CNN Anderson Cooper 360-Transcript
COOPER: Bill, we will talk to you and everyone else, our panel, throughout these next two hours.
With us now is Senator Barack Obama, Democratic senator from Illinois, who recently set up a presidential exploratory committee.
Senator, thanks for being with us.
What did you actually like in the president's speech tonight? Did you hear anything that you would be eager to support?
SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), ILLINOIS: Well, a couple of things.
Look, the -- the president recognized that health care and energy are two critical issues facing the country. And I think he put forward some serious proposals, not necessarily ones that I would have put forward. But they're serious ways to engage the problem.
And I think the Democrats should be constructive. We should sit down with the president, and say that we are ready and willing to sit down and see if we can make progress on those two critical issues. So, I think that was -- that was an area where we could get some work going.
I think, as was stated earlier, the pall over the room was Iraq. And I would agree with some of your commentators earlier that, from my perspective, at least, I did not see the president charting out a new course that would persuade either myself or the American people that -- that we're going about this thing in the right way.
COOPER: We heard an argument from this president tonight that we have heard often in the past.
Do you believe the president's argument that fighting terrorists in Iraq will keep us from fighting them here at home?
I think the -- the president's logic is flawed. And I think that this enterprise has been flawed. The question now is, moving forward, how can we make sure that our troops have a mission that helps to stabilize Iraq, but start bringing them home?
And it's interesting. Over the last two weeks, we have had countless hearings in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee across the political spectrum. And what's striking is almost total unanimity on the belief that this strategy that the president is pursuing, in escalating troop levels, is not going to work, and that, in fact, we should be doing the reverse.
We should start drawing down our troops, redeploying them to fight in Afghanistan and other places, and to put pressure on not only the Iraqi government, but on other regional powers, to come with a political solution.
COOPER: You favor, as you just said, this phased redeployment, along with regional diplomacy, and a cap on the number of U.S. troops.
We just saw one of the bloodiest weekends for both U.S. forces and Iraqi civilians. How can limiting U.S. troops or -- or pulling them out, redeploying them, actually reduce violence or prevent a civil war from breaking out?
OBAMA: Well, look, I don't think we're going to stem all the violence anytime soon. But the key to dealing with the violence is making sure that Sunni and Shia and Kurd sit down and recognize that they all have a stake in preventing total meltdown.
What's preventing some of that conversation from taking place is the belief that we are going to be able to hold this thing together. And, as a consequence, there are a number of parties that are acting irresponsibly. We have to be sending a signal that the dynamic needs to change; we are not going to be there in perpetuity.
And that doesn't mean there aren't some serious, significant risks involved. It just means that it's probably the best of the bad options that we have available to us at this point.
Obviously, in 2002, in the run-up to this war, I feared that this would be an open-ended commitment. I, as a consequence, was strongly opposed to the war.
The president is correct that we are now in it. Where he's not correct is, is that we should somehow compound the mistake that he made when we went in there in the first place.
COOPER: You know, the White House argues, look, they have a new strategy. They have a new commander, a man they want to be the commander, General Petraeus. If this is the -- really the final chance, as Republicans and Democrats seem to agree on, why not give them time to see if it works?
OBAMA: Well, look, Anderson, the problem is, is that six months ago I sat in a Senate foreign relations hearing, listening to Ambassador Khalilzad, the ambassador for the United States to Iraq, tell us that we needed about six more months.
Each six-month period seems to bring a new plan and a new approach. At some point we've got to make a decision that the responsibility is on the Iraqi government to make sure that they're coming up with some sort of political solution to this problem, and so far at least we have not been willing to hold them accountable. It's time for us to change that strategy.
COOPER: Your critics will say that a phased withdrawal or a cap on the level of troops is sort of arbitrary and that it's not a strategy for winning. Do you see it as a strategy for winning or is it a strategy for domestic politics here at home?
OBAMA: No, I think what's critical is for us to change the strategy in Iraq, because the president's right, we have important national security objectives that have to be met in the Middle East. That's part of the reason that, despite being opposed to the war, I nevertheless have resisted any kind of precipitous withdrawal.
And I think that one of the things that's important in this conversation is to make sure that those who support the escalation of troop levels aren't allowed to suggest that somehow the alternative is either an escalation or an immediate and complete withdrawal.
What we are saying is we can provide logistics, we can provide training, we can provide counter-insurgency support. We want to keep our forces in the region. What we can't do is continue the approach that does not ensure the sort of political solutions that are needed in Iraq.
COOPER: The president, talking about a lot of other issues. The president he talked about a number of other issues, gasoline, trying to reduce America's dependence on foreign oil, energy, immigration.
Do you believe that he -- there was a lot of talk about reaching out across the aisle. A, do you really believe that talk? Or is that the kind of talk we always hear from politicians? And is there really anything the president can get done from the things he talked about tonight?
OBAMA: Well, as I said, I think his proposals on health care and energy are legitimate approaches from his perspective to deal with these issues. They're not approaches that I would take, but I think it's important for us to have these conversations with him and see if we can work together.
I would hope that he is serious about it. I would argue that in the last State of the Union, he said that we had to overcome our addiction to foreign oil and, unfortunately, we didn't see any significant follow-through from there.
So this time may be different. He's going to have some difficulties moving things forward, obviously in a Democratically controlled Congress, but I don't think that we should obstruct conversations to see if we can find some common ground.
COOPER: In recent days, a conservative magazine published rumors that were picked up by another cable news channel, that you attended a madrasah as a child in Indonesia. CNN did its own investigation. We sent a reporter to the school, found out it's a public school; it's not a madrasah.
Do you think this is a sign of things to come? How much, I guess, did your middle name, your father's religious background, how much do you think that's going to be used against you by your opponents?
OBAMA: You know, when I ran for the United States Senate, right after the -- I won the primary, there were some political operatives that put up a web site that superimposed my face over bin Laden. And you know, full with the beard and the turban. We ended up winning that race 70 percent to 30 percent.
The American people are smarter than that. They understand that this kind of cheap politics that engages in -- in misinformation are not going to solve the problems of healthcare, education, you know, people's concern about pensions, the basic stuff that people are grappling with right now.
And so if I go ahead with the presidential race, what they're going to be listening for is a message of change, a message of leadership. If they think I've got a vision for the country that can help them secure a future for themselves and their children, then I think I'll do fine.
COOPER: Were you surprised the president didn't mention New Orleans, didn't mention the Gulf Coast?
OBAMA: I was surprised and disappointed. We're going to be having a hearing with the homeland security committee on Monday in New Orleans. It seems to have been lost in some of the debates here in Washington.
But when you listen to the folks in New Orleans and what they're still going through, I think it's important for the president to continue to show some leadership. It's been absent over the last several months.
COOPER: Senator Barack Obama, I appreciate your time. Thank you, sir.
OBAMA: Thank you, Anderson. I appreciate it.