PRESS CONFERENCE WITH REP. KENDRICK MEEK (D-FL); REP. JASON ALTMIRE (D-PA); AND REP. MICHAEL ARCURI (D-NY) SUBJECT: TRIP TO IRAQ AND KUWAIT
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REP. ALTMIRE: We spent, including the travel from the Kuwait air base into Baghdad, approximately 22 hours of a day dealing with the Iraq situation and looking at every possible angle. We talked with an Iraqi police chief in Fallujah who's responsible for what he said was keeping the peace in his precinct in Fallujah, the precinct that we walked. We talked with General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. We talked with the brave men and women who are serving our country in Afghanistan and Iraq.
And on that point, you cannot come away from the experience that we had with anything but the highest regard for the brave men and women who are serving this country. They really are the best and brightest this country has to offer. They're making every sacrifice possible for this country. And we, as a group, were inspired, as all Americans should be inspired, by their bravery, by their courage and by their patriotism. Nobody can question that they have done everything that has been asked of them.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the Iraqi government. We visited with the Iraqi deputy prime minister. We heard reports from Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus about the lack of progress. And unfortunately, by almost every measurable measure of progress, they have not only failed to progress; they have, in many cases, gone backwards. And that, to me, is the most troubling part of the experience that we had, because we can see, on the military side, our men and women are doing what has been asked of them. But the Iraqi government has made no accommodation for what happens after we leave, for what happens when they have to step up and manage their own affairs. And they've failed to understand that at some point, they have to take the reins of their own government.
And as Congressman Arcuri said, the deputy prime minister indicated nothing but posturing was going on right now. And when we asked him directly what would happen if we were to leave Iraq in management of their own affairs, he failed to answer the question. He has no planning going on for that, because he doesn't see that that's going to happen any time soon. And to me, that's the most troubling part. Our military cannot win the political situation in Iraq, because that's an Iraqi government decision -- how they're going to run their government, when they're going to step up and manage their own affairs.
We can do the military side. We can walk through Fallujah, a place that has, as we saw, secured itself in a way that I think anyone would see previously was not possible, but unfortunately, the Iraqi government has not done the same.
So I joined with my colleagues in the trip hoping to see some progress on the political side. Unfortunately, I did not see that, and for that reason, I join Congressman Arcuri and others in calling for a timeline to redeploy our troops out of Iraq. Because until the Iraqi government understands that our commitment there is not open- ended and the American military is not going to continue to hold the hand of the Iraqi politicians while they dither and posture, they're not going to make the tough decisions, they're not going to step up to the plate, and they're not going to begin to run their own government.
So I think our strategy for success is to show them in no uncertain terms that we have done what we can do on the military side in Iraq and it's their time to step forward, take control of their own government and create their own destiny.
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Q Congressman Altmire and all of you, actually, now you were in Iraq for one day, and you alluded to General Petraeus. I think you said that progress was going backwards. Are you all willing to say that the surge is not working?
And the second part of that, the -- it was recorded yesterday that the White House is going to ask for 50 billion (dollars) more to fund the war next month. How does that all shake out in your mind, and would you be willing to -- I mean, what's your -- how do you feel about all of that?
REP. MEEK: Well, the reason why we went was to make sure that as we started to review this troop escalation that the White House said that would be helpful in taking control of Iraq back -- well, the question of control is a broad one. We have a number of reports that are going to be given to the Congress. As you know, the GAO report was on the front page of The Washington Post this morning. But we look forward to the House Armed Services Committee and also the Foreign Affairs Committee of receiving a report from them on September the 5th, and then having a joint meeting on September the 6th.
And then you have the Jones commission report that will be released, and as you know, that report will be given to the House Armed Services Committee.
