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A Conversation with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) [Rush Transcript; Federal News Service]

Speakers: Thomas R. Pickering, Vice Chairman, Hills & Company, Former Undersecretary Of State For Political Affairs, and Bill Nelson, Senator (D-FL)
January 30, 2007
Council on Foreign Relations


The Washington Club, Washington, D.C.

January 30, 2007

THOMAS R. PICKERING: Ladies and gentlemen, my thanks for your being here. I want to welcome you to the Council on Foreign Relations meeting this afternoon with Senator Bill Nelson of Florida.

A few announcements. We'd be grateful if you would turn off your cell phones, BlackBerrys or other ringing wireless devices. I want to remind you that this meeting is on the record.

In a minute we'll ask questions, but first it's my great pleasure to introduce Senator Bill Nelson of Florida. A Floridian of five generations born in Florida, served both in the executive and in the legislative branch in Florida, many times member of the Florida House of Representatives, a six-time member of the United States House of Representatives, ending that term in 1991. During that period, Senator Nelson was an astronaut -- I would say a congressional astronaut of great distinction. He shared that with Senator Garn. He spent January 8th to January 12th of -- 1986 was it, Senator?


PICKERING: -- aboard Columbia as a payload specialist.

The senator was elected in 2000 to the Senate and again in 2006. The senator is a member of the Commerce Committee, the Armed Services -- Senate Armed Services Committee, House Foreign -- Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But most importantly in this area, his recent trip to Damascus, his third over recent terms of office, has provided us with a very interesting opportunity to hear from him on the Middle East and how he sees it, what he heard and found in Syria, and how he sees that particular element of the Middle East fitting into the larger picture.

Our time has become shorter, and so, without further ado, I'd like to turn the platform over to Senator Nelson, and then we'll look forward to your questions and comments. Senator, please.

NELSON: Thank you, Mr. Ambassador.

PICKERING: Thank you.

NELSON: Thank you. (Applause.)

I apologize for being late. There are things known as Senate votes that occur, and I dashed as fast as I could, and I am -- I am honored to be here. Thank you for your invitation. A similar invitation has been extended to me in the council that is located in New York, and I will be visiting with them as well.

Let me just short-circuit this and save time for your questions. But there is no simple or easy solution in the circumstance in which we find ourselves. The Iraq study commission made an excellent attempt to bring together consensus an a plan, and when everyone -- and when anyone attacks and says you don't have a plan, I hold up the Iraq study commission report. There is a plan.

Today, two of the major issues before before the world community are the issue of Iraq and proliferation. And it's interesting, what was the two main messages coming out of the election? Clearly the election in Florida, but Florida is a microcosm of the country, and I think its politics pretty well reflects the country. Message number one was Iraq, and message number two was stop the partisan bickering. And I give great credit to Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell in them convening the Senate in a private meeting before we were all sworn in again on the opening day to discuss just that.

Specifically, right now the Senate will continue to consider the president's new plan on Iraq, including the debate on a resolution that declares a lack of confidence in his call for 21,000 more troops in the war zone. I can tell you that I disapprove of this plan, and I think a majority of the Senate disapproves of this plan. And if we can keep this thing from becoming partisan, I think two-thirds of the Senate will vote for a resolution disapproving of this plan.

Now, of course, what's happening right now is the White House is out there trying to divide and drive the partisan wedge. And so you saw that beginning in the Biden resolution in our Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, where only Chuck Hagel was the Republican that voted for it. And the others, who all in their statements multiple times had said that they do not agree with the president, they used the excuse that the Biden resolution was too harsh.

If you put the Biden resolution right next to the Warner resolution, they're almost identical. But, such as the nature of politics, perception is often the reality of our business, and so that's what we're now jockeying about.

And I just came from a meeting of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and I can tell you the statements that John Warner was making in there and the statements that I made to corroborate what Senator Warner was saying and his private comments to me afterwards indicate that he is still on the course of having his resolution have a means of expressing his disapproval of the president's plan.

