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Congressmen Respond to War Briefing, Debate Pullout

April 25, 2007 at 6:10 PM EST
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JIM LEHRER: The partisan divide in the House of Representatives over funding the Iraq war. Joe Sestak is a first-term Democrat from Pennsylvania, a member of the Armed Services Committee. Mike Rogers is a four-term Republican from Michigan and a member of the Select Committee on Intelligence. Both were present at today’s war briefing by General David Petraeus, head of U.S. forces in Iraq.

Congressman Sestak, what was the most important thing you heard today from General Petraeus?

REP. JOE SESTAK (D), Pennsylvania: The most important thing was where General Petraeus said that it will take a military — excuse me, a political reconciliation in order to have a final, long-term solution.

I just had returned from Iraq with Senator Hagel last week, and what we saw there was some improvement in the military situation in certain portions, like Anbar province. But what we also saw, in talking to key Iraqi political leaders, where they said that key political pieces of legislation, that the Sunnis in Anbar province, for example, are waiting for, were described as appeasement to the Sunnis.

And that’s why there is no military solution to this civil war. The only possible way to win this — and we still can — is with a change in strategy, a date that’s certain, where Secretary of Defense Gates and almost all of the political and U.S. military leaders in Iraq have said that this debate here at home about not being an open-ended commitment has moved the Iraqis to accepting more responsibility for their country. That’s now the next necessary step to have a good strategy.

JIM LEHRER: We’ll come back to some of the points you made, but, first, to Congressman Rogers. What was it that you heard from General Petraeus that you thought was the most stunning or most important thing?

REP. MIKE ROGERS (R), Michigan: Well, he said that they had made some progress, I think, in Iraq, at least giving the government a little breathing room. And one of the other important things I thought came out of it was the fact that, in that briefing, the Department of Defense said, “Don’t mess around with our money.”

Every time you do a two-month or a three-month or six-month or a delay, we have to shut off different programs. And if you want us to continue to build goodwill in Iraq as we’re trying to win the military fight, you need to continue to fund the operations on the ground with a degree of certainty.

You can’t run a business without a degree of certainty, and you can’t run operations on the ground with a degree of certainty. And I thought that was an interesting point for us, that, hey, listen, we’re going to have to pull back on certain operations because we don’t know if we’re going to have money two months from now or three months from now. That is really not building good faith and allowing the civilian institutions to take hold.

And, really, what the surge was about — and I had some different ideas on it — but what the surge was about was trying to give breathing room to the Iraqi government to get up and operational so that they could get a hold of the political climate there and we could start to scale down our military presence there.

Micromanagement of the war

Rep. Joe Sestak
D-Pa.
This bill is very clear. It merely says to the president: Report back upon the benchmarks, mostly political, that you reported to the public of America, that said this was not to be an open-ended commitment, in your own words.

JIM LEHRER: So, Congressman Rogers, that means that, based on what you knew before and based on what you heard from General Petraeus, nothing has changed for you, in terms of your opposition to the Democratic bill, that is supported by Congressman Sestak, correct?

REP. MIKE ROGERS: Oh, absolutely. You know, one of the things that I've said -- if you're for the war, against the war or anywhere in between, what you cannot do is tell the enemy your plans, number one. As an Army soldier, that was certainly the first thing they taught us.

And, secondly, you can't turn your back and cut the funding for these troops, because it will change command decisions on the ground. That is Congress interceding where it ought not to be. We ought to fund them what they need and then have a debate back here. That's what we're for.

But to micromanage the sergeant on the ground because he doesn't have enough resources to do Mission A or B is wrong, and we shouldn't do it.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Congressman Sestak, you see it just the opposite. Why?

REP. JOE SESTAK: Well, first off, we're not micromanaging the war. This bill is very clear. It merely says to the president: Report back upon the benchmarks, mostly political, that you reported to the public of America, that said this was not to be an open-ended commitment, in your own words. Come back to Congress and tell us if we're making significant progress or not.

