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Senators Assess Petraeus, Crocker Testimony

September 11, 2007 at 6:20 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now to the top two senators on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the chairman, Joe Biden, Democrat of Delaware, and the ranking Republican, Richard Lugar of Indiana. I talked with them earlier this evening.

Senators, welcome.

Senator Biden, did you hear anything today from General Petraeus or Ambassador Crocker that changed your views on what’s happening in Iraq?

SEN. JOE BIDEN (D), Delaware: No, not at all. I had a chance last Thursday, Jim, to be in Ramadi and in Baghdad with the ambassador. And what I saw there and the conference I attended there with the Sunni tribal leaders and the Sunni vice president and others made me even more certain that the surge isn’t working.

JIM LEHRER: The surge isn’t working, Senator Lugar?

SEN. RICHARD LUGAR (R), Indiana: Well, the surge, as they describe it, has brought about a greater degree of safety for some people in Baghdad and other adjoining provinces. It has also opened up, however, political opportunities that have not been perceived by our forces or others, specifically the Anbar province situation emphasizes now local government, provinces taking things in its own hands.

I thought that was an interesting thing to explore this morning, whether that trend is continuing throughout the country, in which, bit by bit, village by village, or province by province, some people are governing themselves fairly successfully, leaving aside whatever is occurring in Baghdad.

Next steps in Iraq

Sen. Joe Biden
(D) Delaware
[Sunni leaders are] moving more and more to the idea of a federal system, separate the parties, give them breathing room, give them control over their own security.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Senator Biden, so take it the next step. Based on what you observed and heard on the ground, but also what the general and the ambassador said today, what do you see in the immediate and the long-term future for Iraq and this whole situation?

SEN. JOE BIDEN: Well, I'll tell you what I see is the possibility, to go off on what Dick Lugar just said. When I was sitting in Ramadi with these Sunni tribal chiefs and the Sunni vice president, they're moving more and more to the idea of a federal system, whereby, essentially under the constitution, when their constitution calls for this, you separate the parties, give them breathing room, give them control over their own security.

One of the things that we didn't have a chance to speak about today was there is a change in the circumstance in Anbar. But you know why? Because we, our military, said, "OK, you get your own police force. We'll help you." All Sunnis. There's no Shia in that police force. "You get your own military, guys. Fine. You'll take care of yourselves. We'll get you some money from Baghdad. If they don't give you the money, we'll give you the money."

But what's happening now is you have them, that is in the Sunni provinces, taking on al-Qaida, who way overstepped their bounds, and you have some stability relative to the neighborhood. But that doesn't in any way mean they're ready for this national government of reconciliation that's going to be a unity government coming out of Baghdad that, in fact, is made up of Sunni, Shia and Kurds. It's not going to affect the sectarian violence unless you separate them within this federal system.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Lugar, do you see it the same way, that there's not a national unity government that has been the prime mission of all of this, you don't see it happening either? Do you agree with the senator, Senator Biden?

SEN. RICHARD LUGAR: This is not -- it's not even close. And that's why I thought it was interesting that, if you have an alternative political situation, one in which in the provinces some success can be found.

Joe Biden just pointed out, if you train Sunnis so that they are militarily more effective -- and the general pointed out then, quickly, that these people are being signed up for the national government in due course. In essence, I think the general and the ambassador sense that you could have a situation in which you arm and train Sunnis in one place, Shiites in another. Maybe some people are not strongly affiliated. And then you wind up with a predicament in which you're calling for a national government, national unity, but everybody, under the worst of circumstances, better prepared to fight.

I think, in fairness, what we heard this morning is the national government is way, way off in the future, although there is some genuflection to that idea that some distributions of money come out of that government, probably from some oil revenue that is not stolen or smuggled in some other way.

But I was just impressed with the fact that a new political situation is there. Now, how that influences how many troops we need to have and what the surge does next or in the next few months and so forth is also an interesting question. Specifically, how do we support it? If we think this fledgling idea of a muted federalism of sorts is going to work, how do we support that?