Now, like a lot of Americans, many of us in the Senate supported the war. You know how all these people always try to come up and trap you by saying, well, did you make a mistake? The word is not "mistake"; the word is "misrepresentation." We have all been fierce defenders of our military, and some of us have been frequent supporters of the president. But in retrospect -- this is the misrepresentation part -- over and over again, we were not told the truth about weapons of mass destruction, about troop levels, about the cost of the war, about sectarian violence. And over and over again -- and that's why I've raised the questions with these generals that come in front of us now, including Petraeus last week and Admiral Fallon this week -- will you not sit at that witness table silently with your civilian superior when that superior is making misrepresentations and untruths? And we've had that happen too much in the past.

And General Petraeus has assured that to me in private and in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Admiral Fallon said that today, about the need for candor. Interestingly also, Admiral Fallon today did not endorse the 21,000 troop increase. He sidestepped that one most eloquently, I must say. (Soft laughter.)

And now, because of all this, many of us no longer can give consent to the administration's plan for the military buildup in Iraq -- a plan, by the way, that some of the generals say won't work; a plan, by the way, that General Abizaid, as recently in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee as November, said there is no need for any increase of troops in Iraq.

Now, knowing debate and a decision on the Iraq strategy loomed early in this new Congress, before Christmas, I went over, as they call it in the military, to the AOR. Twelve days, nine countries, including Iraq. In advance of the trip, General Hayden, the head of the CIA, specifically asked me to go to Saudi Arabia to talk to the Saudi king about the Saudis getting their tribal contacts, their tribal friends, their Sunni friends in Iraq to try to help stabilization. And General Hayden said -- he specifically, since I was going, wanted me to go to Saudi Arabia because we hadn't had a congressional delegation there in a couple of years. He asked me to convey to the Saudis that they could help bring stability to Iraq by utilizing those tribal ties. I delivered that message to the king in a wonderful hourlong meeting where the chemistry just worked between the two of us.

I'll tell you how it started out. I mentioned to him, Your Majesty, tonight one of your nephews is giving a dinner party for me at his farm. This is Prince Sultan bin Salman. I said he's doing this because he flew on the space shuttle six months before I did. And the king -- his face brightened, and he said, "When you were in space, you must have seen God." And I went on then to start telling him some of my personal experiences about looking back at this wonderful creation called our home, the planet, and I mean, I went on and on. Well, the king and I just -- I mean, we had it going there.

And then, of course, we got into the business. And then I followed up with two of his nephews, Prince Mugrin and Prince Mohammed, who control the security, one external security, one internal security.

Now, no doubt some of you have heard about another one of the countries that I went to, because it drew, shall we say, unfavorable notice from Tony Snow in one of his daily press briefings because I dared to go to Syria when the White House didn't want me to go. I'd been there. I went because I'd been there twice, and the Iraq Study Commission had just reported and they said we ought to engage Iraq's neighbors in finding a solution to the crisis there.

I didn't go without caveats. One was that I was speaking for myself, not negotiating for the administration or negotiating on behalf of the United States. Another was that I would harbor no illusions about the character of the Syrian leadership. I'd met with him. This is now three times. This isn't a particularly nice regime, either to its citizens or its neighbors. I approached this visit with realism, not optimism.

And I met with Assad for an hour. Our conversation covered nearly every issue between our nations, including some where we have some very significant grievances. Hezbollah. Hamas. The undermining of the Siniora government in Lebanon. The lack of the full cooperation by the Syrians with the United Nations tribunal that is investigating the assassination of Rafik Hariri.

And of course, President Assad stuck to his normal rhetoric, as he had in the previous visits, with some exceptions in previous visits when I would get him aside. But where there was a slight crack in the door, and that was on controlling the Iraqi-Syrian border, he had said this same thing to me three years ago, that he was willing to cooperate with the Americans on control of the border. And indeed, he followed through. There was, albeit sporadic, cooperation with us, and even up to and including the time of the assassination until a couple of months afterwards, and then it precipitously cut off. That border has been an entry point for the jihadis who fly into Damascus and then they make their way into Iraq along those ancient smuggling routes. And once inside, you know the difficulty that they give to our American men and women.

