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Senators Assess Iraq Strategy, Troop Presence

July 9, 2007 at 6:20 PM EDT

GWEN IFILL: In Washington, the United States Senate is preparing for another week of debate on Iraq policy. This time, they are talking about exit strategy.

Two key senators who will be involved in that debate join us now. Republican Olympia Snowe of Maine supports adopting the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group. She made her second visit to Iraq this May. And Democrat Jack Reed of Rhode Island, who just returned from his 10th trip to Iraq, is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Senator Snowe, is the debate that we are now seeing unfold — we just heard Michael Gordon talk a lot about the violence on the ground. Is the debate that we’re now seeing unfold in Congress representing a sea change of some kind?

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE (R), Maine: I think absolutely, and it’s something that needs to happen. I think everybody is beginning to recognize the realities that exist, both politically and militarily, but primarily because the Iraqi government has failed to achieve its political objectives that they themselves had established, even their own deadlines almost a year ago they had failed to accomplish. And it clearly demonstrates their inability to reconcile those differences that are absolutely critical to engender the confidence of the Iraqi people.

And, hence, I think you’re seeing the kind of sectarian warfare that continues to pervade much of Iraq and, ultimately, putting our men and women at continued risk and, as we’ve seen, a high loss of life over the last three months.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Reed, that high loss of life — just this past weekend, at least 200 people, more than that. And you just returned from Iraq, so I wonder if you have a sense, Senator Reed, whether this is an issue which is something that’s going to change the state of the debate now on the floor of the Senate.

SEN. JACK REED (D), Rhode Island: Well, I think definitely. I think Senator Snowe is right on target in the sense that there are several factors that are prompting this changed dynamic.

First is the increasing concern in the American public about the direction of policy in Iraq and increasing demands that we change that policy. Second, there is a reality that operationally on the ground we cannot sustain 160,000 troops indefinitely. In fact, by next spring, the size of our military forces will require reduction in any case.

And then, third, as Michael Gordon pointed out in his report, the tactical momentum of the additional troops has not translated into political momentum. We’re not seeing the kind of reconciliation, we’re not seeing the kind of institutional governance capacity that’s necessary.

And for all these reasons, we have to change the strategy. And I think that requires defining the missions much more precisely: counterterrorism, force protection, and training of the Iraqi military forces. And in doing that, we can begin — and I hope we can begin soon — to reduce the overall number of personnel we have in Iraq.

'Not willing to wait'

Sen. Olympia Snowe
[W]e have not seen the Iraqi government take the steps essential to achieving that national reconciliation. In fact, they're not even close.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Snowe, President Bush has asked you and other senators, especially in the Republican Party, to wait until General Petraeus gives a report in September. We're hearing a lot of people saying they're not willing to wait. Are you one of them?

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE: Yes, I am, primarily because we have not seen the Iraqi government take the steps essential to achieving that national reconciliation. In fact, they're not even close. Secondly, even General Petraeus and our ambassador have indicated that it's going to take much longer than September.

And, you know, we gave breathing room not only to the president to implement his strategy, the surge, which I didn't agree with initially, because I didn't think it was going to work, but, secondly, also to the Iraqi government. The surge, as Senator Reed indicated, was designed primarily to give the breathing room as a final window of opportunity for the Iraqi government to achieve its political goals and has yet to accomplish those goals.

And I think for those reasons I don't think that we can waste precious time. And I think we have to move in a different direction.

GWEN IFILL: Is that different direction -- what does that mean? Does that mean redeployment? Does that mean withdrawal? Does that mean cutting off funding? There are amendments, as you know, on the Senate floor that call for all those things.

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE: Well, a couple of things. One, as Senator Reed indicated -- and I think it's a redeployment of the surge troops, the change of mission for the remaining troops, the objectives that were laid out in the Iraq Study Group, but I also think we should move from a nonbinding position to a binding, to send a very strong message by the United States Congress on behalf of the American people that the current strategy is unacceptable and that we have to move in a different course.

So it is doing both of those, I think, goals that are going to be critical, I think, at outlining a change of course that is binding on the president.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Reed, you are the author of one of the -- co-author one of the amendments which is now about to hit the Senate floor, I believe, calling for a turnaround in 120 days. Why is your proposal a better solution than just saying, "Let's cut off the money and get out tomorrow"?

SEN. JACK REED: Well, I think, first, operationally we have to recognize that to redeploy American forces safely and in a way that provides not only for their protection, but for some certainty in operations will require some time, that also I think we have to focus on specific missions, different missions than the open-ended one the president is engaged in now.

So I think, for these reasons and others, a phased redeployment that begins within 120 days is a sensible approach, and that will culminate, we hope by next spring, in a very much reduced force with very tight missions for counterterrorism, force protection and training of Iraqi security forces. That to me is the best way forward; Senator Levin and I talked about that over a year ago. We continue to press that issue, and I hope that we can get increased support by my colleagues.

Growing unease about Iraq

Sen. Jack Reed
[C]ome next spring, the ability to maintain this large force in Iraq becomes virtually impossible because of the overall size of the Army.

GWEN IFILL: Well, maybe you can explain what's different now. It wasn't that many weeks ago that the Senate not only would not go along with anything like that, but they didn't want anything binding, like now Senator Snowe is suggesting. What is different this time?

