ED GORDON, host:
From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.
Pennsylvania Congressman and decorated veteran John Murtha set off a political firestorm when he recently suggested the US begin withdrawing its troops from Iraq.
Representative JOHN MURTHA (Democrat, Pennsylvania): It is evident that continued military action in Iraq is not in the best interests of the United States of America, for the Iraqi people or the Persian Gulf region.
GORDON: Ever since that call, both Republicans and Democrats have quickly tried to firm up their positions on the war and tell the American people the best way to proceed. While many are now calling for an exit plan, President Bush says the United States will not leave until Iraq proves they can protect their young democracy. To discuss America's exit options in Iraq, we're joined by Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and former assistant secretary of Defense under President Reagan. And also joining us, Daniel Drezner; he is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago.
I thank you both for joining us. Mr. Korb, let me start with you. When we hear the kind of political backbiting that we've heard over the last couple of weeks, these war of words, if you will, is this--oftentimes it's talked about in the media--a downer for the troops? Do they, in fact, hear this back and forth? Is it, in fact, that?
Mr. LAWRENCE KORB (Center for American Progress): No, I don't think so. Basically, if you're fighting on the front lines, you fight for the people with you and you want to complete your mission and come home. My limited experience when I was in Vietnam in the '60s is all you wanted to do was get your year over and get back. And you know, the debate in the country was much more raucous than it is now. So I think that that's really not the main issue.
GORDON: Mr. Korb, there also has to be believed, though, amongst the rank and file, the troops on the ground, as well as quietly back and forth, whether or not we are dealing with a flawed policy. Do you believe that this administration is able to reassess where they are, from what you've seen?
Mr. KORB: No, I don't think so. That's part of the problem. The president still hasn't admitted that we went there under the wrong circumstances. The issue is did he do it deliberately or was he misled? But in my view, unless he comes clean with the American people and the troops, I don't think he's ever going to be able to get himself out of the mess that he's gotten himself into.
GORDON: Mr. Drezner, the $64,000 question, of course, is when to get out. That's one of those things that has been hotly debated over the course of the last couple of weeks. Is there enough room for both sides to have credence, and what is, in your opinion, the best way to deal with this?
Professor DANIEL DREZNER (University of Chicago): I actually think it's telling that the debate is now not if we're going to pull out, but when. I mean, the president, I believe, is going to make a major address tomorrow at the Naval Academy, talking about his plans for Iraq, and my guess is he's going to talk about, to some extent, a phased withdrawal. Condi Rice last Sunday also talked about these sorts of things. So I mean, the interesting thing is I think actually across the board there is some consensus that you want to see a drawdown of US forces. The question is--I think the difference is the criteria under which you engage in that withdrawal. I think the Democrats at this point are calling for withdrawal regardless of the situation on the ground, to some extent, whereas it sounds like--and again, we've got to wait and see what the Bush administration articulates--but my guess is they're going to use the December elections and hopefully the stability that comes with a permanent elected government as a means by which you can draw down significant numbers of troops over the next year.
GORDON: Mr. Drezner suggested that Condoleezza Rice did, in fact, say this weekend that we could see upwards to 50,000 troops pulled out by '06. Mr. Korb, when you take a look at that, that still leaves about a hundred thousand troops on the ground, still questions of the body count that will be coming home. Isn't that the big problem for this administration in the sense of no matter what type of pullout that you have, with the question of why we went in in the beginning, everybody that comes home still strikes a very loud bell to many?
Mr. KORB: Well, they certainly do, and that's why I think it's important for the president to admit that, you know, the reason that he gave were not true, because it's not only the troops, it's the American people. I mean, right now the administration has control over when they get out, but if, as you point out, you still continue to have these horrible things happening to Americans and Iraqis, the American people could demand even a more precipitous withdrawal. That's why the plan that we put out at the Center for American Progress the end of September says announce now for all practical purposes you'll be out within two years and this gives you control of the situation. If the president goes more slowly and things get out of hand, then he may lose, you know, more control over it.
GORDON: Mr. Drezner, as you know, the fear for all politicians is when you give a hard date, if, in fact, you don't meet that hard date, the question of whether you have failed is more resounding, if you will, than if you don't have that date. And we're also faced with the idea that in '06 we are electing a whole lot of folks to that body of Congress in Washington. Many Americans skeptical of the push to get troops out not because of a concern of loss of life, but re-election. How much does that play a part here?
Prof. DREZNER: I would say it plays almost an entire role. You know, I'm shocked to report that the Democrats have gotten much more critical about the administration's Iraq policy just as his poll numbers go south. I don't think it's terribly surprising to find a one-to-one correlation there.
I'd like to respond somewhat to Mr. Korb's comments. I think it's dangerous--I mean, during the Vietnam War, the US was penalized, or the US made the mistake of sort of measuring progress in Vietnam by body counts. I think it's actually a similar mistake to regard, you know, failure in Iraq by body counts as well in terms on the US side.
