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Senator Clinton Calls for Cap on U.S. Troops in Iraq

January 18, 2007 at 6:20 PM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: Sen. Clinton, welcome.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), New York: Thank you very much.

GWEN IFILL: There has been so much debate over the Iraq war in recent days. The president characterized it as expedited failure, the choices, versus slow failure, what had been happening before. And now there is all this action and reaction on the Hill.

You were there over this past weekend. Would you describe the war as perhaps already lost?

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: You know, Gwen, I think that certainly our strategy has not succeeded, and I don’t think there’s any doubt about that anywhere, including in the White House.

The question is, what do we do now going forward? And the president’s proposal to add 21,500 troops in an escalation of the combat situation is not going to work.

In the absence of a comprehensive approach that tries to put some pressure on the Maliki government to do the kinds of actions, to create some political resolution, to deal with the oil revenues, to reverse the de-Baathification, all of that has to be done, and so far there have been no consequences extracted from this government.

They get open-ended commitments from the Bush administration. You know, for more than a year-and-a-half, I’ve been in favor of phased redeployment of our troops, bringing them home as quickly as possible, but based on a comprehensive strategy that looked at the diplomatic, political, and economic challenges and, frankly, exerted some leverage on the Iraqis who have to take these actions if any possible salvage can be made of this situation.

GWEN IFILL: You talk about exerting leverage on the Iraqis. You met with Premier al-Maliki this weekend when you were there, and he gave an interview yesterday in which he said, “Hey, if the Americans give us enough troops and give us enough armor, then we will be able to be done with them in three or six months, or at least we’ll be able to take charge.”

Based on the kind of conversation you had with him, do you think that’s possible?

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: Well, it certainly is what a number of members of his government, particularly the Shia representatives, want. They want the United States to get out of the way so they can try to exert what they view as their greater power, using their allies within the militias that are controlled by members of the parliament and the government, even unleashing the death squads, and, frankly, using elements of the Iraqi security forces who would be in favor of a sectarian outcome.

I returned from this visit — my third — and said, “Look, we have to cap the number of American troops, make it very clear we’re not putting more American troops into this sectarian war.”

We, instead, are going to set forth one last time the actions we expect from the Maliki government and, instead of cutting funding for American troops, which I do not support, because still to this day we don’t have all of the equipment, the armored Humvees and the rest that our troops need, instead of cutting funding to American troops, cut the funding to the Iraqi forces and to the security forces, often private contractors that we pay for to protect the members of this government.

We have to do something to get their attention, in order to force them to deal with the political, and the economic, and the diplomatic pieces of the puzzle that confronts us.

The U.S. role in the conflict

Sen. Hillary Clinton
(D) New York
Make no mistake about it: I'm for getting our forces home as soon as possible.

GWEN IFILL: But whether it's cutting support for the Iraqi forces or whether it's setting a cap on a number of U.S. troops in country, aren't you basically saying, "U.S., get out of the way"?

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: Well, I think that that should be the point that we make, because they -- if you listen to what Prime Minister Maliki said, as you recounted, they want us to equip and provide the resources and firepower to the Iraqi forces.

I say no. That will be a mistake, because that will certainly produce a reaction from regional powers that are not going to sit idly by and see the sectarian forces, represented by the various Shia factions, be able -- with our help -- to go after the Sunnis.

They will feel compelled to up their support for the Sunni insurgents in order to defend themselves. So I think we have to make it clear to the Maliki government, we do not have a blank check with an open commitment here.

GWEN IFILL: You and the president don't agree on much when it comes to the war in Iraq, but you both do seem to agree that there should not be a deadline, a timetable set. Why not?

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: Well, I think the timetable still remains problematic. You know, make no mistake about it: I'm for getting our forces home as soon as possible.

But I do believe we have vital national security interests in Iraq. You know, al-Anbar province is the hotbed for the Sunni insurgency and for al-Qaida in Iraq. They weren't there before; they're there now. And we do have an interest in preventing them from basically having a foothold, similar to what the al-Qaida and Taliban forces had under Taliban protection in Afghanistan.

I do think we have an interest in protecting the Kurds and providing some, you know, security for them. I think we have an interest in preventing Iran from crossing the border, for, you know, making it very difficult for us to function more broadly in the region.

So when people talk about deadlines and taking all the American troops out, I understand completely that, if you look at the carnage that happens every single day, if you analyze the, frankly, resistance to cooperation that we've seen in this government, it would be easy to say, "Forget it, let them fight it out."

But we still have to be careful, because we are now facing dangers from Iraq that we didn't face before that we have to figure out how to contain.

