Iraq and Iran in the Democratic Debate

Here are the Iraq portions of the Barack-Hillary debate in Los Angeles Thursday night. Both candidates impressed me with their grasp of detail and the serious thought that they have given for how to get out of Iraq without leaving behind a catastrophe that will come around to bite us on the ass. Chuck Todd says he thought Barack won the debate on the strength of his Iraq comments, and that Hillary was at a disadvantage because she had to explain once again why she voted to authorize the war. She even put herself in a position of being called naive about Bush by Wolf Blitzer, the moderator, because she went on about how she hadn’t expected Bush to misuse the authorization.

I didn’t see others comment on Barack’s dig at Hillary over “mission creep” toward Iran. This was a reference to her vote for the Kyl-Lieberman resolution encouraging Bush to declare the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps a terrorist organization (even though they are now a regular military analogous to the US National Guards, and in the past terrorism has been defined as the action of a non-state actor). Clinton painted Obama as soft on Iran, he painted her as devoted to mission creep and confrontation with Iran. This might be another point on which he won; polling does not suggest the American public wants practical belligerent steps toward Iran.

It is worth noting that Clinton misstated the 1998 events. The US did not bomb Iraq because Saddam “kicked out” the UN weapons inspectors. The US decided to bomb Iraq for other reasons and therefore ordered the inspectors out of the country. The myth that Saddam “kicked out” the inspectors just won’t die.

Here is what the candidates said:

OBAMA: And the last point I’ll make is on Iraq. Senator Clinton brought this up. I was opposed to Iraq from the start. (Cheers, applause.) And that — and I say that not just to look backwards but also to look forwards, because I think what the next president has to show is the kind of judgment that will ensure that we are using our military power wisely.

It is true that I want to elevate diplomacy, so that it is part of our arsenal to serve the American people’s interests and to keep us safe.

And I have disagreed with Senator Clinton on, for example, meeting with Iran. I think — and the National Intelligence Estimate, the last report suggested that if we are meeting with them, talking to them, and offering them both carrots and sticks, they are more likely to change their behavior, and we can do so in a way that does not ultimately cost billions of dollars, thousands of lives, and hurt our reputation around the world. (Applause.) . . .

MR. MCMANUS: A question about the issue of Iraq. Senator Clinton, you’ve both called for a gradual withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq, but Senator Obama says he wants all combat troops out within 16 months of his Inauguration, and you haven’t offered a specific end date. Why shouldn’t voters worry that your position could turn into an open-ended commitment?

SEN. CLINTON: Well, because, Doyle, I have been very clear in saying that I will begin to withdraw troops in 60 days. I believe that it will take me one to two brigades a month, depending upon how many troops we have there, and that nearly all of them should be out within a year.

It is imperative, though, that we actually plan and execute this right. And you may remember last spring I got into quite a back-and- forth with the Pentagon because I was concerned they were not planning for withdrawal, because that was contrary to their strategy or their stated position. And I began to press them to let us know, and they were very resistant and gave only cursory information to us.

So I’ve said that I will ask the Joint Chiefs and the secretary of Defense and my security advisers the very first day I’m president to begin to draw up such a plan so that we can withdraw.

But I just want to be very clear with people that it’s not only bringing our young men and women and our equipment out — which is dangerous; they’ve got to go down those same roads where they have been subjected to bombing and so much loss of life and injury. We have to think about what we’re going to do with the more than 100,000 American civilians who are there, working for the embassy, working for businesses, working for charities.

And I also believe we’ve got to figure out what to do with the Iraqis who sided with us. You know, a lot of the drivers and translators saved so many of our young men and women’s lives, and I don’t think we can walk out on them without having some plan as to how to take care of those who are targeted.

At the same time, we’ve got to tell the Iraqi government there is no — there is no more time. They’re out of time. They’ve got to make the tough decisions they have avoided making. They’ve got to take responsibility for their own country. (Applause.)

And, you know, I think both Barack and I have tried in these debates, and sometimes been pushed by some of our opponents, to be as responsible as we can be, because we know that this president, based on what he said in the State of the Union, intends to leave at least 130,000, if not more, troops in Iraq as he exits. It’s the most irresponsible abdication of what should be a presidential commitment to end what he started.

So we will inherit it. And therefore, I will do everything I can to get as many of our troops out as quickly as possible, taking into account all of these contingencies that we’re going to have to contend with once we’re in charge and once we can get into the Pentagon to figure out what’s really there and what’s going on.

MR. BLITZER: But you can’t make a commitment, though, that 16 months after your inauguration would be enough time?

SEN. CLINTON: I certainly — I certainly hope it will be, and I said I hope to have nearly all of them out within a year.

MR. BLITZER: Go ahead.

