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Sens. Kaine and McCain debate U.S. exit from Iraq, prerequisites for new military response

June 18, 2014 at 6:11 PM EDT
Pressure is mounting for the U.S. to come up with a course of action against the uprising of ISIL in Iraq. Judy Woodruff talks to Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who says reforms have to happen in Iraq before the U.S. decide what kind of assistance to provide. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., says the U.S. should launch airstrikes and put some boots on the ground to oppose the extreme elements in Iraq.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The U.S. secretary of defense and the nation’s top military leader were pressed today on Capitol Hill about an American course of action in Iraq.

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman: We have a request from the Iraqi government for airpower.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey, made clear the sense of urgency in the crisis in Iraq today, as he spoke before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Capitol Hill. He was joined by the secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel, who was pressed by Senator Dan Coats of Indiana on the severity of the situation.

SEN. DAN COATS, R, Ind.: We have already lost some territory. They have already gained control of the second largest city in Iraq.

CHUCK HAGEL, Secretary of Defense: No, I — we ought to be clear. It wasn’t the United States that lost anything. We turned a pretty significant situation over, as you noted, for the very reasons you noted, to the Iraqi people when we phased out of our military involvement in Iraq.

And so we have done everything we could to help them. But it’s up to the Iraqis.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But pressure is mounting now for the U.S. to come up with a course of action against ISIL, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

In his final briefing as the White House press secretary, Jay Carney said the option of airstrikes is still on the table.

JAY CARNEY, White House Press Secretary: The only thing the president has ruled out, and I want to be clear here, is sending U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq. But he continues to consider other options. Taking direct military action by the United States will not solve Iraq’s challenges, certainly not alone.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, President Obama met with congressional leaders at the White House today. Earlier, both Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker John Boehner expressed their hesitation over U.S. involvement in the spiraling crisis.

SEN. HARRY REID, Majority Leader: It’s not worth the blood of American soldiers. It’s not worth the monetary cost to the American taxpayer.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Boehner warned against the U.S. working with Iran to combat Sunni extremists.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, Speaker of the House: I can just imagine what our friends in the region and our allies would be thinking by reaching out to Iran at a time when they continue to pay for terrorism, foster terrorism, not only in Syria and Lebanon, but in Israel as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Amid the challenges the U.S. government faces over Iraq, the American people have become wary of how the U.S. will handle it.

According to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, the public’s approval rating of President Obama’s handling of foreign policy has dropped to its lowest level. In December 2012, 52 percent of those polled approved of the president’s foreign policy. That number is 37 percent as of this month.

As the U.S. deliberates its course of action, the White House has made clear that Iraq’s Shia-led government must do more to mend sectarian divisions in the country as part of any solution to the crisis.

Now two U.S. senators with different takes about the next steps for the U.S.

Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, is on both the Senate Armed Services and the Foreign Relations Committees. I talked to him just a short time ago.

Senator Kaine, thank you for joining us.

SEN. TIM KAINE, D, Va.: Absolutely, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Should the U.S. be providing military — more military assistance to Iraq right now?

SEN. TIM KAINE: Judy, the question is a little bit premature, because what we really need — and there is a process — the way this is supposed to work is the president will come to us and lay out what he thinks is the preferred option.

And then, after consulting with Congress, we will go forward. I expect that he will do that soon. He’s already been in significant consultation, not only with leadership, but with others like me, but when he does come, there’s going to be some hard questions.

Maliki — we had the opportunity. The U.S. wanted the stay in Iraq and Maliki basically kicked us out. He didn’t want us to stay. Then he ignored all the advice that we and others gave him about how to govern Iraq, to try to do it in a way that brought Kurds and Sunnis and Shias together. Instead, he’s run Iraq for Shias and marginalized, even oppressing Sunni and Kurds.

And so this extremism, the Sunni extremism, has been a predictable consequence of that, in my view. They’re horrible people doing horrible things, but he’s given them an opening by governing in such an autocratic way.

So, if it’s just a matter of, do we come in now to back up Maliki with military force after he kicked us out and after he’s governed the wrong way, that would be foolish. What we should be first talking about is, are there reforms that the Iraqis are willing to make to try to demonstrate to all in the country that they are all going to be treated equally?

Those kind of reforms really are the things that have to happen before we decide what kind of assistance we should provide.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, you have had raised a couple of things. And let me just pick them one by one.

In terms of the reforms, Prime Minister Maliki says he has reached out, for example, to Sunnis. He’s brought them — he’s given them a role in his government. He says, in essence, that it’s just wrong to say that he has not reached out.

