Senator Warner Recommends New Course in Iraq
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GWEN IFILL: Senator Warner, thank you for joining us.
SEN. JOHN WARNER (R), Virginia: My privilege.
GWEN IFILL: The resolution of disapproval that you are sponsoring, you said it was not meant to be a confrontation with the president, but it is a rejection of the president’s policy, is it not?
SEN. JOHN WARNER: No. Let’s read the four corners. First, the president, when he laid down his plan on January the 10th, explicitly invited any members of Congress who so desired to make recommendations. Our resolution is not a confrontational document.
Secondly, we do not call for any reduction in the current level of troops, nor do we suggest that there’s any time table. We don’t use the word “withdrawal.”
We simply say, Mr. President, we disagree with that high level that you suggested of 20,500. And, Mr. President, we urge you to go back and look at all of the options whereby you can possibly employ fewer troops.
And further, Mr. President, as you undertake nine different geographic areas in Baghdad, you’ll start with one or two, and then, sequentially in a period of time with additional troops, go to the next and next. Let’s take a look at the action in the first instance and determine if the Iraqi government and the Iraqi troops did the job that Prime Minister Maliki promised.
One, they all arrived. They didn’t arrive, as you know, in the previous Baghdad surge operation this summer, certainly not in the numbers they committed.
Secondly, once those troops are in action, under the joint command of an American — with the American troops and with Iraqi troops, the political arm of the Maliki government doesn’t reach in and say, “Stop this, or don’t do that, or release this prisoner.” That’s over and gone, as we understand it.
And, lastly, I’m concerned about the American G.I., man or woman, being injected into the sectarian violence of Sunni firing on Shia, Shia firing on Sunni and trying to kill each other.
We gave them their nation. It is a sovereign nation now. We’re there to try and make that government succeed or whatever successive government may come along. But not the G.I. to get into religious controversies, the hatreds, the animosity that has grown up between these two factions, two cultural parts of the Muslim world.
GWEN IFILL: Does the current government -- is it capable of doing the kinds of things you would like it to see the next, what, 60 days?
SEN. JOHN WARNER: You know, just an hour ago, I was before a panel in open session of the Congress in the Senate with the intelligence team, the top team. I asked them precisely: Give us your best estimate as to the viability of the Maliki government to carry forth and fulfill its commitments.
It hasn't been fully answered yet to my satisfaction. I am concerned that he has made a lot of promises which haven't been fulfilled. He has failed to take such enormous dollar benefits that we have given to Iraq and improve the daily life of its citizens, be it medical care, education, clean up the streets, and, above all, security.
So there's not been a record of success, and this is what concerns me, because we're putting a big bet on the Maliki government being able to deliver with this new plan to the president. As a matter of fact, much of the plan we're told was derived from Maliki's suggestions to the president.
Now, all we've had by Maliki is words; we want to see deeds. And that's why our resolution says: Let's look at the first military operation, the first section of Baghdad, and if they have not met their benchmarks and commitments, then, Mr. President, we better sit down and rethink whether we go to the second, the third, and the fourth, and the fifth, and the sixth, and seventh, and the ninth.
GWEN IFILL: You think the United States should be imposing benchmarks, time tables?
SEN. JOHN WARNER: You bet. We're committing our young men and women; it seems to me it's essential. We're committing our...
GWEN IFILL: The president has said otherwise.
SEN. JOHN WARNER: What do you mean?
GWEN IFILL: He has said he doesn't believe that timetables or benchmarks are a good idea.
SEN. JOHN WARNER: I didn't say timetables. You used the word "benchmarks." I feel very strongly that there should be benchmarks, benchmarks which are specified so we know beforehand what they are, and benchmarks that they must meet, in this senator's judgment, if we're going to continue successive operations in Baghdad.
Public support is 'essential'
GWEN IFILL: Tonight the president delivers his State of the Union speech. And today there are a raft of polls out which show that Americans believe the president may be inflexible on this and perhaps is not listening to people. Do you think the president is listening?
SEN. JOHN WARNER: I went to three or four meetings with the president prior to his laying down the plan. I think he listened very carefully, not just to this senator, but to all of us in the room. So I think he listens.
But you come back to the American public. I'm very responsive. I'm not one that's guided by polls, but I listen carefully. And I think it's essential we have the public -- they support the troops. And that's the difference between Vietnam. They somehow lost support for the troops when those young men and women came back.
I was secretary of the Navy then. I saw that. We do not want a repeat of that. And, fortunately, we have the strongest support in the American public for the troops today.
But for the strategy, I think it's also essential to have the American public understand, what are the risks associated with this new plan? And to manifest their own support in it; likewise we should have the highest level of bipartisanship here in the Congress to support the president's program.
This is one of the reasons that I put that resolution in, to point the need out for that type of support.
Safeguarding the troops
GWEN IFILL: Americans watching this action this week on the Senate say, there are million different ideas about how to respond to the president's plan. Are you telling me that you're all trying to come to some sort of common conclusion, agreement?
SEN. JOHN WARNER: I don't think it's a million, but there are several plans out there. And I say they should be considered.
I think it's important that we have a debate and conduct that debate in such a way that it's not injurious to that fighting man or woman, whether it be in Iraq or Afghanistan, or wherever it might be, but it is constructive, showing the role of the Congress concerned about their welfare, and putting them into such situations as sectarian violence.
I think the Iraqis ought to take that mission on. Take our brigades and put them out where the Iraqis in Iraq are now stationed, bring their troops from other areas, and bring them to Baghdad. We've trained over 188,000 of these individuals. Certainly there have got to be 20,000, or 25,000, or 30,000 that can be moved from one area -- they are moving some, but they should move more -- and let our troops take over where they were while they come and take on this sectarian violence.
A vocal opposition
GWEN IFILL: How significant is it at this stage of the president's term, is it, that senior Republicans such as yourself are raising major questions about his policy in Iraq?
SEN. JOHN WARNER: It's our duty. We're co-equal branches of government. We're not a parliamentary system like Great Britain, where everybody, you know, is of the party of the prime minister with the opposition party on the other side.
We're a separate branch. We're proud. I've been supportive of the president through these many years, tough decisions. But I think he's been right in many instances. Where he hasn't been right, I've spoken out on it.
Look, I came back from Iraq in, let me see, October of last year. And I said, quite frankly, in a press conference, this situation is not improving, it's worsening. It's moving sideways. It's directionless. And that caused quite a stir around here, as did others. I'm not just taking claim for it.
And the president quite correctly and responsively said, 'every section of his government, state, defense, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, his own staff, let's go and re-examine this strategy to see if a new one should be put in place.'
And he has done that. And I commend him for the procedures he went through. I simply say now, Mr. President, with all due respect, here are our heartfelt ideas for possible modification.
GWEN IFILL: Senator Warner, thank you very much.
SEN. JOHN WARNER: Thank you.