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Senate Committee Votes to Oppose President’s Iraq Strategy

January 24, 2007 at 11:15 PM EST
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GWEN IFILL: Two prominent senators are going against the tide within their own parties on Iraq. Connecticut’s Joe Lieberman, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, says congressional resolutions could undercut the warriors on the ground. And Nebraska’s Chuck Hagel, a Republican, argues that the full Senate should be heard, that if lawmakers want, quote, “a safe job, they should go sell shoes.”

Both join us now. Welcome, gentlemen.

Senator Hagel, as Ray Suarez just reported, you were the only senator on this committee today who approved this resolution — in fact, you were a cosponsor of it. You heard what Senator Lugar had to say about what the president would do, and Vice President Cheney said today that, as far as he was concerned, that “the resolution won’t stop us.”

So what can a resolution force the president to do?

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL (R), Nebraska: Well, first, if, in fact, the Senate passes a resolution, that’s rather significant. Let’s think about this for a moment, what that does say.

The United States Senate is part of a co-equal branch of our government. It’s worked pretty well for 200 years, Gwen. For a president to step away from that — if, in fact, we would pass a resolution, putting the Senate on record opposing his plan — that’s rather significant, and it represents the voices of the people we represent.

The fact is, on November 7th of last year, there was an election, and I think it’s quite clear. Some of the senators who are not back and House members who are not back went down because of one predominant issue, and that is the American people wanted a change in direction, not just on Iraq, but a number of things.

Politics is accountable. There are consequences to this. The process is accountable. The United States Senate needs to have this debate. We need to be on record. All 100 senators need to step up, explain, if they support the president wanting to insert 22,000 more troops in Iraq, then they should explain to their constituents why they support that. If you don’t, explain why not.

No one wants defeat here. This is a very, very dishonest witch hunt that some are on. Somehow it’s either cut and run or defeatist versus send more troops in. No, that’s not the debate here.

We have not had a real, legitimate debate in four years on the most divisive issue facing this country since Vietnam. The fact is, we are already divided. Look at where the American people are on this.

The president can’t sustain a war policy. He can’t sustain any policy. He can’t govern without the support of the American people. That’s why this debate is important.

Congress' responsibility

Sen. Joseph Lieberman
ID-Conn.
If members of Congress are opposed to the troop increase, then I think what they should do is to use the power given to Congress by the Constitution, and that is to directly try to cut off funds for additional troops in Iraq.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Lieberman, you just heard Senator Hagel say that, in fact, the Senate and Congress has a responsibility as a co-equal branch of government to weigh in on this. This is a point that Senator Warner also told us on this program last night.

Do you think that that's not the application that should be used here?

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (I), Connecticut: Here's what I think, Gwen. Congress obviously has responsibilities when it comes to war, and so does the president. The president is the commander in chief. He has, in my belief, the obvious power to order more troops into battle if he believes that will achieve a victory and success in Iraq, which is important to our security.

The Congress has the power to authorize war, which has been done, and to appropriate, to support that war. If members of Congress are opposed to the troop increase, then I think what they should do is to use the power given to Congress by the Constitution, and that is to directly try to cut off funds for additional troops in Iraq.

Otherwise, what is being done here -- with all respect -- is a nonbinding resolution. It will have no effect on the conduct of the war. But as Senator Lugar, former chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, now the senator Republican on the committee, said today it will send a message of disarray and division, both to our friends and our enemies in Iraq and, more broadly, in the world.

And I raised the question about whether that's worth it, since it will have no effect on our policy.

I want to say one other word about this. Late this afternoon, the Senate Armed Services Committee, on which I'm privileged to serve, unanimously approved the president's nomination of General David Petraeus to be the commander of our forces in Iraq.

Yesterday, our committee heard General Petraeus. He's most impressive. He's our number-one military expert on counterinsurgency, which is just what we have to do in Iraq.

He said to us: Mistakes have been made in Iraq, but this is a new plan. It's different. It has military, economic and political components to it. He believes it can and will work to achieve the kind of stability that will allow the Iraqis to do what we all agree is the ultimate solution to this, which is to take hold of their own country.

So we're sending a mixed message here, to both confirm General Petraeus, and then to say we're not for the plan and the support he says he needs to achieve victory or success in Iraq. I think that's a mistake.

I think we ought to give General Petraeus a chance, along with 160,000 Americans in uniform, who will be serving under him, to succeed in Iraq. It may be the last chance, but I think it's worth giving them that chance.

Having a 'legitimate debate'

Sen. Chuck Hagel
R-Neb.
Those men and women that we ask to fight and die, they deserve a policy worthy of their sacrifices. They, in my opinion, do not have that policy today.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Hagel, Senator Lieberman said many things, among them that there's a certain fish-or-cut-bait quality to this, that there should be a vote, if you oppose this, to just simply cut off the funding for this enterprise. It's something Vice President Cheney said again today; it's something the White House had said. Why not?

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: Well, first of all, we may get to that. I hope not. That's why we are doing what we are doing now, to have a legitimate debate. We started in the legitimate oversight committee of the Senate that has responsibility for foreign policy. That's the Foreign Relations Committee.

We will have, I hope, a very significant debate next week, lay it out, let people know where we are, why, ask questions, probe the issue. Should, in fact, we insert 22,000 more Americans or not?

Let's look at a couple of facts here. We're beyond disarray. We're beyond division. We've got anarchy and very clearly defined tribal sectarian civil war in Iraq. That's happening right now.

You talk about General Petraeus. He's one of the finest generals maybe we've ever had. But if the policy is flawed, he will fail.