As we look at these reports and as we look at our experience on the ground, I think it's going to help not only this congressional codel that visited not only with General Petraeus, but had an opportunity to go all the way down to a leader of Marines on the ground in Fallujah -- one would also say, well, this was a Department of Defense codel; I mean, they will only have you interface with people that would give favorable responses to your questions. Well, I can tell you the deputy prime minister of Iraq I'm pretty sure was not on the list of individuals that were proponents of the, quote, unquote, "surge."
Militarily, as you see -- as Mr. Altmire pointed out, there's been a lot of work that has been done, but over all in Iraq, I still feel personally -- and I'm just speaking for myself -- I feel that the level of violence is not down to the level where it should be. We've lost more U.S. military personnel this month than we did last August, and I think it's important to be able to note that.
I think reports of -- as we put more reconstruction on the ground, some of the attacks of insurgents are imposing on drivers bringing supplies in are U.S. tax dollars, and everything is in cash in Iraq because the currency is -- there are no banks. There are no real electronic transfers. So we're still dealing with cash, and so that means that when that cash is intercepted, that it can fall in the hands of those that are fighting against us.
I am a hundred and 10 percent in favor of our troops withdrawing on a timeline, and I think those that are proponents of troops staying there for the next two, three, four years -- they're going to Iraq. And those of us that feel that our troops should come home more sooner than later and have policies that will speak to that have to also visit the region, and that's the reason why I led the codel.
The second thing I want -- the second point I would like to make on the $50 billion request. I have a, I think, a chart here.
Can you pass me that chart? I just want to just point out here and thank you, sir.
I mean, this is what we're spending right now, and this is done by Congressional Research Service. That's CRS. And when you look at 120 billion per year, a hundred and -- I mean, 10 billion a month, 2.3 billion a week, 33 million a day and on and on and on, all the way down to the second, almost $4,000 a second, at what cost is the Bush administration willing to carry on this war at the levels that we're carrying and the 160,000 troops that are there, Army individuals being deployed for 15 months at a time, 18 days back at home, the chief service officer of the Army, which is head of the Army, saying that they're falling at the seams as it relates to readiness?
When do we give this to the Iraqi government? When do we give Fallujah to the Iraqi government? When do we continue to give provinces to the Iraqi government and saying, okay, that's it; good, bad or ugly, if things get tough, you have to have your security forces?
Q (Off mike) -- would you be willing to vote against more money -- (off mike)?
REP. MEEK: I would be -- I'd be willing to do this personally and then I'm going to pass it on to my colleagues.
I would be willing to hear the Jones Commission report. I would be willing to hear the GAO report, which I have not seen. I would be willing to hear from General Petraeus and others so that we can make sure that our troops are able to come home in a way that will be safe for those troops. $50 billion is something that I'm not necessarily embracing right now, because the president says that's what it should be. I'm looking at our country owing foreign countries more than we've ever owned -- I mean, owed foreign countries in the history of the republic.
So when I hear $50 billion, I think of my cities back in my district. I think of my state that's right now in a financial situation. And if my state and U.S. mayors were given the kind of second and third and fourth and fifth chances that the Iraqi government is being given, my community would be a lot better off, educationally, health-care-wise and others.
So as it relates to additional funding for the war, I'm looking forward to seeing that with a timeline of our troops coming home and funding that process. But if it's to continue to surge, to continue an effort in Iraq, to say that eventually we're going to turn it over to Iraqi security forces, I don't believe that I'll be voting for the 50 billion.
Q So you're saying you only support more funding if it's attached to a withdrawal.
REP. MEEK: A timeline of our combat troops moving out into the peripheral, one that is reasonable and not far, not out, you know, years -- I'm talking months, in my opinion. And many of those timelines have already passed the House of Representatives. And there's only so many times that I believe that Republicans can go down to the White House and stand with the president and say, we will stand with the president in holding off a -- overriding his veto. Because there was a bipartisan bill that passed. Unfortunately Republicans stood with the president on it and didn't allow us to override his veto.
