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Lawmakers Discuss Iraq Visit, Unmet Benchmarks

September 4, 2007 at 6:05 PM EDT
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KWAME HOLMAN: Lawmakers returned from their month-long summer recession recess today still deeply divided over the level of progress achieved by the U.S. troop surge strategy in Iraq. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell urged colleagues to wait for next week’s report from General David Petraeus, the top military commander in Iraq, before taking a position.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), Senate Minority Leader: The Congress voted in May to have General Petraeus report back this month on the progress in Iraq, and the Congress should listen to what he says, without prejudice, when he gets here.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Majority Leader Harry Reid said the strategy had been given enough time.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), Senate Majority Leader: The president can’t hide behind the generals. This is his war. He’s responsible for the mistakes and the missteps that leave our troops mired in a civil war with no end in sight. The mission hasn’t been accomplished.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Petraeus report is one of three major assessments Congress will review over the next two weeks. This afternoon, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee got the first one, a scorecard compiled by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, detailing the political, military and economic progress in Iraq. GAO Comptroller General David Walker delivered the results.

DAVID WALKER, GAO Comptroller General: As of August 30, 2007, the Iraqi government had met three, partially met four, and did not meet 11 of the 18 benchmarks. Overall, key legislation has not been passed; violence remains high; and it is unclear whether the Iraqi government will spend the $10 billion in reconstruction funds it has allocated.

KWAME HOLMAN: Among its findings, the GAO reported that the Iraqi government met only one of eight political benchmarks: protecting the rights of minority political parties in the Iraqi legislature, while benchmarks concerning constitutional reforms, new oil laws, and de-Baathification were not met.

On military progress, particularly around Baghdad, the report found the number of attacks against U.S. forces had decreased, but whether sectarian violence had been reduced remained unclear. And the report showed the number of independent Iraqi security units between March and July had declined.

Several Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee seized on the findings to criticize the effectiveness of the president’s surge strategy. Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry.

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), Massachusetts: It’s somewhat disconcerting when you read through these benchmarks that those that are partially met and/or met are, frankly, pretty light compared — light in their impact — compared to those that are completely unmet, which are obviously of much greater significance to any kind of political reconciliation or resolution.

DAVID WALKER: If we said that it was a “not met,” Senator, that doesn’t mean there’s been no progress. It means there hasn’t been enough progress for us to be able to say that it’s at least partially met or it is a criteria that doesn’t lend itself to a “partially met.” But needless to say, the furthest — the biggest problem area is in the political area. There’s no question about that.

KWAME HOLMAN: Republican Dick Lugar of Indiana gave credit to those areas of success but wondered whether they would sustain long term.

SEN. RICHARD LUGAR (R), Indiana: We have an awesome problem, and we have been attempting in a humane way to solve that with the surge by suppressing people from killing each other. We probably saved a lot of lives by putting walls around neighborhoods so that people could not get at each other and kill each other. But the issue then is, how long can you maintain this?

KWAME HOLMAN: The GAO’s Walker pointed to one such example: the recent success in stabilizing security in Anbar province.

DAVID WALKER: There’s no question there’s been progress in Anbar province, but Anbar province is not Baghdad. And Anbar province is not representative of necessarily other provinces in Iraq. It’s Sunni-dominated. The issues there are primarily dealing with al-Qaida and primarily Sunni-on-Sunni challenges there. But there’s no question there’s been progress there; the question is, which of that is transferable?

KWAME HOLMAN: And several times during the hearing, Walker pointed to the importance of clearly defining what the mission of U.S. troops in Iraq should be.

DAVID WALKER: If we’re going to stay — and, obviously, we are in some numbers for some period of time — what are we going to do, and what are we going to try to accomplish with the forces that we have there? What’s appropriate for us to be doing versus others?

KWAME HOLMAN: Several other congressional committees will get a chance to dissect Walker’s GAO report in the days to come. Meanwhile, former Marine Commandant James Jones will release the results of his own independent review to the Congress on Thursday.

Congressmen assess ground situation

JIM LEHRER: Now, congressional visitors to Iraq, and to Judy Woodruff.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The August recess gave at least two dozen members of Congress an opportunity to visit Iraq. We get the views of four of them.

