Rhode Island Sen. Reed on Mideast Violence

Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) talks about his recent visit to Baghdad and the escalating violence across the Middle East.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

LYNN NEARY, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington.

Here are the headlines from some of the stories we're following, here at NPR, today.

Israel intensified its attacks against Lebanon, imposing a naval blockade and bombing Beirut's airport and two Lebanese army air bases near Syria. The Israeli army says Hezbollah has fired more than 100 rockets into northern Israeli towns.

And a top military lawyer told the Senate Armed Services Committee today, that they favor using the Military Code of Justice, with some modifications, as a method to train detainees on war crimes charges.

You can hear details of those stories and much more. That's later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION SCIENCE FRIDAY, a paralyzed main equipped with a brain center has been able to open email and move a robotic hand simply by thinking about it. Join Joe Palca for a look at harnessing computer power to help paralyzed people.

Right now, we turn to the Middle East. Fighting between Israel and Lebanon escalated significantly in the past 24 hours. Israeli forces started to enforce a naval blockade of Lebanon after striking Beirut international airport, several military bases and other targets in Lebanon by air. Hezbollah guerillas fired dozens of rockets at Israeli cities.

Violence also continues in Iraq. Yesterday, General George Casey, Jr., the senior American commander in Iraq, suggested that more American troops might be needed to help quell the violence in and around Baghdad.

With us, to talk about Iraq and the escalating violence between Israel and Lebanon, is Senator Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island. Senator Reed is a member of the Armed Services Committee and recently returned from a trip to a Iraq where he visited Basra, Baghdad, Fallujah, and the al Asad Air Base. It was his eighth trip to the country.

And he joins us now by phone from Capitol Hill. Thanks for being with us, Senator Reed.

Senator JACK REED (Democrat, Rhode Island, Member, Armed Services Committee): Thank you, Lynn.

NEARY: I wanted to start with this escalating conflict between Israel and Lebanon. I'm sure you've been tracking the situation today. It seems to have intensified rapidly as the day has gone on. First of all, is there anything the U.S. and the entire international community can do at this point to diffuse the situation?

Sen. REED: Well, I think it's important first, to recognize that Israel was attacked by Hezbollah guerillas and several of their soldiers were killed and two were kidnapped across the border, back to Lebanon. And Israel is, I think, taking appropriate steps. But they have to be very careful not to apply so much pressure that there's a counter reaction throughout the region and the situation deteriorates.

So I think the role of the United States and the world community, is to once again, support legitimate defensive steps that Israel has taken, but work as quickly as possible to try to get the situation so that it does not tip out of control.

NEARY: Yeah. Israel is holding Lebanon responsible for the actions of Hezbollah. And I wanted to ask you, I mean, does - how strong is the Lebanese government. To what degree does it have the power to control Hezbollah?

Sen. REED: Well, Hezbollah is, in fact, part of the government. They have elected representatives in the Parliament and they participate in the government of Lebanon. But the executive leadership and the formal government of Lebanon is probably less powerful - particularly in the southern part of Lebanon, where Hezbollah has major presence - than, in fact, Hezbollah.

And so it's not a strong government, but nevertheless, it's a government that has a form of participation by Hezbollah.

NEARY: I want to remind our listeners that we are talking with Senator Jack Reed about the Middle East, both about the escalating situation between Lebanon and Israel, also about Iraq - Senator Reed recently returned from Iraq. So if you have any questions or comments about either of those and would like to join our discussion, please give us a call at 800-989-TALK.

You were saying before, senator, about reaching a tipping point. When does that tipping point get reached? Today, Israel called a rocket attack on Haifa a major, major escalation. When does the point come where other countries may feel the need to step in or…

Sen. REED: Well, the difficult point is that it's hard to figure out where that is. I mean, that as Israel intensifies its operations, as Hezbollah launches the missiles against Israel, the fear is - and it's a legitimate one - that at some point it gets out of control.

I think clearly if there are strikes against countries outside of Lebanon, then that would raise the stakes immensely. And so that might be one of the bright lines. But it's a very, very difficult situation. I think looking back, just a few days ago, the thought I think of most people was that the incident Gaza where an Israeli soldier was taken was looked at to be an isolated incident involving just Hamas. And it may, in fact, be either by imitation or by design the fact that this attempt at taking an Israeli soldier is something that's going to be used by radical elements in the Middle East.