Let's go back to a couple other generals that we heard from in Joe Lieberman's Armed Services Committee in November. General Abizaid, General Casey, General Chiarelli made comments on this in the last 60 days. All three said, "We don't need more troops there." General Chiarelli, the three-star general in charge of Baghdad, said, "I don't need more American troops. I need more Iraqi jobs."

So this is not quite as clear a situation as some would like to present it, that somehow, well, if you don't support those increase in troops and just cut off funds. We're far more responsible than that; that is a false choice. That's irresponsible.

The way we're doing this is the responsible way. The American people expect it; they deserve it.

But, most important, those men and women that we ask to fight and die, they deserve a policy worthy of their sacrifices. They, in my opinion, do not have that policy today.

General Petraeus doesn't set policy. We set policy. The commander-in-chief sets policy. A co-equal branch of government does that. General Petraeus deals with the policy that he is assigned to implement.

The case for more troops

Sen. Joseph Lieberman
ID-Conn.
This is a very thought-out plan. Dave Petraeus supports it. He helped to write it, and he told us point-blank that, if we don't give him this extra support, he's not going to be able to achieve the mission that he's been given.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Senator Lieberman actually to defend the policy that he supports, which is the decision to send these additional troops. Why is that a good idea?

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: First, let me say that General Petraeus testified to our committee yesterday that he was, as the number-one expert, the person who literally wrote the American military book on counterinsurgency, he was part of this new plan.

It has military, 22,000 extra troops, but it also has economic and political components and clear demands on the Iraqis, benchmarks of what they've got to do, to basically deserve our continued involvement to protect them.

Why do I think it will work? And, again, I'm listening to General Petraeus. There is a cycle of sectarian violence in Baghdad. It's not armies of Shia and the Sunni clashing in open civil war.

But until that stops in the capital city, there's not a chance either to create the economic growth that will tell the average Iraqi in Baghdad that they've got a chance to live a better life, nor is there the stability that will allow the Iraqi government to do what they want them to do, to begin to govern.

You know, there's a number of Iraqi government officials that just aren't in Baghdad anymore, and that's just unacceptable. You're not going to be able to build a government if that happens.

There's a second front in Anbar province, to the west of Baghdad. I visited there, as I did in Baghdad, in December. There we're in a different kind of battle. It's not sectarian violence. It is us and the Sunni leadership of that province against al-Qaida in Iraq, which has said that it wants to create the capital of a new Islamic extremist caliphate there in Anbar province.

We're making progress there. An additional 4,000 troops, which is part of the 21,000 that the president is sending, I think will turn that conflict in Anbar in the right direction, and actually it has the potential to achieve a victory for us.

So this is a very thought-out plan. And, again, I say, Dave Petraeus supports it. He helped to write it, and he told us point-blank that, if we don't give him this extra support, he's not going to be able to achieve the mission that he's been given.

The 'stomach' for success?

Sen. Chuck Hagel
R-Neb.
Nowhere in the president's so-called new plan, which we've really not seen, is there any focus on any new political initiatives or diplomatically focused initiatives.

GWEN IFILL: A final question, and for you both, and once again from Vice President Cheney. His interview, Senator Hagel, today at CNN, he said that part of what's going on here is that people do not have the stomach to complete this mission. Senator Hagel, your response to that?

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: Oh, I'm so sorry the vice president so underestimates the people of this country. He has so little faith in this country to say something like that. That's an astounding statement from the vice president of the United States.

You're telling me -- or maybe more directly, maybe the vice president should tell the families of those who have lost their lives, over 3,000, and over 23,000 wounded, some very seriously for life, that they don't have the stomach? Come on, let's get real here.

That is the last bastion of no facts, and no realities, and not having a real argument, or being afraid, or being afraid of a real debate.

I want to add one other thing on General Petraeus, to what my good friend Joe Lieberman said. General Petraeus has just written the new field manual on counterinsurgency. You know what he said is the most important ingredient, dynamic of successful counterinsurgency strategy? Political strategy. He said it was even more important than military strategy.

Nowhere in the president's so-called new plan, which we've really not seen, is there any focus on any new political initiatives or diplomatically focused initiatives.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Lieberman, on whether the Senate or Congress has the stomach to finish this job?

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: Yes. Well, look, let me agree with Chuck Hagel. One group that definitely has the stomach, and the heart, and the head for this fight is the American military. I mean, they're committed to it.

I'll tell you, one of the things that sustains my support for what we're doing is the communication I have with our soldiers over there and here when they come back. They believe in the mission. They want more support, reinforcements of troops to help them finish the fight, which they believe they can win.

When it comes to the American people and their support for the war, honestly, I think we've got to, as political leaders, take blame ourselves. This is a different kind of war. And when every night people see the suicide bombings, they're disappointed.

They want to see success, and I think we've got to explain to them that the alternative here is to hang in there and try to win this for the majority of Iraqis who are not involved in sectarian violence or terrorism, but just want to live a freer and better life, and that we cannot surrender their future and, in some sense, ours to those suicide bombers.

Sp I think we've got a bigger job to do and have to do a better job at convincing the American people to stick with us. We have a lot on the line as Americans, in terms of how this fight ends.

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: And we'll have an opportunity -- we'll have an opportunity to do that with a thorough, open, honest, transparent debate on the Senate floor, which I hope we will get.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: We both look forward to that.

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: That's why it's important, regardless of whether it's binding or nonbinding. And why do we have some senior officials in this government run away from that?

GWEN IFILL: OK, well, we will be following all of that. That will be the last word. Thank you, Senator Joseph Lieberman, Senator Chuck Hagel.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: Thanks, Gwen.

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: Thank you.