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President Bush Links War in Iraq to War on Terrorism

May 24, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: For months, President Bush has warned that the U.S. faces a stark choice: combat terror in Iraq or fight it at home. It’s a point he kept making at his Rose Garden press conference this morning.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: Al-Qaida’s going to fight us wherever we are. See, that’s their strategy. Their strategy is to drive us out of the Middle East. And the fundamental question is, will we fight them? I’ve made the decision to do so. I believe that the best way to protect us in this war on terror is to fight them.

RAY SUAREZ: Yesterday, at the Coast Guard Academy commencement, the president raised the stakes even higher, asserting that once highly classified intelligence data revealed al-Qaida in Iraq was hatching plots against the U.S. He was pressed on those comments today.

JOURNALIST: Mr. President, after the mistakes that have been made in this war, when you do, as you did yesterday, where you raised 2-year-old intelligence talking about the threat posed by al-Qaida, it’s met with increasing skepticism. A majority in the public, a growing number of Republicans appear not to trust you any longer to be able to carry out this policy successfully. Can you explain why you believe you’re still a credible messenger on the war?

GEORGE W. BUSH: I’m credible because I read the intelligence data and make it abundantly clear, in plain terms, that, if we let up, we’ll be attacked. And I firmly believe that.

Look, this has been a long, difficult experience for the American people. I can assure you al-Qaida, who would like to attack us again, have got plenty of patience and persistence. And the question is, will we?

Yes, I talked about intelligence yesterday. I wanted to make sure the intelligence I laid out was credible, so we took our time. Failure in Iraq will cause generations to suffer, in my judgment. Al-Qaida will be emboldened. They will say, “Yes, once again, we’ve driven the great soft America out of a part of the region.” It will cause them to be able to recruit more; it will give them safe haven. They are a direct threat to the United States.

And I’m going to keep talking about it. That’s my job as the president, is to tell people the threats we face and what we’re doing about it. They’re dangerous, and I can’t put it any more plainly to the American people, and to them, we will stay on the offense. It’s better to fight them there than here.

And this concept about, well, maybe, you know, let’s just kind of just leave them alone and maybe they’ll be all right is naive. These people attacked us before we were in Iraq. They viciously attacked us before we were in Iraq, and they’ve been attacking ever since.

They are a threat to your children, David. And whoever is in that Oval Office better understand it and take measures necessary to protect the American people.

RAY SUAREZ: Again in his news conference, the president re-emphasized the high stakes of the war in Iraq.

GEORGE W. BUSH: One of the areas where I really believe we need more of a national discussion, however, is, what would be the consequences of failure in Iraq? Failure in Iraq affects the security of this country, and it’s hard for some Americans to see that. I fully understand it.

I see it clearly. I believe this is the great challenge of the beginning of the 21st century, not just Iraq, but dealing with this radical ideological movement in a way that secures us in the short term and more likely secures us in the long term.

The front in Pakistan

Rand Beers
Former National Security Council Staff
What they are doing in Iraq today is basically drawing us into a struggle where they can kill us, and demonize us, and where they can have other people do most of their dirty work. We're not going to defeat them there, and we should recognize that.

RAY SUAREZ: We take up the debate on where to fight terrorism with Rand Beers, who served in counterterrorism posts on the National Security Council staff and at the State Department under the last four presidents, including George W. Bush. He's now president of the National Security Network, a non-profit foreign policy advocacy group.

And Danielle Pletka, who's the president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, she's a former Republican staff member at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Rand Beers, the president has said in the last couple of days, the safety of America depends on the outcome of the battle of Baghdad. Another way of formulating that "fight them there so we don't have to fight them here" idea. Is he right?

RAND BEERS, President, National Security Network: I don't think, certainly, is the way that he meant to say that he's right. I think that we really have the central front or the headquarters of al-Qaida in Pakistan and along the Pak-Afghan border.

What they are doing in Iraq today is basically drawing us into a struggle where they can kill us, and demonize us, and where they can have other people do most of their dirty work. We're not going to defeat them there, and we should recognize that, and concentrate, if we're concentrating on terrorism, on other areas of the world.