So that's what's in the legislation. Now, if no significant progress is being made, then there's a goal to be out by the end of December or, at the latest, March of next year.

Second, this bill -- and every Democrat and every Republican will fund whatever that soldier needs. This is a different issue. The adversary here is really not a traditional adversary. It is a civil war, a sectarian violence among the civilians who live in Iraq, almost exclusively, even according to Secretary Gates.

So, therefore, what this bill does is it sends a message to three important parties. The Iraqis, step up to the plate and make those tough political decisions you must. Stop in your ministries trying to get personal power and ambitious fiefdoms while America provides your security for you to do that.

Second, to Iranians and Syria. They're involved destructively; we know that. We're bleeding, and they want us to. Change the structure of incentives, therefore, will change the behavior. I ask the ambassador, "Does Iran want a failed state if we're not here?" The answer is no.

They may not want the same state that we would like to have, but we can work to have at least a modicum of stability with Iran and Syria, if we deal directly with them and bring them to the table with us, not in Iraq, but redeployed in the region, on our bases in the region, and bring some troops home where there's not one Army unit, not one, that can deploy anywhere in this world because we've hurt our readiness so much. This is about better security for America by changing strategy.

Sectarian strife and al-Qaida

Rep. Mike Rogers
R-Mich.
If we don't get this right, we will create the opportunity for al-Qaida elements that we know are there, that are attacking U.S. troops, to gain that safe haven so they can train and gain finances and develop their weapons and training.

JIM LEHRER: Changing strategy, Congressman Rogers -- or if it's not changing strategy, what do you think it's doing?

REP. MIKE ROGERS: Well, and we also have to be very, very careful. It's absolutely incorrect that there's only a civil war there. You have sectarian strife that you see pretty much confined to the greater Baghdad area. And there is -- that's Sunni versus Shia, and it's almost self-sustaining at this point. That truly is -- what I argue is a political problem for Iraq, that they're going to have to really step up to help solve.

But we also have al-Qaida in Iraq, mainly in al-Anbar province. So this notion that we're going to try to solve one problem and ignore the other is very, very dangerous.

We have a safe-haven opportunity in Iraq that, if we don't get this right, we will create the opportunity for al-Qaida elements that we know are there, that are attacking U.S. troops, to gain that safe haven so they can train and gain finances and develop their weapons and training. That is absolutely the worst thing that can happen to us.

And we need to start engaging in the debate. I agree it does change the debate. Instead of saying, "When are you leaving?" We should say, "What do you need to win the fight on al-Qaida in al-Anbar and to put pressure on the Iraqis to solve this political problem in Baghdad?"

Right now, it's either all-out or all-in, and I do believe that there's a compromise here, when you start talking about the real strategic threats to the United States. And, unfortunately, they're there in Iraq today.

JIM LEHRER: Let's talk about compromise or let's talk about the next steps here, beginning with you, Congressman Rogers. Let's assume that everything happens the way it's supposed to happen. The Democrats vote their funding bill tonight with the deadlines on there, the withdraw dates on it. And then the Senate does the same thing tomorrow. And then the president vetoes it. Then what happens?

REP. MIKE ROGERS: Well, they're going to come back. What they're talking about is a temporary, several-month extension, as I understand it.

JIM LEHRER: Just the funding alone? The funding alone?

REP. MIKE ROGERS: Just the funding alone. And I'm not sure that's a great strategy. And, again, it's not actually helping tell the enemy that we're going to leave on x date. It helps recruiting for the enemy.

And, actually, one of the things that Petraeus said today is that there are several important audiences when you talk about withdraw dates. You talk to the soldiers and their families. You communicate a message to the enemy, and you communicate a message to the Iraqis.

And I think we need to be careful to allow the political debate to happen, to give them the space that they need. We should be putting other kinds of pressure, other than a congressional debate, that will, in fact, impact command decisions on the ground in Iraq. I think that's really -- that's not a good strategy. That's a great way to get defeated in a hurry.