After the last visit with Assad, there was this limited cooperation. So the time that he told me this, I immediately got on the phone, after I had debriefed our embassy in Damascus, want back to Jordan, at the embassy got on the phone with Nicholas Burns and shared (with) him that he had offered to have cooperation with either -- and he put it in these words, and I prompted these words -- either the Americans or the -- and/or the Iraqi army.

I mentioned to him in the course of conversation, I said, "Why don't you realize this is in your interest? First of all, you got a real problem with the refugees coming in here. And down the line, you certainly want to have an oil pipeline and gas pipeline that would come from Tikrit -- Kirkuk -- from Kirkuk in northern Iraq all the way through Syria, all the way to the Mediterranean Sea."

Well, I don't have any illusions about the possible impact on U.S.-Syrian relations from one politician's conversation with Assad, or from the four other senators, for that matter -- because I was followed by Senators Specter, Dodd and Kerry. But I think the very limited opening illustrates why the administration ought to take the Iraq Study Commission's recommendation very seriously.

Logic instructs us that we cannot succeed in stabilizing Iraq without the cooperation of all Iraq's neighbors. And so, rather than simply making demands of governments who often do not share our interests, our effort should be focused on finding those limited areas where our interests overlap and then develop them.

The diplomatic dialogue would not have to give up anything on areas where we disagree about Syria, but it most certainly can include the discussion of the costs to Syria of the continued conflict, such as the imposition of additional sanctions under the Syria Accountability Act. And it should be coordinated with the diplomatic efforts of our allies.

Yet the administration has adopted the approach of an ostrich. And it's not working.

Now, does the same instinctive and instructive logic apply to Iran? Well, to a degree it does. But with Iran, it is complicated by the very real threat of them developing nuclear weapons and willfully undermining governments across the region.

In every capital that I visited, the menace of Iran was foremost on the agenda of my host. In fact, the two most similar descriptions I heard about the threat -- this will blow your mind -- came from Benjamin Netanyahu and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Almost identical descriptions of the threat by Iran. That should tell you something.

But again, an international effort to stabilize Iraq must include all of Iraq's neighbors, and that includes Iran. Can Iran be a spoiler in these talks? Of course. But would it come at the cost of increasing their isolation? Should our effort to force Iran to end uranium enrichment continue concurrently? Without question, and it should include the imposition of tougher sanctions than those imposed by the U.N. last month. And you know the problem that we're having with Europe about all of that. Just read this morning's New York Times.

Should we rule out military options if Iran closes in on acquiring nuclear weapons or threatens the lanes shipping or attacks its neighbors? Nothing should be off the table -- and, another carrier group in the Gulf is a good way to remind Iran of that fact.

But right now, stabilizing Iraq needs to be the top priority. Failing to do so only leads to disaster: more dead American soldiers and Marines, possible ethnic cleansing extended ad infinitum, and bloodletting on a scale we have not yet seen, very likely the destabilization of key Middle Eastern nations, and a serious weakening of our ability to contain Iran.

So the task at hand will require a kind of political leadership that has not yet shown itself in Iraq -- leaders with wisdom and maturity to confront extremists even in their own communities, as well as those across the divide. The Iraqi government must use its security forces to combat militias and insurgents without regard to their sectarian affiliation. And without that fundamental change in approach, this senator believes that the violence is going to continue.

And herein lies the flaw in the president's plan to send more troops to Iraq. Based on everything I've learned, whether it's what I saw, what I've studied, the hearings we've had, the conversations with the leaders, the conversations with military leaders, I'm convinced that troops going into Baghdad, additional troops, are not going to end the sectarian violence -- not 20,000 troops. If we had 200,000, or 300,000 additional troops, maybe. It might make a difference in temporarily restoring order. But the global mandates on our military make that impossible.

