Gibbs On Iraq Transition: Future Is In Iraqis' Hands

Listen to the interview with White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs talks to Steve Inskeep about President Obama's address to the nation on Iraq on Tuesday night. They also discuss the economy and the outlook for Democrats in the midterm elections.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs is on the line with us this morning.

Mr. Gibbs, welcome back to the program.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (Press Secretary, White House): Steve, how are you?

INSKEEP: Doing fine, thank you very much.

How much can you really celebrate today, given that Iraqis still haven't formed a government and the violence there seems to be getting worse?

Mr. GIBBS: Well, Steve, first and foremost, I think that last piece begun with the words of a service member. And I think one of the things that the president will truly celebrate today, both at Fort Bliss and in his speech, is the tremendous sacrifice that so many men and women in uniform in are armed forces have made over the past few years.

This is a moment of transition and milestone moment in our dealing with Iraq. The history of Iraq and the future of Iraq will now be written and determined by the Iraqis. That's their responsibility. We will be their ally but their future is in their hands.

INSKEEP: I'm glad that you mentioned that it's in Iraqis' hands, because Iraq's army commander this month, as you know, suggested that his forces would not be ready to operate on their own without U.S. help - until maybe the year 2020, even though all U.S. forces are supposed to pull out by the end of next year.

Is that timetable open to change?

Mr. GIBBS: Not that I've heard, Steve. Look, the Iraqi security forces were in the lead for providing security in crucial elections, that were had earlier this year, that will lead to the formation of a democratically-elected government in Iraq.

So, I think that the Iraqi security forces are capable of providing security in this country. They'll have responsibility for doing that. We will leave a residual force to assist in counterterrorism operations if that assistance is needed.

INSKEEP: If that assistance is needed - does that mean that if you are asked to keep American troops in Iraq after next year when they're supposed to all be gone, you're open to that.

Mr. GIBBS: Well, again, Steve, we certainly look forward to dealing with a new government but our plans as of right now are to enforce the status of forces agreement, which ends our military commitment at the end of December 31, 2011 in Iraq.

INSKEEP: Is it a major disappointment that you don't have a new government in Iraq to deal with so many months after this election?

Mr. GIBBS: No. After the most previous election, it took six months to form a government. This election was certified in June. The vice president, obviously, is on the ground in Iraq to further help this process along and I think we'll have a government soon. But more importantly, there is a caretaker government that is making decisions on behalf of the Iraqis.

And, as I said, they're going to write their history, they're going to write their future. What the president will discuss tonight, is not just the ending of our combat mission, but what we're doing is strengthening our security and what we have to do to rebuild our nation here at home.

INSKEEP: Of course, you're referring to the president's address to the nation tonight. And I'm glad you mentioned rebuilding the nation here at home, Robert Gibbs, because many indications in August suggest the economy is slowing down again. Does the president agree that the economy is slowing down?

Mr. GIBBS: Steve, I don't think there's any doubt that if you look at where we were in the early spring and then look at what happened in Europe, that we are on a different trajectory, despite the fact that I think it is still positive that we are seeing hiring, albeit not as fast as we'd like, and we're seeing positive economic growth.

That is a big change from where we were just a year, a year and a half ago, when our economy was contracting.

INSKEEP: But what is the danger of a double-dip recession here?

Mr. GIBBS: Well, that's something that we're always mindful of and I think the president has outlined a series of steps that we can take and we should take, preserving middle-class tax cuts and, most importantly, providing some needed aid to small businesses that are creating the jobs in America right now.

INSKEEP: Of course, we're in the last day of August. September is when congressional campaigns traditionally get really hot. And you said earlier this summer, Mr. Gibbs, there's no doubt that there are enough seats in play this November that Republicans could take control of Congress. Is that still the case in your view?

Mr. GIBBS: Well, look, I think we're going to have very competitive elections in the fall. I think that when all the votes are counted in November, Democrats will retain control of both the House and the Senate. I don't think there's any doubt there will be robust elections, but there will be - we're going to have a choice between whether we're going to continue to move forward with economic growth and prosperity here at home or whether we're going to go back to a series of efforts that led us into this mess. And I think the American people are going to pick the going forward, rather than going backward.

INSKEEP: Mr. Gibbs, thanks very much.

Mr. GIBBS: Steve, thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: Robert Gibbs is the presidential spokesman speaking with us this morning. And President Obama, after visiting Fort Bliss, Texas today, addresses the nation from the Oval Office tonight.

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INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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