Playing Into the Insurgents’ Hands

The following is a transcript of the exchange between Senator Russ Feingold and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Thursday during the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.

FEINGOLD: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Welcome, Secretary Rice. We always appreciate your presence here. And I will join the chorus and say we really do hope it will be more often.

The title of this hearing is “Iraq and U.S. Foreign Policy.” And that strikes me as a good start because we need to make sure that our Iraq policy is advancing our foreign policy and national security goals, not obstructing them as it seems to me to be the case currently.

The administration continues to speak about staying the course in Iraq with the apparent end goal being elimination of the current insurgency and establishment of a peaceful democratic state. And, obviously, that is a laudable ambition, but it is not and it cannot be the basis for our foreign policy or national security strategy.

I feel that our current, largely single-minded and somewhat self-defeating focus in Iraq is causing us to overlook what should be our most fundamental goal. And that fundamental goal is combating the global terrorist networks that continue to threaten the United States.

It’s time to think about whether our military presence in Iraq is consistent with that goal. Increasing numbers of military experts are coming to the view that it is not, as is the American public.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that we have actually created a breeding ground for terrorism in Iraq, and that the indefinite presence of tens of thousands of U.S. troops is often actually fueling, not dampening, the insurgency.

Now, obviously, that is not the fault of the brave men and women in uniform who are serving our country. It’s the fault of the people who sent them to Iraq without a clear idea of what their mission was and how long it would take.

I give credit to the courageous senator from Ohio, Senator Voinovich, for reading that letter from that family member.

Madam Secretary, we owe our service members some clarity in leadership. And we owe this country some serious thinking about how we can get our Iraq policy on track, on track so that it helps rather than hinders us in the broader fight against terrorism.

And in that regard, Madam Secretary, I want to return to this subject that Senator Biden and Senator Kerry were talking about, which has to do with whether to withdraw the troops. Should we start withdrawing the troops?

I want to hone it more to the issue of whether it would be a good idea to have a public flexible timetable that we would suggest to finish the mission, achieve our goals, and bring the troops home.

Notice I said a flexible timetable, not a drop-dead date, not a deadline, not cut and run.

So that’s what my questions are about. And it’s interesting that Senator Kerry quoted a very Republican former Wisconsin congressman who was defense secretary under Richard Nixon, Melvin Laird.

Let me quote something else from that same article that Senator Kerry mentioned. Melvin Laird said, “We owe it to the rest of the people back home to let them know that there is an exit strategy. And more important, we owe it to the Iraqi people. Our presence is what feeds the insurgency. And our gradual withdrawal would feed the confidence and the ability of average Iraqis to stand up to the insurgents.”

I’d like your reaction to Melvin Laird’s remarks.

RICE: Well, Senator, I simply don’t agree that it is our presence that is feeding the insurgency. I think that the insurgents have a couple of aims. One is to – for some of them, is to return to a day when high-ranking Ba’athists were in power who repressed by force Shia and Kurds, and, by the way, a fair number of Sunnis, too, who were in political opposition.

That’s one goal for some of them.

For others – and that means, yes, the fact that we liberated Iraq is an irritant, from their point of view because they have a different view.

They would prefer the Iraq that we were dealing with under Saddam Hussein.

For the Zarqawi element of this, however, I would return to what Senator Voinovich said. These people were not just pacific people somewhere sitting around and then we liberated Iraq and they decided there was a jihad to fight. This jihad – this violent extremist ideology has been developing in the heart of the Middle East out of the absence of freedom and the absence of hope for a very long time.

It reached its full bloom – after several initial starts, it reached its full bloom on September 11th when they flew those airplanes into those buildings.

Now, we are fighting the global war on terrorism because, of course, we are tracking down and fighting the al-Qaeda network. And I was just in Afghanistan, which used to be their home base, and is now…

FEINGOLD: Well, Madam Secretary, this doesn’t track with my question.

My question was about the relationship between our presence in Iraq, our military presence, and the insurgency.

And I want to tell you something, because this isn’t just armchair people here in the United States. I was in Iraq in February, and I asked our military commanders [about] the nature of the insurgency.

At the time, they told me, as you were suggesting, a significant or major role of foreign insurgents being the ones that were blowing themselves up and that at that point those who conducted some of those kinds of attacks were less likely to be Iraqis. This has changed. Your own people have told us that this is now changed.