The president's plan is predicated on the reliability of Iraqi troops side by side with the Americans. No one in the administration can tell us that the Iraqi troops are reliable. I have asked that question, other senators have asked that question over and over in both the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee, and this senator has asked that question in the confines of classified information of the Intelligence Committee. No one. So if no one can tell us that the Iraqi troops are reliable, how can you send 20,000 new U.S. troops, if you do not know the reliability of the Iraqi troops that are going to be side by side with them -- get this, not in a unified command structure, which we've always insisted, but in a dual command structure. No less a person than General Keane, the former vice chief of the U.S. Army who helped the president formulate this plan, no less a person than he testifies to the fact it's a big mistake going into Baghdad with dual chain of command.

Our only hope, I believe, in stabilizing Iraq depends largely on three successful initiatives.

One, an aggressive diplomatic effort led by the U.S. with Iraq and its neighbors to quickly find a political settlement between Iraq's warring factions. Two, Iraqis taking responsibility for providing for their own security, and three, a massive and effective international reconstruction program.

And the first of these, an intense diplomatic effort aimed at helping Iraq with a political settlement, it's been discussed many times. I won't take the time to go through. If you want to in the questions, I would be happy to.

And as for the Iraqis taking responsibility for their own security, this will only take place if U.S. troops begin to pull back from the primary combat role that they now play and shift to an advisory capacity, and the Iraq study commission has offered this recommendation. Rather than increasing our forces in Iraq, we should be transitioning the troops to training and advising Iraqi troops, anti-terrorism missions and border security.

And finally, the third point, the massive reconstruction effort requires a reconstruction czar -- a person of the highest integrity, who will cut through the red tape, demand our agencies produce results working together and deliver reconstruction assistance quickly and directly. Concurrently, that same reconstruction czar should convene a donors conference to elicit pledges of assistance from our international partners and hold them accountable for delivering this aid quickly.

I just want to say a word about Maliki. It became painfully evident that Prime Minister Maliki either lacks the will, or he lacks the nerve, or he lacks the ability to take on the Shi'ite militias on whose backing he depends for power. His rushed execution of Saddam Hussein -- certainly justified but horribly carried out -- spoke volumes about his insensitivity to the concerns of Sunnis.

And so in short, ladies and gentlemen, the cost of failure in Iraq will be catastrophic -- a growing threat to us and to our allies, more American and Iraqi lives lost -- if we don't awaken to the fact that an aggressive diplomatic effort, not just military might, is what is needed to end the sectarian violence.

And for my concluding sentence, I turn to someone that when I was a kid in college had a great influence on my life, President Kennedy. And to paraphrase something President Kennedy said in 1961: That we must always be ready and willing to bear arms to defend our freedoms, but as long as we know what comprises our vital interests and our long-range goals, then we have nothing to fear from diplomacy.

Thank you for letting me share these thoughts. (Applause.) Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

PICKERING: Thank you, Senator, very much. We're now going to begin the question and answer session. Please wait for the microphone and speak directly into it when you are recognized for your question. Please stand and state your name and your affiliation, and please, given the shortness of time, keep your questions and comments as concise as possible so that as many members as possible may speak.

I'm going to exercise the chairman's privilege to ask the first question, if I may.

You had the extraordinary opportunity to see not once, but three times President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. He remains a mystery to most of us. Most of us have not had that opportunity. You've talked about negotiations, and I think most of us understand the value and importance of negotiations.

As you look at it now, Senator, what could we achieve? What might we achieve with Syria in a negotiating scenario as we look ahead for the future, particularly given, as you know and understand, the administration's extreme discomfort at that thought?

NELSON: Let me lay a foundation for you, and then I will specifically answer your question.

