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Iraq: The Way Forward, Session 2A View From the Hill [Rush Transcript; Federal News Service, Inc.]

Speaker: Carl M. Levin, Member, U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee; U.S. Senate (D-MI)
Presider: Vin Weber, Partner, Clark & Weinstock; former member, U.S. Congress (R-MN)
October 21, 2005
Council on Foreign Relations Washington, DC

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Council on Foreign Relations
Washington, DC

 

VIN WEBER:  For those of you that are regular attendees, this -- there is a little difference in this morning's meeting, in that unlike other council meetings, this meeting is on the record -- mind you, on the record -- and the meeting is being teleconferenced to council members around the nation and the world. 

This is the second meeting in the council's "Iraq:  The Way Forward" series exploring ways to move ahead constructively in Iraq.

We will end promptly at 9:30.  The council has a good reputation for punctuality, and we appreciate that.  But we ask you, as a courtesy to our speaker, not to leave the meeting early.  And when we get to the question-and-answer session, I'll have a few more suggestions for you.

It's a tremendous personal pleasure to introduce our speaker this morning.  I will keep it very brief, in no small measure because Senator Carl Levin really doesn't need much of an introduction in Washington.  He has served in the United States Senate since 1978.  He is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, as well as the ranking Democrat on the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Senate Government Affairs Committee.

I had the privilege of serving in the United States House of Representatives with his brother, Sandy.  I don't know if it's true or not, but the story is that Senator Levin's parents, when they were newlyweds, sat around at night lamenting the low IQ of the United States Congress and decided they were going to personally do something about it.  I don't know if it's true or not, but if it is, they certainly achieved that objective.  And it's a great pleasure to introduce Senator Carl Levin.

SEN. CARL LEVIN:  Vin, thank you.  The introduction -- short, sweet, and the last story is thoroughly not true.  I hope you all realize that.  Not only did my parents not think that way, but unhappily, it's not true that we lifted the IQ level when we showed up -- probably pulled it down a bit.

But I will tell you a true story, although it will take time doing this, about how my mother reacted when we were both elected to the Congress.  My mother was a very private person, a very shy person.  How she produced two sons like us, I'm not sure.  But nonetheless, that was her nature.  And a member of the -- a newspaper reporter asked her once, "You've got two sons in the Congress.  You must be absolutely bursting with pride."  Her answer was, "If that's what they want, it's okay with me."  (Laughter.)

My wife, Barbara, is with us this morning.  I don't know where she's sitting, but she's here.  So let me introduce my wife, Barbara.  I won't introduce all my staff, because I may leave out some -- (chuckles) -- no, because I think -- I know I have at least -- well, let me give it a try.  I know Rick DeBobes, who's my chief of staff of the Armed Services Committee, is here.  I think I saw -- I know Nathan Barr is here, who's on my staff, because he came here with us.  And who else did I see here?  To remind me -- it was Evelyn -- I had a glimpse of Evelyn Farkas in the back.  She's here.  Did I miss anyone, Rick? 

RICK DEBOBES:  No.

LEVIN:  Okay.

For nearly 85 years now, the Council on Foreign Relations has provided a forum for constructive exchange of ideas about how to make America stronger and the world better.  And I do hope that my remarks today will contribute to that tradition.

I'm particularly pleased to be here as part of the council's series "Iraq:  The Way Forward."  And I'd like to share with you today both why I believe moving forward is so critical and how I propose to move forward.

The why may seem obvious.  There are many reasons to find a way out of Iraq sooner, rather than later:  first and foremost, for the continuing casualties and the loss of the brave servicemen and -women, who carry out their duties so professionally.  You've lost nearly 2,000 Americans so far, and more than seven times that number have been wounded.  The war has also caused an untold number of civilian Iraqi deaths.  It is costing American taxpayers $6 billion every month, and it is putting an immense stress on our armed forces, particularly the Army and the Marine Corps. 

So we must also find a way out of Iraq so that we can return our focus to enemy number one -- international terrorists, including al Qaeda, and take away the fuel we add to their fire by our presence in Iraq.  President Bush repeatedly says that Iraq is the central front in the war on terror.  Although it is now, it was not before we went in.  Invading Iraq was not a step forward in the war on terror; it was a step backward.  For more than a decade, it has been clear that America's number one enemy is international terrorists, including al Qaeda.  Al Qaeda has attacked the United States repeatedly, including the bombings of our African embassies and the attacks on the USS Cole, and on New York and Washington on September 11th.  As the head of the CIA testified, even before September 2001 we knew that we faced a foe that is committed, resilient and has operational depth.  The intelligence community was already at war with al Qaeda. 