SEN. OBAMA: Well, you know, I — I think it is important for us to be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in. And — (applause) — so I have said very clearly I will end this war. We will not have a permanent occupation and we will not have permanent bases in Iraq. (Applause.) When John McCain suggests that we might be there a hundred years, that I think indicates a profound lack of understanding that we’ve got a whole host of global threats out there — including Iraq, but we’ve got a — a big problem right now in Afghanistan. Pakistan is a great concern. We are neglecting potentially our foreign policy with respect to Latin America. China is strengthening. And if we neglect our economy by spending $200 billion every year in this war that has not made us more safe — (applause) — that is undermining our long-term security.

But I do think it is important for us to set a date. And the reason I think it is important is because if we are going to send a signal to the Iraqis that we are serious, and prompt the Shi’a, the Sunni and the Kurds to actually come together and negotiate, they have to have clarity about how serious we are. It can’t be muddy. It can’t be fuzzy. They’ve got to know that we are serious about this process.

And I also think we’ve got to be very clear about what our mission is, and there may be a difference here between Senator Clinton and myself in terms of the force structures that we would leave behind. Both of us have said we would make sure that our embassies and our civilians are protected. Both of us have said that we’ve got to care for Iraqi civilians, including the 4 million who have been displaced already. We already have a humanitarian crisis and we have not taken those responsibilities seriously. We both have said that we need to have a strike force that can take out potential terrorist bases that get set up in Iraq.

But the one thing that I think is very important is that we not get mission creep and we not start suggesting that we should have troops in Iraq to blunt Iranian influence.

If we were concerned about Iranian influence, we should not have had this government installed in the first place. (Applause.) We shouldn’t have invaded in the first place. It was part of the reason that I think it was such a profound strategic error for us to go into this war in the first place — (applause) — and that’s one of the reasons why I think I will be — just to — to — just to finish up this point, I think I will be the Democrat who will be most effective in going up against a John McCain — or any other Republican, because they all want basically a continuation of George Bush’s policies — because I will offer a clear contrast as somebody who never supported this war, thought it was a bad idea. I don’t want to just end the war, but I want to end the mind-set that got us into war in the first place. That’s the kind of leadership I intend to provide as president of the United States. (Cheers, applause.)

SEN. CLINTON: And — and of course, you know —

MR. BLITZER: Senator — Senator Clinton, that’s a clear swipe at you. (Laughter.)

SEN. CLINTON: Really? (Laughter.)

SEN. OBAMA: I wouldn’t call it a “swipe.” I think —

SEN. CLINTON: We’re having — we’re having such a good time.

SEN. OBAMA: We are having a — we’re having —

SEN. CLINTON: We are, we are. We’re having a wonderful time.

SEN. OBAMA: Yeah, absolutely. (Laughter, applause.)

SEN. CLINTON: And I am so — I am so proud to have the support of leaders like Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who’s here with us tonight — (cheers, applause) — who was one of the — who was one of the original conveners of the Out of Iraq Caucus because it is imperative that as we move forward with what will be a very difficult process — there are no good options here.

We have to untangle ourselves and navigate through some very treacherous terrain.

And as we do so, it is absolutely clear to me that we have to send several messages at once. Yes, we are withdrawing, and I personally believe that is the best message to send to the Iraqis. That they need to know that they have to get serious, because so far, they have been under the illusion that the Bush administration and the Republicans, who have more of the same, will be there indefinitely.

And I also think it’s important to send that message to the region, because I think that Iran, Syria, the other countries in the neighborhood are going to find themselves in a very difficult position as we withdraw. You know, be careful what you wish for. They will be dragged into what is sectarian divisiveness with many different factions among the three main groups. Therefore, we need to start diplomatic efforts immediately getting the Iranians and Syrians and others to the table. It’s in their interest, it’s in our interest, and it certainly is in the Iraqis’ interest.

SEN. OBAMA: Right.

SEN. CLINTON: The other point that I want to underscore, though, is that — I asked Barack a few debates ago — we’ve had so many of them — to join with me on legislation, which he has agreed to do, that’s very important, to prevent President Bush from committing our country to an ongoing presence in Iraq. (Applause.)

That is something he is trying to push, and we are pushing legislation to prevent him from doing that. He has taken the view that I find absolutely indefensible: that he doesn’t have to bring any such agreement about permanent bases, about ongoing occupation, and if Senator McCain is the nominee, 100 years as stretching forward, he doesn’t have to bring that to the United States Congress; he only has to get the approval of the Iraqi parliament.

Well, we are saying absolutely no. And we’re going to do everything we can to prevent him from binding any of us going into the future in a way that will undermine America’s interests. (Applause.) So that’s a critical —

MR. BLITZER: We have a follow-up question on this subject from Jeanne Cummings. Go ahead, Jeanne.