The first time, six years ago, he spoke almost entirely in Arabic. The second time, which was three years ago, he formally spoke in Arabic, but all the small talk and his receiving the questions was all in English. And that time he was often correcting his interpreter.

This time the whole thing's in English.

Now, the last time, three years ago, I had just come from Egypt, and President Mubarak said: Get him alone, where you -- he's out of earshot from his foreign minister, who was his daddy's foreign minister.

And when I did pull him aside, he said, "You don't have anything to worry (sic). I am in control."

This time his foreign minister was the former Syrian ambassador to the U.S., Walid Mualem.

PICKERING: Mualem. Mm-hmm.

NELSON: And he, of course, as we left the president's office and it -- this red carpet I walked up to and then walked down -- it must be a football field long. And so we had a long conversation as we're going back out to the motor entrance. And of course the foreign minister is being very solicitous and saying we need to keep this dialogue going and so on and so on.

Now, clearly what he offered this time was what I just shared with you. And hopefully there will be a follow-up by the executive branch of government, which has got the responsibility of starting to negotiate this. I think it's kind of interesting.

I got to tell you this. The last time, when he said the same thing, and in fact we did have follow-up, and he did have some cooperation, sporadic, but some, I immediately called Armitage and reported to him. Our ambassador, of course, reported, who -- the way, that was her first day that she presented her credentials, is when I was there -- I called back to all the different people that wanted to hear. They were all very receptive.

And then when I reported to secretary Rumsfeld, he immediately dismissed it. He said, "He never cooperates." And he just left it at that.

Naturally, Armitage's response was something considerably different. Very interesting.

Now, I don't know who made the decision, but they had some cooperation.

Okay. So why not give it a try? That's what he opened with.

Now, what I did not open this time that I did last time was the issue of any preconditions on discussion with Israelis. I got into the Israeli soldier that was captive. He said, for example -- he didn't respond to that. He said: Well, what about the 11 Syrian soldiers that are held by the Israelis, one of which has just died in the last six months from cancer?

I decided to throw a Hail Mary pass at the end of it, and I said, "Mr. President, don't you realize that at the end of the day, Iran is not going to be your friend, and you are cozying up to Iran." And of course he gave me the party line on that. And I just wanted to put that little nugget there.

The one area that I did not go that I did three years ago was this Israeli negotiation or discussion. And he brought it up with Senator Specter. I called Arlen while I was still on the trip, getting ready to go into Baghdad, and Arlen wanted to know every detail of what I've said. And Arlen, of course, has been there 15 times. Well, Arlen brought this up, and that was an additional item that came out of these discussions. I did not bring that up, simply because I was trying to focus on any little nugget with regard to the cooperation on the border.

PICKERING: Thank you, Senator.

Next? Please, over here.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Thanks. Barbara Slavin from USA Today. I wanted to do a little follow-up on Ambassador Pickering's excellent comment --

PICKERING: Let me just ask you to hold -- I want members first.

QUESTIONER: I am a member.


QUESTIONER: (Chuckles.) Or I wouldn't be here.

PICKERING: This is not a journalistic question.

QUESTIONER: It's an important question --

PICKERING: Okay. (Chuckles.)

QUESTIONER: -- in terms of the follow-up. The administration has said over and over again Syria knows what it has to do. Did Nick Burns say anything different to you on the phone that suggested an opening? And what would the Syrians require in order to show some cooperation on the border? Do they simply want the face of having a senior administration official go back to Damascus after all these years, or is there some other quid pro quo that they suggested? Thank you.

NELSON: Well, I don't know the answer to your question, but your question ought to be posed. As I said, I was there on my own behalf. I certainly wasn't there negotiating on behalf of the administration. But it all gets around to whether you have any contact or not. And I decided I was going to do something different. I was going to do what I had done before, and it was hard on the heels of the Iraq study commission saying this is what we ought to do.

Now, your first question was?

QUESTIONER: What did Nick Burns say?