But after the necessary attack on Afghanistan to seek to destroy al Qaeda in response to their attack on us, the Bush administration blurred who our enemy is by invading Iraq.  Despite the administration's claims, there was no credible evidence of cooperation between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda.  A recent review by former intelligence officers, undertaken at the request of the CIA director, known as the Kerr Group that made this assessment, concluded that despite pressure -- despite the pressure on them to find links between Saddam and the terrorist network, quote, "The intelligence community remained firm in its assessment that no operational or collaborative relationship existed."

Attacking Iraq the way we did has played into the hands of terrorists.  Unlike the first Gulf War, we went into Iraq in 2003 without the support of the United Nations and without a single Muslim ally in the coalition.  There was a widespread perception in the Muslim world that we were attacking Iraq as part of a Western crusade to weaken Muslim nations and control their oil resources. 

Blurring the difference between Saddam and al Qaeda has also made it less likely that the leaders of Muslim countries would join us in going after al Qaeda because our focus was not as we had claimed.  Rather than going after the fanatical terrorist zealots, who threatened Muslim regimes as well, we attacked a regime that, while clearly reprehensible, was not an imminent threat to us or most of those Muslim leaders. 

The way the Bush administration has conducted the war has only made perceptions of the U.S. worse.  The abuse of prisoners under American control has been highly damaging.  Tactics were approved and employed that are particularly anathema to Muslims, including the use of dogs, forced public nudity, and suggested -- suggestive physical contact by female guards and interrogators.  The failure to hold any senior military or civilian leader accountable for the policies that enabled or condoned detainee abuse plays into the propaganda line used against us, that our nation is hypocritical when it comes to human rights, that we selectively follow international law, and that we are insensitive to Muslims.  The administration's threat to veto the defense appropriations bill because of Senator McCain's amendment to prevent detainee abuse only reinforces that perception. 

We need to face the reality that we are not perceived around the world in the way we perceive ourselves.  We like to see ourselves at our best, as a beacon for human rights and human liberty, but much of the world sees us in a different way, condoning abusive interrogation techniques that exploit Muslim taboos.

Ultimately, al Qaeda can only be defeated by mainstream Muslims who stand up against al Qaeda's financial -- excuse me -- fanatical version of Islam.  Only mainstream Islam can defeat the infection of radical jihadists in its body.  We must stop playing into al Qaeda's hands if we are to help mainstream Muslims working against the fanatical fringe of their religion.

So how can we take away the club we have handed our enemy and still succeed in Iraq?  The president's mantra on Iraq, "stay the course," is a bumper-sticker slogan, not a strategy.  It is a continuation of the administration's pattern of wishful thinking that imagined we would be hailed as liberators in Iraq and that the mission was accomplished.  Today that wishful thinking by the administration continues, telling us that the insurgency is in its last throes and that the Iraqi constitution is a step forward.  In reality, insurgents' attacks have doubled over the previous year, and it is more likely that the constitution in its current form is a divisive document, not a unifying one.

General George Casey, commander of the American and coalition forces in Iraq, testified before our Armed Services Committee a few weeks ago that, quote, "we looked for the constitution to be a national compact, and the perception now is that it's not, particularly among the Sunni."

The International Crisis Group recently concluded that, quote, "Instead of healing the growing division between Iraq's principal communities, a rushed constitutional process has deepened rifts and strong feelings.  Without a strong U.S initiative," they wrote, "to assuage Sunni Arab concerns, the constitution is likely to fuel rather than dampen the insurgency, encourage ethnic and sectarian violence, and hasten the country's violent breakup."  In the recent referendum, Sunni Arabs voted overwhelmingly against the constitution, reflecting the divisiveness of its current form. 

The administration needs to end its wishful thinking and face reality: We must change course in Iraq.  That does not mean cutting and running.  That is a straw man thrown up by the administration whenever its policies are challenged.  What it does mean is changing the current course, which is providing no reduction in the insurgency and little hope for unity.

Our military leaders have long told us that there can be no purely military solution in Iraq and that a genuine, broadly based political settlement among the Iraqis is essential to defeat the insurgency.  Unless Iraqis unite politically, the insurgency will continue, and terrorists will have a fertile ground to train more terrorists for use in Iraq and for export elsewhere around the globe.