SEN. TIM KAINE: Virtually every objective account that we have heard from Iraq experts here, not only folks connected with the administration, State Department, DOD, but NGOs and others, suggest just the contrary, that he has ignored that advice and that he has run this government for Shias with the strong support of the Shia-based government in Iran, and he has done it in a way that has marginalized Sunnis and marginalized Kurds.

And that’s why they’re not coming to his aid right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And should U.S. — should any U.S. military or security help be contingent on his reforming or on his leaving government, for that matter, as some people are saying?

SEN. TIM KAINE: The notion of him leaving government, that’s for Iraqis. We shouldn’t be dictating who nations choose as their leaders.

But if their leaders are asking for our help, it’s very fair for us to say, OK, well, you kicked us out, and now you’re running this government in a way that’s creating the conditions of extremism. This isn’t about coming in and bailing you out of your bad decisions.

So, in terms of contingency, I would rather not do contingent things based upon promises that he might make. I would rather see them actually take steps for reform, put in a Sunni as the defense chief, put in a Kurd as the intelligence chief, make the visible, necessary reforms to demonstrate to Iraqis that it’s going to be an open society.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And if he’s not prepared to do that, are you saying the U.S. shouldn’t provide military assistance?

SEN. TIM KAINE: I think it is a very hard case to make.

Aside from humanitarian aid that we ought to be doing in tandem with regional partners, I think it’s a very hard case to make that we should provide the Maliki government with military assistance, if they are not willing to show that they are going to govern in an even-handed way.

What would be the likelihood that it would work, providing assistance to a government that has created these very conditions of instability by rejecting the U.S. wanting to stay and help and then governing the wrong way?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, on your point, you say he did reject U.S. help. As you know, Senator John McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina both insist that they were talking to the Iraqi government at the time, that Prime Minister Maliki was prepared to accept U.S. troops staying in the country.

We are going to be interviewing Senator McCain after we speak with you, but he insists that it is not the case that Maliki rejected U.S. troops.

SEN. TIM KAINE: Well, Judy, let me tell you why I think it is the case.

President Bush signed an agreement with Maliki in 2008 that said the U.S. would be done in 2011. And President Obama was in dialogue with Maliki in 2011 about staying. Foreign Minister Zebari, the Iraqi foreign minister, I heard him give a public speech in Bahrain in December where he stood up and said, the United States wanted to stay in Iraq and we told them no, and we made a huge mistake when we told them no.

And Zebari even said that he had spoken with Hamid Karzai and said, don’t make the same mistake in Afghanistan.

So, when the foreign minister of Iraq says, we know you wanted to stay, but we stiff-armed you and told you to get out, I actually think that that’s probably the state of affairs; they didn’t want us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me come back to this question of use of force.

Should any use of force by the U.S. first be approved by the Congress, if that’s what it comes to?

SEN. TIM KAINE: It should definitely be approved by Congress in one of two ways, Judy.

The framers of the Constitution said it’s always Congress that should be making the decision about whether military action should be initiated. But in the event of an emergency, there was an understanding that the president would go to the congressional leadership of both houses in key committees explain plans.

And in the event of emergency, that consultation would be initially sufficient that Congress would have to come back and give their stamp of approval. So, if the president feels like this is so urgent and emergent that all he can really do is inform the leadership and get some consensus buy-in and then go forward, then he can act in the case of an emergency without a vote.

But he would still need to come back to Congress, in my view, and get a vote for the initiation of military hostilities. That’s the way it was intended in the Constitution, for a very important reason. If you don’t get Congress on board, you’re putting American men and women’s lives at risk without doing the necessary work of reaching the political consensus that the framers intended between the legislature and the executive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Tim Kaine, we thank you very much.

SEN. TIM KAINE: Thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And a leading Republican voice in this debate is Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona. He too serves on the Senate Armed Services and the Foreign Relations Committees.

Senator McCain, thank you very much for joining us.

A number of things I want to ask you about, but let me just start with that last question I had for Senator Tim Kaine. And that is this question of whether Congress should give its approval before there is any military — or additional military or security assistance for Iraq.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R, Ariz.: No, I think the president could act in certain ways, depending on what the emergencies of the moment are, depending on exactly how he wanted to do it.

I think he should consult with leaders of Congress, particularly the Intelligence Committee members. But I don’t think he has to have a blank check or a — excuse me — I don’t think he has to have their permission.

