Vernon Jordan on the War in Iraq
TONY COX, host:
From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Tony Cox in for Farai Chideya.
Imagine you were among those members in Congress invited to find a new way forward in Iraq. For months you debate strategy with nine of the most accomplished figures in American politics, including a former Supreme Court justice, past secretaries of state and defense, and a former White House chief of staff.
That's exactly what power broker Vernon Jordan did after he joined the Iraq Study Group. Jordan once headed the National Urban League and has advised American presidents for more than 40 years.
His career began as a civil rights lawyer and even survived an assassination attempt in 1980. But in an interview yesterday, Vernon Jordan told NPR's Farai Chideya that nothing could have prepared him for the gravity of this, his latest assignment.
Mr. VERNON JORDAN (Iraq Study Group): Because it's about war and it's about young people dying, and it's about sectarian violence; and it's about families losing their loved ones. And this is a difficult war, and it's a deteriorating, grave circumstance.
And so that was a difficult part of it. Now there's another - there's a positive aspect of it. We are five Democrats and five Republicans, all of whom checked our partisanship at the door.
FARAI CHIDEYA: All 79 recommendations that you made are unanimous, but can you take us inside the room. Did you ever reach a point where you thought, okay, there's no way we're going to reach consensus; although we're a bipartisan group, it's just too tough for us to reach a compromise on what we say.
Mr. JORDAN: I never, never doubted it that we could reach the consensus that we reached because we all went into that room, having checked our partisanship, believing in each other, believing that we could, through working together, come to a consensus, and we did.
CHIDEYA: Who were you in that room? Let me ask, were you someone who played a role of bringing people together who were of different like minds? Were you someone who cooled hot tempers? Who - it seems to me in a way that you guys were like a sequestered grand jury.
Mr. JORDAN: I'll tell you this, Farai, that this is the first time that I've served on this kind of commission - and I've been privileged to serve on many -where there were no heated arguments and nobody jumping up screaming and nobody's stomping out of the room.
That did not happen, and maybe it's because we are old, but that did not happened; nobody cursed anybody out. And I've seen that before, and there were no written dissent or threaten of written dissent. We had a common purpose and we accomplished it together.
CHIDEYA: So given that you had 79 recommendations, which one really has your heart? Which one of the recommendations do you feel is the most important?
Mr. JORDAN: Well, there are three primary recommendations and I think they are of equal importance. The first dealing with a responsible transition of American troops from combat troops to support troops.
The second issue is the national reconciliation on the part of the Iraqi government to meet milestones and to do some things that they must do that they have already set for themselves. We are holding them accountable, as we should. And thirdly, the diplomatic offensive.
Those three things go hand in hand, and we think that they're all important and of equal importance.
CHIDEYA: You have been an adviser to so many presidents, but one of them is not President George W. Bush who, according to many people who spend a lot of time covering him, is a person who keeps a very tight council with very few people.
So what was your relationship and the study group's relationship with the president?
Mr. JORDAN: I must say this. I am not an adviser to this president. I do know him and we are friends. I was much closer to his father. And better friends with his father. But this president has given this Iraq Study Group an unusual amount of time and attention.
I think if you total up the hours it's probably close to three and a half to four hours. We met with him actually three times, including yesterday morning at 7:00 in the morning; that would never would have happened in a Reagan or Clinton administration, a 7 o'clock meeting. But it did happen, and so I think he understands his responsibility.
He understands our responsibility, and he was very open yesterday to what we had to say. And he rightly said I want to read this and I want to come back to you.
CHIDEYA: At the same time, though, when he was making remarks with Prime Minister Blair of the U.K. it did not seem as if he was in complete agreement with what you were saying. Do you have any concerns he's not going to listen to your recommendations?
Mr. JORDAN: Well, I hope he's going to listen and I hope he's going to be responsive. I am not privy to what happened in the press conference with Prime Minister Blair and President Bush. I was practicing law a bit this morning, and so I've not caught up to that and so I'm not informed about what happened in that press conference.
