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What Feingold Has to Say
Meet the Press 8/21/05 with David Gregory.
On Thursday, Senator Feingold became the first senator to call for a specific withdrawal date from Iraq, and he joins us now for his first live interview.
Senator, welcome to MEET THE PRESS.
SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD, (D-WI): Good morning, David.
MR. GREGORY: Explain why you've taken this step at this point. Why set this target date?
SEN. FEINGOLD: Well, it's been a long time coming. I didn't support the war in Iraq in the first place. But once the country decided to go into Iraq, I felt it was very important that we do the best we can to success and support our troops. The problem is is that we're not getting the leadership from the administration. The president is not telling us what is the time frame, what are the benchmarks and what is the possible completion date for this mission. And what's happening is the American public is really despairing of the situation.
I tried first to simple offer a resolution a couple of months ago to ask the president to give us a sense of his own of how long this will take and give the world a sense of when we might finish what some people call an American occupation. We didn't get any response from the president. His last speech was just a bunch of the same slogans we hear all the time. And, frankly, we got very little reaction from the members of the Senate. So I felt it was time to at least put on the table an idea, get the discussion going, break the taboo and say, "Look, let's see if we can remove the troops after we succeed with a series of steps by the end of December 2006. Let's see if we can have a target date that will work."
MR. GREGORY: Do you think that target date is knowable, that a success date is knowable at this point and that the president is simply holding back?
SEN. FEINGOLD: Well, I think it's possible. This is what I've noticed in the other times that we've done things well in Iraq. This is what we've done. We've set a target date for the transfer of sovereignty, and we said it was a good thing that we did it a day early. We set a target date for elections, in January 31, and some people said it would never happen. When it happened, it was a good thing. We set a target date for the constitution, and it's taking a few days more, but when that constitution is achieved, it's going to be a wonderful thing for the Iraqi people and a step forward.
Why wouldn't you want a vision, an idea of when we can measure success in terms of time and when the American people can know that our brave and courageous men and women can come home? It seems better than just having a stay-the-course concept, which is what the president seems to have.
MR. GREGORY: This target would be December 31 of next year of 2006, but you say it's not a deadline.
SEN. FEINGOLD: No, it's not a deadline. Just like the other things I just mentioned, it's a target. Here's the problem. If you don't have some kind of a target date, you lose the opportunity to get a number of advantages. First of all, you can lose the support of the American people. That's what I'm hearing.
I went to 17 town meetings in Wisconsin this month already in northern Wisconsin. And people said, "You know, if we don't have an idea of how long this thing's going to last, let's just cut and run." And the president has presented us with a false choice. It's either stay the course and cut and run. What I'm suggesting is we can have a middle course, a course that allows us for success in Iraq and allows us to return to the larger issue, which is the fight against terrorism all around the world. Let me add also that it helps the Iraqi people feel ownership of this process. It helps the authorities interact, the Iraqis be more credible, because it doesn't look like it's an American dominated operation. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, it helps really take away the ability of these terrorists, al-Zarqawi and others, who say, "Hey, come to Iraq. It's a permanent American occupation." That's how they're recruiting people--and many experts, including military experts, have said that's a good way to get away from that.
MR. GREGORY: Senator, how do you define success in Iraq?
SEN. FEINGOLD: Well, I define success in Iraq as being what is most consistent with the security of the American people, in general, and that means whatever we do there should be consistent with the fight against these terrorists all around the world. In other words, the people that have attacked us in London and Madrid, those who are upsetting the government in places like Mauritania, the problems in Thailand and all around the world--whatever we do in Iraq should be consistent with that.
One of the reasons I was opposed to the Iraq War in the first place is it wasn't even on the list that the president and the State Department put out of 45 countries where al-Qaeda was operating. Now, of course, they're there. What we need to do right now is figure out a way to help the Iraqi government get on its feet and become stable, but also take away the presence of foreign troops as soon as is reasonable, because if we don't do that, they will be able to continue to recruit terrorists, who are then--let me just read what Porter Goss, the present director of the CIA, said in February: "The Iraq conflict, while not a cause of extremism, has become a cause for extremists. Islamic extremists are exploiting the Iraq conflict to recruit new, anti-U.S. jihadists. Those jihadists will survive and will leave Iraq experienced and focused on acts of terrorism. They represent a pool of context to build trans-national terrorist cells, groups and networks all around the world."