And so the other members --
Q (Off mike) -- could you address -- could you both address --
REP. ARCURI: Sure. First of all, with respect to the $50 billion, I agree with Congressman Meek. I would add this, though -- I will look at balancing the safety of our troops -- because that is obviously imperative -- with doing it in such a way that we begin to bring the troops home. So I want to make sure that any funding that I vote for ensures two things: One, that we are guaranteeing the safety of the troops, and second, that we are guaranteeing that there is a timeline, that there is a light at the end of the tunnel to bring them home.
Secondly, with respect to your question earlier -- I want to try to answer that question; I don't want to do what the deputy prime minister did to us and not answer our question -- with respect to the surge, I think it's very difficult to say, you know, whether or not a surge is working. I mean, depending on who you ask and what you use to evaluate it, you could come up with I think a number of different answers.
What I will say is this, that clearly the purpose of the surge was to give the government time -- breathing room -- give them time to energize, to interact and to come together; that has not happened. They have squandered the time that we gave them. They've squandered the time that our troops have fought for to give them some additional breathing room, so to speak, to come together, and that troubles me a great deal, because while they negotiate, while they talk, while they walk out of session and refuse to negotiate, our troops continue to die. So in that regard, I think that it has not been a success, a political success because the government has not done -- has not even come close to doing what they said they would do, and as Congressman Altmire said, actually has gone backwards and stopped negotiating rather than continuing to negotiate.
REP. ALTMIRE: On the question of funding, we all have our own points of view on this; these are difficult decisions we have to make. My opinion is that there's two things going on here. We have the political argument of what the future should look like in Iraq, what the continuing America presence should be in Iraq, and what is of best interest to the American people and especially to the brave men and women who are now serving in Iraq.
My opinion is that the other side of that coin is, what happens now? They are on the ground. The president has made the decision to continue the mission at its current level, and I am never going to vote to withhold funding to our brave men and women when they are out in the field of battle serving in harm's way.
We are going to continue the political dispute about what the future should look like in Iraq, but there's no group that should stand ahead of our nation's veterans when it comes time to making federal funding decisions, and I am always going to support the decisions that go towards helping them in a safe and secure environment, do the mission that they are carrying out for us. And as I said earlier, they have done everything that has been asked of them.
So we do, I think, have maybe a difference of opinion among the three of us on that. I'm going to continue to try to push for a timeline, to pressure the Iraqi government to step up to the plate.
And in answering your question from earlier, you are going to hear stories of valor, and you're going to hear stories of military success when General Petraeus comes before Congress. You're going to hear stories of enormous bravery and courage. And we all support what has happened.
And what has led to -- as you remember, the benchmarks -- that included -- the 18 benchmarks included some military but also some political benchmarks. And the breathing room is there. The government now has the breathing room that's necessary to make the tough decisions, to come together. And as you've heard all of us say, not only have they failed to make those decisions and come together; they're moving backwards. They're further apart now than they probably ever have been as a government in Iraq.
So has the surge worked? That's your question. The surge was supposed to achieve these benchmarks. The benchmarks that involved the political reconciliation in Iraq have not worked. Not only have they not worked, we've regressed. That would be my answer to that question.
Q You know, some proponents of the surge say they didn't really -- the troops didn't really reach full capacity until June. So do you think two months, two and a half months, is enough time for that political progress to be made in -- or do you think that they would need more time? Is that sufficient to meet these political benchmarks?
REP. ALTMIRE: I don't think anybody thought that on August 30th, 2007, the Iraqi government would be up and running, everything would be fine, and they would be a hundred percent managing their own affairs. But we did expect to see some progress. We didn't expect to see a boycott of the parliament. We didn't expect to see people leaving and refusing to even engage in talks with each other. I think we expected to see some progress on the constitution side, the de- Ba'athification. These are the benchmarks that we talked about. And we have not only, as I said, made no progress; we've gone backwards in a lot of indicators.
