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Congress Voices Concern over President’s New Iraq Strategy

January 17, 2007 at 6:05 PM EDT

KWAME HOLMAN: Members of Congress now have had a week to digest details of the president’s new Iraq plan, gauge reaction from constituents, and make up their own minds, members such as Georgia Republican Phil Gingrey.

REP. PHIL GINGREY (R), Georgia: I rise today in support of delivering a knockout punch in Iraq, stabilizing Baghdad, securing freedom for the Iraqi people, and dealing a blow for terrorism across the Middle East.

In the past, we have underestimated the intentions of the death squads and the sectarian violence. Now, we will confront them head on by ensuring we have enough coalition and Iraqi troops, not only to clear pockets of resistance, but to hold them.

KWAME HOLMAN: New Jersey Democrat Rush Holt.

REP. RUSH HOLT (D), New Jersey: The American people want to bring home their loved ones who are in harm’s way. The Iraqi people want us to leave so that Iraqis can solve their problems. As former Secretary of State Albright has pointed out, the only ones who want us to stay are those who will leave Iraq when we leave.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, Former Secretary of State: I think Iraq is going to go down in history as the greatest disaster in American foreign policy.

KWAME HOLMAN: Albright, secretary of state during the Clinton administration, testified this morning before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, several times calling U.S. policy in Iraq an “incoherent mission.”

But California Republican Ed Royce asked, what happens to the terrorists in Iraq if and when U.S. troops do leave?

REP. ED ROYCE (R), California: At this point with al-Qaida, does a U.S. withdrawal help or hurt, in your view?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: The American presence is both the solution and the problem. We are providing a lot of security, but at the same time our presence is also a magnet for creating more terrorists and insurgency. And the question is how we get out in a way that does not create worse problems.

KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile on the Senate side of the Capitol, there was movement on separate Democratic efforts to restrict the president’s options in Iraq.

Connecticut’s Chris Dodd, an announced candidate for president, introduced legislation this morning that would cap troop levels at the existing 130,000, while Massachusetts’ Edward Kennedy has called for a formal vote to authorize more troop deployments.

And this afternoon, Democrats Joe Biden and Carl Levin, and Republican Chuck Hagel, introduced a non-binding resolution that flatly states, “It is not in the national interest of the United States to deepen its military involvement in Iraq, particularly by escalating the United States military presence in Iraq.”

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL (R), Nebraska: The Congress of the United States has a role to play. I don’t believe we have played that role very effectively the last four years.

The Congress of the United States is Article I of the Constitution. We are a co-equal branch of government. Separation of powers, of course, but the system works best when we join together in a bipartisan effort to try to frame a bipartisan consensus, to deal with the great challenges of our time.

SEN. JOE BIDEN (D), Delaware: The more we make Iraq a partisan issue, the more likely the president is to dig in, in my view. The more we, we in a bipartisan way, show the American people across the board that we don’t want to go down this path of escalation, the better our chances to get him to reconsider his approach.

KWAME HOLMAN: Admitting that Senate Republicans are not of one mind on the president’s Iraq plan, Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, the chamber’s minority leader, simply asked that his members be given a chance to participate in the Iraq debate.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), Senate Minority Leader: … there are sort of a variety of different points of view in the Republican conference about the appropriate response to the president’s decision to increase the number of troops in Iraq.

And we’ll be working together to insist on a fair process in the Senate that allows different proposals to have a vote on. That’s the one thing I think we’re all in agreement on.

KWAME HOLMAN: Debate and votes on the various Senate resolutions are expected next week, after the president makes a nationwide pitch for his Iraq plan during his annual State of the Union address next Tuesday.

Alternatives to the new strategy

Sen. Christopher Dodd
It seems to me Congress now bears a responsibility. If you're for this, then you'll be able to vote for the authorization. If you think it's the wrong thing to do, vote against it.

JIM LEHRER: For more, earlier today, Gwen Ifill spoke to Sen. Chris Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, and Rep. Mike Pence, Republican of Indiana. First, Senator Dodd.

GWEN IFILL: Welcome, Senator Dodd.