So basically, we have to figure out a way to do as much as we can in a reasonable period of time, without doing too much, to allow these terrorists to promote and train people who are going to try to kill Americans.
MR. GREGORY: There's a very important political process under way, the drafting of the constitution; a deadline tomorrow. There is a violent insurgency that continues to rage. There is even the underpinnings of civil war now in Iraq. If by the end of December 31, 2006, the end of next year, these problems are not solved, the mission is not complete, do you still believe U.S. forces should come home?
SEN. FEINGOLD: I think that we have to make a tough assessment at that point, but I believe that the process is more likely to succeed if we have these guidebooks. Look, we're not going to stay there till the very last insurgent is captured or killed. That's impossible. I mean, Don Rumsfeld says that would take 12 years; it might take longer. That's not a job for the American military. That's a job for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people. Our job is to provide security for a reasonable period of time. I think by the end of next year, with flexibility, if a few more things have to be accomplished, we will have done about as much as we should do.
MR. GREGORY: But you say "a tough assessment." But if the mission is not complete, if your goals, if the administration's goals are not achieved, you still believe it's time for U.S. troops to come out?
SEN. FEINGOLD: No, there could be flexibility. There could be--look what we're doing with the constitution right now.
MR. GREGORY: But what...
SEN. FEINGOLD: It wasn't achieved by a particular date, so you add a little more time. Look, let's say they have to train up a few more troops. Let's say that the administration is open and tells us exactly what's going on and says, "Look, we think we need to stay there two more months"; so be it. But without any sort of a time frame in place, we'll never even get to that point.
MR. GREGORY: In making your announcement this week, you indicated that members of the Senate, particularly Democrats, are timid, that they are not stepping up to call for this kind of target date. Not only has the president said that any kind of deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops is a mistake, but so have prominent members of your own party. From Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic leader: "...as far as setting a timeline, as we learned in the Balkans, that's not a wise decision because it only empowers those who don't want us there, and it doesn't work well to do that."
From Senator Joe Biden of the Foreign Relations Committee, of course, this summer: "[Setting]...a deadline for pulling out...I fear will only encourage our enemies to wait us out. ...I think you [will] find [Iraq] degenerate quickly into sectarian violence, every man for himself."
And finally, from Senator Hillary Clinton this February, the headline: "Hillary Rejects Deadline." "I don't think we should be setting a deadline. ...That just gives a green light to the insurgents and the terrorists, that if they just wait us out they can basically have the country. It's not in our interest, given the sacrifices we have made."
Senator, why give the insurgents any kind of road map of our intentions?
SEN. FEINGOLD: Well, of course, I haven't proposed a deadline. But, you know, the Democrats are making the same mistake they made in 2002, to let the administration intimidate them into not opposing this war, when so many of us knew it wasn't a good idea. And same thing with this taboo on talking about a timeline. It doesn't make sense. If the terrorists and the insurgents really thought that, why wouldn't they just stop blowing us up right now? Why wouldn't they just let us leave and then take over?
More importantly, let me tell you the conversation I had in the Green Zone from one of the top generals in Iraq when I was there with Senator Clinton and Senator McCain. I said, "Off the record, your own view, would it help if we had a timeline to let the world know that we're not staying here forever?" And this is what he said, verbatim. He said, "Nothing would take the wind out of the sails of the insurgents more than having a timeline in place." So this is a false argument. It's a phony argument that doesn't really address the reality that we are actually causing more insurgents, more terrorism and more problems from all around the world coming into Iraq because we don't have a vision for success and completion of the mission.
MR. GREGORY: But you yourself said just a couple of minutes ago that if we are not successful by the end of next year, you would agree to extend that deadline.
SEN. FEINGOLD: I said for a limited period. I don't think it's indefinite.
MR. GREGORY: How long would that period be?
SEN. FEINGOLD: It depends on the circumstance.
