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President’s Nominee Acknowledges Need for New Iraq Solution

January 30, 2007 at 2:20 PM EST
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GWEN IFILL: For more on the Iraq debate consuming Congress, we turn to Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois and to Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas, a member of the Armed Services Committee.

Welcome, gentlemen.

SEN. DICK DURBIN (D), Illinois: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Durbin, it’s clear that there is a war of a debate going on now on Capitol Hill. We heard today James Baker say give the president’s plan a chance. We heard Arlen Specter say the president is not the sole decider. And we heard Admiral Fallon say that perhaps Americans and members of Congress should temper their expectations about what happens next in Iraq.

Who’s right?

SEN. DICK DURBIN: Well, I think, quite honestly, to put it in context, we are now engaged in the national debate that’s long overdue about the war in Iraq.

There are many different views and many different opinions. They’ll come forward on the floor of the Senate in just a few days. We’ll have a chance to debate resolutions, one offered by Senator John Warner of Virginia.

And I think, honestly, it says that the current policy in Iraq and the president’s proposal to increase the number of troops are not the best course of action. And I think that you’re going to find a bipartisan group of senators voting in that direction.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Cornyn, is this a long-overdue debate?

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), Texas: Well, I’ve been here in Congress in the Senate the last four years, and we’ve had a lot of debate about Iraq. But clearly, as we all know, what we have been doing has not been working, particularly with the rise of insurgent violence, but I don’t think these resolutions, nonbinding resolutions are going to accomplish anything.

As a matter of fact, I think the only thing they are going to accomplish has already been accomplished, and that is to send a negative message to the folks who are out there on the front line, on the mission that we’ve asked them to do, in Iraq and in Afghanistan. And I think it’s demoralizing.

And I wish we would — if we really had the courage of our convictions, if people said, “You know what? This is an immoral task we’ve asked our troops to do, because we don’t believe in the mission. We think they’re going to fail,” they ought to cut off funds.

But to have this sort of — this debate without any real consequence, I just don’t think is the best use of our time.

Sending a mixed message?

Sen. Dick Durbin
(D) Illinois
Those who want to quiet this debate and want us all to march in silent lock-step don't understand the noise of democracy as something that we shouldn't either ignore or criticize.

GWEN IFILL: Would you go as far as Secretary Gates did last week, when he said that this kind of debate is emboldening the enemy?

SEN. JOHN CORNYN: Well, that's what General Petraeus, of course, the new commander who was confirmed unanimously on Friday, has said during his confirmation hearing, as well. And it's ironic, Gwen, to say we're going to confirm the commander who's the architect of this plan, and we're going to send him over there, you know, but we're going to undercut them, in terms of their ability to accomplish the mission.

I just think it's a mixed message, a bad message. And I wish we'd reconsider.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Durbin, is this a mixed message that you're sending, not only to the new general on the ground, but also to the troops on the ground?

SEN. DICK DURBIN: Not at all. First, let's make it clear: We stand behind these troops. They've done everything we've asked them to do. They've risked their lives and continue to do it, while we debate this in the safety of the Capitol.

But the simple fact of the matter is that the policy of this country needs to be decided. That decision is made by the government, by the Congress and by the president.

This kind of deliberation and debate is what America and democracy are all about. And those who want to quiet this debate and want us all to march in silent lock-step don't understand the noise of democracy as something that we shouldn't either ignore or criticize. For our troops in the field, we'll stand by them.

And I might add, this administration wants to send 21,000 more soldiers into harm's way in Iraq. And this morning's newspaper says the Pentagon has reported we don't have the equipment that they need to be safe once they're sent to Iraq.

But when we're talking about standing behind the soldiers, I believe this debate for democracy's sake is an effort to say that what the soldiers are all about is for real. And, secondly, if we're going to send them into battle, we should make sure that they're well-equipped.

Attempting a bipartisan solution

Sen. John Cornyn
(R) Texas
You know, if there was a constructive alternative being offered by the critics, I would welcome it, because then I'd at least believe that we're trying to find a solution to the problem and not just trying to score some points.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Cornyn, it's clear where you two and others disagree on this issue. But let's talk about an area of -- great potential area of agreement.