RAY SUAREZ: Danielle Pletka, do you agree with that premise, that the United States has to fight terrorism in Iraq or else we'll be fighting it here?

DANIELLE PLETKA, American Enterprise Institute: Well, I think we have to fight terrorism everywhere. And certainly, if you listen to al-Qaida and you listen to the pronouncements of bin Laden or al-Zawahiri, you hear that they think the principal front line for the battle is, in fact, in Iraq.

I think to suggest that somehow we can ignore Iraq, that we can withdraw from Iraq without consequence, just to concentrate on the northwest frontier province of Pakistan, really is naive. I think we have to fight them there, and I think we need to be a lot tougher there.

But I also think that we have to fight them and defeat them in Iraq or they will, as the president said, make themselves a headquarters in Iraq, as they did in Afghanistan, and follow us here.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, even people who disagree with the president say we have to fight terrorism, but the president in these speeches takes it one step further. Would you agree that, as he posits, leaving Iraq would make it more likely that there'd be an attack on the United States in the United States?

DANIELLE PLETKA: Absolutely, because retreat is defeat. And if we retreat from Iraq, we cannot but expect that al-Qaida and all of those who follow them will see this as a retreat by the United States.

This was the history of the 1990s. This is what we saw. We had small skirmishes in Somalia. We had larger losses in Saudi Arabia. We had the Cole. We had the Africa embassy bombings and more. And in each instance of these al-Qaida attacks, we did not respond. We stayed the course, in doing nothing.

We let them operate in Afghanistan. We let them operate in Sudan. And they took a lesson from that. Bin Laden has written a great deal about this: America is weak; America can be attacked; America can be defeated. It sounds foolish to us, but it's a real rallying cry, and we cannot be defeated in Iraq.

The threat of terrorists in Iraq

Danielle Pletka
American Enterprise Institute
Where we give them room to breathe, they will operate, and they will plan, and they will strike us, and they will be encouraged and emboldened if we retreat and allow them that headquarters in Iraq.

RAY SUAREZ: Rand Beers, the president said it again today that leaving Iraq would make the American state more vulnerable to terrorist attack.

RAND BEERS: I think that one can certainly posit the possibility that terrorists -- al-Qaida terrorists who are in Iraq -- might at some point attack the United States. But I don't think the possibility for that is very high.

I think that it is much more likely that any terrorist attack on the United States is going to be mounted or emanating out of Pakistan. Just as the letter that the president quoted today -- or yesterday, I should say -- that al-Qaida was talking to Zarqawi and suggesting that he might open a cell that could attack the United States, he was doing that at the same time that an operation was being planned in London, the London subway bombing.

We've had the attempt at airliners out of the United Kingdom. Again, that was mounted out of Pakistan, not out of Iraq. I think that the probability of something happening out of Iraq at this point in time or at some point in the future is probably far less probable than something emanating out of Pakistan.

RAY SUAREZ: So you're saying these things move on separate tracks?

RAND BEERS: Yes.

RAY SUAREZ: That the intelligence revealed by the president at the Coast Guard commencement, for instance, undermines his point rather than supporting it, that operations are being planned to attack the United States even as the United States continues to fight in Iraq?

RAND BEERS: That's correct. And I think that we can expect the United States to be in danger for some time to come. Al-Qaida -- I agree with the president. Al-Qaida wishes to attack the United States. I just don't find it plausible that the United States is directly threatened by what's happening in Iraq, directly threatened in the United States.

RAY SUAREZ: Danielle Pletka, how do you respond to that?

DANIELLE PLETKA: Well, I guess I'm really confused about it for a couple of reasons. The first is that, yes, it's true, while we're fighting al-Qaida in Iraq, there should be no doubt it's going to be hard for them to plan. We've knocked out Zarqawi. We've killed others, and we've killed some in Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well. While they're on the run, it's going to be hard for them.