MR. GREGORY: But it still goes to the bottom line point, which is if the goals are not achieved, if there is still an insurgency, if there is continued sectarian violence, the prospect of civil war, do you then still advocate bringing troops home before their success?
SEN. FEINGOLD: Potentially. There are three different possibilities. One is the success, the very strong success, then we can come home by that date. The second is we get close to success and then we have to have a little more time. A third possibility is that the situation simply has become so inconsistent with our overall goal of fighting terrorists around the world that we may have to say, "Look, we have to come home anyway." But I think we make that assessment in time.
MR. GREGORY: Even if--even if it means effectively...
SEN. FEINGOLD: Potentially.
MR. GREGORY: ...admitting failure?
SEN. FEINGOLD: Yes, because the question here is do we succeed in the fight against al-Qaeda and the extremist elements around the world that are attacking us? That's number one. As important as the Iraqi democracy is and as wonderful as it is that we make progress in that regard, the most important thing is protecting the lives of Americans here and abroad, and if this Iraq operation is inconsistent with that, at some point, we may have to consider leaving. And that's why I'm hoping that we can create a time frame for success and then bringing home our troops.
MR. GREGORY: Given the American sacrifice in Iraq, the loss of life, do we not owe it to those who have lost their lives to see this mission through to its absolute successful conclusion?
SEN. FEINGOLD: What we owe the brave men and women who have fought in Iraq, especially those, I think, from Wisconsin, is a good policy, a policy that is consistent with fighting the terrorists that attacked us on 9/11, 2001. We owe them that. They're doing their job. We're not doing our job. And they have a right to have a sound policy that has a reasonable proposal for an end date so they can come home and we can greet them with open arms for their bravery and their heroism.
MR. GREGORY: Do you believe that the United States is better or worse off with Saddam Hussein out of power?
SEN. FEINGOLD: Well, it's much better to have Saddam Hussein out of power, but we are actually weaker rather than stronger because of the way in which this Iraq operation has been conducted. We have given the terrorists an opportunity--and this is what Porter Goss has said--to train and recruit terrorists who he says are being exported all around the world. In other words, to some extent, we have played into the hands of the very people who attacked us on 9/11. We need to reverse that in Iraq; success for Iraq, but most importantly, safety for the American people.
MR. GREGORY: Senator, will you be a candidate for the presidency in 2008?
SEN. FEINGOLD: You know, I'm really focusing on these issues right now. This war in Iraq and the need to get us back to the fight against terrorism are the things that are really affecting me personally, as well as in my job. The health-care demands of the American people, the fact that we have a terrible health-care system that needs to be fixed; the loss of jobs overseas, the fact that we don't have an energy policy that gives us independence from foreign oil--I'm focusing on that now, and I am also working on the fact that we have one party domination of our country in both houses and the presidency, and I have traveled to red states, as they call them--Alabama and Florida and Tennessee--to try to help Democrats in those states know that we want to work with them and that we want to get a majority in the House or the Senate. And, yes, I'm going to work real hard to try to get a progressive Democrat in 2008. But whether or not I'd be a part of that process, I'm not going to think about it for quite some time.
MR. GREGORY: What you're outlining, though, is a potential platform. Is it something that you're considering?
SEN. FEINGOLD: I'm considering the platform for whoever runs. Whether or not I would run...
MR. GREGORY: Right, but for yourself?
SEN. FEINGOLD: ...whether or not I run or not, I'm going to think about later.
MR. GREGORY: Final question: Can an anti-war Democrat be successful in 2008?
SEN. FEINGOLD: I think a Democrat who cares about national security, who gets this right, a Democrat who says, "Look, this administration has lost its way and gotten away from going after those who attacked us on 9/11" and who is willing to say that the Iraq invasion had some problems and that what's going on now is a problem, I think all of that can be part of a winning candidate. But we do have to be strong on national security. We do have to show the American people that Democrats care deeply about protecting American lives. And without that, no, I don't think we can win.
MR. GREGORY: Senator Feingold, thanks very much...
SEN. FEINGOLD: Thank you.
MR. GREGORY: ...for your views this morning.