power; it would be hugely powerful, if we could make that statement to the president.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Carl Levin, Senator Chuck Hagel, thank you both very much.

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: Thank you.