Report Reveals Mixed Progress on Iraq Benchmarks
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KWAME HOLMAN: The president’s interim report charting progress in Iraq was part of the deal he made with Congress last May in exchange for continued war funding. Meeting with White House media in the newly refurbished press room this morning, the president offered two interpretations of that report.
GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: Those who believe that the battle in Iraq is lost will likely point to the unsatisfactory performance on some of the political benchmarks. Those of us who believe the battle in Iraq can and must be won see the satisfactory performance on several of the security benchmarks as a cause for optimism.
Our strategy is built on a premise that progress on security will pave the way for political progress. So it’s not surprising that political progress is lagging behind the security gains we are seeing.
KWAME HOLMAN: But when asked what he thought of current efforts in Congress to set timelines for troop withdrawals, the president was unequivocal.
GEORGE W. BUSH: I don’t think Congress ought to be running the war. I think they ought to be funding our troops. I’m certainly interested in their opinion, but trying to run a war through resolution is a prescription for failure, as far as I’m concerned, and we can’t afford to fail.
I’ll work with Congress; I’ll listen to Congress. Congress has got all the right to appropriate money. But the idea of telling our military how to conduct operations, for example, or how to deal with troop strength is — I don’t think it makes sense. I don’t think it makes sense today, nor do I think it’s a good precedent for the future.
KWAME HOLMAN: But at the Capitol, House Democrats were charging ahead with a plan to pull out U.S. troops by next spring.
CONGRESSMAN: This war is not worthy of another drop of human blood.
KWAME HOLMAN: And members of both parties used the administration’s report to support their arguments. Tennessee Democrat John Tanner said the Iraqi government’s failings were impossible to ignore.
REP. JOHN TANNER (D), Tennessee: Over one-third of the ministers are boycotting the meetings. Two years after the Iraqi elections, the government there is dysfunctional.
Now, let’s listen to General Petraeus’ words. We have to have a political aspect, and this present strategy — whether the surge works or not is beside the point. These people are unwilling or unable to come together, after two years of a government, to work together to build any kind of civil society that we can support. I think that it’s now time, with this interim report and the lack of political progress there, to send a message.
KWAME HOLMAN: But California’s Duncan Hunter, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, argued against basing any decisions on the interim report, reminding colleagues that Army General David Petraeus will deliver a full, final report in September.
REP. DUNCAN HUNTER (R), California: There’s no reason to do this. We have an interim report, which has just come out. The interim report says that of the — in the 18 areas of interest in which progress has to be registered, there’s been progress on eight of them. There’s been unsatisfactory progress on eight of them. And on two of them, it’s too early to really make an evaluation. Well, that’s the interim report. And on September 15th, we’ll get a further report.
Pushing the withdrawal measure
KWAME HOLMAN: Still, House Democrats pushed ahead with their withdrawal measure, similar to one Democrats in the Senate are pursuing.
REP. ROBERT WEXLER (D), Florida: And it is time for Congress to deliver a reality check.
KWAME HOLMAN: Both would begin a drawdown of U.S. forces within 120 days of enactment with a goal of getting most troops out by next April. However, many Republicans argued that approving the bill merely would be symbolic.
REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), House Minority Leader: Nothing more than a partisan political stunt.
KWAME HOLMAN: Since it is unlikely to garner the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate, never mind the 67 needed to override a presidential veto. David Dreier of California.
REP. DAVID DREIER (R), California: This Democratic leadership, Mr. Speaker, as we all know very well still bereft of any real ideas, has been forced once again to resort to demagoguery, bringing up a bill that they know, they know full well will not be enacted into law.
KWAME HOLMAN: Even moderate Republican Christopher Shays of Connecticut, a frequent critic of Bush administration Iraq policy, said calling for troop withdrawal by next spring was pointless.
REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS (R), Connecticut: Our troops will be coming home, but not by April. They will be coming home in a more thoughtful way. I urge defeat of this amendment.
KWAME HOLMAN: But several of Shays' Republican colleagues, North Carolina's Walter Jones and Maryland's Wayne Gilchrest among them, said they would join Democrats in supporting an endgame strategy.
