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Proposals to Increase Troop Levels in Iraq Raise Questions at Home

December 18, 2006 at 6:10 PM EDT

KWAME HOLMAN: Robert Gates took over as secretary of defense today amid an intense debate inside the administration and in the media: whether to send more troops to Iraq.

The idea of dispatching another 20,000 soldiers and Marines, mainly to try to secure Baghdad, appeared to be gaining momentum. It even has its own name: “surge.”

And though Gates did not touch on the issue in his maiden speech, the surge debate filled newspaper headlines and was the topic of much discussion on the Sunday talk shows.

KWAME HOLMAN: On CBS, there was a strong critique from former secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell. He noted a smaller surge was tried in August, but failed.

COLIN POWELL, Former U.S. Secretary of State: So we have tried this surge of troops over the summer. I am not persuaded that another surge of troops into Baghdad for the purpose of suppressing this communitarian violence, this civil war, will work.

But if somebody proposes that additional troops be sent, if I was still chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, my first question to whoever is proposing it is: What mission is it these troops are to accomplish? Is it to secure Baghdad? In which case, the American Army isn’t large enough to secure Baghdad, and we should not use our troops as policemen.

Is it to take over a certain section of Baghdad? Is it to go after the insurgents? There needs to be a clear mission that these additional troops are going to be performing. And we have to be very, very careful in this instance not just to grab a number out of the air. It really has to be analyzed.

There really are no additional troops. All we would be doing is keeping some of the troops who were there, there longer, and escalating or accelerating the arrival of other troops.

KWAME HOLMAN: On ABC’s “This Week,” incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid seemed more open to the idea of a surge, but nothing more.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), Senate Minority Leader: If it’s for a surge — that is, for two or three months — and it’s part of a program to get us out of there, as indicated by this time next year, then, sure, I’ll go along with it. But if it’s put 40,000 more troops in there, you know, we’ve lost in Nevada about 30 troops killed.

Scores have been wounded. We’re now approaching 3,000 dead Americans, costing the American people $2.5 to $3 billion a week. This is a war that we have to change course. The president has to do that.

KWAME HOLMAN: Appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich weighed in.

NEWT GINGRICH (R), Former Speaker of the House: I would send more troops, if it was in a context of a new strategy with a dramatically new commitment with a bipartisan resolution in the Congress.

I mean, the center of gravity for American policy right now is the president finding a bipartisan agreement on the Congress in the first two or three months to send a signal to the world that it is America’s — this can’t be Bush’s war. This is either an American commitment to victory or it is a defeat.

KWAME HOLMAN: Today, in an interview with NBC, Senator Hillary Clinton, a member of the Armed Services Committee, joined the debate.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), New York: I am not in favor of sending more troops to continue doing what our young men and women have been told to do, with the government of Iraq pulling the rug out from under them when they actually go after some of the bad guys. I am not in favor of doing that unless it’s part of a larger plan.

KWAME HOLMAN: A recent Los Angeles Times-Bloomberg poll found that only 12 percent of Americans supported the idea of an increase in U.S. forces, while 52 percent favored setting a timetable for bringing troops home.

'There has to be a clear mission'

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News
[T]here has to be a clear mission for these troops, and they have to be allowed -- if their mission is to quell the violence, to put the insurgency down, they have to be allowed to do so without regard to the political considerations in Iraq.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we look at troop levels and other Iraq issues with three editorial page editors from around the nation: John Diaz of the San Francisco Chronicle; Nolan Finley of the Detroit News; Robert Kittle of the San Diego Union-Tribune. We had hoped to be joined by Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but technical problems will prevent that. And we apologize to Cynthia.

So, John, let me start with you. We seem to be hearing some caution, some tentative support, much ambiguity in how politicians are approaching the prospect of sending more troops. What do you think?

JOHN DIAZ, San Francisco Chronicle: Well, I think the idea that the United States can fight its way out of this mess in Iraq is really nothing short of madness for a couple reasons.

One, Colin Powell made the observation over the weekend of: Where are these troops going to come from? Our Army is already overextended and, he said, almost broken. We have troops right now who are on extended tours of duty. There are shortages of equipment, so that's problem a, is where the troops are going to come from.

The second problem is we've heard so much from the Bush White House over the last couple of years about, well, gee, if we have these arbitrary deadlines, gee, the insurgents will just wait us out. I think sending troops for a temporary surge to secure Baghdad is an invitation for the insurgents to wait us out there.

JEFFREY BROWN: Nolan Finley, what do you think? Are there ways in which this could be done that you could support the so-called surge idea?

NOLAN FINLEY, Detroit News: Well, two things. One, it has to be enough troops. And I'm not sure 20,000 would be enough troops.

And, two, there has to be a clear mission for these troops, and they have to be allowed -- if their mission is to quell the violence, to put the insurgency down, they have to be allowed to do so without regard to the political considerations in Iraq. They have to be able to do what it takes, where it takes, without being ordered around by Iraqi politicians.

