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Newly Unveiled Iraq Proposal Draws Criticism

January 11, 2007 at 1:52 PM EDT

KWAME HOLMAN: Secretary of State Rice, Defense Secretary Gates, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Peter Pace were out at 8:30 this morning trying to drum up support for the administration’s new Iraq policy, which the president announced last night.

Gates, who assumed his job just three weeks ago, began by offering a stark assessment of the road ahead.

ROBERT GATES: At this pivotal moment, the credibility of the United States is on the line in Iraq.

KWAME HOLMAN: As outlined by the president, the new Iraq strategy would increase the number of troops in Iraq by more than 21,000. About 17,000 of those forces would be sent to Baghdad; the remaining 4,000 to Anbar province, another area where violence has been heavy.

The number of U.S. military advisers embedded in Iraqi security forces also would be expanded.

Gates acknowledged he didn’t know how long the additional troops would remain in Iraq or when the mission would be deemed successful but said, in his view, the move was necessary.

ROBERT GATES: The security plan is designed to have Iraqi forces lead a campaign, with our forces in support, to protect the population of Baghdad from intimidation and violence instigated by Sunni and Shia extremist groups, and to enable the Iraqi government to take the difficult steps necessary to address that nation’s underlying issues.

This means, above all, strengthening those in Iraq who are prepared to address its problems peacefully against those who seek only violence, death and chaos.

The term “surge” has been used in relation to increasing U.S. troop levels, and an increase certainly will take place. But what is really going on and what is going to take place is a surge across all lines of operations: military and non-military, Iraqi and coalition.

KWAME HOLMAN: The non-military aspect of the plan includes more than $1 billion in new economic aid: $414 million to enhance provincial reconstruction; $400 million to repair damaged institutions; and $350 million for field commanders to deal with local problems.

The plan also calls for renewed diplomatic efforts, including establishing a regional forum to encourage support from neighboring states, and intensifying efforts to counter Iranian and Syrian influence inside Iraq.

Secretary Rice acknowledged the conditions on the ground needed to change.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S. Secretary of State: All Americans know that the stakes in Iraq are enormous, and we all share the belief that the situation is currently unacceptable. On this, we are united.

Congress debates president's plan

KWAME HOLMAN: After fielding reporters' questions, the president's team set out for Capitol Hill, anticipating a long day before various congressional committees.

But by then, the president's plan already was under heavy assault at the Capitol. First, from the floor of the House, Ohio Democrat Dennis Kucinich.

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH (D), Ohio: The president's new plan is a plan for more door-to-door fighting, more civil war, more civilian casualties, more troop deaths, more wasted money, more destabilization in the region, and more separation from the world community. Does anyone in this administration have any sense at all?

KWAME HOLMAN: Texas Democrat Al Green.

REP. AL GREEN (D), Texas: Mr. Speaker, we have freed them from a ruthless dictator. We have lost more than 3,000 lives. We have more than 20,000 wounded. We have helped them to construct a constitution, to reestablish their constabulary.

We've helped them to hold an election. And we're spending more than $177 million, not per year, not per month, not per week, but per day. It is time for them to stand up and defend themselves. Do not send 20,000 in; bring 20,000 troops home. It's time for them to stand up and defend themselves.

KWAME HOLMAN: Some Republicans, such as Florida's Ric Keller, joined in the skepticism.

REP. RIC KELLER (R), Florida: I believe the motives of President Bush and other prominent leaders, such as Senator John McCain, who are pushing for more troops, are pure and well-meaning. I believe they sincerely think this is the best way forward.

Three years ago, I would have agreed with them. However, at this late stage, interjecting more young American troops into the crossfire of an Iraqi civil war is simply not the right approach. We're not going to solve an Iraqi political problem with an American military solution.

KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile, Majority Leader Harry Reid was up on the floor of the Senate.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), Senate Majority Leader: Last night, the president, in choosing escalation, ignored the will of the people, the advice of the Baker-Hamilton commission, and a significant number of top generals, two of whom are commanders in the field. In choosing to escalate the war, the president virtually stands alone.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley followed, arguing Reid and his colleagues needed to do more than just attack Mr. Bush's strategy.

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY (R), Iowa: Anybody who criticizes what the president's proposing or anybody else is proposing or what's been done cannot just get away with criticizing. There's got to be another plan.

I want to hear plans from people who think that what the president's doing is wrong. What would they do?

KWAME HOLMAN: After his morning meeting at the White House, Arizona Republican John McCain, who long has advocated a dramatic increase in U.S. troops, reaffirmed his support for the president.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: I would like to see more, but that's not the point here. The point is, do we have a strategy to clear and hold and build? I believe that we do.

