RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
When Senator Barack Obama took a step toward running for president this week, many people immediately asked what that means for another Democrat - Hillary Clinton. In a moment, we will ask Senator Clinton herself.
We will also be asking about Iraq. She's just back from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Baghdad, and she has returned to the United States in the middle of a fierce debate over the war.
Senator Clinton is on the line from New York. Good morning.
Senator HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (Democrat, New York): Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: I understand you met the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. What were you listening for?
Sen. CLINTON: Well, I was listening for a level of commitment to securing Iraq by the Iraqi government and the Iraqi army and police force that has been missing. And I didn't hear that. I don't see where our putting in more American troops is likely to bring that about.
So what I came away with, Steve, is a very strong opposition to the president's plan for escalation. And instead, I would like to see us cap the number of American troops in Iraq at the level that we had as of January 1st and begin to deploy them out of Baghdad and, eventually, out of Iraq.
I would like to see us condition further assistance to the Iraqis on their meeting the political milestones that have been called for for more than two years.
INSKEEP: Are you saying they would meet these milestones and then the U.S. would step up for assistance?
Sen. CLINTON: No, no. I believe we have to tell them that we're not going to continue to fund their army and security for their leadership and reconstruction for their country unless they take steps necessary to have the political solutions that everyone knows have to be reached.
INSKEEP: Do you think the Iraqi government really isn't trying hard enough, or are they being asked to do the impossible here?
Sen. CLINTON: Well, I think that there has been a lack of attention and focus on, you know, dealing with the problems that exist that keep the Sunnis in insurgency. And they have also refused to attempt the disarmament of the militias which keep the, you know, the death squads operating. And in thinking about this, there are some of my colleagues - as you know - who say cut off funding for American troops. I think that is, you know, not appropriate at this time, until we get more of our troops out of harm's way. And frankly, the president has the money to do this if we can't stop him.
But I do think we should be saying that we're not going to continue to fund this Iraqi government and their army in the absence of their taking the political steps.
INSKEEP: Senator, you've made it clear that you're opposed to the president's plan to increase troop levels in Iraq. The president said last night on public television that he does understand that some people disagree with him but, quote, "if failure is not an option, what is your idea for success?"
Two-part statement there. First, do you agree that failure is not an option in Iraq?
Sen. CLINTON: You know, this is the kind of rhetoric we hear from the president all the time. You know, we do have vital national security interests in the region. But, you know, a slogan is not a strategy.
INSKEEP: Are you saying that withdrawal is an option, even if that would be seen by some as failure?
Sen. CLINTON: Well, I think that - what I've called for for more than a year and a half is a phased redeployment that is tied to certain conditions being met by the Iraqis. I think you've got to get tougher on them. You know, in this part of the world, unfortunately, the reality is that people respond to pressure and to threats. We have not made any credible threats. You know, we are providing the security for the Iraqi government. I think that is leverage that we can use. We are...
INSKEEP: And if I may ask about the president's other part of his statements here. What is your idea for success, he asks. Are you saying that the idea is to leave it to the Iraqis to succeed or fail?
Sen. CLINTON: You know, Steve, we have put forth plans over the last several years. You know, when the Democrats voted for our phased redeployment plan, we had in it the political resolution, and we had the redeployment of our troops tied to whether or not the Iraqi government performed. It is not true that there are no alternatives.
What is true is that this president is not interested in any alternative. We have to protect our interests when it comes to al-Qaida and the Sunni insurgents who could follow us home. I totally agree with that. But what we're doing now is not working.
INSKEEP: And one other quick question, senator. As you know, Senator Barack Obama made news yesterday by taking a step toward a presidential run. As you consider what to do and when to do it, is there a reason for you to hold back from announcing?
Sen. CLINTON: You know, I am not influenced by anybody else's timeline. I'm trying to, you know, just pursue my own analysis and assessment that...
INSKEEP: What is it that you don't know?
Sen. CLINTON: Well, you know, there's a lot involved in doing this effectively. And I'll be, you know, looking forward to talking to you about it in the future.
INSKEEP: This spring, perhaps?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Sen. CLINTON: Well, you're very good, but, you know, I'm just going to go forward with my planning, Steve.
INSKEEP: Senator Clinton, it's good to talk with you again.
Sen. CLINTON: Thank you so much, Steve.
INSKEEP: Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.