U.S. Prepares to Increase Troop Numbers in Iraq
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MARGARET WARNER: As the president prepared to order a surge of an expected 20,000 American troops to Iraq, two senators, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham and Connecticut Independent Democrat Joseph Lieberman, called a joint news conference to make the case.
SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (ID), Connecticut: The one policy that we have not really followed in Iraq, the one alternative we have not taken, is to send an adequate number of American troops there to maintain the security of the country. And the alternative to trying this is to accept defeat.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), South Carolina: We can stand with the moderate forces, as imperfect as they are, or we can turn this country over to the extremists. It has to be at least 20,000 to make a difference, and it has to go long enough to make a difference.
MARGARET WARNER: But over the weekend, leading congressional Democrats expressed strong opposition to the expected troop increase.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid lead off with a strongly worded letter to President Bush on Friday, saying, “Surging forces is a strategy that you have already tried and that has already failed. Like many current and former military leaders, we believe that trying again would be a serious mistake.”
BOB SCHIEFFER, Host, “Face the Nation”: Today, we’ll hear Nancy Pelosi talk about the war in Iraq.
MARGARET WARNER: On Sunday, Pelosi said the president can expect a tough grilling on his plan from the new Democratically controlled Congress. She spoke on CBS.
REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-Calif.), Speaker of the House: If the president wants to add to this mission, he is going to have to justify it. And this is new for him, because, up until now, the Republican Congress has given him a blank check with no oversight, no standards, no conditions.
We will always support the troops who are there. If the president wants to expand the mission, that’s a conversation he has to have with the Congress of the United States. But this is not a carte blanche, a blank check to him to do whatever he wishes there.
TIM RUSSERT, Host, “Meet the Press”: With us, for the Democrats, Senator Joe Biden…
MARGARET WARNER: But Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden of Delaware said on NBC that Congress can’t do much to keep the president from taking that step.
SEN. JOE BIDEN (D), Delaware: There’s not much I can do about it, not much anybody can do about it. He’s commander-in-chief. If he surges another 20,000, 30,000, whatever number he’s going to, into Baghdad, it will be a tragic mistake, in my view. But as a practical matter, there’s no way to say, “Mr. President, stop.”
MARGARET WARNER: One of the new senior commanders in Iraq, Army General Raymond Odierno, said yesterday that a beefed-up American force would be used to clear violent areas of Baghdad and then remain in those neighborhoods to maintain control.
Previous joint U.S.-Iraqi efforts to secure restive parts of the capital have failed once American troops left the area.
Rate of increase
And for more on the prospect of sending additional U.S. troops to Iraq, we're joined by four lawmakers, three members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Democrat Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Republican John Cornyn of Texas, and independent Democrat, Joe Lieberman, of Connecticut. And from the House Intelligence Committee, Republican Heather Wilson of New Mexico, she just vacated a seat on the House Armed Services Committee.
Welcome to you all.
Senator Cornyn, do you support the broad outlines of what's been reported to be this proposal, sending roughly 20,000 additional troops to Iraq?
SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), Texas: Well, the most significant thing about the proposal that I heard was that it really represents an Iraqi surge, with additional American and coalition forces to support them.
So that, in addition to clearing some of the most worrisome trouble spots in Baghdad, we can actually hold them, rather than relinquish them to sectarian violence or to al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations. That's something we haven't been able to do because we simply haven't had enough forces there on the ground to hold areas we've actually cleared to allow the political process to move forward.
MARGARET WARNER: Senator Reed?
SEN. JACK REED (D), Rhode Island: Well, I don't think this is really going to be a surge. It's going to be a gradual escalation of troops. And if 20,000 is the total, it will probably be inadequate.
To make a difference, I think you'd have a much larger force. And so, as a result, I think it's going to be a little too little and probably too late.
The key factor here is the political dynamic. We have to get the Iraqis to step up. And if they are going to step up, then the size of our force is less important than their commitment to fundamental changes in their approach and a fundamental addressing the militias.
MARGARET WARNER: Congresswoman Wilson, you recently returned from Iraq. Do you think this looks like too little, too late, or the needed beefing-up of forces that's been needed for a long time?
REP. HEATHER WILSON (R), New Mexico: On this one, I think I agree with Senator Reed, that the key here is what Iraq decides to do. And the Iraqi government wasn't able to come through in securing Baghdad in two efforts in the fall, and then later just in November.
I think the real key for the United States is to focus on, what are America's vital interests? And I think we've lost some focus there.
We're not going to create a Jeffersonian democracy at the head of the Persian Gulf. We need to focus on making sure al-Qaida is unwelcome there and that Iraq does not become a point of instability in the region.
Those are actually very narrow national security objectives, and we have to focus on our vital national interests.
MARGARET WARNER: And would those objectives require this kind of troop increase?