Democrat Jan Schakowsky of Illinois is a founding member of the Out of Iraq Caucus, which calls for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Democrat Brian Baird of Washington state initially opposed the war, but after his trip to Iraq now supports the surge and rejects setting a timetable for a U.S. withdrawal.

Republican Christopher Shays of Connecticut is back from his 18th trip to Iraq. He favors a timetable for withdrawing most troops from Iraq by the end of 2008. And Republican Charles Boustany of Louisiana was among the congressmen who visited the former insurgent stronghold city of Fallujah in Anbar province. He opposes a timetable for troop withdrawal.

Gentlemen, and congresswoman, it's good to have you all. Thank you very much for with us.

Representative Boustany, let me begin with you. You were supportive of the war. You came to Congress after the Congress had voted to support the president. You supported the war. You went to Iraq. Your view has not changed?

REP. CHARLES BOUSTANY (R), Louisiana: Well, this is my second trip. And I have to say that I was very concerned over the past year-and-a-half about the way things were going. I didn't feel comfortable with the plan that had been outlined. And I finally have a level of comfort, particularly after returning now, that what's being done by General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker seems to be working.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What did you see that brought you to that conclusion?

REP. CHARLES BOUSTANY: Well, the highlight of the trip was walking through the streets of Fallujah. I never would have thought that, two or three months ago, members of Congress could walk in the streets of Fallujah. And it was truly amazing. Shops were open; families were out on the streets; a volleyball game was being played on one corner, a soccer game on another. And that's clearly a tangible sign that something is going right there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Congresswoman Schakowsky, you've been against this war from the beginning. You've just come back from Iraq, and your view hasn't changed. Why not?

REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY (D), Illinois: It hasn't. I became even more convinced that the surge is failure and that we need to withdraw. When we met with the deputy prime minister, Dr. Barham Salih, he told us there was not going to be any unified government in Iraq this September or next September. And he certainly didn't tell us any September.

And when we met with David Petraeus, General Petraeus, he said that the U.S. military would be in Iraq for nine to ten years.

And we know that the violence, the insurgent violence has doubled over last year. And being able to walk through Fallujah may be one example, but the numbers just don't back it up. This is the bloodiest summer of the war.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so what you saw was different, you're saying, from what Representative Boustany saw?

REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY: Well, I mean, I think this was clearly a P.R. effort designed to make members of Congress come back and say, "A little more patience, a little more time, there's just enough progress to warrant that." I didn't see that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Representative Baird, you went over opposing the war. You voted against the war, but now you've changed your mind on the surge and believe it's working. What did you learn there?

REP. BRIAN BAIRD (D), Washington: Well, I still believe the war was one of the worst foreign policy decisions in the history of the country. We've destroyed their military, their police force, their civil government, left the borders unguarded, and I think we have a moral responsibility to the Iraqi people and a strategic interest in seeing this mission succeed.

And I can point to numerous places within Iraq where the security situation on the ground is, in fact, improving. I think we're making strides in opening up former state-owned businesses that have been closed. And, frankly, you know, the government is going to take time. It's a bit facile for us here in the United States to say, "Gee, the government is having problems." Our government has problems from time to time, and we're not killing each other.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So were you surprised by what you saw?

REP. BRIAN BAIRD: I was positively impressed. You know, this is a very, very difficult circumstance, and no one should paint it as easy or certain. But here's the situation: I think we're making strides. And I believe quite confidently that, if we pull out, I think it would be catastrophic for not only Iraq, but the region.

You know, Chris Shays and I visited not only Iraq, but Egypt, Jordan, surrounding countries. And almost universally people said, "You may think you can walk away from this, but we can't. We live in the neighborhood." People said, "If you pull out now, Iraq will collapse, and the instability will spread."

JUDY WOODRUFF: Congressman Shays, you were on the same trip. You have been supportive of the president, but now you are calling for a timetable for withdrawal at the end of '08. What did you see? And, again, this is your 18th trip.

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS (R), Connecticut: Well, first off, to say that these trips are dog-and-pony shows just is outrageous. I mean, Jan was there for one day, and she comes to that conclusion.

