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Warner Calls on President Bush to Withdraw Troops

August 23, 2007 at 6:05 PM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Warner’s surprise announcement that President Bush should call next month for the start of a pullout of U.S. troops came on the heels of a bleak intelligence report today about the political climate in Iraq. The so-called National Intelligence Estimate forecast that the Iraqi government will become more precarious over the next six to twelve months.

The estimate concludes that, despite some headway made by coalition forces, “Levels of violence will remain high, and the Iraqi government will continue to struggle.”

Senator John Warner, just back from a trip to Iraq himself, cited the report at his news conference today. And the senator, former chairman of the Armed Services Committee, joins us now.

Senator, thank you for being with us.

SEN. JOHN WARNER (R), Virginia: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What is it exactly that you want the president to do next month?

SEN. JOHN WARNER: In the first place, the president on January 10th invited members of the Congress and others to make suggestions from time to time. And this is a suggestion that I’ve had on my mind for some several months.

And it’s just not based on my trip, but it’s a collective study. And I spent a tremendous amount of my time — because I think this is the most important issue, as a senior member of the Armed Services Committee that I have.

What I suggested is as follows. And it’s interesting, Judy, that the thoughts that I had, the report that Senator Levin and I filed — the written report — reflected very closely the findings of the National Intelligence Estimate. We did not have it at a time. We prepared our report in Iraq, or actually it was done in Jordan.

So it’s an idea that we’ve got to do something in recognition that we’re constantly losing our brave soldiers, airmen, and Marines, and their families are suffering. And we’ve got to show strong leadership.

And I suggested that, given that it was our judgment before we arrived in Iraq that this government is simply not living up to its agreement made with the president and the people of this country on January 10th, that we would do the military security part of it, they would do the political part, namely, to bring about reconciliation to hasten this — stopping this senseless fighting.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you’re asking, you’re saying the president should announce next month what?

SEN. JOHN WARNER: I’ve recommended — and it’s his option, in consultation with his military commanders.

Withdrawal suggestions

Sen. John Warner
R-Va.
I wasn't trying to surprise anybody. I simply came out forthrightly with my own thoughts and because I knew that this government -- as the NIE confirms -- is in a very precarious state.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That he should announce that there would be a drawdown, an initial drawdown of U.S. troops of how many?

SEN. JOHN WARNER: Up to the president. I just suggested 5,000; that's about 2 percent of our overall force.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And when would you like to see them come home?

SEN. JOHN WARNER: Well, I just said, having been a trooper overseas once myself in Korea with the Marines, get them home by Christmas. Everybody focuses on that.

I wasn't trying to surprise anybody. I simply came out forthrightly with my own thoughts and because I knew that this government -- as the NIE confirms -- is in a very precarious state. They have failed to live up to the obligations they made to the president, our troops, and the American citizens in connection with the surge.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you said this would send a message. What message would it send?

SEN. JOHN WARNER: Yes, it will. It would send a message that, when the president has said -- and I quoted the president -- he said, "I made it clear" --- this is what he said on January 10th. "I made it clear to Prime Minister Maliki and other Iraqi leaders that Americans' commitment is not open-ended." He then said later, "Iraqis do not want U.S. troops patrolling their cities forever any more than the American people do."

Then our ambassador in Iraq said yesterday, he said, "The progress in Iraq government is extremely disappointing" and warned that U.S. support for the Maliki government did not come with a blank check. We've got to put teeth behind those statements.

And the teeth I suggest is to announce that we'll make one initial withdrawal, then assess the consequences, and the president can opt to do another one sequentially. Let the president set the timetable; let's not have the Congress set any timetable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You have resisted until now, Senator...

SEN. JOHN WARNER: That's correct.

JUDY WOODRUFF: ... urging the president to do any sort of a withdrawal on any sort of timetable. Why change your mind? What changed your mind?

SEN. JOHN WARNER: What's in this NIE. It so happens that I had come to basically the same conclusions that were made public today at 1:00.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You were saying to me a moment ago you'd been thinking about this for the last two-and-a-half or three months?

SEN. JOHN WARNER: That's correct. That's correct.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you waited until today?

SEN. JOHN WARNER: Well, I waited until I got back. I've only been back 48 hours. I waited until I got back, assembled my thoughts, offered to make consultations at the White House, which I did.

I felt very strongly that -- I wrote the law, together with Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, that requires Petraeus and Crocker to come over, that requires the president to make such decisions about strategy as he deems appropriate and make it public no later than September 15th. In deference to the president, I carefully just said, "Here's a suggestion. Consider it."

Waiting for word from Gen. Petraeus

Sen. John Warner
R-Va.
I said it's up to you, Mr. President, in consultation with your military commanders. Of course I'm concerned that we not lose the gains that our brave troops, with life and limb, have achieved thus far.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, the White House said today -- they were asked about your statement, and the White House spokesman said, "Well, we believe we should wait and hear what General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker say."

SEN. JOHN WARNER: I agree with that. I have no disagreement. I said that in the press conference.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you were at the White House today. You discussed this...

