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Senators Discuss New Iraq Military Strategy

January 10, 2007 at 11:55 AM EDT

GWEN IFILL: Start with you, Senator Thune. Thank you both for joining us. We just heard the president lay out what he said is the path to victory but we heard Senator Durbin call it a path to escalation. Which would you say it is and do you think the president’s plan can work?

SEN. JOHN THUNE, (R) SD: Well, I think we have to give it a chance, Gwen. Clearly what we’re doing there hasn’t been working. Obviously since February of last year when the golden mosque in Samarra was bombed, the sectarian violence has gotten out of control. There has been a lot of killing and clearly to get that under control we are going to have to take a different direction here and I think what the president laid out tonight is something obviously that we are going to have an opportunity to react to on the Senate Armed Services Committee on Friday because there will be – there will be hearings held but he has put a plan forward that gets the Iraqis more into the fight and that is something that we have maintained all along. In order for us to be successful we have to have more involvement by the Iraqi military, the political leadership in that country has to be willing to take on al-Sadr and the militias and the president’s speech tonight I think has laid out a plan that involves the Iraqis, puts them in the lead and hopefully will enable us to get to where we are ending the sectarian violence there and allow this government to stand up and function.

No 'clear strategy'

GWEN IFILL: Senator Webb, do you believe after listening to what the president had to say tonight and your colleague's response that what the president has laid out is actually the correct path?

SEN. JIM WEBB, (D) VA: Yeah, I think the problem that we have right now is the same problem we've had for the last five years and that is that this administration has never laid out a clear strategy that the American people can understand that has an end point and in a lot of ways this is just a lot more flailing around.

We want a good solution, but the only way that we can really get a good solution into the situation in Iraq is to go to some sort of a regional approach where we can get the diplomatic forces to the table. In many ways this reminds me of the situation in Lebanon when I was in Lebanon for the "McNeil/Lehrer News Hour" Back in 1983. You've got a very fragile government. You have a group of militia forces based on ethnicity around it. We've got a brain drain and a talent drain going out which is creating sort of reverse entropy in terms of the ability to affect problems with talented people being around it.

And then with this fragile government you've got two things that are happening. The first thing is that we are trying to put demands on it when it can't really control the country and the second thing is it leads more and more to the notion that we're going to have outside intervention from countries in the region.

We keep hearing these news reports, particularly from the administration where they're sounding the alarm bell with the Saudis doing something and the Iranians possibly doing something and the way to address that is instead of allowing the centrifugal forces of chaos to bring these other countries into Iraq, we need to do it with American leadership so that we can have a diplomatic structure where these other countries will begin to take some ownership of the result. We can't do that by ourselves.

And we're not hearing that from the administration. We're hearing another tactical response. The troop levels in Iraq have varied from, say, 112 to 160,000 for a number of years. This is another one of these tactical responses to a situation that is regional in nature and has grave overtones for the United States.

Congress' planning role

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask Senator Thune about what exactly what it is the Senate or Congress in general can do with the president's plan. There has been some debate on Capitol Hill this week about whether, if you agree or disagree with his plan to send more troops to Iraq, whether that's something Congress has a say in.

We heard him talk about creating a new bipartisan working group. Do you think Congress, if you were to disagree with some of the details of this plan, can actually stop it from happening?

SEN. JOHN THUNE: If they were going to do that, Gwen, it would be through the power of the purse. The control that Congress has is through funding and I don't think that anybody wants to see funding for our troops in any way reduced. That's an issue - I suspect that will be offered by some Democrats in the House or the Senate but at the end of the day I don't think that's where the majority of the Congress is.

The majority of the Congress like the majority of the American people wants us to win and they realize that in order to win there has to be security and I don't disagree that we need to as best we can involve the neighbors in Iraq and that there are regional consequences to what's going on there but the one thing I heard there and I just got back from there a couple weeks ago, it doesn't matter what country you travel in, whether it's Afghanistan and you talk to President Karzai or Prime Minister Olmert in Israel or President Abbas in the Palestinian Territories or Maliki or Talibani in Iraq.

You ask the question, what happens if Iraq leaves, or if the U.S. leaves and it's universal. Everybody agrees the consequences would be disastrous, that you would have chaos and instability and that it would lead to more Iranian influence there and allow this area to become a haven or a sanctuary for terrorist attacks against the United States.

GWEN IFILL: Senator, pardon me. I just want to ask you, next week, Senator Kennedy and some other Democrats have said they're going to bring to the Senate floor a nonbinding resolution, basically in disagreement with the president's plan to send additional troops to Iraq.

I want to ask you and then Senator Webb whether you will support that or oppose that resolution.

