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Joint Chiefs Nominee Says Troop Surge Making Headway

July 31, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: The U.S. military offensive in Iraq took center stage at the Senate Armed Services Committee, although the official agenda item was to consider confirmation of Navy Admiral Michael Mullen as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Marine General James Cartwright as deputy chairman.

If confirmed by the full Senate, Mullen would become the country’s senior military officer and principal military advisor to the president. He offered this assessment of the surge and what the 30,000 additional U.S. troops are accomplishing in Iraq.

ADM. MICHAEL MULLEN, U.S. Navy: I believe the surge is giving our operational commanders the forces they needed to execute more effective tactics and improve security. That is happening. Security is better, not great, but better.

I believe security is critical to providing the government of Iraq the breathing space it needs to work toward political national reconciliation and economic growth, which are themselves critical to a stable Iraq. Barring that, no amount of troops and no amount of time will make much of a difference.

I understand the frustration over the war. I share it. But I am convinced that, because security in Iraq is tied to security in the region and because security in the region bears directly on our own national security, we must consider our next moves very carefully.

"Wary of the war debate"

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mullen also acknowledged there's been little progress on the Iraqi political front.

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D), Michigan: Admiral, do you agree that, given the purpose of the surge -- which is to give the Iraqi government what you and the president call "breathing space" to make the political compromises needed for reconciliation and a political settlement -- that there's been very little or no progress in terms of political settlements?

ADM. MICHAEL MULLEN: Yes, sir, I agree. There does not appear to be much political progress.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Appearing in front of spectators with antiwar signs who have now become a familiar feature of congressional hearings, Mullen added the Iraqi leaders are wary of the war debate in Washington.

ADM. MICHAEL MULLEN: The debate is important; it is valuable; and it certainly could put pressure on the Iraqis to see exactly what we're doing.

SEN. CARL LEVIN: And is that pressure on them useful?

ADM. MICHAEL MULLEN: If I were to measure that by the amount of political progress thus far, I think it's useful from our perspective. I'm not sure it's had the impact some of us would expect it to have, in terms of them moving forward politically.

Anticipating the September report

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mullen outlined several options of what could happen in Iraq after the top U.S. officials on the ground, General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, present their report to the president and Congress in September.

ADM. MICHAEL MULLEN: Over time, the options are, on the one hand, I think, you -- on the right-hand side, if you will, to continue the mission as it's described, which is basically a security mission, mostly with the United States in the lead, turning it over in time.

Another option would be to start to turn over the security mission to the Iraqi security forces more rapidly than that, basically put them in the lead as quickly as possible, and as they were able to provide for that security, start to transition our forces out to a lower level.

The third option would be to do it expeditiously. And I mean -- by "expeditiously," I mean, on the other end of the pole, move out rapidly and just bring our troops home as rapidly as possible. I would -- with what I understand right now, I would caution against that at this point. I worry about mandating to any commander on the ground, because it severely constrains an operational or a tactical commander.

"Our likelihood of winning"

JUDY WOODRUFF: Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a staunch supporter of the war, asked Mullen for his candid opinion of the chances for victory.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), South Carolina: How would you assess our likelihood of winning, given what you know now, Admiral Mullen?

ADM. MICHAEL MULLEN: I think it's very important, back to the regional stability, Senator, that we take steps to ensure that it is secure, that it can contribute...

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: The question is not whether it's desirable to win, but the likelihood of winning. We all know it's desirable to win, but the likelihood?

ADM. MICHAEL MULLEN: Based on the political -- lack of political reconciliation at the government level, obviously -- although I spoke earlier about some of it going on at the local level, which I think is important -- I would be concerned about whether we'd be winning or not.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Once confirmed, Mullen would replace General Peter Pace, a key figure in the planning and execution of the war. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he chose not to re-nominate Pace for a second term to avoid a Senate confirmation battle. The committee is expected to vote on the Mullen and Cartwright nominations before Congress adjourns this week for its August recess.