A Strategy for Leaving Iraq

Former Nixon Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird argues in a new article in the quarterly Foreign Affairs that the United States should transfer power to a trained Iraqi military and continue to support Iraq even as American forces withdraw. Alex Chadwick speaks with Laird as part of an ongoing series of conversations about Iraq.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

We're having a series of conversations about Iraq on this show. Today, we'll hear from Melvin Laird. He was the secretary of Defense during Richard Nixon's first term as president when the United States was looking for a way out of Vietnam. In the lead article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, Mr. Laird writes that the US experience withdrawing from Vietnam in the early '70s offers many lessons for the present situation in Iraq.

Mr. Secretary, if there is primary lesson from Vietnam that would be useful for Iraq, what is it?

Former Secretary MELVIN LAIRD (Former US Secretary of Defense): The primary lesson is, of course, to withdraw the forces as soon as practical. You cannot keep US forces there too long or it will not encourage the Iraqis to take over. The Iraqis are ready to take over and they are capable of taking over and the training is coming along pretty well. And we did the same thing in Vietnam. As people got trained, we withdrew American forces, and it worked very well.

CHADWICK: Mr. Secretary, I heard Capitol Hill testimony from two senior American generals in the last two months saying that the number of combat-ready Iraqi brigades was down to one.

Mr. LAIRD: That is correct. I think one is combat effective at the present time. Now you can't wait around for all of the units to be combat effective; that is a mistake. We did not do that in Vietnam. You have to put the pressure on them to get ready to take over. And if you do not put sufficient pressure on them, the training program kind of falls flat on its face. We don't want to set up readiness factors that they have to meet before we withdraw some forces, but we can start withdrawing forces within a matter of weeks or a couple of months, I think, because the training programs are progressing quite well.

CHADWICK: So just say, `You have to get ready, and whether you're ready or not, we're going to go'?

Mr. LAIRD: Well--and I think that they will be ready.

CHADWICK: This is a lengthy article, an essay by you, in Foreign Affairs with advice for the administration. Is anyone in the administration calling you to ask for advice or calling others in your circle of policy-makers? You must maintain relations with your old colleagues and comrades from administrations past.

Mr. LAIRD: I do, and I saw that they had advance notice of this article, because I didn't want to break those old ties and I've gotten a very good response.

CHADWICK: But is anyone in the administration calling you to say, `We want your advice. What should we do?' or, `We read your article. We're going to take it to heart'?

Mr. LAIRD: I've had several calls along that line.

CHADWICK: Well, political support in this country ran out for the war in Vietnam. Political support for the war in Iraq is declining now. In your piece, you partly blame the secretary of Defense now, Donald Rumsfeld, for his brusque ways with Congress; that doesn't help, you say. But you also say President Bush is not doing a good job in communicating what's at stake. Here's a line from your essay: `His west Texas cowboy approach--shoot first and answer questions later--or do the job first and let the results speak for themselves, is not working.'

Mr. LAIRD: No, I think we have to have a better explanation as to why this is important on the overall war that we're conducting on terrorism. And I do feel that Condi Rice, our secretary of State, is doing a very effective job in that area right now. And I think that the president is coming to that point, and I commend him for it because we have to get better understanding on the part of the American people of what this war on terrorism is all about.

CHADWICK: In terms of political support, Mr. Secretary, I was interested to see you write that, `It's important for the American people to be prepared for more casualties,' and I think that's going to be troubling.

Mr. LAIRD: Well, there are bound to be casualties any time you get into that kind of a conflict, and casualties are the thing that bothered me the most about Vietnam. But as I said in the article, we would never have invaded Europe in World War II if we could have seen what was happening on the beaches of Normandy. I think many people would have said, `Was it worth it?' and we all know it was worth it. And these terrorists have to be dealt with, and we have to make people understand the importance of our undertaking. That's something that hasn't been handled as well as it should.

CHADWICK: Melvin Laird, former congressman, former secretary of Defense in the administration of Richard Nixon, thank you for speaking with us on DAY TO DAY.

Mr. LAIRD: Very nice to be with you, Alex.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. More to come from DAY TO DAY on NPR News.

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