Muted federalism in Iraq

Sen. Richard Lugar
(R) Indiana
I think General Petraeus is protective of essentially the successes he sees, modest as they may be. And I was sympathetic, at least, to the plea he was making.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think, Senator Lugar, that this muted federalism at the ground level came as a result of the U.S. surge?

SEN. RICHARD LUGAR: Not necessarily. I think we were fortunate in the case of the Sunni province of Anbar. It appears that, as Joe Biden has pointed out, the al-Qaida people way overstepped. They created terrible trouble for Sunnis there, and they rebelled.

Now, we came along fortuitously with the surge. Some of our troops were in the area. And the Sunnis thought that, "This is a pretty good match-up. Some new teammates that are very, very helpful, not only in fighting off al-Qaida, but perhaps also in some economic support, in bargaining with this central government, to send some money out there."

JIM LEHRER: Let me ask you this, Senator Biden. You've talked to General Petraeus many times before today, obviously. And you heard what he said today, and you read in full what he said in his prepared testimony. Did you feel that you were getting the straight skinny, so to speak, from a general or was there a spin of any kind? Tell us how you received his message and his information.

SEN. JOE BIDEN: I think he was spinning a bit. I have great respect for him. I've known him for a long time. I've been working with him and talking to him in my eight trips to Iraq. I've been with him. But I think he was spinning a bit.

He was trying to conflate the notion that, because the Sunnis decided that they had enough of al-Qaida, that somehow that meant that the central purpose of the surge -- remember what it was. It was to give the sectarian warring parties breathing room so that they could, in fact, come up with a political accommodation for all of Iraq and that there was going to be a central government.

And he was spinning -- he knows full well, in my humble opinion -- he knows full well that what he was able to do in Anbar has virtually no relationship what happened in Baghdad. I asked him, can a Sunni walk from one neighborhood to another in Baghdad, from a Sunni to Shia neighborhood?

I pointed out that, when the sandstorm kept my helicopter and the helicopter of the central government figures from being able to leave Ramadi, no one dared step outside of that city in this province that's supposedly so safe now.

And the last point I'll make, Jim, he talks about violence being down. It's down from something like 1,600 attacks a week to 1,100. That's like saying the city of Washington, the murder rate is down -- I don't know what the murder rate is -- but from 500 to 420. It doesn't make the city much safer.

JIM LEHRER: Did you feel a little spin was going on, Senator Lugar, from General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker?

SEN. RICHARD LUGAR: I felt General Petraeus is trying to make a case for maximizing the number of forces that he has for whatever purposes he may see the surge having in the next few months.

And he's in line with others who have offered from time to time that we've started in Iraq with far too few troops, that we've been under strength all the way along. It wasn't until we came along to the surge that somehow we upped up that a bit, but not nearly enough.

I think General Petraeus is protective of essentially the successes he sees, modest as they may be. And I was sympathetic, at least, to the plea he was making. But in answer to your question, it seemed to me that he had a point of view and he was attempting to make a case for that.

Positive words from Sen. McCain

Sen. Joe Biden
(D) Delaware
[The Bush administration is] not willing to make a stark political change, that is, to seek a fundamentally different outcome than a strong central government that controls all of Iraq in harmony as a democracy.

JIM LEHRER: What about Senator McCain, your fellow Republican, Senator Lugar? He said, "We're finally getting it right in Iraq." Do you agree with that?

SEN. RICHARD LUGAR: Well, Senator McCain has felt strongly for a period of time that we were under strength, that we ought to send more troops, and so he's applauding the surge, General Petraeus, and more, and so forth. And that's a point of view which has to be entertained seriously.

I think the other side of it, however, which came up this morning, is that the United States has other obligations in the world. Furthermore, some of our military people are pointing out, rather overtly, that we have overstretched these troops, that we are really pressing very hard with regard to recruitment difficulties, lowering the qualities that we need for the recruits that are coming in. In short, this is a nation that has some potential military difficulties, even as we are attempting to get it right in Iraq.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Biden, let me ask you a question, repeat a question that Senator Hagel asked the general and the ambassador today, very harsh question. It was a direct quote. "Are we going to continue to invest American blood and treasure at the same rate we're doing now? For what? The president said let's buy time. By time for what?" How would you answer that, Senator Biden?