SEN. JOHN THUNE: I think, Gwen, again, we have a clear plan that with the consultation of our military leadership, the Iraqi political military leadership, the Iraq Study Group, has been laid out and supported by our generals. I think we have to give it a chance to work. If there is a resolution that's put on the floor. I think the question that has to be asked is what is the alternative? If you don't like this plan, what is your plan? Because the alternative isn't very good. The alternative is disastrous for the United States, for our allies in the region and so I doubt that there will be support for that. I'm sure there will be some support for it but I would hope that wouldn't be the majority position in the Senate.

Other options in Iraq

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask Senator Webb whether his will be part of the support for it and if indeed you do support this resolution, what about the answer to Senator Thune's question, what else?

SEN. JIM WEBB: Well, there are many what-elses. The difficulty with this administration is they have defined a win on their own terms and very narrowly. The scenario for the possible ramifications of a pullout basically from our allies and from our friends in the region is based on the fact that we would do that precipitously. But if we did this in a way where we had a diplomatic umbrella, where we had the involvement of the other countries in a solution, that is not something that is going to happen and in fact, sooner or later we are going to leave because the other side of this equation is that there will never be true peace in Iraq as long as there are American combat forces in the streets of Iraq. There never will be.

So we have to work toward that point and the way that we do that is with international involvement, diplomatic involvement. And with respect to this particular plan, what is it? It's not - we're spending all this time talking about it but it's very marginal, it's tactical, it doesn't bring a lot to the table. To say that this is the only alternative is to deny the fact that there is a lot of creative energy out here if people will listen to it.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask ...

SEN. JIM WEBB: And with respect to the Kennedy proposal, and I agree with Senator Thune that this basically - it's what is called a retrenchment, an appropriations retrenchment. It is an appropriate power of the Congress to do that. It's very difficult to apply it to the situations that they are talking about right now.

But I'll tell you one thing. I do not see myself voting for any more money for these reconstruction and economic projects inside Iraq when we have places like New Orleans that haven't gotten help and when we haven't been able to see a bottom line from the nearly half a trillion dollars that's gone into Iraq.

Support the troops, yes, but the rest of this stuff I think that most Americans believe in the free marketplace and Iraq is a very entrepreneurial culture and they can solve a lot of these problems themselves.

An end in sight?

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you about the bottom line. The president said that America's support for Iraq is not open-ended yet there were no - there was no mention in this speech, at least, of benchmarks, timetables, withdrawal dates or even drawdown dates.

Do you think that the president needs to be more specific on those points?

SEN. JOHN THUNE: I don't think you can put a specific timeline on it, Gwen. I do believe that this is not open-ended. Certainly not open-ended as far as I am concerned. I think we have a window of opportunity here to get this right and I think there are benchmarks, there are benchmarks for the Iraqis and one of the benchmarks is they've got to get into the fight. They're going to be surging along with us. In fact, they're going to be in the lead.

And secondly, they are, as Senator Webb said, we need to see some evidence from them that they are willing to expend some of their own money on infrastructure and on reconstruction. There is a commitment there of $10 billion. There is a commitment to finally get a plan to distribute the oil revenues, to have provincial elections, to get the dollars out there where they are working, improving the quality of life of Iraqis and I think that's how you build, ultimately, support for this government.

You've got to clear the area, there's got to be security first. You can't have a political solution until the area is secure but once you get secured and hold - and held, you've got to then begin the build phase and that's one component, I think that so far has really been missing and they do have to step up. There are benchmarks in there for the Iraqis.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Webb, do you think there are sufficient benchmarks in there for the Iraqis?

SEN. JIM WEBB: Well, let me say this. There's two concerns that I have here. The first is that in this debate and as you may know, I was an early warning voice saying that it was a strategic error for us to invade Iraq in the first place.

In this debate we tend to focus on a solution inside Iraq as a microcosm when as a result of the invasion and occupation of Iraq this now has very large regional and international overtones and we have to do more in that side of it, rather than accepting the terrain of this debate the way that the administration has presented it, as projects inside Iraq. That's my first concern on this.

And then the second concern is, the president tonight, one thing that he said that jumped out at me was when he said that talking about the present government, that if they don't act then they may lose the support of the Iraqi people.

And again, we have to realize that this government by itself is a very fragile government and there is only so much pressure the United State can put on. I'm not sure they have the ability to control events in Iraq in the way that we are expecting them to based on this speech.

Do we really think they are going to take full control of all the provinces in Iraq by November? If that is the promise that this administration is making, we should be seeing some really dramatic changes over the next month or so.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Jim Webb and Senator John Thune, thank you both very much for joining us.