SEN. JOHN WARNER: In a group meeting, sure. They're consulting regularly with members of the Congress, senators, and House of Representatives who make the trips.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what was the reaction at the White House? Did you talk to the president today?

SEN. JOHN WARNER: You know, Judy, I've been in the Senate 29 years and visited many times with presidents and staff. I consider it confidential. I keep it confidential.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But did you talk to the president today about this?

SEN. JOHN WARNER: No, I did not, but I have in weeks past.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The White House also said today -- they said that they are concerned that, if troops are pulled out too soon, if the mission changes, they said it could undermine everything that's going on. In fact, the NIE report that you're citing there said, if troops are pulled out too soon, it would hurt the mission. You're not concerned about that?

SEN. JOHN WARNER: Wait a minute. No, think what I said. I said it's up to you, Mr. President, in consultation with your military commanders. Of course I'm concerned that we not lose the gains that our brave troops, with life and limb, have achieved thus far.

But can you or anyone else come up with a better measure as to how to deal with a government that is precarious, how this security situation is not likely to change for the next 12 months? Are we going to continue to force our troops in there or show some boldness and initiatives?

Now, they're perfectly willing to reject it. If that's what they want to do, reject it. But at least I have spoken out with clarity and cleared my own conscience.

Sending a signal

Sen. John Warner
R-Va.
You've got to start with the fundamental thing that democracy is not a word that I think they embrace. And we started out on that concept and perhaps will not achieve what we understand a democracy to be.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me ask it from another perspective, and that is, what real difference would it make to pull out 5,000 troops out of 160,000? Would it make a difference?

SEN. JOHN WARNER: It's a signal. Militarily, it would probably not make any difference whatsoever. But it would be a signal.

As we traveled through this region, as I've studied the reports beforehand, all of the bordering countries are sitting there, wondering what it is we're going to do. The president has said on January 10th -- and I quoted him -- we're not there, we're not giving them a blank check, we're not there forever.

You can't keep making statements like that. You've got to put some teeth into it, show the sincerity that, if they don't get their situation improved, bring about reconciliation, which should lessen the internal strife and the killing, then we've got to decide what's in the best interests of our country.

I agree with the president: This region is vital to our security interests and to other interests we have. The bordering countries, I think this will get their attention.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you think pulling just 5,000 troops out to begin with could cause the Iraqi government to get its act together?

SEN. JOHN WARNER: That's an idea. I believe that, or I would not have said this. And then it also would say to the bordering nations and others that have a vital interest in that region, why don't you come forward with your ideas, if you've got a better one, and try and help the United States of America resolve this problem?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you have reason to believe that they would do that?

SEN. JOHN WARNER: I've been in all those countries many times over the near 30 years I've been in the Senate, and I would not try and predict. You've got to start with the fundamental thing that democracy is not a word that I think they embrace. And we started out on that concept and perhaps will not achieve what we understand a democracy to be. But we do want a freely elected government in Iraq to make the decisions in the best interests of their people.

Now, somewhere in between we've got to find a solution, because we simply cannot let our troops be subjected, day in and day out, to this situation without some strong leadership to try and explore other options.

Reconciling Iraq's differences

Sen. John Warner
R-Va.
The president has an opportunity to make that assessment. Do step one. Take a short but decisive and clear step. Then analyze, was it a correct step? Did it begin to bring about greater reconciliation among the factions?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator, just, again, to try to understand what you're saying, you say you want the administration to put teeth in what they're saying, and yet you just want it to be a 5,000 troop gesture. Aren't you going to...

SEN. JOHN WARNER: That is the initial -- just a minute. That's up to the president. I don't want to see the Congress -- the Congress has repeatedly tried to set timetables and a total plan by certain dates to have a withdrawal. I have voted against that, and I will continue to vote against that type of proposition.

I want, under the Constitution, our president to exercise his authority to make the decisions. And he -- all I suggest...

JUDY WOODRUFF: But 5,000 troops...

SEN. JOHN WARNER: ... take 5,000, fine. That sends a signal that I mean business when I say we're not going to stay there forever. Then assess the -- what is the reaction to the bordering countries? What is the reaction internally? What is the Maliki government doing? What's their legislature...

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you don't think it would take more troops to send to have real teeth?

SEN. JOHN WARNER: Wait a minute. The president has an opportunity to make that assessment. Do step one. Take a short but decisive and clear step. Then analyze, was it a correct step? Did it begin to bring about greater reconciliation among the factions?

Mind you, you've got to have a unity government joined with the Sunni, the Shia, and the Kurds. And right now, I think the external influences from Iran and to some extent Syria are trying to ensure that the Shia remain in just disproportionate control of that country without an adequate voice by the Sunnis or the Kurds. And somebody has got to begin to force this thing in a way to reconcile those differences.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator John Warner, we're going to be watching where this goes from here. We thank you for coming in tonight.

SEN. JOHN WARNER: Thank you very much.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you.