How can we change the current course and put some pressure on the Iraqi leaders that they need to put their house -- their political house in order and soon?  My answer is by telling them that our continued military presence could depend on their doing just that.  Although the leaders of the three main ethnic groups in Iraq differ on many things, there is one point on which they agree.  None of the Iraqi groups want U.S. troops to leave precipitatively.  The Shi'ites want us to stay until Iraq security forces are strong enough to deal with the insurgency on their own.  The Kurds want us to remain for the foreseeable future.  And the Sunni-Arab leaders want us to stay as a deterrent for those who might seek revenge against them for the actions of Saddam Hussein.  We should use that leverage, the timing of American troop reduction, to motivate the Iraqis to make the necessary compromises to achieve the broadly-based political settlement that is essential for defeating the insurgency.

I believe that we should tell the Iraqis that if they fail to reach such a solution by the time table that they have set forth, that we will consider a time table for the reduction of U.S. forces.  I use the word consider because we must reserve the right to look at the facts as they exist at that time.  This strategy does not mean setting a date now for withdrawal.  It simply means conveying clearly and forcefully to the Iraqis that the presence of our forces is not indefinite, that our staying there requires them to come together politically.

It would insert a dose of mind-focusing reality to the Iraqis for another reason.  Substantial reductions are likely to occur anyway since the American people won't stand for continued casualties and costs if Iraqis don't unify politically to take on the insurgents and the terrorists.  Now, this position may strike some as too nuanced.  It does lack the simplicity of setting a time table now.  I do, however, believe that it can help bring about a political settlement and would produce a significant change in the current ineffective course.

Consider, for example, the message the president sent in his radio this past week when he said, quote, "We have stood by the Iraqi people through two elections, and we will stand by them until they have established a free nation that can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself," closed quote. And that is essentially what the secretary of State has said.  We're there as long as we are needed.  This open, unlimited, unconditional commitment is the wrong message to send to the Iraqis.

Now imagine that the president changes course in his radio address tomorrow.  Imagine that he says, not that we will, quote, "stand by you until, but that we will stand by you if."  Imagine that he says the following.  We have stood by the Iraqi people through two elections, and we will stand by them if Iraq takes the difficult steps necessary to govern itself, sustain itself, defend itself.  We have opened the door for a brighter future for the Iraqi people, but only they can walk through that door. 

Imagine that the president continues tomorrow.  There is no purely military solution.  A political solution among the Iraqis is the only hope of success.  And so it follows that if the Iraqis do not get their political house in order in the coming months, that we will consider a timetable for our departure. 

If the president were to say that, it would not be a nuance, it would be front-page news.  It would not only be the wake-up call which the Iraqi leaders need, it would be a clarion call to the rest of the world, especially Muslim nations, that we do not intend to stay in Iraq as occupiers.  It would also be a reassuring message to our troops and their families that the deployments to Iraq will not go on indefinitely.

Today, two and a half years after the overthrow of Saddam, Iraq is a training ground for terrorists flowing in and out of that country.  The Western occupation of a Muslim country is propaganda fodder for jihadists.  The security situation is getting worse, not better.  And the political compromises necessary to defeat the insurgency are still lacking.  By using our best leverage -- the timing of our inevitable reduction of U.S. forces -- we can achieve the goal we all share -- a stable Iraq -- so that we can bring our forces home and refocus on defeating international terrorism.

Thanks.  And I'd be delighted to engage in a conversation with you.  (Applause.)

WEBER:  Thank you.  We're going to go to question-and-answer time.  And we have plenty of time for that, although we will quit promptly at 9:30.  A couple of quick ground rules.  First of all, if you didn't hear the first announcement, please turn off your cell phone.  Second of all, because we are broadcasting and telecasting this not just locally but internationally, please wait for the microphone.  Can the people with the microphones hold them up in the air so that we -- back there, over there, and over there.  And when you are called on for a question, please stand, state your name and your affiliation.  You can ask any question you want, but it's my job to be the bad guy if the questions become narrations.  So try to keep your questions as --

LEVIN:  Or abusive, either one.  (Laughter.)

WEBER:  (Laughs.)  Or abusive. 

When I used to be in his position, I'd say, "I refer all hostile questions to the moderator."  (Laughs.)  I guess I can take those on.

First of all, as I mentioned, Senator, we are telecasting this internationally.  And one of our listeners is Jim Sciutto, the ABC News guy in Baghdad.  And he has a written question.  He can't call it in.  In a way, your entire speech addressed this, but I thought I'd put it in a little starker relief, because he asks:  Can U.S. and Iraqi forces win the war against the insurgency?  Over how many years?  Short of an outright victory, can they make Iraq significantly safer in the near term?

I understand your speech was putting forward an alternative approach, but since Mr. Sciutto was nice enough to ask that question, could you address that quite directly?

