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Senators Debate President’s New Iraq Strategy

January 11, 2007 at 1:52 PM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: We’re joined now by California Democrat Barbara Boxer, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and by Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Welcome to you both.

Senator Boxer, you were at the long hearing today with Secretary of State Rice. Did she make a persuasive argument, in your view, for this plan and for the success of this plan?

SEN. BARBARA BOXER (D), California: Well, I can speak for the entire committee — except for just a few — she did not make the case. And the committee view was skeptical, at best, and outright in opposition, I would say, really, if you really look at what everybody said.

And when you have the second-most-senior Republican on the committee saying, and I quote, that the surge is, quote, “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam, if it’s carried out” — that’s Senator Hagel — that, to me, is the strongest of signals to this administration to change course and not go forward with this.

And the only other thing I would say is that I think we saw today in the Foreign Relations Committee the end of the rubberstamp Congress. President Bush is going to be held accountable; he is being held accountable. And the going forward on this surge is going to be very rocky waters for him.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Graham, there was a great deal of skepticism, if not outright rejection, from the Republicans on that committee. What do you say to your fellow Republicans, now that you’ve heard the president lay out his plan, to address their concerns that this just won’t work?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), South Carolina: Well I don’t know if I’m a rubberstamp for the president, but I’m asking Senator Boxer, Senator Hagel and everyone else to be skeptical because so much is at stake. I think the Bush administration has earned skepticism, to be honest with you.

If anybody believes the war has gone well in the last couple years — well, just no one believes that. And what would you ask the president do, to change strategy, because the old strategy is not working?

The one thing I would ask every senator is that the military commander who will be in charge of this new mission is one of the architects of the new strategy. He believes in it. His name is General Petraeus.

Before we act in Congress condemning a new strategy designed to secure victory — not in what I think is a Vietnam, but a battlefront in World War III of extremism versus moderation — I’d just ask the Congress to listen to the general who’s been assigned the mission, who believes in the mission, who’s the architect of the new strategy, and give him a chance to articulate why he thinks he could be successful, what he needs, and ask him the hard questions before we act.

The one thing I would say, in conclusion, is that, whatever problems we have with this new strategy, the one thing that should unite this country is, if we fail in Iraq and we have a failed state, we will be at war for years and years and years as the consequences thereof with many different people.

Reasons for the surge

Sen. Barbara Boxer
And in the Iraq Study Group report, there's a quote from a general there. And basically -- I'm paraphrasing it -- it says, "All the troops in the world will not substitute for a political solution. And it is time for that political solution."

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Graham, let me just follow up with you and ask -- because senators and members of the House today tried to get an answer on this -- how long do you think this surge in troops or escalation in the number of troops need to last to be effective?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: Let's talk about why we're adding additional combat capability. General Petraeus spoke to me yesterday, and he said what I think everybody agrees: A million new troops will not win in Iraq until the Iraqis make the changes they need as a political institution.

And he said that the problem has been we have enough combat capability right now to win any battle with the insurgents. The clearing part is there already. We don't need another soldier or Marine to clear. The problem has been holding.

And five brigades added to the mix in Baghdad would literally double the combat capability, and it would help us hold terrain. And hold for what purpose? For the Iraqi political leadership to reach a compromise on oil revenue with the Sunnis, turn to the Shia militias and say, "Disarm or else," and do the other things that have to be done for us to win.

But we'll never have compromises or democracy with this level of violence. And one way to bring the violence under control is to surge troops to make up for the past mistake of not having troops, co-join them with the Iraqis. And I think that's what General Petraeus will be saying to the country.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Senator Boxer, pick up with that. What is wrong with the idea that, in fact, the political changes needed can't occur as long as this level of violence continues, and that it does take additional American and Iraqi forces to at least create a breathing space?

SEN. BARBARA BOXER: I think the Iraq Study Group answered that question, and this administration turned its back on the Iraq Study Group who said very clearly, at the end of last year -- in other words, immediately -- they today to the president: Call a gathering of all the countries in the area and those who want to help find a solution and find a political solution."

Yes, I think we should listen to generals. For example, General Abizaid, who appeared before the committee on which my good friend, Lindsey Graham, sits and said in November he checked with every single commander on the ground in Iraq and, to a person, they said, "Don't bring more troops into the battle, because that sends the wrong signal to these Iraqi troops."

Now, when I was in Iraq, I met with General Petraeus, and he is an amazing man. And he was so proud at that time that he had trained upwards of 200,000 Iraqis. It is time for them -- now there's about 300,000 -- to defend their own country.

And in the Iraq Study Group report, there's a quote from a general there. And basically -- I'm paraphrasing it -- it says, "All the troops in the world will not substitute for a political solution. And it is time for that political solution."

