Q&A on Iraq war with Cantwell, McGavick
Seattle Times reporter Alex Fryer asked U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell and her Republican challenger, Mike McGavick, a series of questions about the future of U.S. involvement in Iraq. Here are the questions and answers.
Republican Mike McGavick
Question: Do you believe Iraq is now in civil war?
Answer: It's hard to know. Clearly when you have a vacuum of power, it's a period of vulnerability, and those who seek power for themselves are going to use that moment of vulnerability. That seems to me a predictable event. We are dealing with trying to prevent them from succeeding and providing the government enough runway to defend itself. I don't think anybody should be surprised that we have sectarian violence. I don't think it's a surprise at all.
Q: If you take the premise that we're either in or near a civil war, does that change your mind about what U.S. involvement should be?
A: I think we're going to a deeper question, and that is: Are there any boundaries to where the U.S. should be in Iraq? The answer to that is yes. If it were clear that the U.S. presence were incapable of containing civil violence, or if it were clear that the U.S. presence was increasing the prospect for that kind of outcome, then we have to reconsider what we do, so we can give the best chance for this government to succeed, and those things could happen. I don't think we're there yet, and I don't think we will get there, but it's possible and I've had people to say, gee, because you don't call for an immediate pullout, somehow you're for a blank check. Never. No administration will ever get a blank check from me on anything. The issue is, each day is a new day, each day you have to resolve where you are.
Q: You believe there will be a point, some tipping point?
A: There could be in either direction. I remain optimistic. Much of the country is being rebuilt, with our troops' hard efforts. We're down to intense but limited violence and increasingly Iraqis are taking responsibility for their own society, and there is a government that can begin to function. I took great heart that the Iraqi president said he hoped his forces will be in control at the end of the year, and we could begin the withdrawal. It is common in these situations for violence to spike as you come to a change.
Q: I think what's getting Americans down is the violence doesn't seem to spike, it just seems to be getting worse.
A: We'll have to see where we get to. I've never known a war that got more popular over time. If time is an enemy of resolve, you have to see results in order to sustain resolve. You have to have milestones. I think the president and vice president set our expectations as a people very poorly with events like mission accomplished and the rest. That has made us expect that this would be quick and easy. It has not been quick and easy, and as a result people are getting very tired of the commitment. I think it would be the least moral choice to suddenly leave. If we were to suddenly leave today, there's no chance of success, in the military outcome or the Iraqi government.
Q: You hear some people say 2006 has to be the year of transition in Iraq. Do you have a year?
A: I think we're seeing some transition now, and I'd like to continue to see progress. If we suddenly see the Iraqis throwing up their hands at their own government saying "We can't manage this," that would be a bad setback and we would have to question whether we are in the right position.
Q: You sent out a statement that said you were "hopeful the situation in Iraq will continue to improve." A day later the generals came up on Capitol Hill and there was a notion that sectarian violence is getting worse. You do have U.S. troops moving to Baghdad, which from a military situation is not a good sign.
A: But that is the concentrated problem. If you look at most of Iraq, so much of it is functioning. You're down to hotspots, and you should continue to do what you can to contain those places. Iraq is a big place.
Q: But when you're shoring up the capital city, I would not say that is a hopeful sign.
A: The battle for Baghdad is critical, you are correct. It depends on where everybody is. If this is where the sectarian violence has become concentrated, it's not inappropriate to focus your energy there.
Q: The Democrats say 2006 is critical. Do you have a timeline?
A: I'm still hopeful that we'll see progress by the end of the year. I want to see full, concrete progress by the end of the year.
Q: Or what?
A: Then we're going to have a real, full discussion about exactly how it is we're going to measure progress and how we're going to have our troops committed relative to that progress. I think you'd wind up with a lot less congressional support for just continuing as is if you don't see real progress, and I think that will be meaningful and I think that will cause the president to have a different kind of conversation with the Congress. And I would advocate for that kind of different conversation if we're not seeing progress by end of this year.