MS. CUMMINGS: Senator Clinton, this one is for you. Judgment has been an issue that’s been raised as part of this debate about Iraq. It’s been raised by Senator Obama on a number of occasions.

And as this debate has gone on, more than half of the Politico readers have voted for this question, and it is, in effect, a judgment question. It comes from Howard Schumann (sp) from Pittsburgh, Maine.

And he asks: Before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, you could have voted for the Levin amendment, which required President Bush to report to Congress about the U.N. inspection before taking military action. Why did you vote against that amendment?

SEN. CLINTON: Well, Howard, that’s an important question, and the reason is because although I believe strongly that we needed to put inspectors in — that was the underlying reason why I at least voted to give President Bush the authority — put those inspectors in, let them do their work, figure out what is there and what isn’t there.

And I have the greatest respect for my friend and colleague, Senator Levin. He’s my chairman on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The way that amendment was drafted suggested that the United States would subordinate whatever our judgment might be going forward to the United Nations Security Council. I don’t think that was a good precedent. Therefore I voted against it. I did vote with Senator Byrd to limit the authority that was being given to President Bush to one year, and that also was not approved.

You know, I’ve said many times, if I had known then what I know now, I never would have given President Bush the authority. It was a sincere vote, based on my assessment at the time and what I believed he would do with the authority he was given. He abused that authority. He misused that authority. I warned, at the time, it was not authority for a pre-emptive war. Nevertheless he went ahead and waged one, which has led to the position we find ourselves in today.

But I think now we have to look at how we go forward. There will be a great debate between us and the Republicans, because the Republicans are still committed to George Bush’s policy. And some are more committed than others, with Senator McCain’s recent comments. He’s now accusing me of surrendering, because I believe we should withdraw starting within 60 days of my becoming president.

Well, that is a debate I welcome because I think the Democrats have a much better grasp of the reality of the situation that we are confronting. And we have to continue to press that case. It will be important, however, that our nominee be able to present both a reasoned argument against continuing our presence in Iraq, and the necessary credentials and gravitas for commander in chief. That has to cross that threshold in the mind of every American voter. The Republicans will try to put either one of us into the same box — that if we oppose this president’s Iraq policy, somehow we cannot fully represent the interests of the United States, be commander in chief. I reject that out of hand, and I actually welcome that debate with whomever they nominate. (Applause.)

MR. BLITZER: Senator — look, I want you to respond, Senator, but also in the context of what we’ve heard from General David Petraeus, that there has been some progress made lately, the number of U.S. casualties has gone down, there has been some stability in parts of Iraq where there was turmoil before, and that any quick — overly quick — withdrawal could undermine all of that, and all of that progress would be for naught. What do you say when you’ll hear that argument?

SEN. OBAMA: I welcome the progress. This notion that Democrats don’t want to see progress in Iraq is ridiculous. I have to hug mothers in rope lines during town hall meetings as they weep over their fallen sons and daughters.

I want to get our troops home safely, and I want us as a country to have this mission completed honorably. But the notion that somehow we have succeeded as a consequence of the recent reductions in violence means that we have set the bar so low it’s buried in the sand at this point. (Cheers, applause.)

We — and I said this before — we went from intolerable levels of violence and a dysfunctional government to spikes and horrific levels of violence and a dysfunctional government, and now two years later we’re back to intolerable levels of violence and a dysfunctional government. And in the meantime, we have spent billions of dollars, lost thousands of lives; thousands more have been maimed and injured as a consequence and are going to have difficulty putting their lives back together again.

So, understand that this has undermined our security. In the meantime, Afghanistan has slid into more chaos than existed before we went into Iraq.

I am happy to have that argument. I also think it is going to be important, though, for the Democrats — you know, Senator Clinton mentioned the issue of gravitas and judgment. I think it is much easier for us to have the argument when we have a nominee who says, “I always thought this was a bad idea, this was a bad strategy.”

(Applause.) It was not just a problem of execution — it was not just a problem of execution.

I mean, they screwed up the execution of it in all sorts of ways. And I think even Senator McCain has acknowledged that.

The question is, can we make an argument that this was a conceptually flawed mission from the start, and that we need better judgment when we decide to send our young men and women into war, that we are making absolutely certain that it is because there is a imminent threat, that American interests are going to be protected, that we have a plan to succeed and to exit, that we are going to train our troops properly and equip them properly and put them on proper rotations and treat them properly when they come home?

And that is an argument that I think we are going to have a easier time making if they can’t turn around and say, but hold on a second; you supported this. And that’s part of the reason why I think that I would be the strongest nominee on this argument of national security. (Cheers, applause.)

MR. BLITZER: All right. I’m going to let Senator Clinton respond.

Senator Clinton, you always say if you knew then what you know now, you wouldn’t have voted like that. But why can’t you just say right now that that vote was a mistake?

