MARGARET WARNER: Joining us now to explore the politics and substance of the Iraq War in this campaign, two Republican lawmakers. Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, who sits on the Foreign Relations and Select Intelligence Committees; and Rep. Heather Wilson of New Mexico, a member of the House Armed Services Committee. Welcome to you both. Welcome to the broadcast.
MARGARET WARNER: The polling is showing that the Iraq War remains something of a problem for the president. Heather Wilson, let me begin with you. The latest New York Times poll and I'm now talking about swing voters and all voters, not Republicans or people in this hall, that more than half of all voters now believe the U.S. should have stayed out of Iraq and sort of 49 to 43 percent -- this is from the Wall Street Journal poll -- that winning the war has not been worth the cost in lives and in money.
Is the Iraq war a political millstone around the president's neck at this point?
REP. HEATHER WILSON: It is certainly a challenge for the country. And the president has stayed the course, and I think we did the right thing by removing Saddam Hussein from power. I think he was a looming threat, and yet the American people... and we're an impatient people. We want our food through the window at McDonald's and we want our cash from an ATM machine and this is going to be a long, hard-fought war. And we need to stay the course on the entire war on terrorism.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think it is a real negative for the president?
SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: It's a major issue. It could be the most dominant issue by the time we get to Nov. 2. Any time a nation is at war, and young men and women are dying, that's going to be an issue. There are other issues is that are connected to Iraq: obviously, foreign policy, national security, stability, our future, all of these things connect.
But yes, it's an issue. And I think this business is so uncertain at an uncertain time in history. This is a transformational defining time in the world, and this president is captive to a certain amount of those uncontrollables right now.
MARGARET WARNER: Congresswoman, you said you thought, and I know you both have been back in your districts and in your state and talking to your constituents, that you thought it was American public just being - we are an impatient people. But when voters express their concerns about the war and these could be voters who supported the war originally, what is it really? I mean, is it the failure to find the weapons? Is it the Abu Ghraib prison scandal? Is it the sort of prolonged insurgency and occupation? What is at the root of it?
REP. HEATHER WILSON: Well, I think those are all factors there. And some of those are factors beyond the control of any particular president. But I think the big questions that people are going to have to face in November is what is the way forward from here, and what does America need to do to keep ourselves and the rest of the world safe from people who would seek to destroy us? And so that's, to me, that is the real question that people will come to grips with.
MARGARET WARNER: We'll get to that but I'd like to just get your sense because you are both out there talking to real voters about what the cause of the concern is. Senator, you had an interview just before you gave a speech out in Los Angeles in June, late June, and you said you thought the occupation of Iraq had been poorly planned and it has actually spread terrorist cells more widely throughout the world. Is that your view? Are you also hearing that from your constituents?
SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: Well, I develop my views and my judgment based on hopefully understanding issues, listening to other people who know about the issue and an accumulation of coming to some conclusion and some judgment. Sometimes you're right. Sometimes you're wrong. But when I made those comments, I feel that the war - the second phase -- was poorly planned. And the problems that we are having now are due to that. We didn't think about consequences. We didn't think about the long-term. How do you sustain this kind of a war, this kind of a policy?
And your earlier question tying into this question about poll numbers and what Heather said is right, too, in that we are a shorter term kind of a society. That's all the more reason why we needed to think through how we were going to sustain a long-term effort in Iraq.
I don't think you can look at Iraq in just as a vacuum to Iraq. It is a regional issue. The Israeli-Palestinian issue is tied to this; Iran is tied to it; Syria is tied to it; stability and security in the Middle East are woven into this great fabric, and I think policy is going to have to address it in the larger context.
MARGARET WARNER: So looking forward, for instance, the president said in a recent interview with the New York Times, that he said essentially what you said, Sen. Hagel, that the administration had made a miscalculation about what the conditions would be in this second phase. Do you think that was wise of him, first of all politically, to make that admission? And then where does he go from that?