SEN. JOE BIDEN: I would say we're buying time to hand it off to the next administration, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: That's what it's about?

SEN. JOE BIDEN: I know that sounds harsh. I think that's what it's about; I really do. I think they've concluded that they don't know how to fix it. They're not willing to make a stark political change, that is, to seek a fundamentally different outcome than a strong central government that controls all of Iraq in harmony as a democracy. I think they know that's not going to work.

They're unwilling to engage the international community in a robust way in order to bring in the parties to work out an agreement on the federal constitution being implemented, that is a federal system, the so-called soft partition.

So, therefore, I think what they're going to do is they're going to keep 130,000 troops here, 160,000 until next summer, 133,000 going into the next election. And I think they're hoping that's going to stitch it together without completely imploding, and it's on the next president's plate.

I honestly believe that's what it is. I know that sounds harsh; I said that a year ago. These guys are too smart not to know there is no end in sight with this policy.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Lugar, do you see it the same way?

SEN. RICHARD LUGAR: Not completely, but I would subscribe to the fact that the results of what is occurring now, namely this bottom-up approach with very little progress in Baghdad foreseeable, is going to lead to the situation Senator Biden has mentioned, namely that we are going to have troops in Iraq at a fairly large number throughout 2008, and the president's election -- and therefore the next president of the United States and the next Congress -- will have to deal with the problem.

Now, I don't suggest that President Bush saw that back in 2003 or '04 or so forth, but the net effects, I believe, of commencing a surge in the beginning of this year, 2007, is to create that kind of a predicament.

Potential for success in Iraq?

Sen. Richard Lugar
(R) Indiana
The odds for a good result coming out of [Iraq] are still not very good. But on the other hand, we have brave troops over there. I think we have a good commander in General Petraeus...If anybody can get the job done, these folks are likely to.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Lugar, do you personally support this idea of keeping at least 130,000 troops there until this time next year?

SEN. RICHARD LUGAR: Well, I wouldn't say this time next year, but...

JIM LEHRER: Well, let's say late summer. Late summer, as he said...

SEN. RICHARD LUGAR: I think the proposition presented this morning was a reasonable one. We all are learning more all the time. And, therefore, each one of us reserves the right to review what we had to say at any particular juncture.

This is something that, as I suggested this morning, has very narrow margin for success. The odds for a good result coming out of this are still not very good.

But on the other hand, we have brave troops over there. I think we have a good commander in General Petraeus. Ambassador Crocker is first-rate. If anybody can get the job done, these folks are likely to. And, therefore, I'm supportive of a reasonable plan which they offered.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Biden, I take it your view is you find even a narrower potential for success.

SEN. JOE BIDEN: I think there's no potential for success.

JIM LEHRER: No potential for success?

SEN. JOE BIDEN: Not with this proposal, Jim. And I know that again sounds harsh. Look, I think that General Jones has it right. I think his commission...

JIM LEHRER: He's the former Marine commandant that we mentioned earlier, yes.

SEN. JOE BIDEN: Yes, I beg your pardon. As well as I understand -- I don't know this for a fact -- that Admiral Fallon, the CENTCOM commander who's General Petraeus' boss, disagrees with General Petraeus on this, as well.

Look, I think they're right. We should reduce our footprint, to use the military term. We should get out of the middle of this civil war. We should be pulling back toward the borders. We should be overseeing, if you will' that's the phrase they use. We should not be in the midst of this civil war.

We should be drawing down American forces. We should not be adding American forces. And in the meantime, we should be pushing a political solution that implements their constitution. And everybody forgets their constitution says -- I think it's article 114 -- "We are a decentralized federal system." That should be the objective. We need the world to help us get there.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Senators Biden and Lugar, thank you both very much again.