MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Senator Barack Obama was among the Democrats talking about Iraq on the campaign trail today. He was in Iowa, where he unveiled his proposal to end the war, and as he says, turn a page in Iraq. The senator says he immediately would begin pulling out combat troops, one or two brigades every month, so that all combat troops are out by the end of 2008. He wants a new constitutional convention in Iraq convened with the U.N. And he says he'll address the humanitarian disaster.
Senator Obama joins me now.
Thanks so much for being with us, senator.
Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): Thank you, Michele.
NORRIS: Now, you delivered this address in a town called Clinton, Iowa. That's a bit curious.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Sen. OBAMA: It was actually unintentional. My organizational staff here wanted to make sure that we reached out to the eastern portion of the state, and there's a wonderful town called Clinton. Obviously, if we get a headline that Clinton gives Obama a standing ovation, that's not a bad thing.
NORRIS: Aha. Now, your plan today contains four elements, but I want to begin by asking you about your proposal to pull out all combat forces by the end of 2008. The Pentagon and many military experts say it would take up to two years to get the troops out in an orderly fashion - the troops and the equipment. So is this timetable that you spelled out realistic?
Sen. OBAMA: Well, I think that those same experts have indicated that it would - we can safely remove one to two brigades per month. I believe we should start now. If we delay, then it's going to take longer. And I think it's important -even as we are withdrawing those troops - that we are ramping up our diplomatic efforts, both inside Iraq and in the region, as well as attending to some of the humanitarian issues that this administration has not dealt with.
NORRIS: Now, as you would begin pulling those combat forces out, one or two brigades at a time, what about the troops left behind? If you're leaving a smaller number of troops behind on the ground, and they are still responsible for security in the country, are you putting those left behind at greater risk?
Sen. OBAMA: Not if you are working with the commanders on the ground to make sure that their mission is well defined. We are not going to obviously be able to do the same policing work and refereeing of a civil war that is currently being accomplished by 160,000 troops. But, of course, that's true even under General Petraeus' plan, where because we can't sustain current troop levels, we're going to be dropping down to 130,000 troops.
It's important that I recognize what's happened as a consequence to the president's surge. We have had 30,000 additional troops in Iraq much longer than the president had originally planned for. As a result, we have gone from the horrendous levels of violence that existed six months ago, down to the merely intolerable levels of violence that existed back in June of 2006.
What that indicates is how low the bar has been set, when people claimed that somehow the surge has been successful. We are back to where we were 15 months ago, at a time when the American people had already come to recognize that this had been an enormous strategic disaster.
NORRIS: Senator, I want to make sure I understand something. Are you advocating a total U.S. disengagement from Iraq? Will a President Obama basically take every last American out of Iraq?
Sen. OBAMA: Of course not. We can't totally disengage from Iraq any more than we can disengage with any other critical part of the world. And we've got both strategic interests as well humanitarian interests in the region. So what my plan calls for would continue to involve U.S. troops protecting a U.S. Embassy and U.S. personnel there. We would continue to have U.S. troops who are able to strike at terrorist targets inside Iraq, although the troops themselves and the strike forces might not have to be deployed inside Iraq.
If the Iraqi government comes to a political accommodation, and you've got forces that are nonsectarian that are functioning, then the United States can continue to serve in a training capacity. But all these is premised on triggering the kind of political negotiations and compromise that so far have not been forthcoming from the Iraqi leadership.
NORRIS: Senator, I'm trying to determine what the U.S. footprint in Iraq would look like - say, you're in office and your commanders, your military commanders, are telling you that progress is being made. If they are saying we can win this, are you still going to draw down forces? As a commander in chief who does not have personal military experience, are you willing to look someone like David Petraeus in the eye and say you're wrong, we're going to do it my way?
Sen. OBAMA: If commanders came to me and said we are making progress in reducing violence and I see continuing political progress taking place, then obviously that's going to be weighed against the need to, I believe, have some additional troops in Afghanistan, that's going to be weighed against our homeland security needs in the United States.
I think that the overarching question is what is going to be needed to make the United States more secure, meet our strategic interests around the world, and make sure that we are meeting the obligations that we have towards the Iraqi people. But that is all part of a decision that the president makes in consultation with his generals, but not in deference to them.
And I think one of the unfortunate aspects of the last several days and General Petraeus' testimony is the illusion that somehow General Petraeus has been setting policy, and the president has simply been accepting those recommendations. That is not what has been taking place. The president has been laying out a mission of continuing this failed course in Iraq, and General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker have been trying to carry out that mission as best they could.
NORRIS: So for those Democratic voters, who are trying to decide which candidate they want to back, how does your strategy now differ - your strategy for ending the war differ from that of your opponents', specifically your chief rival, Senator Hillary Clinton?
Sen. OBAMA: Well, you know, I would focus on the specific aspects of our plan, the humanitarian aspects, the more detailed approach to diplomacy, including talking to foes like Iran and Syria in a much more direct way than, I think, conventional Washington thinking is dictating, and a very specific pace in terms of how we're going to withdraw our troops. I think that all of us recognize that we now have a series of bad options. We don't have good options as a consequence of the original decision that was made in Iraq.
And part of what I think Democratic voters are going to be looking for is somebody who's got good judgment going forward.
NORRIS: Senator Barack Obama, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Sen. OBAMA: It's my pleasure. Thank you.
NORRIS: That was Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, a Democratic presidential candidate. He spoke to us from Clinton, Iowa.
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