SEN. CHRIS DODD (D), Connecticut: Thanks.

GWEN IFILL: The president said yesterday there were three choices: to keep doing the things the way they were done, which he called slow failure; to withdraw all troops, which he called expedited failure; or to do what he's doing, which he considered to be the best chance for success. Is increasing the number of troops on the ground in Iraq, especially in Baghdad, the best chance for success?

SEN. CHRIS DODD: I don't think it is at all. And that isn't just my opinion: Almost anyone you'll talk to who's spent any time examining the issue, including our most recent commanders on the ground in Iraq, the Baker-Hamilton report, which spent nine or 10 months examining these issues as well as anyone has, all have concluded that this kind of an approach -- I don't think Baker-Hamilton addressed specifically the surge -- but the idea that further military, escalating military involvement is going to produce the desired results will work.

I'm very much opposed to it, and I think we ought to be coming up with a different strategy, one that can make some sense. There are some other alternates to what the president suggested.

GWEN IFILL: Suggest at least one.

SEN. CHRIS DODD: Well, one is, what can our troops do effectively here? As one young captain from West Point said to me, sending a 19- or 20-year-old in a Humvee on a patrol where the only mission is to get shot at or blown up is not a mission, senator.

And I was there three weeks ago. We ought to be using these kids to train people. We can do that very, very well. Border security is a very important issue. Counterterrorism activities are very, very important in that country and could really help in the stabilization.

But having our troops become referees in a civil war -- Baghdad is a city of six million people. Putting 17,000 young people on the street where there are 23 militias that we know of operating, not to mention Shia on Shia, Shia on Sunni, insurgent Baathists, maybe al-Qaida people as well, and expect them to somehow come up with an answer for all of that, I think is asking way too much and likely to produce just the opposite results.

And in fact, if the goal is to get people to work together, our people on the ground are going to have to start taking action against certain sections, probably driving them further apart from the political reconciliation that everyone admits is the only answer to a stable Iraq.

GWEN IFILL: But the criticisms are clear; what are the solutions?

SEN. CHRIS DODD: Well, the solutions are, clearly, the political ones, and insisting that Iraqis start thinking about Iraqis. The prime minister has basically become a Shia head of state. He's not an Iraqi head of state, in my view. He hasn't done what he said he would do almost a year ago.

GWEN IFILL: Do you not trust Mr. Maliki to figure this out?

SEN. CHRIS DODD: I just don't think -- he looks weaker and weaker to me all time. And, again, I don't think that this so-called surge or escalation in troops is going to achieve what we're talking about here.

Again, listen to what people on the ground are telling you. When your commanders say this is a mistake -- even the new commanding general going in said some months ago, or weeks ago, more troops on the ground does not buy you more security here at all.

So we need to try something different. I'm not advocating an immediate withdrawal. I don't know of anyone that's suggesting that.

We're talking about redeploying our forces, bringing down those troops, and saying after four years to the Iraqis: You now have to do this. This is your job. We've given you the space; we've exhausted treasury; we've lost lives. We have 22,000 of our young who have been severely wounded and injured in all of this. Now it's your responsibility here to step up.

This approach of having a debate -- which I'm an advocate of -- I think we ought to have something more than a nonbinding resolution here -- is a way for the Iraqis to understand it's really their turn to take over the country.

GWEN IFILL: That's your suggestion...


GWEN IFILL: Excuse me, that's your suggestion, that there be a debate on the Senate floor, before the troops go...

SEN. CHRIS DODD: Absolutely.

GWEN IFILL: The troops are already there.

SEN. CHRIS DODD: Well, not the surge. There are some that will be going. And you're right: If we wait much longer, they'll already be there.

And that's why my approach on this thing is to say, put a cap on the number of troops that are there right now, and require an authorization, a new authorization to come up.

Sen. John Warner, Republican, former chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said last fall, very rightly, there is a need for a new authorization. When I voted back in 2002 to authorize the use of force in Iraq, the argument and the language in the authorization was "weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein." Both of those things are gone today or didn't exist in the first place.

GWEN IFILL: But how will a debate over authorization change the outcome?