REP. WALTER JONES (R), North Carolina: If we could pass Chairman Skelton's bill, if it could pass, it will send a message to the White House that finally one bill, whatever it might be, that is a fair bill -- and this one is -- it will send a message that we are going to need you, Mr. President, to work with us to get a solution. We've got to have this victory. It's important.
REP. WAYNE GILCHREST (R), Maryland: This bill does not mean that, by April '08, all our troops are out. This bill, as a policy that Walter has been describing, and another step in that better direction, this bill integrates our military policy with a diplomatic, political, humanitarian, economic policy, not only in Iraq and not only with us, but with the rest of Iraq's neighbors and the international community. So this is a policy that will get us out of the conundrum that failure is not a policy.
KWAME HOLMAN: The measure passed the House this evening.
Meanwhile, Democrats in the Senate were gearing up for their showdown vote next week, already having enlisted the support of three Republicans. This afternoon, Majority Leader Harry Reid called for more defectors.
SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), Senate Majority Leader: I'm calling on my Republicans colleagues to not just say the right thing, but vote the right way, so that we can give our troops the strategy they deserve.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Republican leaders, who have remained united enough to block Democrats on key Iraq votes, predicted they would prevail again.
SEN. JON KYL (R), Arizona: And looking at next week, I think, at least I'll go out on a limb here a little bit, and say I think the result will be the same.
KWAME HOLMAN: Even if they fail in next week's vote, Democratic leaders have vowed to keep Republicans' feet to the fire in an effort ultimately to change Iraq policy.
Senators on the Iraq debate
JIM LEHRER: And to two very different perspectives on the Iraq report and this debate in Congress: Senator Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, is the Senate majority whip; Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Republican of Texas, is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Well, Senators, welcome to you both. Now you can tell us where we stand. Senator Durbin, the House just passed a 120-day resolution, the mandate. Is the Senate going to do the same? Do you have 60 votes to do the same thing that the House did?
SEN. DICK DURBIN (D), Illinois: If the Republican senators who have gone back home and said that they now disagree with the president will join us in passing this resolution, yes, I think we have a chance. But that's the real test. Many of them have made their speeches at home saying they're dissatisfied with the president's policy, they want a change in the war in Iraq. But now we'll see if their votes are going to follow their speeches.
Next week, probably Tuesday or Wednesday, we'll have an important timetable vote, just as the House did. It will be a motion that's offered by Senator Carl Levin, Senator Jack Reed. It will really establish a timetable.
In 120 days, American troops will start coming home. By April 1st of next year, combat operations will cease. We'll limit our function in Iraq to protecting the Americans as they withdraw or redeploy; secondly, making sure the Iraqis are well-trained; and, third, going after al-Qaida terrorism as we identify it.
JIM LEHRER: All right, Senator Hutchison, how do you see what's going to happen next week?
SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON (R), Texas: Well, I certainly hope that the United States Senate will not do something that looks politically advantageous right now, but would be a terrible policy for our country, and it would hurt our reputation for years into the future.
This is not about disagreeing with the president. You can disagree with the president. You can disagree about when we went in, why we went in, and what we've done since then. But you have to look at the consequences of leaving Iraq and what it says to the world about the United States of America.
What enemy would ever fear us? What ally would ever trust us, if we just leave without any regard to the circumstances on the ground, without any regard to al-Qaida? Anyone who has been over there will tell you that we are winning against al-Qaida. If we left al-Qaida to take over Iraq, we would basically be facing what al-Qaida had in Afghanistan before we were able to help Afghanistan get out from under that terrible regime.
So I think we should come together and talk about, what is the right policy for the long-term future of our country? And most of all, what can we do to make sure that our troops who are there don't put a bull's eye on their front, because we signaled to the enemy that we don't really believe that this mission can be accomplished. I think that would be terrible.
JIM LEHRER: Senator Durbin, is that what this is about, putting a bull's eye on the troops, the American troops, by passing this 120-day resolution?
SEN. DICK DURBIN: I can tell you, as of this morning, we've lost 3,611 American soldiers, 125 from my home state. Another 26,000 have been seriously injured; about 10,000 of them have faced amputations, traumatic brain injury, serious burns. Many of their lives will never be the same. We've spent over $500 billion. The spending rate is now $10 billion a month for this war in Iraq.