LEVIN:  I think we can succeed in Iraq if we accept the definition of "success" that it means that the Iraqis themselves succeed, and that they can only succeed if they are unified politically.  This insurgency's going to continue until political unification exists, and we've got to find ways to help them achieve that unification.  Our ambassador there is obviously trying very hard to do just that. 

It's going to take compromises on the part of all concerned to put together a document where all of them can subscribe to it.  That doesn't mean it's going to be a unanimous vote for it, but it would mean that you don't have one community that is totally against it, a community parts of which are supporting the insurgency.  I believe if they do that, they come together politically, that they can end the insurgency but also defeat the terrorists who come into that country, because I don't think any of those groups support those terrorists.  There may be temporary alliances and so forth or looking the other way, but I don't believe any of those groups in Iraq have any use for the foreign terrorists coming in there and blowing up innocent civilians.

 But step one is finding that way to come together politically to make the compromises that they've given themselves four months to do after January, that would be amendments to the constitution.  We can't write the constitution for them.  We can't tell them what the provisions should be.  But it seems to me that unless we tell them that they need to do this for them to have confidence that we're going to just stay on this, unless we give them that message, I think it is more likely that they're going to continue to squabble, disagree over key provisions, and that is unacceptable.

WEBER:  Let's talk a little more about the nature of the insurgency as you see it yourself.  There's been talk really ever since we moved in there about the differentiation between the foreign terrorists coming from elsewhere and the native-born or indigenous insurgents.  The recent election heightened that discussion in that there seemed to be some abatement of terrorism just surrounding the election, which has led some people to suggest that among -- that there's a wider split; that among the indigenous insurgents there's a greater desire to look at the political process.  I just wonder how you see that, the nature of the insurgency, their view of the political process, and maybe that differentiation between foreign and indigenous terrorists.

LEVIN:  I think you can look at the slight decline, or the decline right around the election, in the number of insurgent attacks both ways.  One would be that the Sunni Arabs are moving in a political direction, or that more of them are moving in a political direction and are wiling participate politically rather than give support explicitly or implicitly to an insurgency.  The other way you can look at it is that those same parts of the Sunni Arab community want to do it both ways, basically.  One is they want to increase their political capability, and that in order to make that happen or allow it to happen, they send a signal to the insurgents that people vote.  That doesn't mean those same elements are giving up on the military pressure, which I think is now resumed.

So the bottom line is I think there is in the Sunni community among the leaders, of course, a willingness to participate in the political process, but I think that now the more violent elements of that community see that it is to their advantage to have both options open to them and that the options actually work together, and that the slight decline that we saw around the election actually reflected the keep-both-options-open strategy on the part of the Sunni Arab elements that are willing to use violence.

WEBER:  Let me ask one more question about your own suggestion, and then I will go to the audience.  You pretty much have endorsed the position that the constitution is a divisive document.  You talked about that in your remarks.  Yet it was pretty much an Iraqi process that led to that constitution.  If we use the leverage of the prospect of the troop withdrawals, as you suggest, to put pressure on for political compromise, that pretty much implies some changes in the constitution going forward.  Do you have any ideas or suggestions on what kind of changes you think are likely there, that would be necessary?

LEVIN:  Again, we can't write them.  Only the Iraqis can write them.  And we've got to be very careful that we don't interject ourselves in the substance of those solutions in any way that appears to them or to the rest of the world that we are writing a constitution for them.  I think that would backfire and turn us into a dominating power, an occupying power, instead of what we really must be, which is an ally of the people in Iraq who want to put together a nation. 

So it's clear from their conversations that the areas which are the most troubling parts of the constitution have to do with the question of federalism and the question of autonomy for different years, and as to how many -- how easy it would be for provinces to come together, regions to come together and become autonomous.  That's the area where they're having a major struggle.  It involves the resources of the nation because of the location of oil.  It's -- I won't say one in the same issue, but they're very much related, those autonomy issues and those resource issues.  I think there's also some other differences that they're going to need to iron out.  But I would say from everything I can assess, both in person in Iraq talking to leaders, as well as what I read, that the question of how much autonomy, how federal this federal system would be, is the major sticking points.  And again, that's a resource-driven question.

WEBER:  Let's go to the audience.  Again, please speak into the microphone.  State your name and affiliation.  I'm going to try to go back and forth and move from front to back.  And I apologize in advance; I know I'll miss some.  But we'll start right here with Jim Moody.