SEN. JACK REED: I think there's two major factors. First, the realization not just among my colleagues, but in the administration that, come next spring, the ability to maintain this large force in Iraq becomes virtually impossible because of the overall size of the Army, because of the policies that they would have to institute. And as they start working backwards and planning backwards, they're recognizing that at some point this surge has to end. And I think they're asking themselves quite rightly, "Well, if it is, why are we prolonging it? What are we gaining by more effort and more troops vis-a-vis the course, which is significant?"

And the second issue -- and I think perhaps most compelling -- is the growing unease, concern for the American public about our presence and our direction in Iraq. Without public support and without the resources of seeing a strategy, that strategy won't work. I think the realization is dawning not only on my colleagues and myself, but I would hope within the White House.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Snowe, same question to you. What do you see that is different? And have you expressed your misgivings personally to the president or to senior members of his staff?

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE: Well, I certainly have in the past directly to the president, in as far back as January when I was involved in a meeting at the White House and expressed, you know, my concern over the proposed surge. And, also, I thought the lack of will on the part of the government to initiate the political agenda that -- and at that point they had already bypassed several deadlines that they had established for themselves as of last September.

So I think that there is growing reality, as Senator Reed indicated -- certainly, I think here in the United States Congress, one that has already been recognized by the American people, and one that must be accepted, frankly, by the president, as well. And the reality is: The circumstances have not changed on the ground. The fact is they have gotten progressively worse.

And I was there in May. I thought the circumstances were infinitely worse, and it's gotten much worse since that time. And recognizing that, I think that we just have to shift course, and that's the reality the president has to accept and one I think that members of Congress are ultimately conveying to him at this point and hopefully more, so that we can do similar to what Senator Reed is indicating, similar to what I have offered in the past in terms of legislation, is that is that we have to move towards redeployment of troops and a changed mission for the remainder.

Potential effects of withdrawal

Sen. Olympia Snowe
Perhaps [the start of a troop withdrawal] will give impetus to do what they need to do, in terms of unifying their country and integrating the minority population.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Senator Reed -- and also I'll come back to you, Senator Snowe, on this -- which is the president and the White House and even the Iraqis say that, if there is anything that they interpret as a precipitous pullout, that this is going to lead to full-on chaos in Iraq if the United States tries to pull out and leave this behind. What do you say to that?

SEN. JACK REED: Well, the proposal that I've made, and I believe Senator Snowe has also made, is not a precipitous withdrawal. It's the phased redeployment of forces. And I think the other point that should be stressed is not only what we do, but how we do it is critical. And pell-mell withdrawal is by definition, I think, a problem.

So I think part of this process of phased redeployment is making sure that we do it in a way that minimizes as best we can -- and perhaps we can't totally eliminate the uncertainty, but as best we can the uncertainty, both militarily and politically, within Iraq and in the region. I think that can be done. I think it requires careful planning, and it also requires something more than just a military response. It requires a diplomatic and political response, which to date the administration has not been as effective, frankly.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Snowe, what do you think about that? Is there any danger at all in

pulling out too quickly or even sending signals that, by the end of the year, you want to pull out?

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE: Well, I think, frankly, no one is talking about a precipitous withdrawal, immediate, all the troops. It would be phased, and there would be those troops remaining to achieve the objectives that were outlined by Senator Reed. But in addition to that, it also sends an important signal to the Iraqi government. Perhaps it will give impetus to do what they need to do, in terms of unifying their country and integrating the minority population.

Secondly, it's engaging the region. I think that there has to be an aggressive diplomatic offensive, as recommended by the Iraq Study Group. That has failed to happen, and all the stakeholders within Iraq itself, I think that finally they have to assume responsibilities and obligation for the direction and the future of their country.

What the American people are seeing is that Iraqis are fighting amongst themselves rather than for themselves. And now I think that it's time for them to step up to the plate. But no one is suggesting that we would leave, you know, tomorrow; rather, it would be phased. But, ultimately, there would be troops remaining so that it would not invite chaos.

Hearing from the president

Sen. Jack Reed
I think that change of direction encompasses very much redefined missions that focus more specifically on those major threats to us, counterterrorism, and those major opportunities, training the Iraqi forces and protect our troops.

GWEN IFILL: I ask you two briefly and finally, there is talk of the president giving an address on the subject later in the week. Senator Snowe, starting with you, what would you like to hear from him?

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE: Well, I would -- first and foremost, I would hope that he would accept the realities of the circumstances, not move the bar, and I think move in a direction that is consistent, I think, with what has been expressed by members on both sides of the political aisle. After all, this has to be a bipartisan strategy.

So, ultimately, I would certainly prefer the president to reach out to both sides of the political aisle and to effect a strategy that is consistent with some of the goals that we have issued here tonight and that we have to recognize that reality -- and hopefully he does, to move towards a phased redeployment of the surge troops and a changed mission for the remainder.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Reed?

SEN. JACK REED: I think he has to evidence a sincere desire to work with the Congress, both parties in the Congress, and also to, I think, communicate to the American public a change in direction, because without their support, any policy will not work over the longer term. And I think that change of direction encompasses very much redefined missions that focus more specifically on those major threats to us, counterterrorism, and those major opportunities, training the Iraqi forces and protect our troops.

And then I think, also, he has to indicate that this is going to be part of a larger regional attempt to politically and diplomatically address issues in the region. And I think, if he does that, he will be able, I think, to work towards a policy that can be supported.

My fear is that if it's an adamant "Do it my way, or don't do anything at all," the American public will not be particularly tolerant. And at some point, the ability to maintain any presence in Iraq will be very, very difficult.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Jack Reed, Senator Olympia Snowe, thank you both very much.