Senators grill Secretary Rice

KWAME HOLMAN: By 10:00, Secretary Rice was posing for pictures with the new chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But the hearing quickly became a scene reminiscent of 1971, when this committee, then chaired by J. William Fulbright, held hearings that turned equally critical of President Nixon's Vietnam policies.

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), Massachusetts (archive footage from 1971): I think this negates very clearly the argument of the president, that we have to maintain a presence in Vietnam.

SEN. JOHN KERRY (current day): This policy is unbelievably off the mark, a failure.

SEN. GEORGE VOINOVICH (R), Ohio: I've gone along with the president on this, and I bought into his dream, and at this stage of the game, I don't think it's going to happen.

KWAME HOLMAN: Newfound skeptics of the administration's policy on Iraq this morning joined longstanding critics of the war, expressing a tone that was set immediately by the chairman, Joseph Biden.

SEN. JOE BIDEN (D), Delaware: For many months now, the American people have understood that our present policy is a failure.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Delaware Democrat turned his attention to the section of the president's plan aimed at limiting the support by Iran and Syria of paramilitary networks inside Iraq.

SEN. JOE BIDEN: Secretary Rice, do you believe the president has the constitutional authority to pursue, across the border into Iraq or Syria, the networks in those countries?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S. Secretary of State: Well, Mr. Chairman, I think I would not like to speculate on the president's constitutional authority or to try and say anything that certainly would abridge his constitutional authority, which is broad as commander-in-chief.

I do think that everyone will understand that the American people -- and I assume the Congress -- expects the president to do what is necessary to protect our forces.

SEN. JOE BIDEN: Madam Secretary, I just want to make it clear, speaking for myself, that if the president concluded he had to invade Iran or Iraq in pursuit of these -- or Syria, in pursuit of these networks, I believe the present authorization granted the president to use force in Iraq does not cover that, and he does need congressional authority to do that. I just want to set that marker.

KWAME HOLMAN: It was the first of several markers committee members set on troop deployments, war funding, political progress in Iraq, and on diplomatic efforts in the region. Connecticut Democrat Christopher Dodd -- one of four announced or prospective 2008 Democratic presidential candidates on the panel -- also honed in on the Iran-Syria matter.

SEN. CHRIS DODD (D), Connecticut: ... but it's awfully difficult understand, Madam Secretary, why we would not try to engage very directly with people here who can play a critical role in providing some stability.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I don't think there's an absence of diplomacy, an absence of a policy toward Iran and Syria. It's just that direct negotiations on this matter put us in the role of supplicant, and I think that's a problem.

KWAME HOLMAN: Republican Chuck Hagel of Nebraska continued the line of questioning, and the combat-decorated Vietnam veteran made plain his displeasure with the secretary's answers.

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL (R), Nebraska: When you were engaging Chairman Biden on this issue on the specific question of, "Will our troops go into Iran or Syria in pursuit, based on what the president said last night?" You cannot sit here today -- not because you're dishonest or you don't understand -- but no one in our government can sit here today and tell Americans that we won't engage the Iranians and the Syrians cross-border.

Some of us remember 1970, Madam Secretary, and that was Cambodia. And when our government lied to the American people and said, "We didn't cross the border going into Cambodia," in fact, we did. I happen to know something about that, as do some on this committee.

So, Madam Secretary, when you set in motion the kind of policy that the president is talking about here, it's very, very dangerous. As a matter of fact, I have to say, Madam Secretary, that I think this speech given last night by this president represents the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam, if it's carried out. I will resist it.

KWAME HOLMAN: Hagel then asked about the troop increase proposal.

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: Putting 22,000 new troops, more troops in, is not an escalation?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, I think, Senator, escalation is not just a matter of how many numbers you put in. Escalation is also a question of, are you changing the strategic goal of what you're trying to do? Are you escalating...

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: Would you call it a decrease, and billions of dollars more that you need for it?

KWAME HOLMAN: Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold became the first senator to suggest that the time had come for Congress to de-fund the Iraq war effort overall.

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD (D), Wisconsin: Congress must use its main power, the power of the purse, to put an end to our involvement in this disastrous war. And I'm not talking here only about the surge or escalation. It is time to use the power of the purse to bring our troops out of Iraq.

KWAME HOLMAN: Rice did receive a sympathetic hearing from a few members of the panel, notably freshman Tennessee Republican Bob Corker.

SEN. BOB CORKER (R), Tennessee: It seems to me that what the administration has tried to put forth is a way for a political process to occur and a political solution to happen. And that is by causing Iraqis to actually feel secure, to feel like they can, in fact, go about a political process in a way that allows people to debate and come to a solution.

KWAME HOLMAN: For Secretary Rice, that amounted to a brief respite from what otherwise was three hours of grilling.

Gates and Pace testify before House

KWAME HOLMAN:  Early this afternoon, Secretary Gates and General Pace took their turn testifying before the House Armed Services Committee and, like Rice, faced their share of skeptics.