JEFFREY BROWN: We heard the caveat in some of the phrases in our set-up, if part of a bigger plan or a larger plan. Is that what you're talking about in terms of mission?

NOLAN FINLEY: I'm not sure 20,000 is enough. I think it will probably take 50,000, perhaps 80,000. But once they're sent there, they have to know what it is they're supposed to be doing.

And if they're given free hand to put down the violence, whether it's coming from the Shiite-controlled areas or the Sunni-controlled areas, they have to be allowed to do that. They might be able to have some positive impact on the situation there, but that's a big if.

JEFFREY BROWN: Robert Kittle, where do you come down?

ROBERT KITTLE, San Diego Union-Tribune: Well, the important issue to me, Jeffrey, is not the number of troops. It's what will the new mission be?

And the Joint Chiefs last week in their briefing with the president suggested redeploying American troops into more secure areas and using the Iraqi army to defend the more volatile areas in Baghdad and elsewhere. I think that's the strategy that makes sense; that's the shift that should be accomplished.

And if sending 20,000 additional troops serves that cause of redeploying American forces to more secure areas and putting more responsibility on the Iraqi army, then I'm for it.

But I'm not for it if it's just, as John McCain has suggested, that we just need to throw more troops at the problem to try to pacify the country. I don't think that can be accomplished with military force; only a political reconciliation will pacify the country and put an end to the violence.

The impact of the Iraq Study Group

Robert Kittle
San Diego Union-Tribune
I think there's a general support that it's too early to walk away from it. But there is, in San Diego, as elsewhere in the country, a demand that we find a more successful way of dealing with the situation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Robert, staying with you, you have a large military presence in your community. What's your sense of the public support for, in this case, for a surge, even if a temporary one?

ROBERT KITTLE: I think there's a lot of support for the troops, but there is a lot of weariness with the war, even among military families. And after all, they've had to bear the responsibilities of being sent back and the burden of being sent back with shorter deployments at home and more time in the war zone.

So this war comes home to them very directly. And, in fact, Senator Reid in the earlier clip mentioned that 30 Nevadans had been killed in Iraq. From San Diego County, there have been almost 350 mostly Marines who have been killed, who have been stationed here or who live here.

So this community feels the war very keenly. I think there's a general support that it's too early to walk away from it. But there is, in San Diego, as elsewhere in the country, a demand that we find a more successful way of dealing with the situation.

JEFFREY BROWN: John Diaz, what's your sense of what the public will or will not support at this point?

JOHN DIAZ: Well, I think what Americans are looking for, more than anything else, is we saw with the Iraq Study Group, is some kind of coherent, plausible plan to have an exit strategy, which has been missing so much.

I think even here in the San Francisco Bay Area, which of course has been so critical of this war from the beginning, I think there would be support for the mission, as there was in Afghanistan, if people see the clarity of the mission, which has not been here from the start.

And more than anything else, I think the Iraq Study Group was asking the president to reassess some of his fundamental premises that he brought into Iraq and has continued to this day. Right now, it has not been promising.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, John, you mentioned -- you bring up the study group. I wanted to ask you about that. Did it or to what extent did it change the conversation around what to do in Iraq?

JOHN DIAZ: Well, I don't think it has to a great degree. I think, if you've listened to some of the signals from the White House, President Bush has certainly been much more measured than some of the critics on right-wing talk radio, in terms of their approach to the Iraq Study Group.

But if you listen to his language, it's still basically the same construct. He's talking about winning the war, the importance of staying the -- he hasn't used the term "staying the course," but it sure sounds like it in other terms.

JEFFREY BROWN: Nolan Finley, what do you think about the effect of the study group's report and then the president's response to it?

NOLAN FINLEY: Well, it gave the president cover to do something different in Iraq, but it didn't tell the president what that something different should be.

And you mentioned what the American public would support. I think the president keeps looking for a way forward, and I get a real sense that the American people are looking for a way out.

I'm not sure there's anything now that they would support, in terms of an escalation in Iraq or even a new course in Iraq. They want out of Iraq.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you sense an Iraq fatigue at this point?

NOLAN FINLEY: Oh, there's definitely a weariness with the war, and that's primarily and singularly because there's been no progress. If they could see measurable progress, they might get behind anything the president proposes, but I'm not sure any of the options that are on the table would give us measurable progress within a short period of time.

JEFFREY BROWN: I'm curious how you measure this fatigue, even in terms of letters to the editor or in terms of response to stories that your paper does.

NOLAN FINLEY: All of that. And, of course, the primary measure was the election. We saw how Americans felt about Iraq and have felt about the way this administration has handled the situation; that was a very resounding vote of no confidence.

Bush: 'stubborn' or 'stalwart'?

John Diaz
San Francisco Chronicle
The Iraq Study Group found a number of cases where the White House seemed to be intentionally understating the amount of violence in order to advance the policy.

JEFFREY BROWN: Robert Kittle, there was a story in yesterday's Washington Post that had the headline "Stubborn or Stalwart? Bush is Loath to Budge." How do you see the president at this point, stubborn or stalwart?