To suggest that we have to stay until everything is stabilized, that really is the president's position. But I think that position is out of touch with the reality of the war in Iraq. It's certainly out of touch with the feelings of the American people.
This war in Iraq has continued to descend into more death and devastation. We see it every single day. We know that the statistics show that it's a bloodier and more violent war than it's been in such a long time. And we certainly know that the American people have reached their limit.
They really love our troops. They love them enough to want them to come home safely, and they want them to start coming home soon. Leaving these troops caught in the midst of this civil war with no end in sight doesn't speak well of the strategy of the United States, and it doesn't force Iraq to make important decisions.
Senators' Messages to Americans
JIM LEHRER: Senator Hutchison, what about that? He says, Senator Durbin says, the American people have reached their limit, the American Congress is on the verge of reaching its limit. So...
SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: Jim, I think that we're talking about the 3,000 who have died, the people who have been injured. I have had mothers, I have had wives, people who have come up to me who have lost their loved ones, and they have said, "Please don't let them have died in vain. Don't say that this was not a worthy cause."
Those men and the women who have died and been maimed are fighting for our freedom. They are fighting for our way of life. If we leave, it's not leaving Iraq. It's leaving the war on terror. It's saying to al-Qaida, "You can do anything you want to Americans. You can blow us up. We will not have the will to defeat you."
We cannot do that. It would be wrong for the people who have died. It would be wrong for the people who are there. It would be wrong for all of those people who have signed up in our military who are so patriotic, and good, and want to serve our country, and want to protect freedom for their children.
The United States Senate can't operate on whims. We must operate on the future of America and the strength of America. And we must say to the people who have died and lost loved ones that they died for a cause that is freedom of our way of life, living in diversity, and that we are strong and tough enough to defeat an enemy like al-Qaida.
JIM LEHRER: So, Senator Durbin, what do you say, the reverse, the reverse message that Senator Hutchison is saying that the message should go to the families and to the people who have been fighting this war?
SEN. DICK DURBIN: First, our gratitude, because they have stood and sworn allegiance to the United States, risked and given their lives in service to our country. Regardless of the policy decisions being made by political figures in Washington, that doesn't diminish one thing from the great courage and valor of our men and women in uniform who serve and those who have died.
They are the best, but it really doesn't honor their memory for us to continue a war and claim more American lives in a civil war that just has no end in sight. The fact is that there was no al-Qaida presence in Iraq when we invaded. Now it's become a great training ground, as the al-Qaida terrorists come in and try to kill American soldiers on a daily basis.
We have lost our sights on the real goal of going after Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. We should have focused our efforts on that. Maybe we would have been more successful. Instead, the president took us off on this invasion of Iraq and, unfortunately, al-Qaida has grown in strength in that period of time.
We really have to get back to basics. We can fight this war on terrorism. We can fight it if more nations around the world respect our position, if more nations join in with intelligence efforts to protect America. Those are the things that make us safe. But watching the body bags come home from Iraq is no evidence of how effective we are against the war on terrorism. There are much better ways to approach this.
JIM LEHRER: Senator Hutchison, how do you interpret the meaning of this new interim report today on Iraq, the 18 benchmarks?
SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: Jim, I think what that report shows is that the military operation is being done and the marks are very good. But the problem, of course, is the internal politics, and we see that.
I think what is called for, looking at this report and sort of stepping back, is to bring the region into this. It is time for the neighbors to come together. None of them would benefit from an Iraq that is broken up. Most of the neighbors that are Sunni certainly don't want an Iranian stronghold. Certainly, we don't want al-Qaida to grow and have oil revenue to fund its terrorist acts all over the world.
So I think the right-thinking nations do not want to have Iraq blow apart. And what is missing in the benchmarks is the political will and the ability for them to have government.
Now, I believe that we should allow them to form their states, their semi-autonomous regions where they can have regional governments that are more of their own kind, and let them form strong economies, but keep Iraq together through the oil revenue, and keep it one national state, so that you don't have the problem with the Kurds in the north and the Turkish issue there.
