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Hunter Outlines Iraq Strategy, Immigration Plan

September 26, 2007 at 6:25 PM EDT
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In the newest in a series of interviews with presidential candidates, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., details his ideas for handling illegal immigration in the United States and discusses how his experiences as a veteran shape his views on Iraq war policy.

JIM LEHRER: Now, another in our ongoing series of conversations with Democratic and Republican presidential nomination contenders who are competing in the primary contests. Judy Woodruff has tonight’s.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we are joined by Duncan Hunter of California. He is a 14-term Republican congressman from San Diego and the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee.

Congressman Hunter, it’s good to have you with us.

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER (R), California: Well, great to be with you, Judy. Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Fourteen terms in Congress, that’s a lot of flights back and forth from southern California to Washington, and you are still introducing yourself to voters, is that fair to say?

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER: You know, that’s true. And the funny thing in this presidential race, you fly over cities, and you see hundreds of thousands of houses below you, just specks. And you think, “I’ve got to communicate with all of those folks.” It’s a big challenge.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you say to people when you first go out, whether it’s in Iowa or New Hampshire, South Carolina, what do you want them to know about who Duncan Hunter is?

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER: Well, first, I tell them what I stand for. And they kind of get to know you depending on what kind of event it is. But, you know, in this business, when you’ve got the presidential debates, for example, you’ve got eight, nine, ten guys, you’ve got to become the master of the compact statement, that is, tell people what you’re doing, what you stand for in a very short period of time.

That’s kind of the nature of this electronic world that we live in. You’ve got to be able to give a 30-second sound bite or a one-minute sound bite.

But, you know, I tell people about my background. I’m a guy who joined the U.S. Army after I’d done two years of college and went off, served in Vietnam, came back, got into law school with only — I found one law school in America you could get into with two years of college education. That was in San Diego.

I met my wife in Idaho. In fact, I had a farm in Idaho when I came back from Vietnam. And we came down to San Diego, went to law school. I hung out a shingle in the barrio on the waterfront in San Diego about five blocks south of Chicano Park. In fact, my first office was half of a barber shop there in the barrio. And I went back to see it the other day. It’s been changed back to a barber shop. So there’s no trace of Duncan Hunter in the barrio anymore.

But I practiced law there for four years. And I served largely the Hispanic community. It was a heavily Democrat congressional district, 29 percent Republican. And one day my dad walked in, the greatest man I’ve ever known, and said, “You could win this congressional seat.” It was 1980. And I said, “Gee, dad, maybe I ought to run for assembly or city council.” He said, “No, you’ll just make enemies on the way up.” He said, “You’ve got to run for Congress.” He said, “Ronald Reagan is running for president. The issue is going to be defense and jobs in San Diego.” And he said, “In San Diego, defense does mean jobs, because of the aerospace industry and the shipbuilding industry and all of our defense-related economy.”

And so I ran for Congress in 1980, got elected, got on the Armed Services Committee. And the last four years, I’ve been the chairman until this last year. So it’s been a wonderful opportunity to serve America, and I have enjoyed it a lot.

A long war for Iraq

Rep. Duncan Hunter
So the advanced technology of the day, coupled with the same intent to hurt Americans, manifested I think most strongly in 9/11, is a challenge that will be with us a long time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Being on the Armed Services Committee puts you front and center on so many of the issues before the American people right now. And for the last four years, it has been Iraq. President Bush has said this is a war that is going to be worked on by the next president, by his successor. What do you think about that?

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER: Well, I think it is a long war. I think that the -- I think what we're entering is an era of terrorists with high technology. And those who would do us -- who would hurt Americans, those extremist Islamists in the old days could attack communities with knives and later on with guns, and today we're worried about them attacking at some point with a nuclear device.

So as technology and killing technology becomes more advanced and the person who could kill a person with a knife 100 years ago today can use a suicide bomb strapped around them, or in a car, and kill maybe 100 people, maybe 50 people. So the advanced technology of the day, coupled with the same intent to hurt Americans, manifested I think most strongly in 9/11, is a challenge that will be with us a long time.

