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House Members Discuss Petraeus, Crocker Iraq Hearing

April 9, 2008 at 6:15 PM EDT
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Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker briefed Congress for a second day Wednesday, discussing the situation in Iraq with lawmakers in the House. Two House members reflect on the hearings and the road ahead for Iraq policy.
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GWEN IFILL: Now that Congress has been briefed on the military and the diplomatic challenges in Iraq, what comes next? For that, we’re joined by two members of the House. Xavier Becerra is a Democrat from California and assistant to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Adam Putnam is a Republican from Florida and chairman of the House Republican Conference.

Welcome to you both.

REP. XAVIER BECERRA (D), Calif.: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Becerra, you heard what Congressman Burton was saying a few minutes ago about what it is American people want to know about this war. When you talk to people in your district, when you travel home to a district where you were re-elected on the idea that perhaps the war could end, after what you’ve heard this week from General Petraeus and from Ambassador Crocker, what do you tell them?

REP. XAVIER BECERRA: I tell them that I still haven’t heard a plan, an exit plan, a clear mission that, after five years, more time than we spent in World War II, 4,000 lives lost, close to 30,000 Americans wounded, and over $500 billion spent, we have very little to show for it.

And we are fighting every day in Congress to try to change the course. But as you’ve heard from the general and the ambassador, the occupant in the White House is determined to keep us there, no end in sight.

GWEN IFILL: No end in sight? Let me ask that question to Adam Putnam. Is that true? Is that the same thing you’re hearing from folks in your district?

REP. ADAM PUTNAM (R), Fla.: Well, in my district, I’m fortunate to represent the servicemen and women who live around MacDill Air Force Base and Central Command and Special Operations Command.

And those families tell me that they don’t want the sacrifice of the last five years to have been for naught. They tell me that what they see on the ground is a more secure Iraq as a result of the surge plan that General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker have implemented.

They tell me that, while there’s a lot of talk in Washington about the cost of the war, there’s not enough discussion about the cost of losing this war. And here we are, five years later, and thank the good lord there has not been another attack on American soil.

Al-Qaida is on the run. Al-Qaida does not have a base of operations in the Middle East because of the presence of the American forces and the training that they have given to the Iraqi forces.

Surge's gains 'not irreversible'

GWEN IFILL: So when General Petraeus, Mr. Putnam, talks about the fragile situation on the ground, the fragile success on the ground in Iraq, what does that tell you? Does that tell you that there should be some sort of plan put in place for a gradual drawdown or that everyone should stay the course?

REP. ADAM PUTNAM: Well, let's not forget that, because of the success of the surge, and as part of General Petraeus' plan, five brigades are on their way home. And so we have drawn down the number of troops in Iraq from their high.

The other thing that I take from General Petraeus' testimony is that the progress in Iraq has been significant, but it is not irreversible. In other words, it is fragile.

And so we cannot allow the gains that have been secured as a result of that surge to fall back as a result of a precipitous withdrawal that then creates that vacuum for violence. It creates a humanitarian crisis that would rival the killing fields of Cambodia in the 1970s, and it has a direct impact on the economy of the United States.

I mean, you heard an awful lot of discussion in that opening clip about the costs. Well, we're dealing with gas prices in the United States that are a dollar more per gallon today than at the beginning of the 110th Congress.

Imagine what they would do if you totally destabilized Iraq and put the pipeline in Basra into the hands of insurgents instead of into the hands of what is now a competent Iraqi army and police force.

Bogged down with no way out?

GWEN IFILL: Let me direct some of the points you just made to Mr. Becerra. I wonder whether any of that rings true to you or, just as important, I suppose, rings true to the folks you represent?

REP. XAVIER BECERRA: Gwen, the question I would ask is, what was the price of gas before we launched the invasion of Iraq?

The reason that prices are very unstable when it comes to gasoline is because there's an unstable, even more unstable region in the world as a result of this invasion. We are costing ourselves so much lives, money, lost opportunities here at home. And members of our communities are losing their jobs and their homes.

We need to have a different course. We need to change the direction of this country. And you can't just continue to say, "Things are getting better." It's one of these catch-22s. When things are going poorly, the president says, "We can't leave because they're going poorly." When things have gotten a little bit better militarily, he says, "We can't leave because we're having some success."

The reality is the Iraqis have to step up so we can stand down. And we are in the midst of a civil war where the Iraqis -- it used to be the Shia against the Sunnis, Sunni against the Shia. Now it's even Shia against Shia.

And so we're in the middle. We're a very expensive private security force for the Iraqi government that's unwilling to resolve its problems.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you about something that Mr. Petraeus, General Petraeus suggested, which is that after July that any drawdown be paused. Is that something that you think is workable?

