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Incoming House Chairman Discusses U.S. Role in Iraq

December 20, 2006 at 6:15 PM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: Today in his news conference, the president said it was essential to what he called “adjust tactics” in Iraq and have Iraqis do more soon, but he concluded by saying, “I believe we’re going to win.” Do you share his optimism?

REP. IKE SKELTON: What is winning? They’ve moved the goalposts on us.

At first, as you know, it was ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. Then it was establishing a democracy. And now it’s quelling the sectarian violence. Really, what is winning in today’s terms?

I don’t know what it is, but what we hope to end up with is a representative, effective government there that has stability throughout the nation, and that’s probably as close to winning as we can really hope for, under the conditions that we have.

You see, the type of conflict has changed. Initially, it was an insurgency, a Sunni-led insurgency, aided by foreign fighters, al-Qaida, criminals, and the like.

And in more recent months, we have now a sectarian conflict between the Shiites and the Sunnis, and actually between the Shiite community itself. And the whole atmosphere and type of conflict has turned into a civil war of sorts.

And what we hope some day will happen within the near future is a stable Iraq. But it’s certainly not happening. And the attacks, as you know, are stepping up. They’re becoming more and more every month. And, frankly, I’m very concerned.

No 'perfect outcome'

Rep. Ike Skelton
D-Mo.
[I]f you don't have stability there in the long run, it can very well bleed over into other countries and you could have a regional, major conflict.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the president is using the description an Iraq that can govern, sustain, and defend itself. Is that a definition that you're willing to use for victory now?

REP. IKE SKELTON: Well, there is no such thing as a perfect outcome to this. We would like to have some stability there, because if you don't have stability there in the long run, it can very well bleed over into other countries and you could have a regional, major conflict.

And if you cut off the oil supply there, and -- it can very -- at least theoretically and probably in practice -- have a regional, if not a multination economic impact, including the United States. So I'm not just sure where the bow waves stop and start in this whole conflict.

You know, I suggested in two letters to the president, before we ever invaded Iraq, that he better have a plan for the aftermath, after the initial conflict. And I had visitors from the State Department and the National Security Council come tell me, "Ike, it will be all right."

But I did predict the potential chaos that, frankly, is coming to pass today.

More U.S. troops in Iraq?

Rep. Ike Skelton
D-Mo.
[I]n order to send the message to the American people, the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people, that we actually should begin some redeployment, actually this year.

RAY SUAREZ: The president wouldn't speak specifically about the idea of sending tens of thousands more troops to Iraq for the near term, the so-called "surge." And he also wouldn't comment on what the service chiefs are telling him. Where do you stand on that?

REP. IKE SKELTON: Well, I don't think it's a real good idea. What's the military mission? You'll notice the president did say in the news conference that they would have to have a specific military mission. I don't know what it would be.

Adding to the patrols in the streets? Being more targets for the insurgency, for the sectarian militias? I'm just not sure what purpose they would serve.

I think that, in order to send the message to the American people, the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people, that we actually should begin some redeployment, actually this year. And let them know Iraq is theirs, and we can't continue to hold their hand all the time.

RAY SUAREZ: So are you closing the door to that troop increase or just saying a necessary precondition is having that mission better defined?

REP. IKE SKELTON: Well, I would think there would be a military mission, but, as you know, the president is the commander in chief. And he has the prerogative to order troops wherever a commander in chief may send them. But in my position in Congress, I have some severe questions about this.

Increasing U.S. forces

Rep. Ike Skelton
D-Mo.
[Increasing troop levels] is a good idea. The problem, of course, is, as always, the funding for these additional young people in uniform.

RAY SUAREZ: The president, as commander in chief, along with his new secretary of defense, are now talking about increasing the size of the Army and the Marine Corps, as a long-term goal. Do you favor this?

REP. IKE SKELTON: Absolutely. I've been saying the Army is too small, based upon testimony in 1995 by the then-personnel chief of the United States Army, Lieutenant General Ted Stroop. He said that we should have at least 40,000 -- now, this is, of course, before we ever went into Iraq in 2003, 1995.

I've been agreeing with General Stroop that we need at least 40,000 more in the Army. You'll notice, last week, testimony in front of the Reserve Commission, the Army chief of staff said we need more end-strength, that is, more troops in the United States Army.

General Conway, the commandant of the Marine Corps, has asked for additional Marines, if the missions were to continue at the same rate that they are today. So it's a good idea. The problem, of course, is, as always, the funding for these additional young people in uniform. For every 10,000 troops, we have to spend $1.2 billion.

RAY SUAREZ: That's a lot of money. Do we have it?

REP. IKE SKELTON: It's a lot of money.

Committee's responsibility

Rep. Ike Skelton
D-Mo.
I think it's important for us to do oversight, to ask questions, to find out why decisions were made, what decisions were made, how they were made.

RAY SUAREZ: In just a few weeks, a Democratic majority will be running the House and Senate, but the president is still running the show. What does an Armed Service Committee, for instance, in new hands have to do? What's the responsibility now?

REP. IKE SKELTON: Under the Constitution, we in Congress are to raise and maintain the military. That's our job. And the commander in chief, of course, is the commander in chief of the forces, under the Constitution.

And in raising and maintaining the military, I think it's important for us to do oversight, to ask questions, to find out why decisions were made, what decisions were made, how they were made. And we're establishing a new subcommittee called the Oversight Investigation Subcommittee of the Armed Services Committee. I think we need to go back to that subcommittee, and I'm sure we will.

RAY SUAREZ: Since Election Day in November, have you heard in the president's public remarks more of a willingness to shift, more of a willingness to converge with what he's going to be hearing from you and your committee, your equivalent in the Senate?

REP. IKE SKELTON: Well, I do know that he has been listening to us. I was invited to have a visit with the president and vice president just a few days ago, and I told them basically what I'm telling you, that I have concerns, and they did listen very carefully to what I said.