And I think what the president was probably saying is there's not going to be any surrender on the Battleship Missouri. This is going to be a long conflict and one that we're going to have to adapt to and have something that is in short supply in this country, and that's patience.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You've said, too, that you think the United States will win, that there will be victory. How do you define that?

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER: Yeah, well, I think we're going to be victorious in this mission in Iraq. And the way we leave in victory in Iraq is to follow this same pattern that we've used for many years when we've expanded freedom around the world.

First thing we did was stand up a free government. We've done that. It's a clumsy government, somewhat inept, but most new governments are. We've stood up a free government. The second step is to stand up a military capability that can protect that free government. And that's the second step that we're working on right now. And the last step is the Americans leave.

Right now, we're standing up the Iraqi army. It's 131 battalions. Most of them have some battlefield experience now. And, you know, Judy, I've heard lots of people in their smooth road books, all of the people who've criticized the way we did Iraq, saying there was really a smooth road you could have taken. I don't think there is any smooth road to occupying a nation and changing it so profoundly.

But those people say we should have kept Saddam Hussein's army in place, and that would have made things a lot easier. Saddam Hussein's army had 11,000 Sunni generals in it, squads of generals who had made their living beating up on the Shiite population. We had to start this army from scratch. We've done that.

As we stand up those 131 battalions and get them battle-hardened, we're going to be able to rotate them into the battlefield and displace America's heavy combat forces, Marines and Army, rotate our guys out of the battlefield and move them back to the United States or other places in Central Command.

I think that the Iraqi government will hold. I think it will be a clumsy government, and I think it will stumble along, as most new governments do, but I think it will hold. And I think the army, the Iraqi army, will be an institution for stability in Iraq.

Now, there will always be bombs going off in Iraq, just as there will always be bombs going off in Israel. And if money and resources could stop bombs from going off, they wouldn't be going off in Israel. But I think that country will hold, and that will accrue to the long-term benefit of our country to have a friend, not an enemy, in that strategic location in the Middle East.

Progress in Iraqi military

Rep. Duncan Hunter
The Iraqi army is led by division commanders and brigade commanders who are Kurdish, who are Sunni, and who are Shiite. So the one place you have some reconciliation is in the army, in the military. That's an indicator for stability.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how long do you think it will take to get to that point that you just...

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER: Well, we've got -- General Petraeus testified to us the other day that 75 percent of the Iraqi forces now are what he calls in the lead in their military operations. They've taken casualties at about three to one over the American forces.

I think it will be faster than we think, because as these forces mature, they're going to be able to step into the battlefield and take this responsibility. A reliable Iraqi army, I think, is a key to an American handoff.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what makes you confident -- you seem confident -- that the Iraqi government will hold, as you put it? What do you see? Because it's been difficult these last few years.

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER: Well, part of it's natural, in that the Iraqi government you have right now is in the majority Shiite. That's because the majority of the population is Shiite. So you don't have a situation where you'll have a minority in the country trying to hold on to a -- in a transition to a democracy, trying to hold onto power. That's sometimes the case.

In this case, the Shiite community is in the majority, and it's in the majority in the government, and yet there are seats that are held by the Kurds and the Sunnis and in the army, when I think this is, again, very important, because I think that the standup of a reliable Iraqi military that's responsive to the civilian arm of government is more important than all of the reconciliation and all of the legislation that we've set as metrics that we feel have to be passed by their government.

The Iraqi army is led by division commanders and brigade commanders who are Kurdish, who are Sunni, and who are Shiite. So the one place you have some reconciliation is in the army, in the military. That's an indicator for stability.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how much should American public opinion and American patience be taken into account in America, in U.S. policy toward Iraq?

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER: Well, I think the people run this country. And I think what this takes, this takes a lot of persuasion, and always informing the people, and talking to them constantly, because this isn't World War II where we finally all got together and moved forward as one, and where there was a lot of momentum for taking this thing down to the goal line.