Democrat Maria Cantwell
Question: What do you say if the situation in Iraq is a status quo in 2007? (Cantwell has said 2006 needs to be "a year of transition" in Iraq.)
Answer: I sent a letter last week saying Gen. Abizaid's (commander of U.S. military operations in the Middle East) comments before the Senate Armed Services Committee about the fact that we could be slipping (into civil war) ... that we need to redouble our efforts on those priorities of getting the Iraqis trained, getting more international support... and resolving the political issues that are left unresolved there so we can get our troops home. To me that's a big priority. Both (Iraqi President Jalal) Talabani and (Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri) al-Maliki said, "Yeah, we can get 18 provinces (under Iraqi control) by end of year," al-Maliki said, "We can take over and have armed troops and security." To me, let's not take our eye off that ball. If we can get that accomplished by the end of this year, then it could warm the pressure and responsibility on the Iraqis to solve those problems in their country.
Q: What if you can't? What if there continues to be violence and bloodshed?
A: You have to put Iraqis out front. It's their country. The United States is not in there to be a buffer between sectarian groups. We said we would get their troops trained, we said we would help the fledgling new government. I'm willing to help them more, help them by saying, "Let's send a U.S. envoy, let's send former President Bill Clinton and former President George Bush to go collect the $13 billion that's owed, let's go get every government in the region to pledge their support, let's hold a Dayton Accord meeting to resolve the outstanding political issues, so that the surrounding neighborhoods would join in support and end the sectarian violence, let's resolve whatever issues about oil and amnesty there are to resolve." Let's get those things done, but say we're not going to have permanent bases, we're not going to stay there forever, we are going to empower that new government to stand up on their own two feet.
Q: And what if by 2007 you feel the government is not on its own two feet, would you at that point say the U.S. will start withdrawing troops?
A: We'll have to look at exactly the information and the details that are there. But I've taken two votes that have said this year has to be the year when we turn that security over, and to me the thing is to get a plan and stick to the goals of that plan. It seems like a very important goal to have security of their nation taken over by the new government.
Q: The goal is something people agree on. But what if the goal is not met? What's the plan B?
A: And why isn't the goal met, is the question. If it's we failed to train enough people to take over, we should have been focusing on that. If it's we failed to resolve the remaining political issues and get the neighborhoods to support the new government, then we've taken our eye off the ball. If we failed to support them getting the infrastructure, and the stabilization of oil and electricity, so that it can be a stable government, then we've taken our eye off the ball. Now if we get into 2007, and something says sectarian violence has increased to a degree, then you might have a different question and a different equation. But if you actually have a stable security and military force that could quell that violence, then you're in a better situation. So to me, that's why keeping your eye on that ball is so critically important to strengthen that new government so it can take over its own security.
Q: When I talk to people about Iraq, that's what they feel nervous about, they don't see corners being turned and wonder if we're teetering on the brink of civil war. What do we do? Should we increase the number of troops?
A: The United States has to unite the world community behind that new government in resolving the rest of the political issues. The level of violence is happening today because the Sunnis feel the Shiites are leaving them out as it relates to the new government when it comes to oil and other unresolved issues. If it takes the United States playing a role of getting the rest of the neighboring communities to support the new government and resolve these political issues as we did in Bosnia with the Dayton Accord ... that's what we need to do. But we have to make it clear that we can't be there forever to resolve this situation. There is a new government there and we're going to push that new government out front to take its responsibility.
Q: But it is August. It's not early 2006. People might say, "What do you got for 2007?"
A: And yeah, we keep getting these reports. You hear (Iraqi President Jalal) Talabani say, "We are going to have the security of all 18 provinces by Dec. 31," and then you have (Lt. Gen.) John Abizaid say, "I don't know, it seems pretty precarious, it might turn into civil war." So you got to keep, in my mind, focusing the attention on those objectives Congress set out in 2005, and again in 2006, to meet these goals and make sure there is a security force there that can deal with that violence on the ground and can be the lead in that security.
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