ROBERT KITTLE: Well, I think the president has to realize that he cannot wage this war on his own. He has to have the support of the American people or this operation is doomed to failure because he cannot sustain a war without the support of the American people.

And of course the American people have registered a vote of no confidence in the current conduct of the war. But I think, in terms of public opinion generally, Colin Powell had it right when he said over the weekend we are losing, but we haven't lost.

And I think most Americans are willing not to give up entirely now, but to demand a different approach. So the president cannot be stubborn about this.

The president must recognize that if he is to retain any measure of support among the American people, he has got to change course and to achieve some success in handing over the responsibility for the security of Iraq and for the political evolution of Iraq to Iraqis, because Americans will not stand for their troops to be referees in a civil war. And that's, unfortunately, the situation largely as it exists today.

JEFFREY BROWN: John Diaz, how do you see the "stubborn versus stalwart" question?

JOHN DIAZ: I would definitely put him in the category of "stubborn." And the other one that I would add would be "in denial, really all along."

I thought, of all the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, some of the most devastating to this administration is where it basically had two recommendations that said start telling the truth about the war, start telling the truth in terms of honest budgeting, so that Americans can see the true cost that we're paying there, as Harry Reid said in your segment, somewhere in the neighborhood of $2.5 billion to $3 billion a week, and also in terms of the amount of violence.

The Iraq Study Group found a number of cases where the White House seemed to be intentionally understating the amount of violence in order to advance the policy. And, as they put it, that's no way to fight a war or to gain American support for it.

The timing of a new policy

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News
When [Bush] comes out with a new plan, it had better be a plan that can show progress very quickly, because another six months, another year of this, and I'm not sure the American people have that much patience.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, as you know, John, the president decided that he would not announce a new policy until after the new year. He said he wouldn't be rushed. Do you think he has that kind of time?

JOHN DIAZ: Well, I think as we're seeing, in fact, today, the Pentagon came out with a new report that showed that the violence in Baghdad and in some of the provinces is as bad as it's been in several months.

Time does not seem to be on our side in Iraq, and I think that's one of the reasons that the Iraq Study Group, this group of older statesmen, used terms like "grave and deteriorating" to describe what's happening there. I think there is not only a sense of determination to take a different course, but there's a sense of urgency that we saw in that report that right now has not been reflected in the White House.

JEFFREY BROWN: Nolan Finley, how do you feel about the president taking more time to deliberate and come up with a new policy?

NOLAN FINLEY: I think you asked "stubborn or stalwart?" I think he's shell-shocked. I'm not sure he knows what to do; I'm not sure anyone knows what to do in Iraq.

We keep talking about a new course, as if there's an option out there we haven't put on the table and discussed and debated and determined that it won't work.

I think everything that's been put on the table so far has had a very severe downside. And there is no commonsense plan or no foolproof plan to move ahead here. I'm not sure he knows what to do; I don't think he has any choice but to take more time.

We keep talking about turning this thing over to the Iraqis and let them take responsibility for their own country, but all the evidence we get from that country is that they're neither willing nor able to do that at this point.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Nolan, staying with you, when the president does come out with a new policy, a read on the country or your part of the country, your community, do you sense there's so much polarization that will continue on after he announces a new policy?

NOLAN FINLEY: I'm not sure there's that much polarization today. I think you're seeing almost unanimous agreement that what we're doing in Iraq isn't working.

When he comes out with a new plan, it had better be a plan that can show progress very quickly, because another six months, another year of this, and I'm not sure the American people have that much patience.

JEFFREY BROWN: Robert Kittle, what do you think? Is the country too polarized at this point to respond effectively? Or is there the potential for a bipartisan or even nonpartisan response?

ROBERT KITTLE: Certainly, the political establishment is polarized, but I don't think the American people are. And I think there is ample opportunity here to reach a consensus of Democrats and Republicans on how to go forward, or at least give it another shot with a new approach.

That much I think there can be a consensus built around, and I think the American people are not yet ready to give up completely in Iraq. They recognize the situation is a mess, but they're not yet ready to walk away from it and endure the consequences that would come from a precipitous withdrawal.

So I think the president does have some time to work out a consensus. He doesn't have a lot of time, but I think, if he works constructively with Democrats in Congress, the national mood is such that, yes, there is a very good opportunity here to create a new consensus.

JEFFREY BROWN: John Diaz, your sense of the national mood?

JOHN DIAZ: You know, as much disagreement as there has been over the war, I think there is very little disagreement over the consequences and the magnitude of what the stakes are in Iraq.

So I think there is an opportunity, if the administration is willing to reach out to this new Congress, I think foreign policy, as the Iraq Study Group said, has to be done by a consensus. You really cannot have this kind of partisan divide, because the sacrifice that's required to truly fight a war or to stabilize the Middle East are too great.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. John Diaz, Robert Kittle and Nolan Finley, thanks very much. And, again, our apologies to Cynthia Tucker. Thank you.