NELSON: Burns was more on receive, rather than transmit. (Laughter) And I appreciate the delicacy of his situation. And you know, I think the world of him. And as a matter of fact, when the vacancy occurred in the United Nations because of Bolton stepping down, he was the one that immediately came to mind, for this senator, but apparently not --


QUESTIONER: Edward Luttwak, CSIS. I have no doubt -- I have no doubt -- that American foreign policy can withstand any number of visitations or some -- but I wonder: What is the impact on Siniora and the Lebanese, since the Syrians are certainly not doing everything possible to destroy him? Of course, you know, he is dealing with that problem. And what is the impact on the other Abdullah that you saw in Jordan who, by the way, was the one who repeated you Netanyahu's comments, I believe? Not the other Abdullah -- you know there are so many Abdullahs around.

But that's the issue. In other words, "American Senator visits Syria" is understood in the United States in a certain way. It's understood differently in the region, and that's a legitimate preoccupation, I think.

NELSON: Thank you for your testimony to our committee. It was excellent. It was riveting. As I see so many faces here of people that have come and given us the benefit of your expertise, thank you very much.

With regard to the Siniora government, I made sure that he understood this was -- we had some very sharp exchanges, and this was one. And the way I led into it was, I said, Mr. President, and you need to know that tomorrow I am going to Lebanon. I support the Siniora government. And I went through all of that, and all of the Hezbollah, Hamas, and the assassination of Rafik Hariri, which he said, oh, they were cooperating, and so forth. And he wasn't telling the truth, but I knew that. He should have known that I knew that he wasn't telling the truth but anyway, he said it anyway. But I made sure that he would have no quarter by which to use my visit or my comments to try to undermine the Siniora government.

So the next day, I'm in Lebanon. I go to see the prime minister. I go through this whole thing, word for word, for him. And then I go out to a press conference of every camera in Lebanon. And I said in the course of that press conference three times, this Senator and the United States supports the Siniora government, and we will not allow Syria to undermine this government. I wanted to make sure that there was no crack that somebody could start to drive a wedge there.

PICKERING: Here, please.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. I'm Larry Korb from the Center for American Progress.

How do you respond to President Bush's contention that if you're opposed to the Iraq War, you shouldn't have voted to -- I mean, his surge, you shouldn't have voted to confirm General Petraeus?

NELSON: Well, and thank you again for your presentation to several of our committees, Dr. Korb, you have to pick and choose. The fact that I disagree with the president on the surge of 21,000 troops, which I've laid out all the reasons, is a completely separate question from whether or not I think that Petraeus is the best man to have any chance of success, which he, according to all of the information that we have, he certainly is. Now look at the difference -- and I would answer the same way if you asked me, well, what about Admiral Fallon, who just came in front of the committee today -- but look at the difference between the testimony last week of Petraeus and the testimony of Fallon today. Petraeus says, I support the president's increase of troops. Fallon would not say that today.

So Dr. Korb, this is a subject upon which reasonable people can disagree. And I have a responsibility to my people in Florida, and the American people, to stand up and speak what I think. And as long as I have breath in me, I'm going to do that.


QUESTIONER: Thanks. Scott Lasensky with the United States Institute of Peace.

You said we should engage the -- in terms of, back to Syria again -- you said we should engage them on Iraq. You said we should challenge them on Lebanon. I appreciate your comments about your visit in Lebanon with the prime minister, but back to the question of Israel.

Should we be testing the Syrian-expressed willingness to engage with the Israelis? Should we be encouraging it? Should we be testing the Syrians on negotiations with Israel?

NELSON: Well, maybe we should, and maybe these rumors that I hear -- that there's informal contacts going on right now between Israel and Syria as a follow-up to the negotiations that had gone along before, that ended up disagreeing over 10 yards of dirt -- maybe that is going on. I do not know if it is. I can tell you that when I met with Prime Minister Olmert, I said to him, I said, "Now, you need to know that I'm going to Syria." He said, "Well, I disagree with you going, but I trust you." And that's just a relationship that I built up with him over some period of time.

