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Obama Calls for U.S. Military to Renew Focus on Afghanistan

July 15, 2008 at 6:25 PM EDT
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In an interview with the NewsHour's Gwen Ifill, Sen. Barack Obama calls for the U.S. to dramatically scale down in military effort in Iraq and, instead, focus more forces on the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.

JIM LEHRER: And next, to our Newsmaker interview with Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. Gwen Ifill talked to him in Washington earlier today.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Obama, welcome.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: Thank you so much.

GWEN IFILL: Today we hear that General Motors is restructuring; Fannie and Freddie Mae are the subject of a rescue attempt by the government; inflation worries are up again. Would you do what this president has done if you were president to try to set this economy right?

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Well, first of all, this has been a problem eight years in the making. And so absolutely not; I would not do what George Bush has done.

He has neglected efforts to deal with an ongoing energy problem, hasn’t been serious about creating greater energy efficiency, hasn’t been serious about increasing fuel efficiency standards on cars that would have made our automakers more efficient, has not been serious about investing in solar, and wind, and biodiesel, and restructuring how we build our buildings or developing high-speed rail.

So there are a host of things we could have done just in the energy sector. He has not been serious about restructuring our financial regulatory infrastructure and architecture to ensure that we didn’t have some of the problems in the subprime housing market.

Many of these we anticipated. We could see it two years, three years, four years ago, and yet there was not any serious action on the part of this administration.

GWEN IFILL: What would you do if you were president today?

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Well, at this point, I was happy to hear that the president embraced the need to get this housing bill done. And I think we’ve got enough bipartisan support at this point that that’s a good start, the Dodd-Frank bill that would allow borrowers and lenders to negotiate to stabilize homes before people get into deep water and go into foreclosure.

You know, we’ve got 7,000 people who are being foreclosed on every single day. Every day that passes, that’s 7,000 more families that may end up not having a home and communities that find themselves deteriorating. And the hardship in the communities are enormous.

And so getting that done right away is important. Not only does that provide some relief to the American people and homeowners, but it also will help give a little more confidence to the housing market.

I think it is important, with respect to Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, that we ensure there’s continued liquidity in the housing market, but that we’re not devoting huge sums of money to bailing out shareholders or CEOs.

I mean, I think that there’s got to be some recognition that you can’t have those institutions with all upside, but no downside, at least for the investors.

But we do have to make sure that we have a stable housing market. That, I think, will help a lot in the short term.

I also think it’s time for us to initiate what I’ve called for, a second round of stimulus. I want to see energy rebates that are going out, several hundred dollars per family, that would allow people to absorb the rising costs short term of gas, potentially home heating oil, once the winter hits, rising food costs. All those things, I think, would be important short term.

And then, long term, we’ve got a lot of work to do around a serious energy policy, around changing our tax code so that we’re rewarding work and not just wealth. I want to provide a middle-class tax cut of $1,000 per family per year. I think it’s going to be important for us to fix the health care system, which is a drain on a lot of family’s budgets.

So we’re going to have a lot of long-term structural work that has to be done. Short term, we’ve got to get some money into the American people’s pockets to deal with these rising costs and really strengthen the housing market.

Structured government support

Sen. Barack Obama
What we have to do is just make sure that the housing market itself is still liquid, so that there are not larger ramifications.

GWEN IFILL: If the government should step in, in ways to shore up things like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, why shouldn't the government step in to help companies like G.M.?

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Well, which is -- that's why I think it's important that whatever is done on Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae is carefully structured so that we're not simply bailing out wealthy investors who were doing very well for long periods of time. What we have to do is just make sure that the housing market itself is still liquid so that there are not larger ramifications.

As far as a company like G.M. is concerned, I have already said that, as president, I want to partner with U.S. automakers to help them make the fuel-efficient cars of the future.

We have the technology now to have a 100-mile-per-gallon hybrid. We have the technology now to start developing an electricity grid where you can plug in your car at night, and not only would you get energy from that grid, but you'd also be able to sell energy back into that grid.

But we haven't had a serious commitment to it. And I have said repeatedly that I am interested in partnering with U.S. automakers to develop and fine-tune some of this technology. Right now, they're not asking for a bailout; they're taking some very difficult restructuring steps.

I do think that the communities where these automakers are located need help dealing with the hemorrhaging of jobs that have been taking place not just now, but have been taking place over the last decade.

Strategic considerations in Iraq

Sen. Barack Obama
It is time for us to begin a phase-three deployment and have a timetable attached to that, something that the American people and the Iraqi government have said that they are prepared to see.

GWEN IFILL: I would like to talk to you about Iraq. You gave a big speech on that subject today. A new poll out shows Americans are kind of split about whether there should be a withdrawal timetable or not. So is John McCain right or are you?

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Well, you won't be surprised to learn that I'm right.

GWEN IFILL: I am surprised.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Look, as I said in my speech today, in some ways, we've been arguing, I think, about the wrong thing.

My opposition to the war in Iraq from the start was never premised on the day-to-day tactics that we employ once we were in Iraq. I've never had any doubt that the U.S. military would defeat Saddam Hussein's army. There was never any doubt that, if we poured enough resources in there, that we could lock down Iraq.

The problem has always been a broader strategic question, and that is, was it wise for us to go in there in the first place? And once we were in there, you know, was it wise for us to continue a long-term occupation in Iraq? That remains the question.

So John McCain wants to argue about tactics. You know, have we seen a reduction in violence in Iraq? Absolutely. And that's a testament to the extraordinary work of our U.S. military.

Can we sustain spending $10 billion a month, putting enormous strains on military families, at a time when the central front on terror, Afghanistan and the hills in northwest Pakistan, are deteriorating, and we are seeing brazen attacks against U.S. military bases in the region by al-Qaida operatives?