REP. HEATHER WILSON: One of the things I'm concerned about is we kind of lost our focus. I don't think that we can solve a problem of sectarian violence that the Iraqis themselves have shown themselves not willing to solve, particularly quelling the Shiite militias in Baghdad.
U.S. forces have gone in to try to capture Shiite leaders of militias and been told by the Iraqi unity government to back off. We can't do for the Iraqis what they won't do for themselves.
Using the additional forces
MARGARET WARNER: Senator Lieberman, what is your explanation of how these additional 20,000 troops would be able to curb and tamp down sectarian violence?
SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: Yes, I spent time in Iraq over the December break, just before Christmas. And I came back with an obvious understanding that things are not going, certainly in Baghdad, as we want them to, but also with a confidence that the majority of people in Iraq quite naturally don't support sectarian violence, don't want their country taken over by terrorists.
And the politicians are coming together in a kind of new, moderate coalition to make the government work. But they can't make it work if there's not stability and security.
They need this infusion that the president will apparently recommend of American forces to secure, to help them secure Baghdad and, I think, in Anbar Province, to build up some extraordinary gains that our forces have made there against al-Qaida, to claim a victory in that province, which al-Qaida in Iraq said was going to be the capital of a new Islamic extremist caliphate.
So I believe that the alternative to more troops is to give up on Iraq, and that would be a disaster, not just for the Iraqis, but for the United States. Iran would surge in; al-Qaida would claim a victory; and they'd chase us right back here to the United States.
MARGARET WARNER: Senator Reed, respond to the argument we just heard from Senator Lieberman, because this is what a lot of the supporters say, that even though, as you say, the political process needs to work there, that it cannot work as long as there's this much violence, and that something is needed to tamp this down and let the political process work. You don't think that has any validity?
SEN. JACK REED: The "something" that is needed is the political will of the Iraqi leadership. I'm sure they'd be delighted to have American forces go in and attack Sunni insurgents in Anbar Province or even in Baghdad, but I'm not quite sure they're wiling to take effective steps against Shia militias, against political leaders in their own community, who actually are part, in many cases, of the government.
And that's one of the critical political decisions that they have to make.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you have confidence that they're ready to make that?
SEN. JACK REED: No, I don't. I think, as Congresswoman Wilson pointed out, just recently, for example, four Iranian agents were picked up, two diplomats and two others. They were released at the request of the Iraqi government.
In fact, two were picked up in the headquarters of Hakim, who has a Badr organization, who's reputed to be one of those moderate politicians in Iraq that is trying to orchestrate this new approach.
I think the key is what the Iraqi government will do politically. And if the president can demonstrate that they're taking steps, and more importantly if they demonstrate on the ground, then that is very hopeful, and probably more decisive, more influential than any increase in our forces.
Confidence in Iraqi government
MARGARET WARNER: Senator Cornyn, how much confidence do you have that the Iraqi government -- if you're right that the U.S. surge is necessary, that the Iraqi government is able and willing to do its share, which is then to start a political process that really leads to reconciliation, and therefore you don't have the sectarian violence?
SEN. JOHN CORNYN: Well, this is really the test. And, really, it's perhaps getting to be one of the last opportunities we have, in order to provide an Iraq that is able to sustain, govern and defend itself, as the Baker-Hamilton commission said was important.
I agree wholeheartedly with Senator Lieberman: We can't leave a failed state which then will serve as a launching pad, as Afghanistan did for al-Qaida to produce terrorist attacks on the United States and around the world.
On November the 7th, we had an important election. And, unfortunately, from my perspective, the Democrats got the majority, but I think it's incumbent, as part of the responsibility of being the new majority, to come up with a constructive plan rather than just criticize what they anticipate that the president's likely to announce on Wednesday night.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, I'll ask Senator Reed that in a minute, but let me follow up with you. What would you say to voters or constituents who took part in that election about this plan, in terms of how long this surge should last, whether it's open-ended or tied to any kind of performance benchmarks, or whether it should have a timetable?
SEN. JOHN CORNYN: Well, I think time is running out. And no one is talking about an open-ended commitment. But there is simply so much at stake here that we cannot afford to fail.
No one has yet really talked about what the consequences would be if we rapidly withdrew our forces, Iraq descended into a failed state, a power vacuum that was then occupied by terrorist organizations and the like.
Do you think that we would not have to go back at some point, at least to make sure that al-Qaida did not use the oil weapon in that area to wreak a body blow to the United States and the rest of the world? I think there is a lot of consequences here that we haven't really talked about, consequences of failure.
MARGARET WARNER: Congresswoman Wilson, what is the alternative, if, as you say, the surge is not a good idea?
REP. HEATHER WILSON: I don't think the alternatives are -- I don't paint them in quite these stark terms that the choices are between surge and complete collapse of Iraq as a state.
