Connecticut's Shays on Iraq, Election Battle
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.
This Labor Day weekend, candidates across the country are kicking off the fall campaign season. And one issue is on many voters' minds: Iraq.
Just yesterday, the Pentagon released new figures indicating the war is not going well. The figures showed a 15 percent rise in sectarian attacks over the past three months and a 51 percent rise in Iraqi casualties.
Bad news from Iraq proved bad news last month for Senator Joe Lieberman, who lost the Democratic primary in Connecticut.
And Iraq is posing a problem for another Connecticut lawmaker: Republican Christopher Shays. He's in a very tight race for re-election. Shays has been a supporter of the war in Iraq, but last week he called for a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
I spoke with Congressman Shays earlier today about his seeming change of heart.
Congressman Shays, you are just back from your 14th trip to Iraq. I'm curious. What did you see that was different this time?
Representative CHRISTOPHER SHAYS (Republican, Connecticut): Well, I didn't see anything different this time, but when I was there six weeks before, I had seen the government basically there in power a month and a half and I saw no action. Now, I had seen no action going the four and a half months they were trying to create a government.
So now I'm there on my 13th trip and I'm saying, I don't like what I'm seeing, but it's too early to tell.
So I made a point that I was going to come back and I would reevaluate what I was looking at, and what I saw was a continuation of the same thing, and the same thing is this: no heavy lifting since January. Really no progress this year.
ELLIOTT: Why do you think that is? What's going on?
Rep. SHAYS: Well, I think that frankly the Iraqis are kind of pleased that they're now in power. I think that the new prime minister owes a lot to some of the militia. I think he's not willing to make the tough decisions.
ELLIOTT: Now, how do you think the government would be better if the U.S. troops were not there?
Rep. SHAYS: This is one of the distortions that's happened because people like to see my decision to create a catalyst to get the Iraqis to act as if I somehow am changing my position about the basic premise that we need to win in Iraq.
The issue is what do we do to get the Iraqis - the political leaders in particular - to do the heavy lifting they did for 18 months, from '04 to the beginning of '06?
My view is the following. We know for almost a certainty the status of our being able to train their troops. In other words, we train them. We then put them into battle so we know how many we trained, we know how many stayed, then we know how many become competent.
My view is after a year of their being fighters, we then can say, Well, we know have 10,000 Iraqi troops that can replace our 10,000 American troops and British troops that are patrolling the streets doing police work.
ELLIOTT: So let me make sure I'm understanding what you're saying. You're saying that the U.S. should have a clear timeline for no longer being the police force in Iraq.
Rep. SHAYS: We should have a clear timeline on replacing American troops who are doing police work with Iraqi troops, and that timeline is based on the ability of Iraqis to do the job. We're not going to just set an arbitrary date. We know how long it takes to train a certain number of Iraqis. We know how long it takes to make them competent. When they arrive at that point, there will be a clear swapping of responsibilities and American troops can be reduced by that amount.
ELLIOTT: Isn't that sort of what President Bush has been saying all along? That as Iraqi troops stand up, we'll stand down?
Rep. SHAYS: No. What President Bush has said is, we have a timeline, which they don't even want to admit, but it's conditional based. I'm not making this conditionally based on what kind of circumstances exist in Iraq. If the fighting still continues, as it will, we still leave. But Iraqis are taking our place doing the fighting. And the incentive to the Iraqi's is, Hey, I think it's a good idea that we work out our differences, because that will help stop the fighting.
I really believe that some of the Shias in the government want to overpower the Sunnis and they want to use our forces to do it.
ELLIOTT: You know, you're in a tough re-election battle right now, and you acknowledged back in June on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED that support for the war was waning in your district, yet you said you needed to stick by your position as a matter of principle. Let's listen.
(Soundbite of previous All Things Considered broadcast)
Rep. SHAYS: (Previous broadcast) And then I have people that aren't happy that I believe that we need to complete the job. I still hope to win, but if I lose, I'll lose on an issue that I believe strongly in and on a position I believe strongly in.
ELLIOTT: Did the conviction of your constituents become any clearer for you after Joe Lieberman lost the Democratic primary in Connecticut over this same issue?
Rep. SHAYS: Well, first off, nothing has changed. My constituents, a majority wish we didn't go in, and everything I just said to you I believe in. I believe that this is a war we cannot afford to lose.
So I went to see this government after being in power six weeks and I saw them saying the right things but not doing them. So now I've come back six weeks later. I've gotten to see them now in office for three months. When you sit down and you say, my gosh, I don't see the political will, and then you really question very strongly our military people and they say, the military has the political will but the politicians don't, what am I...
ELLIOTT: The political will to do what?
Rep. SHAYS: To make the tough decisions. We need to light a fire under them. Tell me how to do that. How do we do that? I think the only way we do it is to tell them at a date certain based on your capability to replace our troops, our troops will leave. I mean the bulk of our troops would still be there for years, as we are in Korea, but not in the kind of active mode of fighting. That is their responsibility. And in my judgment, it will be an impetus to the Iraqis to step up to the plate and start to make peace.
ELLIOTT: Republican Congressman Christopher Shays of Connecticut.
Thank you for talking with us.
Rep. SHAYS: Thank you.
ELLIOTT: And one final note. Iraq was supposed to assume operational command of its new armed forces from U.S. led troops in a ceremony today, but the ceremony was cancelled. A U.S. spokesman said it was because of an error in planning. In his words, a bureaucratic thing.