So I think, to me, when I read that report, and you see what's good, which is the military operation, and, frankly, we are winning against al-Qaida in Ramadi and the places where it had a stronghold, and that is the big picture, but you see where we're losing is in the ability for them to form this national government.
So I think we should help them break it up some and let them strengthen in their regions and get the regional powers involved. They have stood on the sidelines long enough, and I think we can do more with a stronger diplomacy and keeping our focus on winning the war on terror through keeping our word in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Meaning of the report
JIM LEHRER: Senator Durbin, how do you read this report? What is its meaning?
SEN. DICK DURBIN: It's a disappointment. It shows, once again, the Iraqi government has not stepped up and met the goals that we've set, goals that have been in place, goals that they've announced were their own goals for years and years. And just they haven't responded to it. It shows that they're still caught up in a lot of political divisions. And as they bicker and squabble in their parliament, when members do show up to vote and debate, our soldiers get killed in the streets.
Now, I want to say, as much as I may disagree with Senator Hutchison on many things, I couldn't agree with her more on her suggestion we have a stronger diplomatic effort. That was a message of the Iraq Study Group last year. That was a message that was ignored by this administration.
Had the administration been much more forthcoming in terms of diplomatic efforts, we might have engaged more countries in the region to help us bring stability to Iraq. At this moment in time, I think our presence is actually inhibiting that effort. The sooner we start to withdraw and make it clear we're leaving, the sooner other countries realize they have a responsibility if they don't want the region to fall in the hands of Iran. And none of us want that to happen.
They're not going to step forward as long as the United States is a dominant presence in Iraq, as long as we have really become the seed of controversy in that region because of our presence. But I think that Iraqis, as we start to leave, understand that they have to step up and govern their own country, secure their own country. Surrounding nations have to step up and realize that, if they're not going to have a dominant Iranian Shia majority in that region, that they're going to have to invest something themselves in the future of this region.
But right now, it's been an American show. Our coalition of the willing is now down to a handful. We're on our own. And that is not going to solve the situation.
JIM LEHRER: Senator Hutchison, what about that, that by -- the position of those like Senator Durbin, who say, if the U.S. starts to get out, it will no longer be an American show and it will put the pressure on the Iraqis to do what they need to do? You don't think that will happen?
SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: I don't think they have the infrastructure to do that at this time. I think that's what the report shows. That's why I think it's important for us -- and I don't disagree with Senator Durbin that diplomatic efforts, perhaps, should have been done at an earlier time.
But that doesn't mean that we then cut and run. It doesn't mean that we say, "Well, wish you'd been there. That was a mistake made, and so it's a little too tough for us, so we're going to leave." That is the exact wrong thing to tell al-Qaida that we are a formidable enemy, that we are going to win, and that we will never give up, and allow freedom-loving people to be under the terrorist threat all over the world again.
So I think that my response would be the opposite, even though I think Senator Durbin and I might agree that the diplomatic effort is the next thing that should be done. But I think we need to reinforce that, not show a weakness that would embolden the enemy and harm our troops.
JIM LEHRER: Back to where we began, Senator Durbin. Do you think at this point it's possible that you might get the 60 votes that would get this thing done in the Senate next week?
SEN. DICK DURBIN: If the Republican senators who have spoken out on the floor of the Senate, as well as back home, about wanting to change direction in Iraq and really break from the president's policy will join us, we have a chance to pass this. But if it's just a speech for hometown consumption and it isn't translated into a vote on the floor, no, I don't think we'll prevail.
JIM LEHRER: Senator Hutchison, are the ranks of the Republicans solid enough to keep this thing from happening?
SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: I think so. I really believe that most Americans see that, yes, this is not what we wanted it to be, but we are the strongest country on Earth. We are the only country that has the capability to stand and fight for freedom and also the commitment to do it.
And I don't think the American people want the United States Senate to be a cut-and-run, do what's expedient, don't look for the future. They expect us to stand up for the reputation of America.
JIM LEHRER: Senators, both, thank you very much.
SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: Thank you.
SEN. DICK DURBIN: Thank you.