SEN. CHRIS DODD: Well, I think, one, it gives us a chance, first of all, to have a debate, which is important, and then to vote on something realistic, and that is a new authorization. I think that's a far better way to go than just sending a letter, in effect, a resolution that says we don't like what you're doing.

The president said the other night in one interview, I don't care what the Congress says; I'm going to do what I want to do anyway.

It seems to me Congress now bears a responsibility. If you're for this, then you'll be able to vote for the authorization. If you think it's the wrong thing to do, vote against it. But the idea we're not going to do much more than that, not even do that, I think is a mistake.

Hoping for political reconciliation

Sen. Christopher Dodd
[S]uccess to me is to bring an end to the violence there, first and foremost, it seems to me, and that's going to happen through political reconciliation, not putting more troops on the ground.

GWEN IFILL: Is there room for engaging the region in this?

SEN. CHRIS DODD: There has to be. And, again, I thought it was glaring in the interview that the president did with Jim the other night, the one piece that was stunning to me in its absence of his discussion of the thing was not a single reference or mention about any regional responsibility or regional engagement.

And, again, everyone I've talked to, again, who's knowledgeable about this says diplomacy is not a sign of weakness. Diplomacy isn't about what happens when you start the negotiation; it's about what happens when you end it.

And the idea that we're not going to deal with Iran at all or deal with Syria at all -- I met with President Assad about three weeks ago. And I asked him, "What do you want in Iraq? What would you like to see come out of this?"

Now, he said -- his answer was to me in private in English, so as Tom Friedman has said, unless they say it in Arabic in public, it may not mean as much. But I'll tell you what he said. He said to me, "I would like a pluralistic Arab state. The last thing I want is to have an Iranian-dominated Shia fundamentalist state on my border."

He said it in the presence of our U.S. embassy personnel. It seems to me, if President Assad is saying that -- that's what our goal is, too -- why not pick up on that and see if he can't become more cooperative in helping us achieve that?

GWEN IFILL: But how do you define success?

SEN. CHRIS DODD: Well, a success to me is to bring an end to the violence there, first and foremost, it seems to me, and that's going to happen through political reconciliation, not putting more troops on the ground.

And then, obviously, I'd like to see them have an opportunity for people to live without fear in the country, where they can begin to deal with the underlying economic issues they face and grapple with every day.

This idea you're going to come out with a Jeffersonian democracy here in the next few weeks or months is a pipe dream. It was in the beginning of this. A democracy emerges when people in these countries want it themselves and are willing to do a lot for it.

There's a great line of Benjamin Franklin, back sitting outside of Independence Hall, when a woman by the name of Mrs. Powell walks up to him and says, "What have you given us?" And he says, "Madam, we've given you a republic, if you can keep it."

In a sense, it's appropriate to tell that story in light of what's going on in Iraq today. We've given them an opportunity, if they can keep it and they want to keep it. We don't have a treasury deep enough or an Army large enough that's going to guarantee this for them if they don't demonstrate they want to pull together and be a country.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Dodd, thank you very much.

SEN. CHRIS DODD: Thank you, Gwen.

From skepticism to support

Rep. Mike Pence
[T]his change in strategy, this addition of six additional brigades to support an Iraqi-led effort to bring domestic security to Baghdad, I think is an idea whose time has come.

GWEN IFILL: Congressman Mike Pence, thank you for joining us.

REP. MIKE PENCE (R), Indiana: Thank you, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: You have been to Iraq four times. You met with the president last Tuesday at the White House about his new plan, and you support it. Why?

REP. MIKE PENCE: Well, frankly, I went into the meeting with the president in the West Wing last week very skeptical about the troop surge.

During all of my trips into Iraq, our military commanders have told me again and again that a large American military footprint in Iraq is actually counterproductive to our interests there and the interests of freedom.

What I found very persuasive, Gwen, was this president didn't just lay out a plan for more troops. He laid out a new strategy, including new tactics, new rules of engagement on the ground, and a plan very much to work alongside Iraqi military forces to put a priority on securing Baghdad.