So, that certainly didn't give a clue as to the answer to your question, if there is any sub rosa kind of discussions going on. I just simply don't know.


QUESTIONER: Elise Labott with CNN. Thank you for your comments, Senator. Back to Syria again. The one thing that the Syrians really seem to be looking for right now is for this tribunal investigating the murder of former prime minister Hariri to go away. And one of the concerns of the Lebanese is that if you engage the Syrians, that that's the one thing that could really bring them around, and that they're afraid that this tribunal will go away and the tribunal will not reach fruition.

How do you entice Syria to cooperate with the United States? I mean, what's the incentive for them? It seems that even Iran, when it comes time to meddling in Lebanon with Hezbollah, the government doesn't even have much influence on this.

Thank you.

NELSON: Well, the first way it would seem -- I'm just a little country lawyer. (Laughter.) But it seems that the first thing you need to do is to have a dialogue -- talk about the weather, talk about anything, I mean get some -- you know, I was -- here's how I was raised in politics. I came to the Congress 29 years ago, and we had a great role model -- it was Tip O'Neill and Bob Michel. They'd fight like the dickens during the day, and at night they'd walk out, they were personal friends. So when it got time to do the deal and build a consensus -- Jim was there -- then they had the personal relationship in which to do it.

By the way, that's another thing. General Hayden said I want you to go to Saudi Arabia. We hadn't had a congressional delegation there, he said, in two years. He said personal relationships are a big deal in that part of the world. So that's the first thing you need to do.

Now, how do you entice them? I don't think we're ever going to give away the store on the investigation of Rafik Hariri's assassination. But there are a lot of -- as we say in the South, there are many different ways to skin a cat. And who knows, you might find something. Maybe indeed there is this kind of sub rosa stuff going on about the Golan Heights. Clearly, that's a subject that is interested -- that Assad would be interested. I just don't -- I don't know what door you come in. But I found in politics, if you can't get in the front door, go around and try the back door, and if that's locked, try the side window. (Laughter.)

PICKERING: Will you take one more?

NELSON: Yes, sir.

PICKERING: We're just about at the end. I'll take one more right down in front here.


QUESTIONER: Thank you, sir. Ron Baygents with Kuwait News Agency. I noted that Representative Boehner last week, I believe, said a couple of three months for him in terms of assessing the impact of the surge, the troop surge into Iraq. And he's the Republican leader. My question is, among those in the Congress, particularly Republicans who might want to support the president on this, do you actually feel that time is running out quickly in terms of that support, in terms of two, three, six months?

Thank you.

NELSON: Yeah, I'm not sure I understood your question. Say that again.

QUESTIONER: Let me try that -- if it's deemed that the surge is not really effective in the next three to six months.

NELSON: Okay, I understand.

PICKERING: Yeah, does time run out.

NELSON: I asked that question of Secretary Gates in his confirmation hearing -- no, no, it wasn't, he was already confirmed. He had come back to the committee as the secretary.

And I asked the question, how long before you're going to know whether or not this thing has a chance of succeeding? And he said two months. And the question was, specifically, when would you have an idea of whether or not the Iraqi government was starting to create the conditions by which it would lessen the sectarian violence? And he specifically said two months. And I said, "Now, that means in two months, you come back here, you can report to us if you think that there has -- that benchmark has been reached." And he said yes.

And then I was curious. Within 12 hours, I saw somebody else in the administration trying to clarify remarks, saying, "Well, it's six or eight months." But I'm going to hold Secretary Gates to the two months when Carl Levin brings him back to the committee.

PICKERING: Thank you, Senator.

In light of that comment, my official watch says it's now 1:30. (Laughter.) We appreciate very much your presentation and your -- (applause) -- kind answers to the questions.

Thank you all for being here.

NELSON: Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you.

PICKERING: Really good to have you.

NELSON: Thanks. (Applause.)







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