If we retreat, if we surrender in Iraq, then I think we should have no doubt that there will be places from which they can plan and operate. That doesn't take away from their ability to plan and operate elsewhere. That's why we need to be fighting them in Iraq and elsewhere.

But the second part of this is, it reminds me of the discussions that we had with the Clinton administration about Afghanistan in the 1990s. There was a huge amount of frustration that the rise of the Taliban, at the fact that the Taliban was giving al-Qaida a safe haven, and that the administration wasn't doing enough about it. Now, to be fair, the Congress wasn't doing enough about it, either.

But, again, you heard the same sort of complacency about where they would be doing their planning. No, they're not going to operate and plan against us in the United States. They're focusing on Africa. Or they're focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I think that they are focusing on us. And where we give them room to breathe, they will operate, and they will plan, and they will strike us, and they will be encouraged and emboldened if we retreat and allow them that headquarters in Iraq.

Iraq before the war

Danielle Pletka
American Enterprise Institute
If, in fact, the consequence of toppling an evil, cruel dictator is that terrorists will threaten us, should we therefore not topple that dictator? And then I would ask, what else shouldn't we do?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, once again, the president brought it up today, that the United States was attacked even before it was in Iraq, but was Iraq the way it was now before the invasion? Could it be the kind of Petri dish it is for terrorism before the Americans rolled in from Kuwait?

DANIELLE PLETKA: I think that Iraq isn't now what it was then. Iraq was a dictatorial state run by a dreadful, evil man, Saddam Hussein, so the question I guess I have to ask are two.

The first is, if, in fact, the consequence of toppling an evil, cruel dictator is that terrorists will threaten us, should we therefore not topple that dictator? And then I would ask, what else shouldn't we do? Because you know, terrorists don't like us supporting Israel, either. Perhaps we really shouldn't support Israel.

But, in fact, terrorists don't like a lot of things. And they're going to opportunistically attack us wherever we operate. They didn't like us in Saudi Arabia, either.

They don't like us in a whole variety of places, the Philippines, for example. They don't want us there, either. Should we get out? Should we take that threat seriously? Or should we do what's in our national interest?

The second part of that question is, yes, there are people who assert that Iraq would have been more stable, the stability of the grave that existed under Saddam Hussein, had we not gone in and al-Qaida wouldn't be operating there. But we are where we are. And so, from that standpoint, I ask again, understanding that we are where we are, why do we want to retreat from that battle? We can't roll back time.

Terrorists outside of Iraq

Rand Beers
Former National Security Council Staff
We should focus on where al-Qaida's central headquarters is. And we should do what we need to do in order to bring them to heel there. If we can do that, then we have a far better job of dealing with al-Qaida in other places around the world.

RAY SUAREZ: Rand Beers, take that question. She asked it; you can answer it.

RAND BEERS: Well, we're talking here past one another. I'm not suggesting that we should pull out entirely from Iraq. I'm simply suggesting that we ought to refocus our effort there. I'm suggesting that we ought to support the Iraqis in taking care of their own problems.

And I'm suggesting that we ought to concentrate on al-Qaida outside of Iraq, as well as not giving them a free reign in Iraq. No, I'm not suggesting that, either. But I do think that we've over-invested our effort in Iraq. And by over-investing in Iraq, we're both giving al-Qaida an opportunity to recruit around the world, because we're there in the way that we're there, and we're less able to devote either personnel or resources to dealing with al-Qaida in other places.

RAY SUAREZ: Does a superpower get to figure out, to pick where it stages its battles against its perceived enemies? Can the United States choose Iraq as the place to fight al-Qaida?

RAND BEERS: Only if al-Qaida is prepared to invest its full force there; otherwise, we're fighting a battle that's a partial activity on the part of al-Qaida.

We should focus on where al-Qaida's central headquarters is. And we should do what we need to do in order to bring them to heel there. If we can do that, then we have a far better job of dealing with al-Qaida in other places around the world.

But the other half of that is the much broader struggle to separate the support that al-Qaida gets from populations.

RAY SUAREZ: Rand Beers, Danielle Pletka, thank you both.

RAND BEERS: Thank you.