So -- and I do want to say one thing about General Petraeus and the meeting that we had with him. I have the utmost confidence, after speaking with him and seeing his commitment to this report, that what you hear in his testimony and what he says is going to be from his heart. I don't think there's going to be any fingerprints from the White House Political Office on General Petraeus's comments. I hope that the White House political machine will let those comments speak for themselves.
The concern that I have always had is that General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker will come before Congress and then the spin machine will kick into gear and the White House will put their own spin on it.
I'm confident that if we hear from General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, that those comments can speak for themselves, and then we can all make an intelligent and informed decision on what the future is going to be in Iraq.
Q Could you tell us the name of the Iraqi deputy prime minister you met? And what was it that he said that made you think that political -- was it something he actually said that make you think there was no progress on political reconciliation, or was this something you already concluded before you went over there?
REP. ALTMIRE: We have his name in the material that we gave you. It's very difficult to pronounce.
REP. : Salam al-Zubai.
REP. ALTMIRE: There you go.
REP. : Dr. Salam al-Zubai.
REP. ALTMIRE: And we didn't have any preconceived notion of the way that meeting was going to go. From my perspective, it was a combination of what he said and how he said it. His demeanor and his tone was all about posturing and all about -- you know, I can do this as long as I want. You guys are going to be here as long as I need you to be, and I have no reason to move forward and work with the other side. And I'm going to tell you all the reasons why they're bad and why my side is right, and we don't have to work together.
And so for me, what he said was part of it, but how he said it was an even bigger part.
Q This codels are really snapshots, and you're very limited in your time. You said you got to spend about 22 hours on the ground in Iraq. What if you had spent a different 22 hours and met with some of the others and Mr. al-Zubai? You could come back here with a completely different impression.
REP. MEEK: You know, I look at it this way -- and before I answer that question, I just want to make sure on the funding question that was asked that we're abundantly clear. Five years of being in Congress always voted for making sure the troops have what they needed to have in the theater of war. After all of those times that I voted, even the last one in this Congress when I voted for the three-month funding of the war, it was really one of the kind of last straws question -- last straw question. It wasn't anything to where one may think that, well, you know, we're voting for it just vote for it. We voted for the three months so we can get to this point.
These benchmarks and this kind of pressure on the Bush administration never would have happened if it wasn't for the push here that the American people put forth, one, by changing control of Congress; two, by having Republicans understand that it's going to take a bipartisan approach of making sure that we bring our troops home safely. The goal should be to bring our troops home safely, not do how long can we keep or try to secure Iraq. That should be the number one goal. I think that's what the American people are asking for.
Two, I think it's important to make sure that the troops have what they need to be able to get home if that's the goal. The goal should not be to continue -- this is my opinion -- to continue the war in Iraq as long as someone from the administration say that we need to be there.
Let me go back to what you were saying as it relates to the meetings. I can say on behalf of all members of the CODEL -- and this was my first congressional CODEL as a member of Congress in the majority leading into a theater of war, and I think it's very, very important from the beginning that everyone know that we asked not to be on military bases, receiving PowerPoint presentations that we could have gotten here in the Capitol. I think it's important to also know that it's almost like when you go to look at a house. A realtor may say, well, these are all of the great things about the house; well, you have to do some research. And I believe that the members of our CODEL did the research beyond what they were telling us of the assessment of the Iraqi government and also of our military.
We learned some things that our military has done. We've learned some things that the Iraqi government, especially on the local government level, some of the things that they have -- some of the achievements they've made and some of the failures that they've encountered. But I do feel that it's going to be a very, very long time before we see the political progress that we need and little to none as it relates to international involvement in Iraq. That's why I think Kuwait is so very, very important. I think the only way we get the international community there is unless we send them a clear message that we are going to see our troops handing over areas to the Iraqi government.