And then, as one of the experts said to us at the Foreign Relations Committee yesterday, someone who left Iraq because he feared Saddam Hussein, his family did, he said this president is putting the cart before the horse. We want to get a political solution and then enforce that political solution.

And I disagree with my dear friend here. You know, the fact is, we can't just sit back and say, "Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes." We have to demand accountability.

And before we send more of our beautiful, young Americans right into the middle of a civil war -- and let's call what it is, that is what it is, for sure -- and send them to their death, or to the hospital with burns all over their body, or send them into a situation where they lose a limb, let us make sure we have a new strategy, not just a new battle plan which essentially has been tried before and has failed before.

A timeline for Maliki?

Sen. Lindsey Graham
Eighty percent of our casualties come from IED, improvised explosive device explosions. I'm looking for Iraqis to turn in the people who are making the bombs.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Graham, the president said last night that the reason he thought this would work where previous attempts had failed is because the Maliki government was going to bring in additional Iraqi troops, and they really would show up, and, secondly, he wasn't going to interfere politically into where operations could be carried out.

But did you hear anything today that indicated that the U.S. has any leverage with the Maliki government, that there are any guarantees, or assurances, or benchmarks, or consequences if they fail to meet the benchmarks, I guess I should say?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: I think the ultimate leverage with the Maliki government is that he doesn't want his country to sink into the abyss any more than we do. And he's not in good standing with his own people.

I've been to Iraq just about a month ago, and we met with average citizens. And the one thing that Shias, Kurds, and Sunnis have in common is that they don't want to live under this threat of violence and this level of violence.

So you saw yesterday, I think, some efforts by our troops to go into an embassy to get Iranian agents. This is a new strategy. This is not doing the same, old thing with more people; this is a new way of approaching the insurgency.

And it has as its purpose to hold territory we couldn't hold before, to give the politicians a chance to make the hard decisions. You know, people said, "When are you going to make the hard decisions in Iraq?" Well, I don't know when we're going to solve Social Security and immigration here at home, but these things are hard, and it's really hard when you're getting shot at.

MARGARET WARNER: But so how long do you think that the Bush administration should give the Maliki government to demonstrate that at least it is making the efforts that it promised to make?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: I think by November is probably a good -- here's what I'm looking for, Barbara. I mean, I want you to listen to Senator Petraeus. I know you will. I know you're skeptical, and you should be. But listen to Senator -- excuse me, General Petraeus, and let him respond to General Abizaid's comments about more troops, and hear him out.

But here's what I'm looking for. Eighty percent of our casualties come from IED, improvised explosive device explosions. I'm looking for Iraqis to turn in the people who are making the bombs. And they'll never turn those people in if they believe the police and the army can't protect them.

I am looking for some responsibility being put on people who are caught making bombs with a more robust legal system. If between now and November we can have a deal on oil revenue where the Sunnis have something to fight for, for their families, rather than fight against the central government, if we can have a legal system that holds people accountable for trying to overthrow this government, and put pressure on the extremists, then I think we can turn this around.

And if we fail, if we fail, it will be a major loss in the war on terror, and that's unacceptable.

Limiting the president's power

Sen. Barbara Boxer
And the fact is, yes, I think you're going to see us move forward. We're going to do it legislatively. We are sending every possible signal to this president to change course.

MARGARET WARNER: A final quick question. Senator Boxer, do you sense an appetite among fellow Democrats to do anything to limit the president's freedom of action here? Senator Feingold today suggested using the power of the purse to do so.

SEN. BARBARA BOXER: I think there is growing frustration, concern. I noticed that my friend, when he came in, he said to me, "These are hard times."


SEN. BARBARA BOXER: All of us feel that way.


SEN. BARBARA BOXER: And I think Democrats and Republicans are going to join together and try to stop this surge. And I will tell you: Of course I will listen to General Petraeus. I sat and listened to Condoleezza Rice for three hours.

And I would urge my colleague to listen to Chuck Hagel, a hero from Vietnam, who called this an absolute disaster waiting to happen.

And the fact is, yes, I think you're going to see us move forward. We're going to do it legislatively. We are sending every possible signal to this president to change course. Frankly, I don't know who he is listening to. Honestly, I really don't.

MARGARET WARNER: And, briefly, just let me get Senator Graham to respond. Do you think a majority of your fellow Republicans would join in any such effort?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: I think it would be very irresponsible for this Congress to declare a new strategy dead upon arrival before it has a chance to be implemented. I think it would be unwise for the Congress to tell a military commander he can't win before he's had a chance to make the case for winning. I think it would be devastating to our war effort for the Congress to declare Iraq lost by cutting off funding.

The most irresponsible thing we can do as a Congress is be pushed to act before we hear all the facts and send the signals to the people who are trying to kill us that empower them and deflate moderates who will live with us in peace.

Listen to General Petraeus. Don't destroy his ability to win before he has a chance to win.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Boxer and Senator Graham, thank you both.