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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel. And in this part of the program, what the two presidential candidates say about the war in Iraq and its relevance to other issues of foreign policy. We're going to hear separately from foreign policy advisors to Senators McCain and Obama. The war in Iraq offers stark contrasts between the two candidates.

John McCain supported going to war in Iraq, Barack Obama, while not yet in the Senate, opposed going to war. McCain supported the surge in troops. Obama was against. We're going to hear first from Denis McDonough who is Senator Obama's senior foreign policy advisory. Mr. McDonough used to be a foreign policy advisor to Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle. And I started out by asking him about Senator Obama's timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq.

Mr. DENIS MCDONOUGH (Foreign Policy Advisor, Obama Campaign): What Barack has said is that we can begin withdrawing our troops immediately, and he believes that we can do it at pace of about one to two combat brigades per month. And at that pace, we could get the remaining troops out in about 16 months. This is not an ironclad absolute commitment that at the end of 16 months all of our troops will be out. But he does believe that is the kind of pace that we can do responsibly and safely.

SIEGEL: Does Senator Obama foresee a residual long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq comparable to U.S. bases, say, in Germany or South Korea?

Mr. MCDONOUGH: What he has said, Robert, is that he obviously recognizes we will have enduring interests in the region. He has not suggested that it's something commensurate to what we've done in South Korea or Germany, and frankly, that is a principle difference between Senator Obama and Senator McCain.

SIEGEL: How then would Senator Obama express the regional interest? Would it be through naval presence, or would there be troops on the ground in Iraq?

Mr. MCDONOUGH: Well, he said that we can have troops on the ground in Iraq and in the region to undertake two very targeted and specific missions. One would be counterterrorism missions against al-Qaida forces in the region in the event that they pop their heads up, we would have the capability to go in and take them out. We'd also maintain a force that would have the ability to protect our forces and our facilities in country.

SIEGEL: Is what you're describing, when you include all of those missions together - our presence, the numbers in the thousands, in the tens of thousands? How large a remaining presence do you think might be in Iraq, say, at the end of an Obama presidency?

Mr. MCDONOUGH: We haven't gotten into dictating those numbers, Robert. That's something that President Obama would work very closely with his military commanders on structuring. But we're not going to attach a number to that here. Rather, we're going to work very closely with our military commanders to make sure it's structured in a way that will allow us to carry out those missions most effectively.

SIEGEL: I want you to talk about the nation next door, Iran. Senator Obama has, of course, been criticized for his offer to meet with Iranian President Ahmadinejad. He's been criticized for being naive. Is it naive to think that Iranian leadership could negotiate its role in Iraq and elsewhere in the region and its nuclear ambitions through some conventional bilateral diplomacy, or is Iran simply at the moment not led by people with whom such diplomacy could be productive?

Mr. MCDONOUGH: I think it's naïve to think that continuing the Bush administration's policies, which is exactly what Senator McCain has suggested he will do will result in a different outcome than we've had to date. We've seen an Iran that has had its influence in this strategic region dramatically expanded. It used to have zero centrifuges spinning in its nuclear weapons program.

Now it has about 3,800 of them spinning. And it's hyper-charged by increased oil prices, such that it now has even more cash to support Hamas and Hezbollah and other nefarious actors throughout the region. So what Barack Obama has said is current course of action as pursued by President Bush is the wrong way to go. So he's proposing a fundamental change which would use all the elements of our national power, including diplomacy.

SIEGEL: What do you say to Europeans, though, who had criticized and say that if you hold out the promise of a total change of U.S. posture toward Iran, that could undermine whatever multi-lateral progress has been made so far through the threat of sanctions, say, over Iran's nuclear ambitions?

Mr. MCDONOUGH: A couple things we would say is one is let's not overstate progress to date. Let's make sure that the Iranians understand that we will not, as a unified international community, turn a blind eye to them continuing to spin these centrifuges in opposition to their requirements and their obligations to the international community.

Two is that every one of our European allies maintains full diplomatic relations with Iran. So they are engaged in a level of diplomacy that the United States is not. So I am very confident that our European allies would welcome greater American engagement in this.

And I think we've just seen an example of that this morning, Robert, with President Bush announcing that he believes we've made a breakthrough in North Korea. A situation where for many years this administration refused to engage directly with the North Koreans. When they did engage directly with the North Koreans, we actually ended up making some progress. The amount of progress is debatable, of course.

SIEGEL: That's Denis McDonough in Chicago, where he is a senior foreign policy advisor to the Obama campaign. Mr. McDonough, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. MCDONOUGH: Thanks for having me, Robert. I really appreciate it.

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