I think one of the bitter ironies in terms of Iraq is, while I agree with Mr. Korb somewhat that Mr. Bush's articulated reasons for going into Iraq appear to, you know, be unsubstantiated at this point, you know, one of his other reasons which he says now is, you know, we're in Iraq to fight the war on terror. And the scary thing is he's actually right. You know, one of the chief terrorists for al-Qaeda, Abu Zarqawi, is based in Iraq, and you know, showed over the last month that he can strike elsewhere in the Middle East. If, you know, you believe that US forces should be reallocated towards fighting the war on terror more vigorously, I'm not sure you'd find a better location to deploy them than Iraq, is one of the cruel ironies of this. I think you'd still want to see a drawdown of US forces, but I don't think you'd want to see US forces completely disengaged from Iraq anytime soon.
GORDON: Mr. Korb, pick up on that point, but isn't part of the catch-22 here the question of what we had been hearing on one side of the aisle, and that is we don't want to cut and run, yet with the trial going on of Saddam Hussein, the word hovering over everything is `occupation.'
Mr. KORB: Well, I think it's important to keep in mind, as Jack Murtha, I think, put it pretty well, 80 percent of the Iraqis don't want us there. Part of the reason for the insurgency is our presence, and yes, Zarqawi is fighting us there now because we went there. I think if we set a date to get out, a reasonable time over two years which would, I think, maximize our chance of getting the Iraqis ready to take over, a lot of the Iraqis would not be cooperating with these foreigners. I mean, they're only joining with them now as a matter of convenience because they both agree trying to get us out. And Jack pointed out something else. Almost 50 percent of Iraqis think it's OK to kill Americans. And so I think you need to keep that in mind. If we're out of there, then it's not the central front in the war on terror. We made it that. I mean, this is very ironic that, you know, until we went into Iraq, it wasn't the central front. It had no connection to--no meaningful connection to the war on terror. So you go in and you say, `Oh, see, you know, now we did make it the central front, so therefore we have to stay.' I mean, that type of reasoning I think is very, very, very specious.
GORDON: Daniel Drezner, does the impending election, the permanent government that is set for December 15th, have anything to do with, in your opinion, in the immediate time frame, when we leave?
Prof. DREZNER: Oh, I definitely think it has something to do with it. Assuming the elections go reasonably well, you've got broad-based participation and you have, you know, a popularly elected government, you then have an authentic voice in Iraq which can also sort of set the timetable, which is...
GORDON: But isn't that the rub, if all these things fall in line? One might believe, if you look at history, when setting up a democracy that that won't occur.
Prof. DREZNER: Well, it depends. I mean, first of all, the Iraqis actually have had some success with the elections. I mean, some of the bright spots during the past couple of years have been when Iraqis have gone to the polls. So actually I think it's reasonable to expect the elections to go off pretty well, and in fact, the encouraging trend is Sunni participation in the elections, which, although they boycotted in January, they did take part in the constitutional referendum. So Sunni participation also, you know, burnishes the legitimacy.
The interesting question is going to be what kind of government you have and as--you know, as Larry said, if you've got 80 percent of the Iraqis wanting the US to leave, you know, you'll have a democratically elected government that will presumably politely ask the Americans to slowly get out. That's, you know, probably the best-case scenario if you're looking for some kind of phased withdrawal.
GORDON: Mr. Korb, isn't that the rub, as I suggest, though, the idea that the election in all of this, quite frankly, is the easy part? It's the setting up of a permanent, stable government that may be most problematic.
Mr. KORB: Well, I think so. And one of the reasons why I think setting, you know, a date will give the Iraqis an incentive to do what they need to do to modify the constitution. Remember, one of the reasons that the Sunnis participated in the last election, the constitutional referendum, is that they were promised after the permanent government set up, they're going to modify the constitution to protect their rights. And I think that will give the Shias particularly an incentive to do that because as long as we're there they don't have the incentive. And similarly, I think if we set a date, not only to send a right signal to the Iraqis and to the Muslim world, it also gives them an incentive to get their military forces up to speed.
I mean, we hear a lot about training the Iraqis and certainly there's something to be said for that, but it's also a question of motivation, whether in fact they're going to be motivated to defend their country against any type of insurgency because at some point we'll have to leave, and at some point they're going to have to stand up and fight for this notion of Iraq, and I think if we're out of there in a little over two years, we'll have been there almost five years. And it seems to me that that's reasonable enough for them to get themselves in a position to safeguard their country.
GORDON: All right. Lawrence Korb, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a former assistant secretary of Defense with President Reagan, and Daniel Drezner, who is an associate professor of political science at the University of Chicago.
I thank you both for joining us. Appreciate it.
Mr. KORB: Nice to be with you, Ed. And you, too, Dan.
Mr. DREZNER: Thank you. Good to talk to you, too, Larry.
GORDON: This is NPR News.
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