Today, Secretary Baker said an interesting thing at the hearing. He said that maybe there should be a grand negotiation between the executive and the legislative branch. Wouldn't that be better than what we have now?

So let's assume that you agree just on what should happen with training the Iraqis. How do you get to that?

SEN. JOHN CORNYN: Well, I think the president, during his State of the Union message, did call for a bipartisan commission or committee of the legislature to try to work out a solution that we could all agree to, without regard to partisanship. My understanding is that his offer was turned down.

And, you know, I really wonder the wisdom -- I don't think our founding fathers really believed that 535 members of Congress could micromanage a war. That's why we have a single commander-in-chief.

Obviously, Congress has a role, primarily the power of the purse. We can cut off funds if we disagree. But what I'm hearing now is a lot of criticism and, frankly, no alternatives.

You know, if there was a constructive alternative being offered by the critics, I would welcome it, because then I'd at least believe that we're trying to find a solution to the problem and not just trying to score some points.

GWEN IFILL: Senators Warner and Specter, both in your own party, have said -- in fact, Senator Warner has sponsored one of these resolutions -- they've said that they believe that Congress has a role, as a co-equal branch of government, that this is not for the president to decide on its own.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN: Well, no doubt about it. I mean, Congress does. But I'm talking about micromanaging the tactical decisions about how to make progress in a war.

We're simply not equipped here in Washington to make those decisions. That's why we have the ability to vote on the confirmation of such experts, acknowledged experts, as David Petraeus, the new really architect of this counterinsurgency plan, and somebody who was just confirmed unanimously last Friday.

Surveying other options in Iraq

Sen. Dick Durbin
(D) Illinois
Then Congress has many options before it. One of them relates to funds for these additional soldiers. Another would cap the number of troops that could be in Iraq at any given time.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Durbin, there must be, what, a dozen of these resolutions by now, including one introduced that you have signed onto, one that Senator Cornyn signed onto. Do any of them contain what Senator Cornyn is talking about, which is an alternative?

SEN. DICK DURBIN: Yes. And as a matter of fact, that alternative was spelled out long ago by a vote of 79-19 in the United States Senate for another resolution, written by the Democrats, but sponsored by Senator John Warner. We said the year 2006 would be a year of transition and begin to phase and redeploy our troops out of Iraq.

So to suggest that Congress and the majority in the Senate have not come forward with an idea and a strategy is just not accurate.

And I think we all understand at this point the obvious: If the Iraqis are going to stand up and defend their own country, it's with the knowledge that the American people are not going to keep sending their most precious commodity, the lives of our soldiers, into that country indefinitely.

And the president's idea of escalating this force another 21,000 at this moment in time sends exactly the wrong message to the Iraqis. Isn't it ironic that Prime Minister al-Maliki, in meeting with President Bush last November, told him pointblank, "We don't want more troops; give us the equipment so that our soldiers and police can do their work"? And, instead, the president is sending another 21,000 soldiers.

GWEN IFILL: But what about Senator Cornyn's other point, which is the gauntlet that you keep hearing being thrown down by the president's supporters, which is, if you really believe that things are not being managed well, Congress should exercise its power of the purse. Senator Feingold has said he will introduce legislation that would cut off funding for this enterprise. Why not do that?

SEN. DICK DURBIN: The day may come. The first resolution is a so-called nonbinding resolution, where Congress can express its feelings about the president's new plan to increase the number of soldiers that are being sent to Iraq.

The president can choose to ignore that, if he wishes. Maybe he will consider it, in terms of his strategy.

Then Congress has many options before it. One of them relates to funds for these additional soldiers. Another would cap the number of troops that could be in Iraq at any given time. Congressman Murtha has said that the soldiers should have a certain level of readiness before they're sent.

And there are even some that are proposing that we declare that the use of force resolution passed in October of 2002 is no longer operative, that what is happening in Iraq today is beyond the scope of the authority given by Congress, and we need to debate it again and decide what our future will be in that country.

