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Levin Proposes Starting to Pull Troops from Iraq in Three Months

July 16, 2007 at 6:20 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: And now the start of a series of conversations about what Iraq might look like when we leave. This week, both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate will be offering proposals calling for U.S. forces to come home. Every proposal, no matter when or how it works, will have a bearing on the Iraq of the future.

Tonight, we begin our series with Democrat Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and author of a proposal to redeploy troops within 120 days. I spoke with Senator Levin a short while ago.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Levin, thank you for joining us. First, to the events of today. Your amendment, your proposal, remind us how it would work.

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D), Michigan: Well, what we do, Senator Jack Reed and I, is to say that American troops will begin to be reduced within the next 120 days or more technically 120 days after enactment of our amendment. And then the transition to the new, limited missions will be completed by April of next year. And those new limited missions would be force protection and also a limited or a very pointed counterterrorism mission against al-Qaida.

But ours is the only amendment that we know of so far that is binding, that would tell the Iraqis that we are going to begin to take a step to force them to take responsibility for their own nation. It’s long overdue; the Iraqis have been fiddling while their Baghdad capital has been burning. And there is no solution in Iraq other than a political solution.

The only hope of ending the violence and avoiding an all-out civil war is if the political leaders of Iraq come together and work out those differences over the political issues that divide them, including resource sharing, including elections in the provinces, including the de-Baathification laws and so forth.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator, your leader, your Democratic leader in the Senate announced today a maneuver, in essence, to try to get the Republicans, to force the Republicans to vote on this. What’s that all about?

SEN. CARL LEVIN: Well, in the Senate, as you know, the majority doesn’t rule if the minority filibusters. And the Republicans apparently are going to filibuster our amendment trying to force us to get the 60 votes which would be necessary in order to end debate and get to what we call an up-or-down vote where the majority can decide what to do here.

But given the threat of filibuster, the leader, Democratic leader, is filing cloture on the Levin-Reed amendment so that we will vote on Wednesday as to whether or not we want to have a vote. And I expect that the Republicans will filibuster that effort and try to force us to get 60 votes.

A vision for the Iraqi future

JUDY WOODRUFF: Back to your view, to your vision, Senator, what do you think Iraq will look like in the future after the American troops are mostly gone?

SEN. CARL LEVIN: It's all going to depend on the Iraqi political leaders, as their own prime minister said just a few months ago, that the reason the bloodletting in Iraq continues is the failure of the political leaders of Iraq to reach a political settlement. And so it's going to be up to the political leaders of Iraq as to whether or not they want to work out their differences and to create a nation or whether or not they want to have an all-out civil war. We cannot impose a nation on them.

We've given them an opportunity at great cost of blood and treasure, but they have to decide whether they want to walk through that door which we've opened. And, so far, I can't say I'm particularly optimistic, because the Iraqi political leaders themselves set out 16 benchmarks of their own. These are political benchmarks with timetable; they met none of them. They were supposed to have completed that timetable by March of this year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Senator, when you say "not particularly optimistic," you're saying, what, that you think there will be civil war? Is that what you're saying?

SEN. CARL LEVIN: I think, right now, given the weakness of the Iraqi government, that probably the odds are that there would be a civil war. There doesn't have to be. The only chance of avoiding it, the only chance of success is if the Iraqi leaders take the responsibility to work out these differences, if they do what they committed to do many, many months ago, which is to work out those 16 political differences that they identified.

This isn't something we've imposed on them. This is their own benchmarks, and they failed to live up to them. So I would say right now the odds may be against that, but it is in their hands. They can accomplish this. And if we force them to by finally telling them, "Folks, we can't save you from yourselves. You're going to have to take responsibility, and we're going to begin to reduce our forces in 120 days in order to force you to take that response."

JUDY WOODRUFF: Then what does civil war look like in your mind? What are we talking about?

SEN. CARL LEVIN: It looks like where they're heading right now, where you have this sectarian battle going on between the Sunnis and the Shias, with some of them working together with al-Qaida, if it fits their needs, and it could be obviously even a greater bloodbath than what we see now. But that's where they're moving.

People ask me, well, what, if we begin to leave, what will happen? My answer is, if we stay under the current circumstances, what is happening. This is the direction they're moving. They're moving in the direction right now. And if you think it's working, then you stay the course. You stay with the president. You talk about patience. You characterize things as making progress when there has not been progress.