REP. HEATHER WILSON: Sen. Hagel and I have both been critical both of the Pentagon and the intelligence community over the last year on different facets of the implementation of the war in Iraq and other things. But I think to me what matters is where we go from here. We have transferred authority to a new interim Iraqi government. They're preparing for elections. We need to accelerate and continue to accelerate the training of the Iraqi security forces. And that's also happening at this point. So those things are important.
MARGARET WARNER: Are you saying, because again, and I do keep going back to recent polling numbers only because they're out, again talking to real people.
REP. HEATHER WILSON: You talk more about polling than politicians do.
MARGARET WARNER: I'm asking you what's behind them. That more than half of Americans want to see some major adjustments in the Iraqi policy. Are you talking about.... do you think the president needs to…
REP. HEATHER WILSON: I don't hear that people think, you know, we need major adjustments in Iraq policy. I do think people get anxious when they see an insurgency that arose within Iraq and wondering whether we are doing the right thing, and they need reassurance and they need people like Sen. Hagel and I to be asking tough questions to make sure we continue to do the right thing.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think the president, both at this convention and down the line, that he needs to adjust the policy further, or do you think he needs to persuade the American people that this is, as painful as it is, as high of a cost, that it is the right policy?
SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: Well, I think he has to do what he is doing in the sense of reaching out to the American people and explaining the long-term consequences, the long-term commitment, the relevancy of that, why that is important to not only stability and security in the Middle East, but our own security here in the United States.
We live in a global community. We are touched by every dynamic that goes on internationally, whether it's trade, security, stability, markets, and we are not going to unwind that. I think he needs to talk about it in those larger contexts and he is doing that. But one of the problems that he is facing here, and it is something that Heather started to get into, and I think it does give some answer to these poll numbers, there was an expectation when we went into Iraq that this was going to be quick, maybe not easy, but the Iraqi people would welcome us. We would be able to start putting together a Jeffersonian democracy and it would flow in a different direction.
The expectations were set far too high, and that's part of the problem that have you now. And the American people are always, any democracy is going to ask the tough questions: Is it worth it? Why are we there? And a more defined purpose, I think, needs to be established.
But the president is where he is. Heather is exactly right. We've got to move forward. We are not going to unwind the decisions. And we can't lose. It's too important... the consequences are too dire to the future of the Middle East and security in the world.
MARGARET WARNER: So, congresswoman, I know you probably have enough on your mind giving your own speech tonight, but if you were writing the Iraq portion of the President's speech for Thursday night, what would you have him say to address the expectations gap, the impatience that you mentioned earlier?
REP. HEATHER WILSON: I think he will explain to the American people where we are and his vision of where we need to go. I think he will show himself to be a very strong leader at a very difficult time in the history of the world. This is not easy. It is not going to be easy no matter who is president of the United States and no matter who is in the House or the Senate. But we have to stay the course as a nation in order to secure this nation.
MARGARET WARNER: In terms of what he actually says, are you saying he should say we are on the right track and I'm going to get you there? Is that the message?
REP. HEATHER WILSON: I'm not... you know, I'm struggling with my own speech. I wouldn't presume to write one for him or think here out loud on how he would do that. But if I were him, I would tell some stories about the successes in Iraq and what it means to the Iraqi people to taste freedom.
MARGARET WARNER: What would you have him say?
SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: Well, I do think it comes back to a very clearly defined purpose, objective, an independent free self-governing Iraq. And that has a very significant consequence for not only stability, security in the Middle East, but in the world. And, as Heather pointed out, it is not easy. It is very complicated. And we are going to need relationships. We are going to need associations, seamless networks of cooperation with our allies. We cannot do this alone. We cannot win in Afghanistan alone. And that's another part of this that is woven together. And if he can clearly define that, then I think the American public will continue to give him the latitude that presidents must have in the implementation of foreign policy.
MARGARET WARNER: Senator Chuck Hagel, Congresswoman Heather Wilson, thank you both. Good luck tonight. We'll be watching.
REP. HEATHER WILSON: Thank you.