Sen. Feingold on Ending Iraq War

The U.S. Senate on Tuesday considers a Republican proposal calling on the Bush administration to begin laying out a plan to end the war in Iraq. Alex Chadwick speaks with Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) about the proposal.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

The Senate today approved a Republican measure that calls for the Bush administration to begin regularly reporting on and explaining its Iraq policy. Senate Democrats had a measure of their own; they wanted a timetable, an estimate of dates by which troops can begin leaving Iraq. That was defeated. Democratic Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin is the original proponent of the timetable idea. We spoke earlier today for one of our DAY TO DAY conversations about Iraq.

Senator RUSS FEINGOLD (Democrat, Wisconsin): The president should tell us within 30 days his vision of what the mission is in Iraq, what the benchmarks are for achieving that mission and the time frames in which it will be achieved and, most importantly, when troops can be drawn down and how many troops can be drawn down as a flexible plan to finish our commitment and bring the troops home.

CHADWICK: You said in a speech in Los Angeles two months ago, quote, "The Bush administration has been very successful in intimidating people into not uttering the words `timetable' or `time frame' or a `target date.' It's almost like a taboo. But even other Democrats resist this idea because their thinking is then the insurgents would know how long they'd have to wait us out. What is your response to that?

Sen. FEINGOLD: There should be some kind of a vision, a flexible vision of when we can complete this mission. So I'm pleased to say that it took a lot of work for many months, but many members of both parties are frankly basically talking about how we can have a public time frame. They don't like to use the word `timetable,' but it essentially has the same meaning. And that's a huge shift, and the administration's ability to intimidate people to have this taboo in effect is about broken.

CHADWICK: Well, what about the argument on the part of the administration if there's a date then the insurgents just know they have to wait till that date and the US forces will be gone?

Sen. FEINGOLD: Now this is one of the arguments that the Bush administration has trotted out; I call it one of the myths about Iraq that they use instead of having a real policy for finishing it and getting out successfully. If it's true that the insurgents would like to know when we're going to leave, what they would do is just stop bombing right now; just declare victory and we'd leave and they'd come out and take over. And the other argument is that, of course, they're going to know when we're leaving. You can't just slip out in the middle of the night with 160,000 troops. So this is just a phony argument.

There will have to be a timetable at some point, some kind of an idea or a plan to bring the troops out, and I think everyone benefits if we are public about it. First of all, it certainly strengthens any American support for the Iraq War or for trying to finish the mission because the American public feels like there's no endgame. It's extremely valuable that the Iraqi people know that there would not be a permanent American support of this government or propping up of the government there, but that it's really an Iraqi government. And most importantly, it sends a message to Islamic people around the world that this is not ever going to be a permanent occupation of an Islamic country. You see, that's the calling card now that the terrorists and the insurgents have. They say, `Look, there's no sign here or indication that the Americans are ever going to leave, so come on in to Iraq and we'll have a holy war or a jihad.' So for all those reasons the Bush administration argument is bogus and it's time for Democrats and Republicans to stand up, too, and say, `How about giving us a policy instead of these slogans and cliches that really don't work?'

CHADWICK: Senator, the president has now made two speeches in four days in which he says critics of the war are trying to rewrite history with charges that he misled the country into Iraq. You have said that he used bogus claims, that the administration was dishonest, that the administration's efforts to sell the war didn't match up with intelligence briefings you got. What do you mean specifically?

Sen. FEINGOLD: Oh, the emperor has no clothes here. This idea that somehow that they were straightforward about how we got into the Iraq War is a joke, and frankly everyone in the country knows it was deceptive. What they're trying to do here is change the subject. There are three failures here. Number one, the bogus basis in which we got into the war, where they did distort the truth. Secondly, they didn't have a plan in case things didn't go well there, in case they didn't greet us with candy and flowers. Third, once things went badly in Iraq, they've refused to try to fix it. Instead, they've tried to call people names and change the subject.

So let's remember it's not just a question of how we got into this thing--and I happen to have never bought their argument--the question of the mistakes that were made when we went in and the mistakes that are made even today by not having a public strategy for finishing this successfully. For all those reasons, the president is being irresponsible and doing a disservice to the American people by not talking about the real issue, which is how do we get this Iraq War finished in a positive way and how do we return to the basic issue, which is fighting the terrorist networks that attacked us on 9/11?

CHADWICK: But, Senator, when you say that the president misled us into war, specifically what do you mean?

Sen. FEINGOLD: Well, I was there at all the briefings. I went to almost every hearing on Iraq. It was in the classified briefings. I heard what the CIA said, and then I saw what the president and Colin Powell and Don Rumsfeld did with the information. They distorted it, they clearly exaggerated the significance of things that would lead us into war and minimized the things that wouldn't lead us into war. To me it's one of the most tragic and irresponsible steps I've ever seen an administration take. And there should be accountability for it. But that's not the only issue. The issue is: How do we get this thing done now in a way that can bring home our troops and hopefully also have a successful Iraqi democracy?

CHADWICK: Senator, there are more Democrats speaking on this now, but on the whole I think it's fair to say the party has not had a lot to say about Iraq. Several Democratic senators we've asked over the last months to discuss the subject have declined or put us off. Where is the party on this? Where are Democrats?

Sen. FEINGOLD: It's starting to move. I've been very critical of some of my fellow Democrats for not speaking out earlier, talking about the way the president has placed a taboo. But that is breaking. I am pleased to say that we are now beginning to get some traction. Democrats and many Republicans are realizing that to be on the wrong side of this Iraq issue is the biggest mistake you can make. We have to be with the American people, and the American people want change in this policy. They want our troops to come home; they want to do it in a responsible way. But they want to know how and when it can happen. It's time the Democrats, and frankly all elected representatives, start talking directly to the American people about that.

CHADWICK: Couldn't the administration say, `Look, there have been a series of successes. There is now a constitution in Iraq. There's a provisional government. There are going to be elections in December. Things are actually coming along fairly speedily if you look at it over time'?

Sen. FEINGOLD: That's fine, and many of us agree that there are some positive things that have happened in Iraq on the political side. That's actually my point. What needs to happen here is the formation politically of a democracy. It does not make sense to keep our troops there indefinitely as target practice for an insurgency that is growing stronger with international help and/or Iraqis getting involved. Look what just happened last week. Iraqis were recruited by a Jordanian terrorist to leave Iraq and attack hotels in Jordan. It's become a training ground, and it continues to be a training ground as long as our troops are there on the ground in that way. We need to find a way to remove ourselves so we do not feed the insurgency. And I'm not the only one saying this. General Casey has said this. Our top general in Iraq has said the very same thing.

CHADWICK: Wisconsin Democratic Senator Russell Feingold.

Senator, thank you for joining us on DAY TO DAY.

Sen. FEINGOLD: Thank you. It was a pleasure.

CHADWICK: NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Alex Chadwick.

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