QUESTIONER:  Senator, Jim Moody, Merrill Lynch.  I thought that was a very comprehensive and well thought-through presentation.  I find myself totally agreeing with it.  I have one knowing problem, and that is, we are so co-invested with the Iraqis in this situation, and this pot is so boiling now, and with all the worldwide beyond Iraq implications, how do we make sure it's really credible when we say what you say?  It's a little bit like you're at the bank; you owe the bank a thousand dollars and you can't pay, you have a problem.  If you owe the bank a million dollars and you can't pay, the bank has a problem.  We're sort of, in a sense, the bank in the sense that we are so co-invested in success, if we just simply turn and go because they don't act rationally, what's next?  What becomes the next chapter?  My concern.

LEVIN:  Yeah.  We have to make that assessment if, if, they do not make the compromises necessary to unify so that they can defeat the insurgency.  I don't think we can predict all of the factors that exist at that point.  Now, that point -- originally when I started to think in the way I'm currently thinking about how to approach this problem, that point was at the end of this year when they would have a new Assembly.  But now that point may be delayed by four months because they have formally given themselves four months to modify that constitution.

And by the way, their agreement to go through this effort to modify that constitution is an acknowledgement by them that this constitution is a divisive document as it now stands -- that agreement in and of itself, that they would provide that four-month process.

So I can't tell you what we would decide if they don't do what is essential for them to prevail over the insurgency.  I can only say that giving them the message that we have to rethink this open-ended commitment that has been made, unless they do what is necessary for them to prevail over the insurgency, I think is the important message that they must receive because I think it's true, that we're not there on an open-ended basis, no matter what the administration says.  It's not true.  The American people won't tolerate it.  And also, we allude, by giving the messages we have:  we're there as long as you need us, or as the president says, we're there "until" -- talk about an open-ended statement -- until democracy prevails -- I don't have the words in my head, but it was such an open-ended, blank check kind of a thing.  I'm not so sure that what the president says we're there until exists in many parts of the world, in many countries of the world.  It doesn't exist in some of the most advanced countries in the world, what the president says we're there until.  So I don't want to try to formulate what we would do if they don't do what they need to do because I think the circumstances that exist at that time would necessarily dictate would that step would be.

QUESTIONER:  (Off mike) -- shifting with regard to Iraq.  He described accurately how the Bush administration anticipated being greeted as liberators in a post-Saddam Iraq; how some commentators expected a liberal democracy market to be put in place quickly, and that hasn't happened.  And now even some of the president's conservative backers, backers of his initial division on Iraq, are critical of how proceeding in Iraq.  How are the expectations of the American people changing in terms of what Iraq will be?  And what are the implications on U.S. policy -- for U.S. policy?

LEVIN:  First, I think a majority of the American people now believe that we're -- it was a mistake to go in, at least as we did.  The way the polling questions are put, I don't know that I add that final tail to it, "as we did," but the American people basically think it was a mistake to go in.  They believe that violence is not reduced.  They also want to succeed.  They don't want to, quote, "just set a date and pull out -- tomorrow."  They sense accurately that now that we're there -- whether we -- a mistake to get there, whether we went in a way that was wrongfully thought-out or anything else -- they sense that if we just simply set a date and left tomorrow, that there could be a greater certainly of civil war than otherwise would exist.

So -- but they however do expect, I believe, is that we're not there for an unlimited time.  They would -- I think their expectations have -- they never wanted to be there for an unlimited time.  I'm not sure they ever wanted to be in Korea for an unlimited period of time or any other place in the world.  But I would say that the expectations now reflect the attitudes.  I guess that's the short answer to your question, Mark, is that the -- their expectations now are that we cannot just continue as we are, and that we will somehow or other make the changes that they believe are necessary.  So I don't draw a distinction between their views on what -- on their views and their expectations.

WEBER:  All right, Senator.  And then we're going to have to begin to move to the back a little and because of the lights I can't really see too well back there, so I'd ask the people at the mikes to help me out a little bit.

QUESTIONER:  Thank you, Senator. David Apgar from the Corporate Executive Board.  And thanks for reminding us Democrats how to put forward a powerful idea, rather than just cart from the sidelines.  Your proposal seems to manage incentives of each of the -- leaders of the each of the three Iraqi ethnic communities more precisely than our current commitment to stay as long as there's disarray.  So could you take a moment to elaborate how your proposal would change, really, the decision calculus of a typical leader from each of the three ethnic communities? Thank you.

LEVIN:  I don't know that it's wise to be more precise, but I'll take up your invitation anyway.  I've spent a lot of time with the leaders in the three communities in Iraq.  The last -- my last visit there a few months ago was actually focused on this question that I talked about here, as to whether or not they want us to stay.  Because it's only if they all want us to stay that there's any leverage, that there's any concern that they would have if we even suggested the possibility that we're going to consider a reduction or withdrawal, if they don't put their political house in order.  It only works, this idea, if my assumption is correct that they -- all three of them want us to stay.  If any of those groups -- or the majority of any of those groups want us to leave, then this point is not accurate.  It doesn't work.