We're going to have other situations. In fact, we're going to have a confrontation with this challenging situation in Iran, as Iran walks down the path to build a nuclear device and gets closer to what I call the edge of the cliff. The United States is going to have some very difficult challenges, and we're going to need to call on the American people, perhaps, to make -- to make some very tough decisions with respect to Iran.

So this is going to be an era of difficult decisions, difficult challenges, and challenges which will have to be explained to the American people and which leadership will be at a premium.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Any doubt in your mind that Iran will be a threat, will be a problem for U.S. interests in that region, or is that just not clear yet?

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER: Well, unless they change markedly. The interesting thick about the Iranians is they've said that they are -- they claim they have 3,000 centrifuges right now. The IAEA thinks they have maybe 1,000. They need to be able to refine this material to a 90 percent point to build a somewhat sophisticated nuclear weapon, but only to about a 50 percent point to be able to build a crude device, like the ones that were utilized at the end of World War II.

So they are moving forward. They're announcing their progress as they move forward, sometimes overstating their progress, but they appear to be moving forward. And any tough sanctions that we would take are continually blunted by China and Russia. So it becomes more and more improbable that Iran is going to be -- is going to be deterred by sanctions.

Pushing the border fence

Rep. Duncan Hunter
When I built the double-border fence, the smuggling of illegal aliens and narcotics dropped by more than 90 percent in our sector. And the crime rate in the city of San Diego, by FBI statistic, went down 50 percent.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me bring you back home and ask you about a couple of issues, in particular immigration. I looked at your campaign Web site. You say this is one of the -- border security is one of the principle tenets of your campaign. Why do you feel so strongly about this 700-mile-long fence along the border?

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER: You know, when I got this congressional district in San Diego -- what a wonderful place to represent, incidentally, a great, great home for Lynne and I -- I represented at one time the entire California-Mexican border. And when I came into that district, the border between San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico, was the number-one smugglers corridor in America, through which most of the illegal aliens and most of the narcotics that flowed into the entire country traveled. They came through that narrow corridor between Tijuana and San Diego.

It was a no man's land, where at nighttime you would have armed gangs, some with automatic weapons, robbing, raping, murdering illegal aliens as they came across, because when people come across, they usually have lots of cash, their life savings on them. And so these gangs would besiege 20 or 30 people, they could make a lot of money robbing two or three groups of people coming across illegally.

It was so bad we actually had a plain-clothes police force that dressed like illegal aliens in our city police department. They would go down to the border and wait to be attacked by the gangs. I built that double-border fence, and that's two fences with a Border Patrol road in between, and I wrote the law to mandate that fence's construction when the Clinton administration came into power, was in power, but when the Republicans came into power in 1994.

When I built the double-border fence, the smuggling of illegal aliens and narcotics dropped by more than 90 percent in our sector. And the crime rate in the city of San Diego, by FBI statistic, went down 50 percent. So I wrote the law in October that extends the San Diego border fence, actually 854 miles across Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

The smuggler's corridors of those areas, we don't take them across the cliffs of the Big Bend National Park or the extremely rugged areas. We take them across the areas where they're smuggling most of the people.

To date, the Bush administration has built very little of the double fence. I saw Mr. Chertoff the day before yesterday. He said they've done 70 miles of single fence, but I could -- I will finish that entire fence, 854 miles, in six months. And I think that's even more of a security issue today than an immigration issue. We have to know who's coming into this country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You also have been adamant in saying that you think that the illegals, known illegals in this country should be deported. How do you go about finding them?

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER: Well, I think, to some degree, we're like a boat that's got a big hole in it, and we're bailing water furiously. You have to plug the hole in the boat, which means you have to secure the border.

Once you secure the border, we have a deportation system, in fact, for people that say, "You can't deport people by the thousands," we deport thousands of people from this country every month. And if we don't, if we don't adhere to the law, the many people who are here right now, the millions of people who are here right now, who came in illegally after the amnesty of the 1980s, came in after the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House held up a big sign and we said, "This time we really mean it," 1986, I believe. We said, "We really mean it. Nobody else can come in illegally." And folks came in illegally and left tire tracks on those signs.