Policy concerning troop levels

Sen. Hillary Clinton
(D) New York
I certainly have advocated for a different course from very near the beginning of this action. I'm going to continue to advocate for a different course, but that's what elections are for.

GWEN IFILL: You don't make the liberals in your party very happy when you stop short of calling for withdrawal. How do you speak to them about that?

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: In a very forthright way. You know, I represent 19 million people, all of whom have an opinion.

But we are in a very dangerous part of the world, and we face ongoing dangers from those who are out, you know, to kill Americans and undermine our allies and friends. So what I want to do, if I could wave a magic wand, would be to have this administration follow a number of the recommendations from the Iraqi Study Group.

A year-and-a-half ago, the Democrats, under the leadership of Carl Levin and Jack Reed, put forth a detailed proposal about the other factors besides military that needed to be taken into account.

And, once again, under bipartisan leadership, we have a resolution that we hope will lead to a majority vote in the Senate disapproving the president's policy. But if you read the entire proposal, it has a lot of wisdom about what we should be doing right now.

GWEN IFILL: There are those who say that your evolution on the war has been, number one, behind the public curve of opinion and, number two, right in line with your thinking on presidential aspirations. Is that so?

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: Well, obviously, I don't believe so. What I've tried to do as a consistent critic of what they have done in Iraq is to search for common ground.

I mean, I know very well the extensive authority any president has. And certainly this president has pushed it to the limits and even beyond. I think it's fair to say that he's already deploying the troops that he has called for in his new policy of escalation.

GWEN IFILL: So why would a troop cap work, if that's true?

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: Because eventually we'll be able to get there. You know, it takes years sometimes, unfortunately, to change public opinion, which now has changed. The election was very clear about that.

But it also takes time to change and put political pressure on presidents. And this particular president is especially dug-in on his policies.

So I think that what we're putting forth now -- and, frankly, what I supported a year-and-a-half ago on phased redeployment was what we should have been doing then. But that required engaging with the neighbors in the area, and we have a president who won't talk to bad people.

I don't understand that policy. I find it shortsighted and contrary to America's interests at home and abroad. But that's where he is. We've called for that.

I certainly have advocated for a different course from very near the beginning of this action. I'm going to continue to advocate for a different course, but that's what elections are for.

Pressure from Democrats

Sen. Hillary Clinton
(D) New York
The American people are going to be faced with some very tough judgments, because, at the current course this president is pursuing, I'm afraid that the next president will inherit this situation, with all of its complexity and all of its heartbreak.

GWEN IFILL: Well, and speaking of elections, 2008 looms. And I wonder to the degree to which you feel pressure, when you talk about the political pressure being brought to bear on this debate, whether you feel pressure from other aspiring Democrats, like John Edwards and Barack Obama, who right after you released your proposal yesterday released an identical one?

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: Well, my view on this is, I have to do what I believe is right and what I think is responsible. Others will do what they choose to do.

But I think that we're in a very dangerous situation. And we have empowered Iran. We have put the Sunni regimes in the area in a very difficult position. We see what's happened with the rise of Hezbollah and Hamas.

I don't think that, you know, rhetoric or political positioning is what is needed. I think that we have to work our way through this. I just met with a group of Iraqi war veterans in my office, about 10 of them, each of whom told me why they have come to a position of opposing this escalation and their own experiences in combat in Iraq.

And they understand the complexity of this. They, like me, want to stop this escalation, in order to get this president's attention to begin to do some things that he's refused to do up until now.

GWEN IFILL: The next election has a lot to do with the speed and the path of this debate. Do you think that there's any connection at all between 2008 aspirations, you or anyone else, and where this debate is going to go about Iraq?

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: Well, I'll leave that to others to assess, because I have been, as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, you know, deeply involved in trying to fix what has been a disastrous policy.

At the end of the day, the American people are going to be faced with some very tough judgments, because, at the current course this president is pursuing, I'm afraid that the next president will inherit this situation, with all of its complexity and all of its heartbreak.

And I believe that it's important that we try to forge a bipartisan consensus here in the Senate, disapproving this escalation as the very first step we take, and then move forward, using the appropriations process and the authorization process, which is kind of, you know, congressional speak for trying to put some limits and force some changes on the administration.

And let's not kid ourselves. I think this administration is also focused on Iran. And I think we need to send a very strong message that an administration with its track record of failure, of arrogance, of refusal to listen and learn from the disastrous steps that have, unfortunately, been taken should not be rushing off and putting American servicemembers in harm's way and possibly widening the conflict.

So there's a lot that we have to worry about.

GWEN IFILL: Sen. Clinton, thank you very much for joining us.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: Thank you, Gwen.