The Iraq Debate Through Joe Lieberman's Eyes

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The Senate is expected to vote Thursday on an Iraq funding bill that would set a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. The timeline is non-binding, but the bill sets the Senate on course for a confrontation with President Bush, who has promised a veto. It also exposes the fault lines in a closely divided Senate. Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, who calls himself an independent Democrat, is at the center of that divide. He talks to Renee Montagne about the debate:

You voted with Republicans against setting a timeline for withdrawal. Why not force the issue?

Because timelines in war, as Eisenhower said, don't make any sense. Timelines in war have to be decided by generals on the ground. For those who believe that all hope of any success in Iraq is gone, the alternative, I think, should be to cut off funding. To set a timeline is a concession before it is justified and can only send, at best, a mixed message to our troops and an encouraging message to the enemies.

But isn't 18 months — and that would be the timeline set out by the tougher House bill — isn't that enough time to force the parties in Iraq to find a political solution?

I must say that the more troubling of the timelines here is [that] the Senate provision really orders that the troops begin withdrawing within 120 days regardless of what's happening on the ground, regardless of the impact on our allies in the Middle East, regardless of the impact of withdrawing on our own national security and credibility. That just doesn't make any sense, particularly at a time when we have a new general, David Petraeus, commanding our troops in Iraq. We have new troops and we have a new plan. And from independent reports, it actually began — it seems to be showing some encouraging success. Why — why would you, at this moment, order a retreat?

An argument could be made that the fact that Americans have shown five months ago, in the November elections — and U.S. Ambassador Khalilzad has said — that Americans are tired of this war and don't have faith in it, because that may be affecting how the Iraqi authorities are acting and even how those militias are acting.

This is a very difficult and important question that you ask, because ultimately you cannot run a war or America's foreign policy based on public opinion polls. On the other hand, you cannot sustain your involvement in a war if you totally lose public support. At this moment I believe that what we are trying to do, which is not read the polls, but figure out what hasn't worked in Iraq, which is what the people, I think, were saying last November — not clearly that they want to just get out, but that they're disappointed, they're frustrated, they're angry about the lack of success in Iraq. They want something different, or that we do get out, and what's different is the new plan.

And I think these are moments when you've got to do, as an elected official, what you believe is right and not respond to public opinion polls. And I believe what's right, because we have so much on the line in Iraq and how it ends up, notwithstanding all the mistakes that have been made in the prosecution of this war, to try this plan. And again, indications are that it's working.



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