SEN. CLINTON: Well, Wolf, I think that if you look at what was going on at the time, and certainly I did an enormous amount of investigation and due diligence to try to determine what, if any, threat could flow from the history of Saddam Hussein being both an owner of and a seeker of weapons of mass destruction.

The idea of putting inspectors back in, that — that was a credible idea. I believe in coercive diplomacy. I think that you try to figure out how to move bad actors in a direction that you’d prefer in order to avoid more dire consequences. And what — if you took it on the face of it and if you took it on the basis of what we hope would happen with the inspectors going in, that in and of itself was a policy that we’ve used before. We have used the threat of force to try to make somebody try to change their behavior.

I think what no one could have fully appreciated is how obsessed this president was with this particular mission. And unfortunately, I and others who warned at the time, who said let the inspectors finish their work, you know, do not wage a preemptive war, use diplomacy, were just talking to a brick wall.

But you know, it’s clear that if I had been president, we would never have diverted our attention from Afghanistan. When I went to Afghanistan the first time and was met by a young soldier from New York in the 10th Mountain Division who told me that I was being welcomed to the forgotten front lines in the war against terror, that just — you know, just struck me so forcefully — that we have so many — (off mike) — and it will take everyone.

It’ll take a tremendous amount of — of effort.

But the one thing I am convinced of is that if we go into our campaign against the Republicans with the idea that we are as strong as they are and we are better than they are on national security, that we can put together a — an effective strategy to go after the terrorists — because that is real, that is something that we cannot ignore, at our peril — then we will be able to join the issues of the future.

And I think that’s what Americans are focused on. What are we going to do going forward? Because day after day, what I spend my time working on is trying to help pick up the pieces for families and for injured soldiers, you know, trying to make sure that they get the help that they need, trying to give the resources that are required.

We had to fight to get body armor. You know, George Bush sent people to war without body armor.

MR. BLITZER: So what I —

SEN. CLINTON: So we need a president who will be sensitive to the implications of the use of force and understand that force should be a last resort, not a first resort.

MR. BLITZER: So what I hear you saying — and correct me if I’m wrong — is that you were naive in trusting President Bush?

SEN. CLINTON: No, that’s not what you hear me say. (Cheers, applause.) Good try, Wolf. Good try. (Booing, shouting.)

You know —

MR. BLITZER: Was she naive, Senator Obama?

SEN. CLINTON: Well, let me — you asked the question to me. I — you know, I deserve to answer.

MR. BLITZER: I thought you — I thought you weren’t going to —

SEN. CLINTON: No, you know, I — I think that — you know, that — that is a good try, Wolf. (Laughter.)

The — you know, the — the point is that I certainly respect Senator Obama making his speech in 2002 against the war. And then, when he came to the Senate, we’ve had the same policy because we were both confronting the same reality of trying to deal with the consequences of George Bush’s action.

I believe that it is abundantly clear that the case that was outlined on behalf of going to the resolution — not going to war, but going to the resolution — was a credible case. I was told personally by the White House that they would use the resolution to put the inspectors in. I worked with Senator Levin to make sure we gave them all the intelligence so that we would know what’s there.

Some people now think that this was a very clear, open-and-shut case. We bombed them for days in 1998 because Saddam Hussein threw out inspectors. We had evidence that they had a lot of bad stuff for a very long time, which we discovered after the first Gulf War.

Knowing that he was a megalomaniac, knowing he would not want to compete for attention with Osama bin Laden, there were legitimate concerns about what he might do.

So I think I made a reasoned judgment.

Unfortunately the person who actually got to execute the policy did not. (Applause.)

MR. BLITZER: Senator.

SEN. OBAMA: I don’t want to belabor this because I know we’re running out of time, and I’m sure you guys want to move on to some other stuff. But I do have to just say this.

The legislation, the authorization, had the title An Authorization to Use Military Force, U.S. Military Force, in Iraq. I think everybody, the day after that vote was taken, understood, this was a vote potentially to go to war. (Applause.) I think people were very clear about that, if you look at the headlines.

The reason that this is important again is that Senator Clinton, I think, fairly has claimed that she’s got the experience on day one. And part of the argument that I’m making in this campaign is that it is important to be right on day one — (cheers, applause) — and that the judgment that I’ve presented, on this issue and some other issues, is relevant to how we’re going to make decisions in the future.

You know, it’s not a function just of looking backwards. It’s a function of looking forwards, and how are we going to be able to make a series of decisions in a very dangerous world? I mean, the terrorist threat is real. And precisely because it’s real, and we’ve got finite resources, we don’t have the capacity to just send our troops in anywhere we decide without good intelligence, without a clear rationale. That’s the kind of leadership that I think we need from the next President of the United States. (Applause.)

That’s what I intend to provide. . .

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