REP. SILVESTRE REYES (D), Texas: I hope we're not being snookered again by Prime Minister Maliki here.

REP. NEIL ABERCROMBIE (D), Hawaii: This is the craziest, dumbest plan I've ever seen or heard of in my life!

KWAME HOLMAN: New York Republican John McHugh asked how long the new U.S. troops would stay.

REP. JOHN MCHUGH (R), New York: A year, 18 months, six months? And where do the benchmarks fit in that surge timeframe?

ROBERT GATES, Secretary of Defense: I don't think anybody has a definite idea about how long the surge would last. I think, for most of us, in our minds, we're thinking of it as a matter of months, not 18 months or two years.

KWAME HOLMAN: Democrat Marty Meehan of Massachusetts wondered what happened to the effort to train Iraqi security forces.

REP. MARTY MEEHAN (D), Massachusetts: I think the primary mission of the American forces in Iraq, we've all agreed, has been to stand up a viable security force, Iraqi security force, and I don't see how this is going to help us with that.

ROBERT GATES: I think that that has been the highest priority. The problem that we have faced is that, due to the actions of al-Qaida and others in stoking the sectarian violence, the violence in Baghdad has reached a point where it was difficult for the political process in Baghdad to go any further.

KWAME HOLMAN: Virginia Republican Jo Ann Davis wanted to know if the U.S. was tying down too many of its forces in Iraq.

REP. JO ANN DAVIS (R), Virginia: I want to make sure that we're not backing ourselves into some sort of corner, given the situation that we've got in other parts of the world besides just in Iraq.

PETER PACE, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs: There's zero doubt that any potential competitor on the horizon would meet defeat at the hands of the U.S. military given 20 brigades plussed-up into Iraq and some other threat some place else. That does not mean it would be easy; it does not mean it would be pretty, but it can get done.

KWAME HOLMAN: Like Secretary Rice, Gates did find a few supporters on the House panel, the committee's top Republican, Duncan Hunter, among them.

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER (R), California: Now, last night the president outlined a new strategy for Iraq. And he told us that, in this plan, as a part of the plan, he is going to be calling up reinforcements to carry out the plan. Let me just state that I intend to support him strongly.

KWAME HOLMAN: Secretary Gates will follow up his appearance today with testimony tomorrow before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Secretary Rice appears before House

KWAME HOLMAN: As for Secretary Rice, she also was on the other side of the Capitol by mid-afternoon, appearing before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Tom Lantos, Democrat of California, is its new chairman.

REP. TOM LANTOS (D), California: What the American people are looking for is a responsible plan for de-escalation and not escalation. The president last night provided a plan of escalation.

KWAME HOLMAN: Lantos wondered if the president's plan simply was too late in coming.

REP. TOM LANTOS: You cannot unscramble an omelet. What is the logic behind expecting that approximately 20,000 additional troops, basically in a city, a metropolis deeply divided of five million people, can really turn the corner?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I would agree with you that you need to nip things in the bud. This is a deliberate campaign of armed people who go into neighborhoods and do terrible things. And they have to be stopped, and that's a civil order problem.

KWAME HOLMAN: And while the secretary generally got a warmer reception before the House Committee than she did on the Senate side...

REP. MIKE PENCE (R), Indiana: I want to take a moment to commend the president and our commander-in-chief for deciding not to fail in Iraq and, in consultation with your good offices, Madam Secretary, developing a new strategy.

KWAME HOLMAN: Here, too, Democrats in particular had some very pointed questions for her.

REP. ROBERT WEXLER (D), Florida: So we as the representatives of the American people have the obligation, I would argue, to ask you. We have a whole series of American misjudgments, American mistakes.

Who was it that told the president of the United States, recommended to the president of the United States we had enough troops in Baghdad when, as you described, we knew al-Qaida was about to blow up a Shiite holy site and create a civil war? Why didn't we ask for 40,000 more American troops before that happened to stop it?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Congressman, I want to be very clear about what the president was saying last night. We understand that there were problems with the Baghdad security plan the last time around.

We also understand what those problems were. And we understand, first and foremost, that, without Iraqi buy-in to this plan, it's not going to work. And that's where the president has spent most of his time with Prime Minister Maliki, making certain that he has the Iraqi buy-in and the Iraqi assurances that we need.

KWAME HOLMAN: And while acknowledging the administration has had many setbacks in Iraq, the secretary of state underscored the importance of succeeding.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: If we think about the benefits of giving it all we've got, I think we'll decide that, as a country, we really don't have a choice.

KWAME HOLMAN: Secretary Rice will follow up her long day on Capitol Hill tomorrow, beginning a week-long diplomatic mission to the Middle East and Europe.