I can only tell you that I have talked to the leaders.  I haven't asked them what would happen -- what would you do differently if you heard from the president that we're not there until, we're there if you guys get your act together and do your part.  I haven't asked them how would that change your bargaining positions relative to autonomy.  I don't think, number one, I would get a direct answer because they're all in a negotiating position and in a posture.  I mean, and so -- and I also -- it's a little bit too intrusive, and perhaps it's also -- and I don't want to become a negotiator.  I don't want to give them, as I talk to them, the suggestion that I'm trying to find out how their positions would change if we did something differently than we're doing in terms of what their expectation is because it would interject me in a position which would not be appropriate for me.  I mean, I don't want, as a legislator, to suddenly become in a position where the -- I'm confusing an issue or making life more difficult for our ambassador there, who's, I think, doing a terrific job. 

So for all those reasons, I did not ask the question that you asked me.  But the key question that I asked them is, basically, do you want us to -- do you care if we leave tomorrow?  And they're very careful but very clear:  No, no, not tomorrow.  No, you've got to stay here for a while until these things are settled.  But that "a while" becomes endless if there's not some pressure on them to make those compromises.

WEBER:  There's a question over here -- right back there.

QUESTIONER:  Senator, Jon Alterman, Center for Strategic and International Studies.  Thank you very much for your thoughtful presentation.  I found a lot I agreed with.  But on that last point, I'm a little unsure, and I'm hoping you can reassure me based on these conversations you had.  It seems to me following your press, your media, that where these leaders are coming out is they would prefer that the U.S. stays, but none of them really feel they need the United States to stay.  The Kurds are getting increasingly self-confident, the Shi'a are getting increasingly self-confident, and I think the Sunnis, quite frankly, don't look to the United States to really protect their interests.  As a consequence, they would like the process to go forward, they would like the U.S. to help ensure it, and that's in their current interests, but do they need the U.S. to stay?  I don't think they do.  And as a consequence, we may find ourselves more hurt by the blowback from our withdrawing based on their political calculations rather than our withdrawing based on our understanding of our security needs, our security interests both in Iraq -- (off mike).

LEVIN:  The suggestion that the possibility of a timetable being set if they don't come together politically is really based on two things.  One, it's a statement of reality that there is no purely military solution; that our presence there is not -- if we're just there militarily without them solving their political problems -- is not making them or us more secure.  Nobody's better off by our staying there unless they reach this political accommodation that they all can join.  That's the heart of the matter, is that the purpose of being there is to provide security, but without this political piece in order, it's not accomplishing that goal.  That's number one. 

Number two, since that's true -- if that's true -- if that's true -- I'll say "since that's true" because I believe it -- then we might as well take -- you might as well get some advantage out of expressing to them that what they would like, even in your question, don't count on.  Now I can't quantify the difference between what they like and what they need.  I mean -- and that's a fair differentiation -- what they like and what they need.  But if they would like us to stay -- or put it another way, if they don't want us to leave, we should let them know they can't count on that unless they do what they need to do, and get some advantage from that message being transmitted to them, the advantage being that if they'd like us to stay, or don't want us to leave, that they're going to have to calculate that there's a greater possibility that we would leave earlier if they don't take the steps that are essential for them to unify, which is absolutely critical to defeat the insurgency.  So that's -- I say it's a two-part answer to your question.

WEBER:  Okay right -- right back there.  Yes?

QUESTIONER:  Charles Stevenson from SAIS.  Senator, I have a question about military operations while these political forces are playing themselves out.  What do you think coalition forces should do about trans-border threats, especially along Syria, perhaps vis-a-vis Iran?

LEVIN:  In terms of Syria, they're already not only acting and, I think, strongly.  I don't know how effectively, given the nature -- the porous nature of the border and the length of the border.  I can't give you really an assessment as to how effective these operations are, but we sure are trying a lot harder than Syria to stop that influx.  And we're trying also to obviously involve the Iraqis more. 

But when it comes to assessment as to the participation of the Iraqis, we've got to look at a number of factors, not just how many of their units are capable of acting independently.  The answer is one battalion at the moment -- the Iraqis.  A significant number or percentage can operate in the lead, and another significant percentage can operate with us, with our taking the lead and so forth.  But in terms of their independent operations, it's still only one battalion.  So that's moving, I think, more slowly than anybody would like. 

