Reid: Iraq Policy Flaws Surpass Those of Vietnam

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) says of the war in Iraq: "I don't think it's the biggest foreign policy blunder since Vietnam. I think it's the biggest foreign policy blunder in the history of our country." Win McNamee/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Win McNamee/Getty Images

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) says he will ask senators to "belly up to the bar" and state their views of President Bush's plan to increase troop levels in Iraq by 21,500. Reid, who has expressed his disapproval of the increase, says he will ask for a simple up-or-down vote on the president's plan.

"I don't think it is the worst foreign policy blunder since Vietnam," Reid says, "I think it's the biggest foreign policy blunder in the history of our country."

The Democratic leader sat down Thursday with Michele Norris at his Senate office.

"The war in Iraq has been going on for almost four years," says Reid. "The president gave a speech. Everyone is hoping that he would say, 'I'm going to change course in Iraq,' and he didn't do that. What we're going to vote on here in the Senate in the near future is a resolution saying, 'Do you support the president's escalation in Iraq?' Simple."

This is a symbolic vote. Why is it important to do that?

We have shown during these first few weeks in January that there's something happening in Washington. The speaker of the House [Nancy Pelosi (D-CA)] and I have sent letters to the president saying, "Mr. President, don't escalate the war." He has ignored our advice. He's ignored the advice of the American people. He's ignored the advice of generals on the ground. We're disagreeing with the president. We're doing it very vocally and openly. And I'm very impressed with my Republican colleagues; they're also speaking out against this.

Senator, if the president is ignoring your advice, if he, as you say, "stands alone," if his plan is the wrong way forward, what is the right way forward? What is the Democratic alternative at this point?

I, along with 99 other senators, were elected to represent states. We have certain constitutional obligations and duties as a result of being United States senators. We are not the secretary of state. We're not the secretary of defense. We're not the commander in chief. President Bush is the commander in chief. He is responsible for conducting this war. Now, do we have a plan? We voted here in the Senate floor, the Democrats put forward a plan. That we should, first of all, redeploy troops. Does that mean pull them all out? Of course it doesn't. But it means we would focus on training Iraqis. We would focus on counterterrorism. We would focus on force protection. We believe that there should be a regional conference held. And we also believe that the force structure of our military is in very, very dismal shape. There is not a single, nondeployed army unit that is battle ready. It's going to cost $75 billion to bring this military up to what it was before the war started. So that's not a bad direction that we believe the president should go in, and we've told him that.

You talk about the withdrawal of troops, and the Democrats are now asking tough questions. They're holding hearings. In a hearing this morning, Sen. [Joe] Biden [(D-DE)] posed a question to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that I'd like to put to you. How do you withdraw troops from Iraq and leave anything close to stability in that country?

My response would be that we're talking about redeployment, which will of course include some soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen leaving the battlefield. But it also means that we're going to take a look at new duties for our troops there, and I think that's the key to that. I think that's the key. I think there would be much more stability if we got the vast majority of the Americans off the streets and had them training Iraqis.

Are there indications, though, that the Iraqis can stabilize the country on their own?

There's no military solution to this. There's only a political solution. The Iraqis are going to have to acknowledge that they're the ones who are going to have to solve this problem. And I think that once we get out of the battlefield, I mean, I'm listening to your network, public radio, a couple of days ago. They went around and interviewed a bunch of Iraqis, "What do you think about bringing in more Americans?" They all said, "No, don't bring anymore."

At this point, with the president's proposal appearing to be on somewhat of a collision course on Capitol Hill, I wonder if this is good for the country, a country that is so conflicted about the war, to have another war going on here in Washington between Democrats on the Hill and the president in the White House.

Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a Republican, said today in those hearings you referred to, that he believed that the situation in Iraq is the biggest foreign policy blunder since Vietnam. Now, here's someone who speaks with authority. He's a decorated combat veteran. But I have to go one step further than Sen. Hagel. I don't think it's the biggest foreign policy blunder since Vietnam. I think it's the biggest foreign policy blunder in the history of our country.

But trying to find some sort of way to move forward together — I've heard a lot of talk about bipartisanship, and yet, it seems that the Democrats are girded for battle. Will you have some sort of voice in helping the president move forward in Iraq? He's talked about a bipartisan study group — a study group is probably the wrong word — he's talked about a bipartisan group to look at what's going on in Iraq. He talked about Joe Lieberman [(ID-CT)] perhaps leading that group ...

That is so — pick a word that isn't too argumentative — we have bipartisan organizations looking at this right now. The hearing that you're talking about, chaired by Biden and [Richard] Luger [(R-IN)], good friends, they work together, one a Democrat and one a Republican. That's a bipartisan committee, it's called the Foreign Relations Committee. Standing by is the Armed Forces Committee, another bipartisan committee, chaired by [Carl] Levin [(D-MI)], and the ranking member on that is [John] McCain [(R-AZ)]. That's about as bipartisan as you can get. What is the president trying to do? What is this all about? I mean, we had a bipartisan group called the Iraq Study Group. They told the president what they thought should be done; he's ignored every provision they've made. Every one. So why does he need something... now he's asking for the legislative branch of government, a separate branch of government from his executive branch of government, to give him some other direction. He has all the directions that he needs. He just refuses to listen to what people are telling him.

What about the power of the purse? How far are you willing to go there? Are you willing to withhold money? And if not, what power do you really have?

First of all, there will be no money withheld from the commander in chief and the troops in the field. We are going to make sure that the fighting men and women of this country in Iraq and Afghanistan have everything they need. But, we're going to make sure that Halliburton doesn't get everything they need. There are 100,000 contractors in Iraq. I think that's quite a significant number of people. A hundred thousand contractors in Iraq? I don't think they deserve to be treated as Halliburton's been treated — instant millionaires.

If I can turn to other matters, your colleagues in the other chamber, in the House, are passing legislation like gangbusters. A mountain of legislation is soon going to be heading your way. Do the two chambers speak with one voice on all these issues, from stem-cell research to the minimum wage?

Speaker Pelosi and I have had a wonderful relationship since I became Democratic leader more than two years ago now. I have great affection for Nancy Pelosi. She's my friend. But these two bodies are different. The Founding Fathers set up the House, they set up the Senate. They set up the House to be extremely efficient. They set up the Senate to be extremely inefficient. Two different bodies, that's how they work. But for almost 220 years, these two institutions have served our country well. And they may be able to get a lot more done in a short period of time, but we'll just spend more time and accomplish the same that they do.

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