So, it's hard to draw that line, but it, I think everyone has to be conscious that there is the possibility of the situation getting, you know, spinning out of control.

NEARY: Yeah. And, to turn to Iraq now - another very difficult situation that the U.S. is dealing with in the Middle East. You've been there many times. I'm wondering, first of all, if you could describe the situation that you encountered there on your most recent visit. You've just come back from there. Is it better or worse than when you've been there in the past?

Sen. REED: It seems to have improved in some respects, but overall, the violence seems to be much more unpredictable, and - particularly in Baghdad -much, much more intense levels in terms of incidents, in terms of the savagery of the attacks. There's been some progress with respect to creating the Iraqi Army that has to be recognized. But what's still lacking is a, you know, cohesive political culture that allows for participation, indeed, allows all the major elements in Iraq to feel that they can participate through politics rather than violence.

And there's another terrible shortage in basic services to the Iraqi people, which many of the military commanders, our commanders, feel helps fuel this militia, certainly the recruitment of the militias - the lack of electricity, lack of jobs, lack of potable water in many places. And all of that is adding up to a situation that's chaotic.

And I think what's the perception among the Iraqi people is that, you know, after three years of significant American involvement, the situation seems to be only modestly improved in certain areas. And I think that's creating a great deal of frustration and anger and perhaps also fueling the violence.

NEARY: When you were in Iraq, you met with Gen. Casey, the senior American commander there. Did he discuss with you the need for more troops?

Sen. REED: Well, actually, I asked Gen. Casey if he was still supporting his public statements in Washington just about a week or two ago, saying that he anticipates the ability to draw American troops out of the country, start a redeployment this year, and he said he does. Now I think in terms of more troops for Baghdad, my assumption would be, that would be if that's the recommendation, it would be accomplished by redistributing forces within Iraq -moving them from some areas that seem less threatened.

But I don't sense from his comments now and his comments back in Washington, that, you know, he's calling for a major increase or infusion of American forces from outside the country.

NEARY: Now last month, you co-sponsored a bill for U.S. troop withdrawals this year. Is that right?

Sen. REED: That's right. It was a legislation I worked with along with Senator Levin. And it would call for the beginning of redeployment - without a timetable or a schedule - this year. And in fact, that seems to be precisely what Gen. Casey was talking about. And indeed, in my conversations with Prime Minister Maliki, he said essentially the same thing - that they anticipate that they can begin to withdraw troops this year.

There's a real question when you get into the number of American troops and the presence of American troops. This real question is, you know, what role are they playing, and what role is it appropriate for them to play? At present, there are roughly, well, more than 50,000 Iraqi troops that were committed to Baghdad to provide security. So I think we have to ask ourselves - and I think Gen. Casey and others - whether the addition of American troops in, essentially, an urban pacification mission - is going to be helpful or not. I mean, and in that question I think the jury's still out.

NEARY: We are talking with Senator Jack Reed about the situation in the Middle East. We're discussing both the developing situation today between Israel and Lebanon and Iraq. Senator Reed is recently returned from Iraq.

If you have any questions or comments, give us a call at 800-989-8255. You can also send us an e-mail at talk@npr.org.

Let's take a call now from Mohammad(ph). He's calling from Oregon.

MOHAMMAD (Caller): Hi. I'm an American citizen that was born and raised in the Middle East. And my question to the senator and to all our public officials is why is it always that Israel is the core of our policy? Why do we seek Israel like its one of our own states? Isn't it time that we review our support to Israel and our biased support, I must say, to Israel, especially when they are using vehicles that we are supporting them with to kill innocent people? I understand that Hezbollah attacked and kidnapped some of the soldiers, but they were on Lebanese soil, and this is a disputed area. Now…

NEARY: All right, Mohammad? I think I understand your point, and I would like to let the senator respond. Thanks so much for your call. Senator Reed, of course, this is an argument that you hear people make. What is your response to that?

Sen. REED: Well, the immediate challenge is to try to rein in the violence, and I think that has to be done by recognition by all sides that the violence will just beget more violence. And it's a real danger that it could spill beyond the present fighting and involve, in the worst case, many more places in the Middle East. So that, I think, is something that is primary mission of the United States is.

