Bush Lacks a Clear Plan on Iraq, Democrat Says

On Iraq, President Bush has doled out "brave talk" — but "no clear strategy," says Sen. Dick Durbin, Democrat from Illinois. Durbin's comments came after the President discussed Iraq this morning. Robert Siegel talks with Durbin, who traveled to Baghdad earlier this month.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Now, a Democratic reaction to the president's latest remarks on Iraq. Joining us from Champaign, Illinois, is Senator Dirk Durbin, Democrat of Illinois. Welcome to the program once again, Senator.

Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): Good to be with you.

SIEGEL: The president employed such phrases today as: We learned some key lessons, we overestimated, we did not expect. He spoke of some past setbacks, of some Iraqi forces that have behaved below expectations. It's the vocabulary of humility. Do you welcome that?

Senator DURBIN: Well I do, and I hope it's a vocabulary that moves more toward reality. There was a lot of brave talk in the president's speech two weeks before the election, but there's really no clear strategy. The administration has talked about the timetables that they could use in Iraq, but even the prime minister, al-Maliki, has rejected that notion.

SIEGEL: But the president said we are pressing Iraq's leaders to take bold measures to save their country, and we're making it clear that America's patience is not unlimited. Isn't that exactly what Democrats say they would be telling the Iraqis?

Senator DURBIN: Well, it's exactly what the Democrats have been asking for for a long period of time. The unfortunate thing is the reaction from Prime Minister al-Maliki is not encouraging.

SIEGEL: But when President Bush was pressed at his news conference today about what he would do if the Iraqis didn't live up to these demands, if they didn't perform better in the field and make political deals - and he wouldn't say -I'm going to make those things happen is what he said. What would Democrats do? If you're concerned about Prime Minister Maliki living up to these expectations, what's the alternative?

Senator DURBIN: I think we say to the Iraqi people in no uncertain terms that we have given them a chance to have a country and to govern it, and that with that becomes a responsibility to stand and defend it. It means that the Iraqi military has to progress to the point where they can make their country safer, where the Iraqi police forces, which have been really disappointing in terms of their own performance, have to do a lot better.

There will come a point, a day of reckoning, but at this moment, I think we have to challenge the Iraqis to do better and so that the American troops can start to come home.

SIEGEL: Well, since the president says that's what he's doing, have we reached a point where the differences between Democrats and the administration over Iraq are more about how the U.S. got to the point that we're at right now than over how we proceed from this point to the future?

Senator DURBIN: You know, I could spend a lot of time talking about how we reached this point, but most Americans want to look forward, and we should look forward as a country. I just hope that come this election that we can elect a Congress that will hold this president accountable for the promises that he's made and hold this administration accountable for the way this war has been waged.

SIEGEL: How would a Democratic Congress do that? Assuming the Democrats could win a majority in both chambers, what would be different from, say, Senator Warner, the current chair of the Armed Services Committee, telling the administration that things aren't going well enough in Baghdad. You've got to shape up.

Senator DURBIN: Well, I of course respect John Warner for coming back and stating the obvious. I can guarantee you that the new chairman, Carl Levin, has been speaking for a long period of time about this being a year of transition and change. He will be in a position on the Armed Services Committee, as well as Joe Biden on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to make certain that this administration deals with this in honest terms and to also have oversight and accountability. There is such a terrible waste of American resources in this war now because Congress has stepped away from its traditional responsibility of oversight.

SIEGEL: We should say, when you say that Senator Levin and Senator Biden will be chairs of those committees, they would be if the Democrats win the majority in the Senate race.

Senator DURBIN: Yes. You suggested the possibility of Republican control. I go to bed at night praying for the opposite.

SIEGEL: Are Democrats obliged to have a position, to have a plank about Iraq, rather than to have several different positions on what we should do now, apart from being against what the administration's doing?

Senator DURBIN: Well, the interesting thing in the last few days, when the president finally understood the anger of the American people about his policies in Iraq, he started adopting the very premises and positions that we had on Iraq for so long. Beyond that, when it comes to national security, we understand unfortunately that what's going on in Iraq is not making America safer. Our own intelligence agencies tell us that it's spawning even more terrorists that threaten the United States. So if we're going to make America safer, we definitely need a new direction.

SIEGEL: Well, Senator Durbin, thank you very much for talking with us once again.

Senator DURBIN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Dick Durbin, United States Senator, Democrat from Illinois, talking to us about Iraq and President Bush's remarks at his statement and news conference at the White House this morning.

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