CHIDEYA: Let me kind of put this in the framework of the United States. You've got Iraq, which is a nation that is ethnically and religiously divided by different factions, but the United States has been divided by race, class, and religion.
And in reading your autobiography I was struck again by the fact that you were shot by a white supremacist who almost took your life. What lessons can we learn from our own divisions in the United States, past and present, that could be applied to how we think of Iraq?
Mr. JORDAN: When you've got a problem, you have to deal with it. And you have to talk to everybody, all of these people who are railing against us, talking to Iran and Syria.
You know, it reminds me of being in the South in the 1960s. We talked to the sheriffs and the police chiefs who were beating us, who were arresting us, who were harassing us and who were shooting us.
We talked to them and they were not our friends. But we had to talk to them to make them understand what it is that we were about. And there was a negotiation that took place, sometimes successfully, but sometimes not so successful. But nothing happens if you don't talk.
CHIDEYA: It reminds me of that Frederick Douglass quote, power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.
Mr. JORDAN: That's a very accurate quote from a great man.
CHIDEYA: Of course, you know. But here's a thing. The insurgents right now have a certain amount of power, you know, they are disrupting the nation. What can we demand and what kind of leverage does the United States have to make demands on these insurgents?
Mr. JORDAN: Well, we've set forth three things that we want to do. We are recommending - keep in mind that the Iraq Study Group has no statutory authority, we have no executive powers, and we have no enforcement responsibilities.
We are a group of private citizens funded by the United States Congress to think about this matter. We did, and we've given our recommendations to the president who is its commander in chief. And it is now up to the president and to this Congress to find a way forward for this country. And I hope that's going to happen.
I also want to say to you that this town has been strife with polarization and hostility in our politics. I hope that this administration and the Congress can take a page out of the Iraq Study Group's process, and that page is civility.
CHIDEYA: Now one more thing on the recommendations, specifically. You don't advocate an increase in U.S. troops but that's because we don't have them, at least that's what we heard as the report was being debriefed.
Now Congressman Charlie Rangel has advocated a draft; that would be one way of increasing troops. If we did have a draft, or if there was some incentives for people to enlist in larger numbers, would the commission have recommended an increase in Iraq rather than a drawdown?
Mr. JORDAN: Well, we did not because we actually believe that, as we said in our primary - one of our primary recommendations, that the - we need a transition in our troops. Years ago, I served in 1966 on the National Advisory Commission on Selective Service. That was all about the draft.
Actually, Charlie Rangel was the first general counsel to that commission. It's where I first met Charlie Rangel. And I am sympathetic to his view about national service that would also include the draft. But that has fallen on deaf ears both in the Congress and in the administration. But I think that is one way to equalize who protects us and defends us.
CHIDEYA: Finally, this is a question that's unrelated to your work on the Iraq Study Group. People are putting together their exploratory committees for president and one person who is exploring his exploratory committee is Senator Barack Obama.
Mr. JORDAN: Well, I'm not going to talk to you about politics.
CHIDEYA: Can I ask you this question and then you can just say I don't want to answer it?
Mr. JORDAN: OK.
CHIDEYA: Do you envision a time in your life when one of the major parties will nominate a black person for president and that person will win and take office?
Mr. JORDAN: Well, I believe that can happen. I'm now 70 years old, so I'm one year beyond my promised time, according to scripture. So I don't know that I'll be here, but I think it can happen, and I think it will happen, and I hope so.
CHIDEYA: Mr. Vernon Jordan, thank you so much.
Mr. JORDAN: Thank you so much.
COX: That was NPR's Farai Chideya talking with Vernon Jordan, who once headed the National Urban League. He is one of 10 members of the Iraq Study Group, which released its recommendations Wednesday.
Coming up, our Roundtable reacts to our talk with Vernon Jordan. And respect your elders. Remember that warning? Well, it's back. We'll tell you where in a moment.
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