And what the point here is, is that the way we are doing this is actually playing into the hands of the insurgents.

I asked one of the top commanders in Iraq, I said, “What would happen if we suggested to the world that there is a time frame during which we will try to achieve this?” His response to me, which of course was off the record, was: “Senator, nothing would take the wind out of the sails of the insurgents more than providing a clear public plan and time frame for a remaining U.S. mission.”

So what I want to know is, not the general statements about how we’re fighting the war against terrorism, which of course we all agree on: Why does the administration continue to refuse even a flexible timetable for how long U.S. troops are likely to be in Iraq?

RICE: Senator, we’d like our discussions of withdrawal and of bringing down the numbers of forces to be results-based rather than time-based.

And I think that in terms of results, we know exactly what we want to achieve. We want Iraqi security forces that can hold their territory, where insurgents can’t leave a city and then come back and terrorize the population. That’s one of the things that we need to stay and…

FEINGOLD: But let me suggest on that point, Madam Secretary, with all respect, that I think one of the reasons you see that happening is that it’s very credible for insurgents, for terrorists outside of Iraq, terrorists within Iraq, to convince people who are desperate that we’re there to stay.

You know, the president himself in one of his speeches said recently he didn’t support necessarily putting more troops into Iraq for fear that people would think we were going to stay there forever.

Now, doesn’t that same logic apply to the issue of a public timetable?

I think the analysis actually is the reverse. The more you don’t suggest that the so-called American occupation is going to end, the easier it is for them to recruit the insurgents.

RICE: Senator, we’ve been very clear that we want to – that we don’t want to stay. That’s a different matter than giving a timetable for when we think we will leave.

I have no doubt that as the Iraqi security forces get better, and they are getting better and they are holding territory and they are doing these things with minimal help, that we are going to be able to bring down the levels of our forces. And I have no doubt that that’s going to happen in a reasonable time frame.

The problem is, Senator, that if you start making the issue when you will leave rather than what you have achieved, then you focus the insurgency and everybody else on when you will leave.

If you focus this on what you will achieve and recognize that you want to do that within a reasonable time frame – because we don’t want to stay, we’ve been very clear that we don’t want to stay…

FEINGOLD: But you see, Madam Secretary, that’s what undercuts our credibility. People naturally are a little bit suspicious of a country that invades another country. That’s a reasonable thing, to be suspicious. We have good intentions.

But to the extent we don’t suggest a vision, a scenario of when we might achieve these goals and when we might leave, naturally people become suspicious. They wonder if we’re not there for some other reason. And you’ve heard the reasons – oil or domination of the Middle East.

I believe that this logic that the administration has is the actual opposite of what would be most likely to take the wind out of the sails of the insurgents.

And I’ve got to tell you, Madam Secretary, you and the president are in an ever narrowing group of people who believe that this logic is correct. Experts around the world, military experts, people I talk to in Iraq, experts here – just about everyone agrees, including Melvin Laird, that our approach without talking about a public timetable is feeding the insurgency.

RICE: I understand your view of this, Senator.

In talking with the Iraqi government, which after all has probably most at stake here, the issue for them has been to have a joint committee that looks at conditions based around withdrawal.

FEINGOLD: Then why did President Talabani suggest that there is a scenario of when we can bring the troops back?

RICE: Well, I think…

FEINGOLD: He specifically talked about a time frame.

RICE: Well, I think that the Iraqi government, the ministry of defense, the prime minister, and others are engaged in a process that allows us to know when we have achieved what we need to achieve.

You do not want American forces to leave and then find out that Iraqi forces are incapable of holding their own territory. That’s a mistake we have made in the past.

FEINGOLD: Well, Mr. Chairman, the American people are for a vision of when we can finish this, the Iraqi people are for it, the Iraqi leaders are, our generals in Iraq, when they’re allowed to talk about this, are. There are very few left who believe that we should have a secret strategy that does not indicate when we can finish this.

But I do thank you, Madam Secretary.

RICE: Thank you, Senator.

May I just say I don’t think we have a secret strategy, Senator; what we have is a strategy that will be based on results. That’s the issue.

LUGAR: Thank you very much, Senator Feingold.

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