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Democratic Senator Discusses Security in Iraq amid Increasing Violence

October 26, 2006 at 6:30 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Now, the view of a Senate Democrat. And to Ray Suarez.

RAY SUAREZ: We get that view from Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island. He’s a member of the Armed Services Committee and returned earlier this month from his ninth trip to Iraq.

And, Senator, you heard the president say, “We are winning. We have adapted.” You heard his national security adviser say that this was a balanced and sober assessment, and the president is open to new ideas. Is this a new posture for the administration?

SEN. JACK REED (D), Rhode Island: Well, it’s a new posture. And, unfortunately, it might just be a posture. The situation as I see it, just returning from Iraq, is that we’re not winning; in fact, the initiative, we’re losing the initiative. We have to regain that initiative.

And that’s going to require, I think, putting appropriate pressure on the Maliki government to take explicit steps very quickly to eliminate the militias as forces within Iraq, bring in the Sunnis in real reconciliation, not just some sort of committee and press releases, but bring them in, and also begin to deploy their resources to ensure that the quality of life and public services are available to Iraqis who are rapidly losing faith and confidence in their own government.

Necessary steps to provide security

Sen. Jack Reed
(D) Rhode Island
The key factor is not simply our military presence, but it's the political decisions that the Maliki government has to make.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the president called it his responsibility to provide the American people with a candid assessment of the situation in Iraq. It sounds like you're saying he didn't do that.

SEN. JACK REED: Oh, I don't think that was a candid assessment. I think the situation, as I see it on the ground, recently returning, talking to military commanders, is that they sense that within several months this situation could come to a decisive crossroads. And the key factor is not simply our military presence, but it's the political decisions that the Maliki government has to make.

And Maliki himself has been somewhat reluctant to take these decisions. For example, just a few days ago, Iraqi security forces, together with American advisers, went in and arrested a principal member of the Mahdi Army. And then the next day, Maliki ordered him released.

That's not the kind of strong message that they're going after all the militias, not just the Sunni insurgents, but all the militias. And that's something that this prime minister and his government has to do and has to do it quickly.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, just a few moments ago, you heard the national security adviser say there's only so much we can do in some situations. This is a sovereign government. We can't dictate to them, we can't tell them they have to do specific things by specific dates. Are you saying that that's not exactly so?

SEN. JACK REED: We have 140,000 troops on the ground who are sacrificing themselves and doing a magnificent job, not only for our country, but also to give the Iraqi government the opportunity to take these steps. We also, I think, can expect and should be able to expect that they will cooperate with us in their own self-interest.

If truly they are committed to building a stable, effective government, then I think they have to recognize that these militias in particular, and the fact that this political estrangement by the Sunni community, and the fact that they don't have public services is something that ultimately will cripple them and destabilize their own government.

So I don't think it's unreasonable to expect them to lean much more forward in the saddle, if you will, and take these steps.

Debate on semantics

Sen. Jack Reed
(D) Rhode Island
This confusion between what the president said, what the secretary of defense said, and what the prime minister said, I think, highlights the lack of any coherent strategy going forward.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, let me get your view on this disagreement, this discussion, this -- I don't know -- semantic debate. We heard some of it from the president yesterday, some more of it from the secretary of defense today about the difference between a deadline, a benchmark, whether in effect the Iraqi government has agreed that there do exist benchmarks that they have to meet at some point.

SEN. JACK REED: Well, this confusion between what the president said, what the secretary of defense said, and what the prime minister said, I think, highlights the lack of any coherent strategy going forward.

The perception, if you listen to the ambassador in Iraq and General Casey, was that certain benchmarks had been agreed to, that they were going to be followed up, they were going to be supported by both governments. The president alluded to them, and then the prime minister suggested, "Well, that's not exactly the case. We're not quite sure about that." And then today the secretary of defense was telling everybody simply to relax and step back and a rather blase attitude to a very serious situation.

So I think it highlights the lack of coherence and a sound strategy going forward by this government and in partnership with the Iraqi government.

RAY SUAREZ: The president did say that the ultimate responsibility for the success or even the failure of the policy is his and, if voters are mad, that they shouldn't take it out on Republican-elected officials in a couple of weeks.

SEN. JACK REED: Well, he's right about the responsibility. In large part, it's his strategy going into Iraq. Subsequently, I think it's the conduct of the operations, which in many cases were incompetently executed, in terms of supporting our military effort with adequate civilian reconstruction, of recognizing the nature of this insurgency early on and taking adequate steps.

But I think the American people are so concerned about the situation there, it's beyond just concern. In many cases, it's real heartache as they look at the casualty list, as they see the suffering of the Iraqi people, that their responsibility as voters is to register this concern. And I think they will.