What we do when we go there is we request who we meet with. We meet with Iraqis, politicians. We meet with civilians. We meet with our own troops. We go to places like Turkey, and Jordan, and Egypt, and other areas to find out and meet with some Iraqis who we can't meet with there. So we get a pretty good look at what's going on.

The surge is working. As much as some Democrats may not like it, the surge is working. But the thing that's more successful is the fact that Sunni tribal leaders who are fighting us have turned with us. We have cleaned up Anbar province, the largest province. It connects Syria to Baghdad, the Euphrates River. It's a huge success! It astonishes me why people aren't willing to at least acknowledge the successes and then talk about what we do.

REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY: Yes, but, Chris, the GAO report says that three out of the 18 benchmarks have been met. The National Intelligence Estimate says that there's continuing problems of violence, of lack of -- that the Maliki government probably can't put it together at all.

And we know from Associated Press and the New York Times, who challenges those numbers that we've been getting from General Petraeus, and says that the insurgency and the violence has doubled in the rest of -- throughout Iraq. And so when we see a chart that has, in one place, in one month, that the violence has gone down, what does that really mean? What does "success" mean? What does "progress" mean? Who's the enemy? Who's our friend? None of these questions have been answered.

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: Well, that's simply not true. I mean, it's simply not true. First off, the Iraqis are trying to run a government by consensus, Sunnis, Shias and Kurds. We can't even run the Senate between Republicans and Democrats.

We lecture Petraeus, we lecture Maliki about, why can't you guys work together? We can't work together here. We have asked for a vote in the House of Representatives simply on the Baker-Hamilton report. We can't get people to do even the simplest thing in this country, working together.

Trends in the violence

JUDY WOODRUFF: I was going to say, Representative Boustany, when you hear the kinds of arguments that Congresswoman Schakowsky is making, does it have any bearing on your assessment?

REP. CHARLES BOUSTANY: Well, clearly violence is still at a level that's unacceptable, but the trend lines -- we have to look at the trend. The trend is what...

REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY: The trend lines are all up.

REP. CHARLES BOUSTANY: No, it's not.

REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY: One month.

REP. CHARLES BOUSTANY: It's going down.

REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY: Not so.

REP. CHARLES BOUSTANY: A 75 percent reduction in the number of attacks on Iraqi civilians and citizens. We've seen significant drop in the attacks on coalition troops, double the number of weapons caches that have been captured.

But I want to point out something: There has to be an Iraqi solution to this. The beauty of the plan that's in place today is it's a ground-up, grassroots movement. And that's what I saw firsthand in Fallujah, a grassroots movement with local police working with the tribal leaders and a local solution that will filter up. And that's the pressure that's going to come to bear upon the central politicians. It's very hard to build a government from the top down.

REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY: Exactly. And our presence there, our military presence there is actually part of the problem and not the solution. There's no good options.

REP. CHARLES BOUSTANY: Well, I think that's disputed, Jan.

REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY: There's no good options. But if we want a bottom-up solution, we have to let the Iraqis do that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me ask Representative Baird. You're a Democrat, like Representative Schakowsky. When you hear these arguments -- and you were on the ground in Iraq -- what do you see?

REP. BRIAN BAIRD: Well, here's what I see. First of all, people who are saying "out of Iraq," the real solution is not out of Iraq. The real solution or question is, what do we do to try to make Iraq a stable place where people live in security and it doesn't destabilize the region? The folks who are saying "pull out" almost never address the question, what happens then? I'm persuaded that al-Qaida would reoccupy al-Anbar province, create a huge problem for Jordan and other neighbors. I'm persuaded that Iran...

JUDY WOODRUFF: If the United States pulled out what?

REP. BRIAN BAIRD: If we pulled out too precipitously. Now, we're going to have to withdraw. I think everybody knows that. Petraeus himself I think will talk about some withdrawal beginning in April.

But, you know, Judy, there are six months where we can up-train more and more Iraqis military and police. The political system can make progress. You know, people are saying, "Gee, the GAO report says the benchmarks haven't been met." Goodness gracious! Look what happened to that country. And now we're saying, "Gee, if you can't jump this hurdle, then we're pulling out."