GWEN IFILL: What about that, Senator Cornyn? Are these debates that we're about to see unfold on Capitol Hill, are they just a beginning in a series of steps? And if not -- if you oppose all of these efforts, what do you do?

SEN. JOHN CORNYN: Well, I've heard my colleague, Senator Durbin, tick off a list of options, but we're not talking about those, at least now. We're talking about a nonbinding resolution, which is of no force and effect, other than, as the commanding general who will take charge of our forces said, to embolden our enemies and discourage our allies.

And, you know, I think that I would feel better about it and I would believe that actually people were sincere about trying to accomplish their goals if there was really some consequence to the vote that we were being asked to take, because ultimately we are all responsible for our votes.

But to have a nonbinding resolution, which has no impact, which has the effect General Petraeus stated, I think is just not constructive.

GWEN IFILL: You think there is no political impact at least from these votes?

SEN. JOHN CORNYN: Well, I worry that it's only a design for political impact. But I would hope, in a time of war, we would try to rise above our partisan affiliation, we would try to figure out what is in the best interests of America's national security and work together. I worry that there's too much politics here and not enough, really, any substance.

Setting timelines?

Sen. John Cornyn
(R) Texas
I do think that, you know, the confidence of the American people that we're able to make progress in Iraq is fast waning. And I think this is one of the last clear chances we have to begin to turn things around.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Durbin, Nancy Pelosi returned from Iraq today. And she said, everywhere she went, everyone said there is one last chance for this to work and that may not work.

And also, others have said that -- and we heard Secretary Baker say today -- let's give this a chance to work. How much time do you think has to be allowed to allow any of this to work?

SEN. DICK DURBIN: Very little. I think we have reached the end of our rope when it comes to Iraq. I think we understand that we're in the fourth year of a war that's lasted longer than World War II; 3,081 soldiers from America have died, as of today; it's cost us almost $400 billion; no end in sight with this administration's policy.

That's why men like Senator John Warner, a decorated soldier and a sailor, I should say, who served as secretary of the Navy, has come forward and led a bipartisan effort to send a message to this administration that it's time for real change.

GWEN IFILL: But what about Senator Cornyn's point? What's this about sending a message? Why not just cut to the chase and cut the funds?

SEN. DICK DURBIN: We will come to that point. If the president ignores this sense of the Senate resolution, if he ignores the will of the Senate, the majority of the Senate should majority vote for either resolution, then we'll have no other alternative.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Cornyn, how much time do you think should be allotted to allow for the surge to work, if that works, or to take the next step and redeploy, if that becomes the option?

SEN. JOHN CORNYN: Well, I actually do agree with Senator Durbin on this point. I do think that, you know, the confidence of the American people that we're able to make progress in Iraq is fast waning. And I think this is one of the last clear chances we have to begin to turn things around. That's why I believe that it deserves at least a chance.

The alternatives, the so-called phase redeployment, the redeployment of our troops to Okinawa that Representative Murtha called for, the idea that we're going to withdraw our troops now without regard to the consequences, likely to be a regional conflict in the area and/or possibly a failed state, which would serve as a launching pad for future terrorist attacks, I would like to hear some of the critics who have not offered constructive alternatives to say how they plan to deal with the devastating consequences of that regional conflict or failed state.

I think that's an important part of this debate that we haven't heard a lot about.

GWEN IFILL: Do you trust al-Maliki to execute what the president has planned?

SEN. JOHN CORNYN: I think we need to see him act on his commitments. I think we all share a skepticism in Mr. al-Maliki's ability to do what he says he's going to do.

I must tell you, though, the early signs the last few days have been somewhat encouraging, that he does appear to be willing to take on people without regard to sectarian affiliation, without regard to the political power that the Shiite militias might otherwise exert.

So I'm hopeful. But to me, as General Petraeus said, hard is not hopeless. And this is hard, but I don't think it's hopeless.

GWEN IFILL: Senator John Cornyn of Texas, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, thank you both very much.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN: Thank you.

SEN. DICK DURBIN: Thank you.