REP. XAVIER BECERRA: Again, the so-called surge was never a surge. It was just an escalation. It's a continuation of the "stay the course" on steroids. And now we're going to have more troops still in Iraq, even with this so-called drawdown, than we had before the so-called surge occurred.

It's a failed policy that doesn't have a plan. These are Keystone Kops looking at the fork in the road and deciding to go backwards instead of taking even the fork in the road.

It's very difficult to say, because I agree with Adam. Our men and women are fighting with great, great determination. They're doing everything we're asking of them. The problem is I'm not sure we know what we're really wanting as a result of asking them for their service.

U.S. politics meets Iraq strategy

GWEN IFILL: You know, Mr. Putnam, I hear you and Mr. Becerra talking, pretty much making the same arguments that you would have been making five years ago about this war, certainly two years ago about this war.

I wonder if, when you go home to your districts, whether anybody gets exasperated about what's being discussed in Washington, whether anything that we saw this week, with the general and the ambassador, signals that maybe this argument is about to be pitched forward?

REP. ADAM PUTNAM: Well, let me begin by just saying that I don't think that my friend from California intended to refer to the leaders of the war effort as Keystone Kops. I'm confident that that's not the case...

REP. XAVIER BECERRA: You're correct.

REP. ADAM PUTNAM: ... that General Petraeus is not the Keystone Kops and Ambassador Crocker is not Keystone Kops.

REP. XAVIER BECERRA: That's correct.

REP. ADAM PUTNAM: We can disagree about the policy, but I think we all hold our troops in the highest of esteem.

REP. XAVIER BECERRA: I agree.

REP. ADAM PUTNAM: And there is something of a credibility gap here, though, I think in that, prior to the surge, we saw Democratic leaders come to the microphones and the cameras and say, "The war is lost. The surge can't possibly work." Obviously, public approval of the war last September was at an all-time low.

The surge did work. And we're seeing a reluctant admission of that by people who declared that it never could and that the war was already lost.

The surge clearly did work. And the public recognizes it, because the public support of what's going on over there has risen because they have seen the success of our military, of the security situation, because of, I think, the genius behind this plan and the service of General Petraeus and all the men and women under him who have implemented that.

Now, there, I think, is bipartisan frustration that the Iraqi parliament has not fully maximized that security situation, although they have made substantial progress on reconciliation, sharing of oil revenues, et cetera, but there's more yet to be done.

And on a bipartisan basis, I think that we can move forward in asking the Iraqi people or specifically the Iraqi government to transition more of the domestic burden of this, the reconstruction costs, onto the Iraqi government just as we are transitioning security responsibilities onto the Iraqi army and police force.

Both sides firmly dug in

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Becerra, finally, if you listen to Mr. Putnam, it sounds like the Republicans are invested in victory and the Democrats are invested in defeat. What are the American people invested in?

REP. XAVIER BECERRA: Gosh, it's so frustrating, because I think Adam and I don't veer very far from each other on believing that our military is doing everything we're asking of them.

If we had 500,000 troops in Iraq, things would be even more stable. But that's not the point. We didn't take out Saddam Hussein to then have hundreds of thousands of troops there forever and ever to try to stabilize the Iraqi government.

We went in there because we were told that they would come together. They haven't; they've not been willing to. And so, until they do, we're acting like very expensive police, taking all the shots.

And I think the American public has every right to be frustrated. Our generals and our soldiers are simply following commands.

The Keystone Cops are not on the field. It's the folks that are making the policy decisions that have left us in this tremendous, tremendous debacle we see in Iraq.

There is a way to get out of this. But I don't see the occupant in the White House talking at all about doing that.

GWEN IFILL: Same question to you, Mr. Putnam, briefly.

REP. ADAM PUTNAM: Look, let's recap the successes that we've seen over there, because we really were talking about this -- we were having this debate in a very different framework the last time General Petraeus appeared on the Hill.

And, frankly, there has been a noticeable lack of press attention to this visit, because things are so much better on the ground, because there is a widespread acknowledgment that the surge worked, that we have seen their economy take root, and it's growing 7 percent a year, to the point that the Iraqi government has a surplus that we're talking about using for reconstruction.

People open small businesses. People feel safe on the streets because of the security that was brought to them with American leadership, training the Iraqi forces.

We are seeing their political reconciliation move ahead. We are seeing Anbar province, which has gone from being the most violent, dangerous place on Earth, to being a place that is now secure and under Iraqi control.

We're seeing five brigades come home from Iraq. All of these things are tangible progress in Iraq brought to you by the sacrifice of the American people and particularly our servicemen and women. We can't walk away from that.

GWEN IFILL: And we will have to leave it there. Adam Putnam and Xavier Becerra, thank you both very much.

REP. ADAM PUTNAM: Thank you.

REP. XAVIER BECERRA: Thanks, Gwen.