Now, if you don't have -- if we don't follow the law, if we say, "OK, we didn't really mean it, we're going to have another amnesty," you will have another wave of people trying to get in to catch what they perceive will be the third amnesty.

So you have to follow the law. And besides that, you've got people waiting in line. And whether it's ever stated or not, the number of people that have to wait in line, follow the law, actually are put off and are delayed because of the huge number of people who take cuts in that line by coming in illegally, so you've got to have a law. And you've got to follow the rule of law.

And we're like a house that doesn't have any sides to it. And we argue over how wide the front door should be open. We have the biggest front door in the world in this country. We've got to have sides on the house. And that's what the border fence and Border Patrol will comprise.

Conservatism and the Republicans

Rep. Duncan Hunter
I like to find common ground. And I think there's a lot of common ground in a strong national defense, an enforceable border, and high-paying manufacturing jobs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You've also said several times you're the most conservative in this race for president, on the Republican side. Obviously, some of your opponents would disagree with that. How do you flesh that out? What makes you the most conservative?

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER: Well, I was really thinking of the three of the particular guys in this race, Mr. Giuliani, and Mr. Romney, and Mr. McCain. And I was listening to them in one of the debates talk about what they perceived to be their accomplishments.

And Mr. Romney has, of course, a mandated health care insurance program in Massachusetts that Teddy Kennedy applauded and, in my estimation, is very close to a socialized system. Mr. Giuliani, of course, strongly supported the Clinton gun bans and went to the signing ceremony, and that was a major ban on firearms that the Clinton administration administered in 1994. And, of course, my friend, John McCain, joined up with Teddy Kennedy to put together the amnesty bill.

So it occurred to me that these three gentleman have -- apparently their largest legislative achievements had been achievements in which they joined with Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts in pushing legislation. So it simply reflected to me that that was, to some degree, the Ted Kennedy wing of the Republican Party, not the conservative wing of the Republican Party. But there's other very conservative people in this race, obviously.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Something happening tomorrow night, a forum, actually sponsored by PBS, being hosted by Tavis Smiley, geared toward issues of importance to voters of color. Now, you're participating. A number of your opponents are not. Are they making a mistake?

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER: Oh, I think so. I think when you're going to be -- when you're running for the presidency, when you're running for the presidency of the United States, that includes everybody. And, you know, I don't custom-make messages.

I think that the -- you know, when I ran as a conservative Republican in a two-to-one Democrat seat, it was heavily black. It included all of the major black community in San Diego, the major Hispanic community in San Diego, and the major Asian-American community in San Diego. And I won in that district and won in variations of that district since.

And, you know, I think all Americans -- I like to find common ground. And I think there's a lot of common ground in a strong national defense, an enforceable border, and high-paying manufacturing jobs. And one place where I break with the rest of my colleagues is, I'm not one of these purist free-traders. I think we've made terrible trade deals, and we've pushed a lot of great manufacturing jobs offshore, especially to communist China, because of bad trade deals and because of allowing China to cheat on trade.

And I think that working Americans, middle-class Americans, represent the promise of the Republican Party. And we're going to have to reach out and grab those Reagan Democrats by the heartstrings. And one way we can do that is with jobs, bringing back high-paying manufacturing jobs to this country. That's what I'm going to talk about tomorrow night.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, we looked at the history books. There's only one other sitting member of the House of Representatives who's been directly elected president, elected to the White House. That was James Garfield in 1880. Those are pretty tough odds. What makes you think you can pull off another Garfield?

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER: Well, I know, I figured it's been so long, it's about time. I think we're due. But this is an extraordinary part of our history. This really is the first open race for the presidency in many decades, as you know. There is no heir apparent to the nomination stepping out of the vice presidency.

And this is truly an open race, and that's why you have so many people in it. And I'm going to do everything I can to win this race. And while I'm at it, as you know, my son is running from Congress from Afghanistan as a U.S. Marine. So we're a full-service family right now. We've got -- Mrs. Hunter has got a lot of irons in the fire trying to support all of us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Congressman Duncan Hunter, we thank you very much for joining us.

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER: Hey, thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We appreciate it.