I think we need to strengthen our counterinsurgency strategy, particularly in Anbar, and make that an unwelcome place for al-Qaida in the short term and the long term. I think we need to continue to train the Iraqi army.
The Iraqi national police is riddled by the militia and I don't think is probably worth spending much time on. But the Iraqi army has tremendous potential as a stabilizing influence.
I think the real question is: Is it the responsibility of the American military to try to quell sectarian violence that the Iraqis themselves have not demonstrated, the Iraqi government has not demonstrated its willingness to quell?
And I don't think that is a vital interest of the United States. And we have to focus on what our interests are, short term and long term. And we can't do for the Iraqis what they will not do for themselves.
MARGARET WARNER: Senator Lieberman, does that sound like an alternative to you?
SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: No, it doesn't sound like an alternative, with all respect. I think the alternative that seems to be most widely proposed is to begin to withdraw American troops from Iraq.
And I think that would just increase the sectarian violence and lead the Iraqi political leaders to hedge their bets. Also, it would be a body blow to America's credibility in the Middle East.
And I'll tell you what I found in the Middle East, a new dividing line between moderates and extremists in the Arab world, between democrats, with a small "d," and dictators. And they're watching how we deal with Iraq.
If we begin to pull out, they're going to think that we don't have staying power, and they're going to begin to hedge their bets and move toward extremism. And as Senator Cornyn said, that means that eventually we're going to have to go back there in a bigger battle, and they're going to come after us here in the United States.
We can win this conflict in Iraq. It takes the kind of increase in troops that the president apparently will recommend to change the dynamic. I think it's our last best hope, and it's critically important to us.
Funding the increase
MARGARET WARNER: So, Senator Reed, will in the end congressional Democrats, Senate and House, give the president the money he needs to make this happen?
SEN. JACK REED: Well, I think that first depends on what case the president makes, as to the mission that these troops will perform, what are the conditions, what are the conditions the Iraqis are expected to measure up to.
I think the tendency will be to look very carefully. But I think we also understand, as the commander-in-chief, he has great discretion, great flexibility in terms of deployment of our forces and the size, the shape of those forces.
And I think, ultimately, I don't sense that there will be a blunt cutting off of funds. But he's got to make the case. And I think this -- we're all talking about a strategy that can be sustained.
That strategy to me is picking out those missions -- and I think Congresswoman Wilson pointed them out -- training Iraqi forces -- and we need more American troops to do that -- going after al-Qaida, making sure that the regional neighbors don't take advantage of the current situation in Iraq.
But that's not sending troops into street by street, block by block, house by house, police Baghdad.
MARGARET WARNER: I want to get everybody else's political assessment. Senator Cornyn, how much support does the president have among Senate Republicans? Because some have expressed some skepticism about this.
SEN. JOHN CORNYN: Well, I think Senate Republicans, like Senate Democrats, apparently are divided. But I think we all are hopeful and prayerful, even, that this will lead to a turnaround in what's happening in Iraq.
The problem is, Margaret, is you can't look at Iraq through a soda straw. Because if we fail in Iraq, it's going to draw in not only the Iranians, but perhaps also the Saudis and other Sunni-majority nations to prevent ethnic cleansing in Iraq by the Shiites.
This a serious regional challenge for us, and we can't just look at this as strictly an Iraq challenge.
MARGARET WARNER: Congresswoman Wilson, you just had a tough campaign. And we've heard some talk about the November 7 election. How much time do you think your constituents and voters are going to give President Bush and the Republican Party for this to work? And what will be the test?
REP. HEATHER WILSON: Gosh, I don't know. I know that there is strong concern about the direction and real concern about the lack of progress in Iraq.
In the House, on the House side of Capitol Hill, if you kind of discount the extremes, I think there are folks in the Congress, both Democrat and Republican, who want to get realistic here and who recognize that what matters is America's vital interests.
And we should only send American forces into harm's way to protect America's vital interest with the resources to win and come home again. And we want a strategy that accomplishes that.
So I think there is now post-election -- once you get beyond the rhetoric and the extremism -- a real desire to focus on what we really need and to make that work.
MARGARET WARNER: And, Senator Lieberman, very briefly, if you could, what's your reading of your fellow Democrats, even though you're now an Independent Democrat?
SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: Right. I would say that most members of the Senate Democratic caucus are opposed to an increase in troops, as the president will apparently recommend, but I think they will listen. I'm encouraged by what Jack Reed said.
I don't think there will be an attempt to cut off funding, and I hope, in the end, people will give this proposal a chance to work, because it matters to our security and the security of our children and grandchildren.
I think the American people are disappointed with how the war in Iraq is going. So are all of us. But they're not ready to give up on it.
And I think a strong speech by the president and strong action to follow, with a new military leadership team in Iraq, can turn, not only the tide of events in Iraq, but the tide of public opinion here in America. I believe we can still win here.