And what I have said continuously is that, in light of the problems that we're having in Afghanistan, in light of other security threats that we have out there, nonproliferation issues, Iran, what we're doing with respect to China, what we're doing with respect to North Korea, it is important for us not to be single-minded about Iraq.

And it is time for us to begin a phased redeployment and have a timetable attached to that, something that the American people and the Iraqi government have said that they are prepared to see.

Future plans for Iraq involvement

Sen. Barack Obama
So the idea here is that we can leverage a significant amount of additional troops in Afghanistan if we make those commitments in the way that we can't do in Iraq.

GWEN IFILL: So do you no longer believe, as you once said, that the surge would be imposing a military solution on a civil war? Do you now believe that the surge worked?

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Well, what I believe is that a combination of factors -- and if you talk to military commanders, they will acknowledge this -- the fact that al-Qaida overplayed its hand in Anbar province and alienated the Sunni population, so that the Sons of Iraq and other forces were able to form to oppose al-Qaida in Iraq, the success in getting the Shia militias to stand down and to recognize that their path to power is going to be more effectively pursued through the political process, as well as the enormous sacrifice and work of our troops has all led to a reduction in violence. And that is a terrific opportunity.

But the underlying issue, which is what the surge was supposed to accomplish, creating the space so that the Iraqi factions would actually start working together more effectively politically, so that you have a stable government and you've got a relationship between the central government and the provinces that works, that has not yet occurred.

And it is my belief that it will not occur unless they have a greater sense of urgency about it. Now is the right time for us to begin bringing our combat troops out of Iraq.

GWEN IFILL: Your plan involves moving combat troops out, two brigades a month, 16 months out of Iraq, and then beginning to build more troops on the ground in Afghanistan. Is that something -- part of that plan involves residual force, leaving some people behind in case things go wrong, I guess, or to protect American diplomats. What do you mean when you say "residual force"?

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Well, you know, this is one of the things that I want to discuss when I travel there. And I think that it's important to have the commanders on the ground help to shape what is going to be necessary for limited missions that have been defined by the president, the commander-in-chief.

The missions that I've called for, as you said, protecting diplomatic forces and civilians in -- U.S. civilians or foreign civilians in Iraq, making sure that we are protecting our bases, training Iraqi forces, if -- as long as we are assured of the fact that we're not training them to engage in sectarian war, but rather training them for the integrated force structures that are needed to protect them, and to have a counterinsurgency force that can act swiftly, if you start seeing the re-emergence of al-Qaida in Iraq, those would be the limited missions that they would be carrying out.

I think we need to make sure that the commanders have the resources they need in order to deal with those issues.

GWEN IFILL: Sounds like a zero-sum game, taking troops out of Iraq, sending them to Afghanistan. Don't Americans just look at that and say, "We're just going to stay at war"?

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Well, no, no, no. I mean, keep in mind the scale and the scope. I mean, you've got 140,000 or so troops, even after the next drawdown that's been announced by the president, in Iraq. You're looking at 30,000 troops in Afghanistan.

An additional two brigades will obviously greatly supplement the force in Afghanistan, but you've also got NATO troops in Afghanistan. So the idea here is that we can leverage a significant amount of additional troops in Afghanistan if we make those commitments in a way that we can't do in Iraq.

Communicating what he stands for

Sen. Barack Obama
I don't think it's going to be hard to persuade people what I stand for because the truth is the things that I stand for today are the things I stood for 10 years ago and 20 years ago.

GWEN IFILL: As a final question, just I want you to think a little bit about the stage that you're at in your campaign. You have 26 percent of people still think you were raised a Muslim. People look at your shifts on issues from warrantless surveillance to gun control and they say, "Who is this guy? What does he believe?"

How do you begin to, at this stage in your campaign, tell people who you are and have it stick?

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Well, first of all, you know, I do think that this notion that somehow we've had wild shifts in my positions is simply inaccurate. You mentioned the gun position. I've been talking about the Second Amendment being an individual right for the last year-and-a-half. And so there wasn't a shift there.

GWEN IFILL: Campaign finance?

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Well, in campaign finance, there's no doubt that that was a shift, in recognizing that we could not broker a deal with the Republicans that would prevent the Republican National Committee, or the Republican Governors Association, or all these other organizations that are already spending millions of dollars against us, that we could not contain them within a public financing system.

So the broader point, Gwen, is if you compare sort of my shift in emphasis on issues that I've been proposing for years, like faith-based initiatives, which have raised questions in the press, and you compare that to John McCain...

GWEN IFILL: And raised hackles among some of your supporters.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Well, raised hackles among some in the blogosphere -- and you compare that to John McCain's complete reversal on oil drilling, complete reversal on George Bush's tax cuts, complete reversal on immigration, where he said he wouldn't even vote for his own bill, you know, that, I think, is a pretty hard case to make that somehow I've been shifting substantially relative to John McCain.

The fact of the matter is, on the big issues -- ending the war in Iraq, a universal health care plan, a tax code that is fair for every American, having a serious plan to deal with this foreclosure crisis, capping the emission of greenhouse gases, you know, getting serious about a whole host of issues around civil liberties, like closing Guantanamo and restoring habeas corpus -- on those big issues that are going to determine the future of this country and whether or not ordinary Americans can achieve the American dream, I have been entirely consistent, not just during this campaign, but for most of my adult life.

And so I don't think it's going to be hard to persuade people of what I stand for, because the truth is the things that I stand for today are the things I stood for 10 years ago and 20 years ago. And that's what we're fighting for in this campaign. And that's what I think is going to lead to our ultimate success in November.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Barack Obama, thank you so much for joining us.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Great to see you. Thank you.