And I think it's a plan that we owe it to our military, we owe it to the interests of freedom, and the good people of Iraq to see through this new strategy, this new way forward.

GWEN IFILL: What were your initial doubts?

REP. MIKE PENCE: There was a general consensus that I heard from our military leaders that, in order to ensure that the Iraqi military would step up and the Iraqi government would take responsibility, that we ought to be moving always in the direction of a smaller American military presence there.

Of course, all that counsel predated the extraordinary increase in violence that commenced late summer 2006. It's clear that what our strategy and our tactics on the ground were at the time were not working. And this change in strategy, this addition of six additional brigades to support an Iraqi-led effort to bring domestic security to Baghdad, I think is an idea whose time has come.

GWEN IFILL: Congressman, how would you define success in this venture, and how would you define failure?

REP. MIKE PENCE: Well, I certainly would not define success as the arrival in Baghdad of a peaceable Jeffersonian democracy that has the strength of the institutions that our democracy has after 200 years.

I believe success can be defined as that moment that, with absolute certainty, the United States of America can depart from Iraq, knowing that the Iraqi military and the Iraqi government have the ability to defend their new democracy effectively.

Defining democracy as the absence of violence, the absence of insurgent violence, the absence of terrorist activity in Iraq, I believe, is imprudent, and we ought to rather look for that moment that we can bring our troops home with the confidence that freedom has won in Iraq.

GWEN IFILL: Is the current prime minister the person who can lead Iraq to the kind of freedom you're talking about?

REP. MIKE PENCE: Well, I must tell you, I led the first delegation of members of Congress to meet with Prime Minister al-Maliki last spring. And I was very impressed during our session with his seriousness, with the clarity with which he was focused on providing security, particularly in Baghdad, and also his development of a government of inclusion.

I've been less impressed in the months since my meeting with Prime Minister al-Maliki. And I believe that this moment, this new way forward, the decision by our president to deploy six brigades to support Prime Minister al-Maliki's plan to bring domestic security to the streets of Baghdad, is a real moment of truth for this government and this particular leader.

And I think that, should Prime Minister al-Maliki fail in his effort to provide fundamental security to his citizens in their capital city, that those same democratic processes that brought him to power might bring a new face to power.

The role of the Congress

Rep. Mike Pence
[I]t's incumbent on the president and all of us in Congress who support this new strategy to communicate to the American people that this is not simply more troops for more troops' sake.

GWEN IFILL: There is so much discussion going on right now up here on Capitol Hill about capping the number of troops, or making sure that Congress gets to vote on any increase in troops, or not withdrawal so much, but changing the approach. The president seems to be resisting some of that.

What do you think Congress's role should be?

REP. MIKE PENCE: Well, I believe the role of Congress and of the president are clearly defined in the Constitution of the United States.

Article I gives the Congress the authority to declare war and the authority to appropriate funds for military operations. Article II of the Constitution says the president of the United States is the commander-in-chief of Armed Forces.

And while I think Congress has a role here, Congress ought to ask questions, we ought to consider very carefully, as we continue to appropriate the resources of the American people to this and other military enterprises, I do not consider it appropriate for the Congress, both collectively or individually, to be in the business of imposing tactical decisions in the field on our commander-in-chief.

I am categorically opposed to capping troop levels. I'm categorically opposed to any effort that would attempt to change the 535 members of Congress into a surrogate commander-in-chief or secretary of defense. That is the role of the president of the United States ever since our Congress hired General George Washington to be our first commander-in-chief.

GWEN IFILL: You were home in Indiana this weekend. What are your constituents telling you about the president's plan?

REP. MIKE PENCE: There's no question, but that, even in the heartland of America, people are troubled with our lack of progress in Iraq. They are hesitant to accept the president's new strategy.

And I believe it's incumbent on the president and all of us in Congress who support this new strategy to communicate to the American people that this is not simply more troops for more troops' sake. It is a new strategy, a new tactic, and it's a strategy that puts the Iraqi military and the Iraqi government on the line and in the lead.

GWEN IFILL: Congressman Mike Pence, thank you very much.

REP. MIKE PENCE: Thank you, Gwen.