But we have to add -- and this is not in response to your question, but I want to use your question to make another point.  As you know from your previous dealings with me, that is not the first time I've done this.  (Laughter.) 

But we've got to watch that Iraqi army in terms of capability.  We want it to be more capable, but we got to make sure that during that process, it's truly a national army.  We would not want to be producing an army which responds to clerics, to the heads of militias.  The vetting issue here and the training issue is absolutely critical.  It works in the other direction from speed, in terms of preparing the Iraqi army.  I would rather do it more slowly and create a national army than to do it more quickly and to have greater uncertainties when the balloon goes up, if it ever goes up in Iraq, as to whether that army is just going to be a(n) army which is basically a responsive force to a number of clerics who are calling the shots.

So I want to -- getting back to your question, however, it's -- I can't give you really a comprehensive assessment as to the success of our efforts along the Syrian border, except that there is a major effort.  We know that's a big problem, and we know that the Syrians, despite their good rhetoric and intentions and promises, are not doing what they could do to stop that flow of terrorists -- in this case, terrorists -- coming into Iraq.

And on the Iranian border, I'm just not familiar enough with the -- what the facts are on the ground to give you a response to your question.

QUESTIONER:  Thank you.  Senator, Toby Gati, Akin Gump.  It's most likely the demand for change in U.S. policy is going to come from two places:  the American public or the American -- which is going to demand withdrawal; it's going to be very simple -- or the Congress, which will demand oversight and alternatives. 

My question is, in the next year, do you expect Congress to take its role more seriously in terms of oversight, or will it take really people going on the street to get some kind of change?

And what I'm really saying is, isn't it pressure on our lawmakers, rather than on theirs, that's going to change policy?

LEVIN:  I don't -- I haven't seen significant oversight, and I don't expect to see significant oversight.  It's a fact of political life with this administration and this Congress that there's been a -- there's been very, very little oversight on any issue -- any issue; you name it.  But when it comes to holding folks accountable or assessing responsibility, it doesn't make any difference what issue you're looking at.  This is kind of a no-account administration, to coin a phrase, and there's been almost no accountability that's been assessed.  And I don't think Congress has stepped up to its role. 

Now maybe if it was a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress, we wouldn't do much better.  I don't want to lay claims to perfection in that regard.  There was a Democratic Congress during the first two years of the Clinton administration.  I can't remember whether we did a great oversight job or not. 

But there's always that, so I don't want to kind of sound holier than thou.  I can only -- "thou," in this case, being Republicans, not you -- the -- or not necessarily you, either.  Toby, I got to be careful.  I've never known whether you're a Democrat or Republican, and I could care less.

But the -- I do know this:  that this Congress has not engaged in significant oversight on the -- on getting into Iraq.  Even when you look at the prewar intelligence issue, which was a total fiasco, what the Intelligence Committee did was do, quote, "phase one," which is look at the failures of the Intelligence Committee -- community -- and committee, for that matter, but look at the failures of the intelligence community.  Phase two was supposed to be look at the failures of the higher-ups, the policymakers, on their use or misuse or exaggerations of what they were given.  It's not occurred.  The same thing is true -- you can just go right down the line -- on detainee abuse.  There's been a shocking failure here, a shocking failure.  That's why we need an independent commission.

So to answer your question, even though the president is significantly less popular and the war is significantly less popular than it was in the last couple years, I do not foresee that the Republican Congress is going to engage in significant oversight relative to the issues surrounding the war. 

And I believe there will be a change in terms of the troops coming out.  I don't care what the president now says about we're there as long as or until.  I believe there's going to be a significant reduction of troops next year because the president is going to have to respond to a number of factors, including public-opinion shift, including the huge stress on our military -- and I cannot emphasize that enough.  Our military is under stress.  It is taking a toll.  And the commander in chief has got to respond to that.

But I don't want to say that the streets is the right way to shift it, because I don't know how effective street demonstrations are in shifting, but public opinion in general, the toll on the Army, the loss of support for the president in general, I believe. is going to be the source of a lot of changes; plus the fact that hopefully he reads my speech and is persuaded.  (Laughter.)

WEBER:  Let's go back there.

QUESTIONER:  Senator, Carl Sears with NBC.  I read that on the eve of World War II, the United States had less than 250,000 people in the armed forces, but something like 14 months later, we had nearly a million and a half people ready to fight.  We know it can be done, and we did it because of the urgency of what we faced.  Shifting over to the Iraq side of the equation, President Bush has made it quite clear as Iraqi security forces stand up, we will stand down.  You said just a moment ago that you thought speed was not the issue, that we should go slow and have some kind of a security force that is loyal to, if you will, democratic principles, not clerics.  And I really want to hear from you a blunt assessment of what you think of the Iraqi security forces -- their strength, their numbers and how they fit into this solution.