But if you believe that the current course is not working because it is leading towards a civil war, then you've got to take steps to try to change that course and to force the Iraqis to accept responsibility. So I don't think anybody can say what an even worse civil war would look like than what's going on now, other than what we do know is that it is working in the wrong direction right now. The sectarian bloodletting continues.

Pulling troops out of a civil war

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what of the argument made by those -- Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote in the Washington Post last week that to leave a small U.S. force there, like the one you describe, would invite an even worse situation because it would be that much harder for them to defend.

SEN. CARL LEVIN: Well, I don't want our troops in the middle of a civil war. That's not the limited mission that we're talking about, that anybody's talking about here, that the Baker-Hamilton people talked about. It's not to get in the middle of their civil war; it's to get out of the middle of their civil war and to force them to avoid an all-out civil war by working out the differences.

It's not that we need a larger force to prevent them from having a civil war. We've got to start reducing the forces to force them to reach a political compromise to avoid an all-out civil war.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about the threat from outside Iraq, Iran, Syria, and other places, does that worry you?

SEN. CARL LEVIN: Yes, sure, it does. It worries me right now. This policy of this administration over the last four years, going into Iraq unilaterally, uncorking that bottle with all the forces that it's unleashed, has led to the strengthening of Iran and, most recently, according to the published reports, has led to the strengthening of al-Qaida.

Al-Qaida is stronger in Iran -- excuse me, in Iraq -- because of our policies of going into Iraq. Al-Qaida wasn't in Iraq before we went there. And so it's the current course which needs to change, because it's leading to the very situation which I think everybody wants to avoid.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about the fate, Senator, of those Iraqis who have been supportive -- of Iraqi civilians in general, and particularly those who have been supportive of the U.S. mission?

SEN. CARL LEVIN: The current course is endangering the people of Iraq continually. It's the current course which isn't working; it's the current course which has led to huge slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. It's that course which has to change.

And there's only one group that can change it, and that's the Iraqi political leaders. And if they can't do it, the parliament over there, their assembly, ought to get a government in place which can accomplish a political settlement.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just to broaden that out, Senator, the notion that there is maybe some moral responsibility on the part of the United States, because it was the United States who came in over four years ago, who has led this war in Iraq, participated in this war, and now to pull out, what responsibility does the U.S. have to the people of that country?

SEN. CARL LEVIN: I think we've got a huge responsibility. The way this government went in, the way the Bush administration went in unilaterally, arrogantly, the way in which we didn't wait for the U.N. to give its support to what we were doing, the way we did in the first Gulf War, there's a huge moral responsibility.

And we have a huge responsibility to the Iraqi refugees. There are now four million Iraqi refugees, half in the country who've been moved out of their homes, the other half outside of the Iraq. And you bet we have a moral responsibility.

And the bigger responsibility here rests with the Iraqi political leaders. And since, by their own words, by everybody's agreement there is no military solution, there's only a political solution, we shouldn't wait any longer to force the Iraqi leaders to undertake that political solution.

"The right answer on Iraq"

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just finally, Senator, when you are as convinced as you sound you are, what makes you know you have the right answer on Iraq?

SEN. CARL LEVIN: I don't know I have the right answer. There's been too much arrogance, as far as I'm concerned, floating around this town for anybody to say they "know" the right answer in Iraq. All we can do is use our best judgment as to what will change the direction in Iraq.

And, again, if you think that the Iraq direction is working, you stay the course. You do what this president has done, talk about progress. Month after month, year after year, he talks about great progress, inspiring progress. He talks about delay. If you think they're making progress, if you think this is working, you stay the course, you stay with the president. But if you think it's not working and that they're plunging into an abyss, then you decide you're going to change the course.

But do I know that what I'm saying is true? No, I believe it after a huge amount of thought, and concern, and discussion, and debate. I'm absolutely convinced what our military leaders are convinced, that there is no military solution. If you accept that, and there's a consensus there's no military solution in Iraq, once you accept that, if there's only a political solution, then the question is: Why wait? Why wait until someone makes another report in September to us about a military situation, which is what we're expecting in September? Why wait for more American lives to be lost?

We've already lost 3,600 American lives and seven times that many wounded. Why wait until September, where a couple other senators here say, "Wait until October," when we know? And by the way, the Republican leader here has said the handwriting is on the wall that there is going to be a change of policy in September. That's what the Republican Senate leader says. Why wait for more lives to be lost, if you know there has to be a change in policy? Force that change now, and force the Iraqis to step up to their responsibility.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Carl Levin, we thank you very much for joining us.

SEN. CARL LEVIN: Judy, good being with you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Our conversation series will continue tomorrow with Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.