A question of American security

Rep. Joe Sestak
D-Pa.
We need to stay and give them morally and practically approximately a year. But there is a better strategy to go about U.S. greater strategy, and that involves leaving with confidence, with confidence, through negotiations with Iran and Syria.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Sestak, speaking of the political debate, I mean, in introducing this segment, I called it the partisan divide. And it really is a party split here. Does the fact that you're a Democrat, Congressman Sestak, and, Congressman Rogers, the fact that you're a Republican, how much does the fact that what you are is affecting how you feel and how you're going to vote on this, beginning with you, Congressman Sestak?

REP. JOE SESTAK: It doesn't affect it one bit. I had a command of a carrier battle group in Afghanistan when I was told to take a left turn...

JIM LEHRER: You were a Navy officer.

REP. JOE SESTAK: Yes, I was. And I was in the Indian Ocean, had 30 ships. Twenty of them were non-U.S. ships, Japanese, Greek, Australian, British, Italian, Spanish. I was told to go into the Persian Gulf for what we thought might be the running start of the war. Only the British and Australians came with us. That said something about how we were going about this war.

And what I knew then is that this was a tragic misadventure. It wasn't a clear, but it certainly wasn't a present danger. And even on Iran, my position has been consistent.

This is hurting America's security. And as Mike has mentioned, or my colleague has, the important aspect here is pressure, pressure on the Iraqis. The last remaining leverage, the only catalyst for action upon them is for them to accept that this is no longer going to be a culture of dependency.

There's a wonderful saying in the Middle East, "Insha'Allah," God-willing, tomorrow. And we cannot afford for our security, where we've diverted our attention away, for instance, in Afghanistan that's now prey to Taliban and to terrorists, once again, because we went into Iraq.

We need to stay and give them morally and practically approximately a year. But there is a better strategy to go about U.S. greater strategy, and that involves leaving with confidence, with confidence, through negotiations with Iran and Syria.

Strategy behind the withdrawal

Rep. Mike Rogers
R-Mich.
There is a substantial discussion we need to have on what the strategic threat of just withdrawing is.

JIM LEHRER: Back to the political thing, to you, Congressman Rogers. What is the difference? Why is there such a stark difference on party grounds here? Why are the Republicans all going one way and all of the Democrats going another?

REP. MIKE ROGERS: I think we've seen a very kind of an odd thing happen here. And, you know, certainly, it's not a party thing for me. I actually came out and said I didn't think the surge was a good idea, but I offered some additional ideas and kind of a readjustment, if you will, of the president's plan, and some of those we're trying to work through, because I think victory there is incredibly important.

But you had a whole political environment that was invested in withdraw, and withdraw only. And it really never got beyond the discussion about, you know, what happens? OK, if we pull out tomorrow, what is the strategic risk to the United States of America? You don't hear that debate.

And I think you have, at least the Republicans that I talked to, are very interested in, if you are for it or against it. You know, I was an FBI agent and an Army officer, and I'd like to think that I look at this, and certainly in the eyes of a soldier and those who are standing tall to defend our country, they want to come home winners, number one. They don't want any lives lost in vain. And we need to improve the security situation of the world.

And I think we've done a better job about talking -- what happens if you get what you want? It's not just a political victory. There is a substantial discussion we need to have on what the strategic threat of just withdrawing is.

And the allies in the Mideast say, "Bad idea. Please don't do it." Our new allies that are helping us fight terrorism that didn't all that long ago, Algeria and Libya, are saying, "Bad idea." You better win this fight from a strategic perspective. And it doesn't mean a win where, you know, white flags go up the pole, but it means a strategic win in Iraq so that we get that sense of stabilization. And I think that's what's missing in the debate.

JIM LEHRER: All right, gentlemen. Thank you both very much.

REP. JOE SESTAK: Thank you very much.

REP. MIKE ROGERS: Thank you.