LEVIN:  I've not -- I hope I didn't say something like go slowly.  I'm saying that I would rather go more slowly if that's the only way to create a national army.  That's not go slow; it's factor in the importance of coming up with an army that will be responsive to an elected government, assuming you can put one together, rather than to militias or to clerics.

My assessment is that it is very spotty, that there are some -- in some areas that you have some very strong, cohesive forces and battalions that are working well with us, that are taking on responsibility; however, it's much too dominated in the military by Shi'a, which is causing a real problem in terms of their presence, those battalions predominantly Shi'a, in Sunni areas, and that that is a significant problem and that it's exacerbated by all the events we've talked about.

We also know that the biggest -- probably the biggest problem they have, other than the recruitment of Sunnis, which has now improved a bit, is that they have no infrastructure; that the Ministry of Defense has been nearly incompetent.  They can't even properly pay their people.  They don't have the capability to provide logistic support for their people.  That's one of the really slowing-down elements in terms of an Iraqi military standing up.  They don't have the ability to move forces or equip forces.  They don't have proper equipment.  They don't have the way to supply their forces.  Those are all huge drawbacks, no matter what the numbers are.  Take that number of 181,320 -- or whatever the last number was last week that the State Department comes up with in terms of Iraqi military forces -- that number is not a relevant number.  It's the capability of those forces, and I want to add the idea, the loyalty of those forces to an Iraqi nation.  I want to add that element because we haven't -- none of us have yet focused on that particular challenge.  It complicates the challenge, but we might as well be real; if we want to leave Iraq better than we found it -- and Lord knows we all want to do that -- we've got to worry and be concerned about not just standing up the army, but the type of army that is being stood up.

So my assessment of their current capability is that it varies.  I could come close to giving you, from memory, how many, I think they call it level one, level two, level three they have; level one being able to operate independently -- one battalion out of about 90, as I remember.  Then there's something like 40 that are level two; less than 30 to 40, I believe, that can operate in the lead.  Level three, a similar type number, that could operate with us being in the lead.  And level four, the ones that are not yet functioning particularly well at all.  I don't have those numbers perfectly.  Don't, you know, rely on those numbers.  They're now out there publicly, by the way.  For the first time, we have a measuring stick where we can now measure at least the advancement and the capability of the Iraqi army. 

In terms of the police force, which is a significant part of that 181,000 security people, I don't think that they've got much capability at all.  They have not been paid properly.  They come and they go.  They take leaves, never show up after their leave is over.  They're not paid properly.  So I don't put much stock in terms of the police force in terms of dealing with the insurgents at all.

WEBER:  Last audience question, we'll go right there.  And then I have a final question. 

QUESTIONER:  Senator, this is -- (name inaudible) -- with Turkey's Star Newspaper.  Recently, Newsweek reported that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice thwarted a military action against Syria.  How serious did you take that story?  And do you think that a military action against Syria is an option?  Thank you.

LEVIN:  I don't take -- I don't draw too much of a conclusion from a skirmish on the border.  I don't think it signifies much.  It could mean a lot of things; could mean nothing.  What you see, particularly relative to Syria, is not what is the reality in general.  And I -- and that's true even in terms of a Syrian military activity along a border.  They could send people over the border into Iraq a few feet, be shot at, and that could serve some Syrian political purpose.  So I don't put much stock in any skirmish along the border in terms of an attack on Syria.  I don't think it's likely at all, and I don't think it's in the cards.  I'm sure that the administration -- well, I'll leave it at that.

WEBER:  Thank you. Senator, last question.  Certainly I have no desire to ask any embarrassing questions, but ---

LEVIN:  It won't be the first one, I can -- (laughter) --

WEBER:  Well, I have to insist --

LEVIN:  The first one here, though.

WEBER:  I have to insist that you at least make some comment on the recent defeat of the University of Michigan football team by the University of Minnesota.  (Laughter.)

LEVIN:  Yeah.  This is off the record by the way!  (Laughter.)  It's a lie! 

WEBER:  Thank you very much.

LEVIN:  The media got it totally screwed up!  (Laughter.)  Not the first time, either.

WEBER:  One time in 17 years, and they won't admit it!  (Laughter.) Senator, thank you very much.

LEVIN:  My wife's a U of M grad.  I'm not going to admit that with her being --

WEBER:  Thank you very much. 

LEVIN:  Thank you.  (Applause.)

 

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