And I think also in line with the suggestion of the caller, is that I think we have to redouble our efforts to act as a force and a broker for more permanent and durable arrangements that both sides can accept. I think one of the problems with the policy of the United States in the last few years is regardless of, you know, of particular support for Israel or the Palestinian Authority, we have not been actively engaged at a high level in trying to promote dialogue, trying to promote accommodation, recognizing when either side is taking steps that are going to lead, I think, to a much more peaceful and stable situation.

I think, essentially, we've had this policy of, sort of, this stepping away. And I think that has not helped us, and in part, the present crisis is, can be traceable to a lack of a real purposeful effort by the United States over many years.

NEARY: We are talking with Democratic Senator Jack Reed, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Senator Reed, what needs to be done now to help the Iraqi government deal with the security situation, to strengthen the Iraqi government so that it can deal effectively with the security situation in that country?

Sen. REED: Well, there are some immediate short-run issues. One is to ensure that they have capable army units and police units. We've trained about ten divisions, and they are rapidly increasing in terms of the capability of the Iraqi Army. With the police, we're lagging behind in the system in the police training. But that's a short-run effort.

It's almost sort of like, well, you know, putting a tourniquet on a deep wound that just stopped the bleeding. And that, I think, can only be done by more effective, and in some cases more numerical security forces in Baghdad particularly.

The medium-run is building the capacity of the government to support these security forces, but also to provide basic services for the people of Iraq. All the ministries - the ministry of electricity, the ministry of oil, the ministry of health - don't have the capacity to provide basic services, and at some point, that contributes to this climate of both fear but also a lack of trust in the political leaders, which undercuts our efforts.

So those are the sort of, essentially, the two paths that we have to pursue.

NEARY: All right. Let's take a call from William in Norfolk, Virginia. Hi, William.

WILLIAM (Caller): Hi, ma'am. Yes, I have three words about Iraq, upon which I'll elaborate. The three words are I Don't Care. Okay?

The bottom line is, senator, with all due respect, this war is costing the American people a lot more than pretty much anything. And I don't like the fact that I'm going to be paying for this war for the rest of my life. I don't like the fact that my children will be paying for this war for the rest of their lives. And so forth and so forth, into posterity. It's just not that important.

This, these people are no threat to us. They did not attack us on September 11th. I don't know how many times that has to be said. They did not attack us. And if you believe that, you should go onto your computer and type in (unintelligible)…

NEARY: All right, William, I think we've got your point. You know what - I'm going to ask the senator to respond. William is saying I don't care. He's obviously mad about this war. Certainly, anger is a sentiment that's out there, but why don't you answer that question? Why should we care at this point?

Sen. REED: Well, first, I think I certainly understand the frustration and the concern, and it's not unique to the caller. It's more and more widespread.

I was one of a small group of senators to oppose the grant of the authority to the president to conduct this operation back in 2002. But once that operation began, once we have a presence in Iraq, the consequences of leaving precipitously - and consequences of doing that - could lead to further instability, could threaten the region and have ramifications beyond Iraq. It essentially, it's the, it's a line that I think Secretary Powell suggested that if you break it, you own it.

Now, I think the appropriate policy at this juncture is not our open-ended commitment. It is to begin to redeploy our forces, to concentrate on a more international effort in terms of providing governing capacity to the government of Iraq, and to do what we can to stabilize the country. I guess the bottom-line is that there is still a concern that a precipitous withdrawal could lead the country into chaos. And chaos in this region would have huge strategic and economic consequences for the world.

NEARY: You just can't pull out.

Sen. REED: Well, you can…

NEARY: Without thinking about how to do it, when to do it, and…

Sen. REED: When to do it, how to do it…

NEARY: Right.

Sen. REED: …what's the, what are the - what are we leaving behind? I think the question that I think we should focus on in a pragmatic way, not - and unfortunately, there's been a lot of ideology going into this operation on a, and particularly on the administration side - I think the pragmatic question is, you know, what minimal outcome can we accept? And I think it would go along the lines of a stable government in Baghdad that is able to control its borders and maintain order and begin to provide basic services.

I think what's happened, and that reality has overtaken the grandiose plans of the administration that first we would be greeted as liberators - as the vice president suggested - and second, that this would be an easy, cheap transformation of a society, which in turn would almost spontaneously transform the region. That is unlikely to happen in the near, or even in a semi-far term.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for joining us today, senator.

Sen. REED: Thank you very much, Lynn. Bye bye.

NEARY: Senator Jack Reed is the Democratic senator from Rhode Island. He joined us by phone from his office on Capitol Hill.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington.

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