Democrat policy direction

Sen. Jack Reed
(D) Rhode Island
I think what the American people are saying is that they're concerned, they want to see a change in policy, they want to see a more effective policy. They want to succeed in Iraq, but they're concerned that we're not succeeding at the moment.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, let's say you in January have to finally put up one of the persistent criticisms from the Republican side of the aisle is the Democrats haven't had to come up with, haven't come up with any alternatives. Well, if the Democrats capture one or both houses, how would Iraq policy or suggestions for policy coming from the Hill look different?

SEN. JACK REED: Well, I would hope -- and this is something that I agree with Steve Hadley -- is that the effort should be bipartisan, but we have suggested an outline.

Senator Levin and myself proposed months ago an approach in which the policy would be clearly stating that our objective is to begin a redeployment of all forces, first within the country, then hopefully outside of Iraq, within a reasonable period of time, without an arbitrary deadline or rigid timetable, but that we would supplement and complement that effort by building up the capacity of the Iraqi security forces and by encouraging, somehow making it clear that the Maliki government has to take these very critical political steps.

Every commander that I speak to on the field will talk about the ultimate and most decisive fact is not simply military power in place, but it's that there is a political decision-making in Iraq that will favor appropriately our forces in that country.

RAY SUAREZ: But if you can't have a meeting of the minds on the way forward, starting in January, and there is more Democratic influence in the running of the Congress, in mechanical terms, what happens at that point? Because the president still runs the executive branch.

SEN. JACK REED: Absolutely. But I think the president will be paying attention to the results of this election in a few weeks. I think he'll be paying attention -- I hope he is -- to his commanders on the ground. And I think also that, as we go forward in the next Congress, hopefully that there will be, if not a consensus, but perhaps some agreement between Republicans and Democrats as a way forward.

I think what the American people are saying is that they're concerned, they want to see a change in policy, they want to see a more effective policy. They want to succeed in Iraq, but they're concerned that we're not succeeding at the moment. And if we continue on the path the president is outlining, then we won't have success ultimately, either.

RAY SUAREZ: Has there been any convergence, not necessarily on the floor in a debate, but in the conversations you have with the men and women you serve with, that give you a sense that you may agree with some people who you didn't think you agreed with on these things?

SEN. JACK REED: I think there is beginning to have that convergence, Ray. And I think it is reflective of what's happening out in the countryside, where people are very concerned about this situation. They're expressing their concern.

And it's not exclusive to Democratic constituencies or Republican constituencies or independents. Most Americans want to see success in Iraq, but they understand or they sense that the present path is not leading to that success.

They want a change. They want a more effective operation in Iraq. They want the rhetoric that the president uses so often to be followed up by real resources, for example.

I mean, one of the deficiencies throughout this effort is that we've deployed over 100,000 troops there but we haven't deployed the State Department personnel, the AID personnel, the Justice Department personnel in sufficient numbers to help create the institutions of government in Iraq. And it's now been almost three years.

Reconstruction progress

Sen. Jack Reed
(D) Rhode Island
So there is some progress, but it's not sufficient to the magnitude of the challenges in Iraq.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you've been going periodically to the country. Did you come back from this last trip with any positive thoughts about the things you saw, things that you saw that were working better this time than they were the last time or a year ago?

SEN. JACK REED: I think what we're beginning to see is the rolling out of some of these provincial reconstruction teams, but again it's rather not complete. They're not fully staffed. It's a good start, but by this time we should have a more robust effort to try to reach out and do the non-military aspects of our operations.

And still, when we talk to these teams, they are legitimately complaining that they don't have some of the experts that they could use, for example, people from the Department of Agriculture. It's an agricultural community in many places in Iraq, but we're not providing that extra teeth.

So there is some progress, but it's not sufficient to the magnitude of the challenges in Iraq. And it's been two-plus years now.

RAY SUAREZ: But hasn't that kind of expertise been held up, in part, by the danger of doing the work there?

SEN. JACK REED: It's been held up by the danger, but what we've seen, what I've seen is a situation -- and one example is the community of Tal Afar near the Syrian border. Months ago, the 3rd Armored Calvary went in, surrounded the community, swept through, cleared out the insurgents in the strategy of clear, hold and build.

They're still waiting to build, because the Iraqi government, the Maliki government, has not provided the $30-plus million dollars they said they would. But without that complement of civilian expertise and resources, American military personnel can clear and hold. But if you don't build, then you don't ultimately win the population to your side and the side of this government.

RAY SUAREZ: Senator Jack Reed, thanks for joining us.

SEN. JACK REED: Thank you, Ray.