We woke up one morning some years ago, you might remember, Judy, and found out that Ronald Reagan had decided to invade a small island nation called Grenada.

But, look, I want to get back to what Senator Kaine said. I don’t know what he heard, anybody giving a speech, and I don’t know how many times he’s been to Iraq, if ever. I have been there more times than I can count.

We — Lindsey Graham, in direct, direct conversation with Maliki, after direct conversation with Barzani, after direct conversation with Allawi, they were all ready to deal. And it is a fact — in fact, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff himself said that the number of troops that we were proposing cascaded down to 3,000, when it had been recommended to be 20,000

And by that time, the leader of — especially Maliki, decided that it wasn’t worth the problem. So, what Senator Kaine is saying is just totally false. And it’s — and, in fact, it’s a lie, because Lindsey Graham and I were there. And we know what happened, because we were there face to face.

And the administration would never give a troop strength number. Senator — the chief of staff, General Dempsey, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee and said the number cascaded — his words — down to 3,500.

At that point, Maliki and company decided that it wasn’t worth it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Senator, you — those are very strong words, accusing Senator Kaine of lying.

This is something…

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: No, I’m saying — I’m saying it is a lie to say — to say that we — that the Iraqis rejected. It was — it was President Obama’s commitment to get everybody out of Iraq. That’s the overriding fact here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is something you have spoken about — you have been outspoken about in the last few days. You have spoken about it today and previously on the floor of the United States Senate.

Why is it so important, do you think, to continue to make this point to talk about what happened in the past?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Because the — because the opponent — the opponents and those who want to justify this colossal failure that has caused the greatest threat to United States national security since the end of the Cold War, they’re trying to justify it by saying that Maliki didn’t want American troops there.

And that is not true. And the fact is, the other point that Senator Kaine missed here, this isn’t just a Sunni-Shia conflict. This is about the richest, most — largest terrorist organization control that is dedicated to the distinction — destruction of the United States. And that’s the words of the director of national intelligence and the director — secretary of homeland security.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Senator, what do you believe the United States should do now?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: What General — what a number of other military leaders have recommended.

And that is that we go in, we use airpower, we get some boots on the ground, a few that can identify targets. We need to get some planners over there that can help the Iraqis repel the — what is going to be at least some assault on some of the other towns — I don’t think they can take Baghdad — and recognize that this is not a civil war going on.

This is — this is the most extreme element of the extremes of jihadists that want to destroy the United States of America. That’s what this is all about.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Senator, what do you say to those, including those in your own party? Speaker John Boehner has been talking about this. And I know you know a number of others in both parties saying their concern is that the U.S. gets involved without being clear about whose side it’s on, then it risks inflaming the situation.

There is Iran. There are the Saudis. There is what’s going on in Syria.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Sure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How does the U.S. know whose — who it’s siding — whom it is siding with?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: We have leaders, generals, such as General Keane, General Petraeus, Ryan Crocker, many others, they know the Iraqis. They were with them for years and years. We know who our friends are and who they aren’t.

Maliki is totally an abysmal failure. And he is really the cause of a lot of the success that ISIS involve. But we know who these people are. We served with them side by side for years. We can identify them. But the fact is that Maliki has got to set up a government of reconciliation, and that has to be an inclusive one, and that — we have to work with that group.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And do you believe military action should be contingent on the prime minister taking — making these political reforms?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: No, no, no.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why not?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: We’re in immediate — because we’re in immediate danger militarily.

They took Mosul. They now have American equipment. They are trying to attack Baghdad. They have taken over — there is now an enclave, a caliphate of Iraqi and Syrian — and you can’t leave Syria out of this — the most hard-core terrorist organization in America who has pledged to attack and do what they can do to destroy America.

That’s — American national security should be our first priority.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, Senator, you’re comfortable with the U.S. working with Iran in this? And how long should the U.S. stay?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: The — well, first of all, I do not in any circumstances want to deal with Iran. They were responsible for IEDs that killed Americans.

How long — how long did we stay in South Korea? How long did we stay in Bosnia? How long did we stay in Germany? How long did we stay in Japan?

We have always left behind residual forces. We had this won, Judy. In case you missed it, we had this won, thanks to the surge. Iraq was largely pacified. We weren’t going to take more casualties. And we had it won.

And then the president of the United States wanted us out. And I predicted it. And I predicted what would happen. And I’m sorry that I was right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator John McCain, we hear you loud and clear. Thank you for joining us.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Thank you, Judy.