The real question is, what's the most responsible thing? It's not about George Bush; it's not about the next election; it's, frankly, not about Democrat or Republican. It's about, what's the best thing for the Iraqi people? And what's the best strategic interest for this country and the region?

I think staying a little bit longer, with current troop strength, then a gradual withdrawal makes sense.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I interviewed the New York Times reporter Michael Gordon on the program last night. He spent two months in Iraq this summer. And he said the question now is what you're phrasing here, and that is, what is the U.S. mission? It's clear some troops are going to have to come out. This surge can't be sustained. So what is the U.S. mission going forward, Representative Shays?

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: Well, our U.S. mission is to provide enough stability that the Iraqis can govern their own country. We will continue to have a presence; I believe we need a status-of-forces agreement.

One of the problems is some Iraqis think we're going to leave too soon and some think we're going to stay forever. That's why I happen to think we need a timeline so both realize we're not going to cut-and-run and we're not going to be there forever in a military way, except for this point: We are going to have, I think, permanent bases in the area, maybe in Iraq, to maintain stability in the region.

REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY: The Congress voted not to have permanent bases in Iraq. Four-and-a-half years later, and we're still wondering, "What is the mission?" It is time for -- there are no good options, but it is definitely a bad option to keep sending our young men and women into that meat grinder that is Iraq.

And I'm sorry. We are being asked to have patience? The American people have run out of patience with this war, where more and more are dying, on both sides.

REP. CHARLES BOUSTANY: I think Representative Shays is correct. We need a status-of-forces agreement. That's something I've been talking about for six months now. And I predict we'll see one probably some time in the next 12 months.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What does that mean?

REP. CHARLES BOUSTANY: It's an agreement, an official agreement with the Iraqis on what is the role of our U.S. forces in that country. And General Odierno talked about tactical overreach, operational overreach, and then strategic overreach. So do we have to hit strategic overreach before we have this sort of agreement?

REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY: Who do you make the agreement with?

REP. CHARLES BOUSTANY: And he said, basically, no, it will come some time between the tactical and the operational, but that's getting into the weeds. The bottom line is an Iraqi solution, and we're starting to see a political development at the grassroots level in Iraq because of the security environment we've been able to create.

Possible withdrawal timetables

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meaning the mission is -- and U.S. troops stay for how long?

REP. CHARLES BOUSTANY: Well, I think we'll see a withdrawal starting sometime in the spring.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The surge will come down?

REP. CHARLES BOUSTANY: Right. Absolutely. And I believe what's going to happen -- our mission is basically this. We need a stable Iraq that doesn't spill over with instability into the surrounding countries. We need a stable Iraq that doesn't exacerbate a humanitarian crisis with refugees. We need to be able to continue...

REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY: Four million people.

REP. CHARLES BOUSTANY: We need to continue to degrade al-Qaida, and we also need to work against these Iranian-influenced Shia militias.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you're saying that should be the mission going forward?

REP. CHARLES BOUSTANY: That's the mission.

REP. BRIAN BAIRD: One of the problems I have is, there's no question, in my judgment, that things were botched up after the invasion. And the circumstances on the ground are still difficult. But when people point to this difficulty or that difficulty, my question would be, and help me understand how our withdrawal at this point makes any of that better? How does it improve the infrastructure? How does it improve the security situation? How does it help combat the insurgents on all sides?

Everybody, if we could wave a magic wand, would want this war to be over today. But, you know, one of the problems, when we talk about precipitously withdrawing, I think it makes it more difficult, not easier, for the politicians to solve their problems, because they don't know what's going to be the condition on the ground.

REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY: First of all, nobody is talking about precipitously withdrawing. We're always talking about doing it in a safe and orderly way to bring our troops home.

REP. BRIAN BAIRD: Well, the head of the Iraqi armed forces says that we can't withdraw our troops. They said, if you withdraw your troops right now, our people will get slaughtered. You can't train up a 300,000-person army overnight. That's what we're asking them to do.

REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY: Look, and the Shiites, I believe, there see us as their way to hegemony in the country of Iraq. And of course they don't want us to leave. Who do you negotiate now? There is no government. And it is not a good prospect that al-Maliki is going to be able to create a government with the Sunnis. And the reason...

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: I totally reject that point.

REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY: The reason the Sunnis went after al-Qaida, al-Qaida in Iraq -- which didn't exist before we invaded -- is because they got tired of the extremism of al-Qaida, not because the United States played a major role in that.

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: You have Shias, Sunnis and Kurds that are trying to work out their agreements. They're trying to run this government by consensus. If the Shias and Kurds simply said, "Fine, Sunnis, you don't want to be part of the government? We're going to just run it ourselves," they can get the votes necessary to do whatever they have to do. Give them some credit for trying to work out their differences among all three.

(CROSSTALK)

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: No, but they have a government. And so when Maliki went to Turkey, he went with the Kurdish vice prime minister, because he wanted to make an agreement about the PKK, the terrorist group in Turkey. He didn't go on his own; he made sure the Kurds were with him. He's trying to do it by consensus. Give him some credit.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So help me understand, as we begin to bring this to a conclusion, how long -- what is the U.S. mission? And how long is the U.S. -- should the U.S. be committed to that mission?

REP. BRIAN BAIRD: Well, we created a terrible mess there. We created much of the instability; our actions led to that. We have a responsibility to the Iraqi people. Our force strength and other requirements will demand a withdrawal sometime in April, a gradual withdrawal after that.

My main message is this: I think General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker are good people making the most of a very difficult circumstance. I would just ask the American people to listen to them objectively and open-mindedly in September, in a couple weeks. This is not the same playing field that we've had before, different people, different conditions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So maybe we're not so far apart here? Is that what you're saying?

REP. BRIAN BAIRD: We're not -- well, those who want immediate withdrawal or who want to stop funding, I'm very far apart for them. But those who would say we can't stay forever, we're going to have some gradual withdrawal under a reasonable timeframe, I think that makes sense.

REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY: Timeframe -- are you for that?

REP. BRIAN BAIRD: I think General Petraeus will give us some general timeframe beginning in April, but there's a world of difference between now and next April, and there's a world of difference between cutting off the money now versus supporting the soldiers on the ground.

House vote on redeployment

JUDY WOODRUFF: In July, the House of Representatives, the House, voted 223-201 for a complete redeployment by April of 2008. Where would that vote stand right now? Do you have a sense of where you're...

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: First of all, that's irresponsible to take out a complete withdrawal by April 2008. That is pulling the rug out from under the...

JUDY WOODRUFF: So has that support eroded?

REP. BRIAN BAIRD: Actually, that wasn't the exact vote. It was a withdrawal beginning 180 days -- 120 days after passage proceeding through April, but leaving enough soldiers on the ground for training purposes...

JUDY WOODRUFF: But not a complete removal of them, but a redeployment?

REP. BRIAN BAIRD: I think that vote might pass with a slim majority, but I don't think it's got anything close to a...

(CROSSTALK)

REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY: Yes, and I think we've given war a chance. Now it's time for us to give peace and a diplomatic surge a chance. I don't buy that Pottery Barn theory, "You broke it, you fix it." I think the longer that we're in Iraq right now, we are breaking even more.

REP. CHARLES BOUSTANY: Well, Judy, I think -- first of all, I'm not ready to declare -- preemptively declare defeat in this. And I would say that we want a diplomatic surge, but the diplomatic peace and the political part of it is just starting to take place with our provincial reconstruction teams on the ground. We have to give that time, clearly, and they're getting results with it.

REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY: I don't understand where you got that. The Allawi people pulled out. The Sunnis pulled out, when we were in Iraq. And the parliament was on vacation.

REP. CHARLES BOUSTANY: I asked the Sunni deputy prime minister the question about elections, and what's it going to take to get these Sunnis back? He said, "You have to look at it like this. The elections are like the fruit on the tree. You have to grow the tree." Our provincial reconstruction teams are doing that on the ground as we speak.

REP. BRIAN BAIRD: We need to give them space to succeed and time to succeed, and they need that time urgently right now.

REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY: Four-and-a-half years is enough.

REP. CHARLES BOUSTANY: General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker are going to give us an unvarnished, independent report, and I think we have to respect that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we appreciate all four of you being with us, Representative Boustany, Representative Shays, Representative Baird, Representative Schakowsky, thank you very much.

REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Appreciate it.