You're right, you can't -- 22 hours -- this is a theater of war; it's not like you can stay there four or five days, because it'll take too many -- the resources away from the mission diplomatically and also troop-wise, but it was better than being here in Washington. I'm -- this was my third visit to the region. I've been there for two and a half days in the past. This one-day visit -- the 22 hours we spent there on the ground was far greater information that I received this time than in the previous two missions combined. We were able to leave the base, go into Fallujah, meet with Marines that are there stationed in that area, patrolling that area. There are a lot of resources that are on the ground.
The question is, at what cost? Can we continue to click off $50 billion every three months? And on top of emergency supplementals that have already passed the Congress, can we continue to see the U.S. loss of life at the level that we're seeing it now that is on the uptick? You have General Petraeus that will give you numbers and incidents that will be on the decline. He showed us some statistics on that. But we have the GAO report that's coming out. We have the Jones Commission Report that's coming out that I must add that's been contracted by the Defense Department, and the general will be giving his report. And we have other reports that'll be coming out. So I look forward to that. I look forward to assessing all of that information. And I hope that that answered your question. I don't know if any other members want to address it.
REP. ARCURI: Just to get back to the deputy prime minister, I think your question was right on with respect to the fact -- how do we know that if we spoke to someone else, perhaps their assessment of the political problem might be different?
But my thought is this on it, is for there to be a solution, all of the parties have to come together. And the deputy prime minister represents a large faction, although not the majority; he represents the Sunnis. And, you know, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and if one part of that chain is not going to cooperate, is not going to come together, we are not going to have success. So I think regardless of what, you know, some of the other factions said, it was clear that his faction was not ready to cooperate yet, and that was what was very troubling to me.
Q Your Republican colleagues will say -- use the "cut and run" argument. And if the U.S. does withdraw, are you concerned that a country like Syria will move in? Where does your responsibility -- where does the U.S. responsibility end?
REP. ARCURI: Well -- and I'm speaking only for myself now -- I don't think that anyone talks about there being a full and precipitous 100 percent withdrawal. I think, you know, a reasonable withdrawal would be something that I would support. And I think, you know, the Iraqis are beginning to be in a position where they can stand up for themselves. But I think the fact of the matter is, they are not going to stand up and do what they need to do until they don't have a crutch in us to lean upon. So I think for -- they will be able to do it, but they're not going to be able to do it until we step out.
So the -- you know, they've been using that "cut and run" for too many years now, and it just doesn't cut it, as far I'm concerned. I think what's important is that they will stand up when we began to stand down.
Q And Syria moving in? (Off mike.)
REP. ARCURI: You know, they are -- you know, they don't want -- Iraq doesn't want Syria. They don't want Iran. They don't want anyone else. They don't want al Qaeda. They don't want anyone running their country. They want to run their country themselves. I mean, their fight is within the -- their fight is within their own factions as to who will run it. But they -- one thing they do agree on, and that is that they don't want other countries running their own -- running Iraq. So I think that the likelihood of that happening is very, very small. I think that they will stand up and that they will not allow any other countries to come in and run their country for them.
STAFF: Last question.
REP. MEEK: Can I -- I just want to just quickly -- and then we'll just do the last question, very quickly.
You know, as long as the U.S. is taking care of Iraq at the level that we're taking care of them, financially and casualty-wise, then the rest of the world would say, "Well, that's their problem," with the exception of maybe the Great Brits and others that are still there but also withdrawing and redeploying their troops at this time.
There has to be a time that we have to claim victory and hand things over to the Iraqi government. That has happened in some areas, but it -- more of that needs to happen.
The goal should be bringing our troops home. Even though financially we support the safety of our troops and giving them what they need, MRAP vehicles, all of those things that we need, at the same time, our goal should be continuing to put the pressure on Iraqi government, continuing to put the pressure on military personnel, where now, I mean, there are fewer ready military units that are ready to take over than it was in previous months. These are things that we have to continue to work on, and we've got to keep the pressure on.
I think it's also important, when we look at Iran and Syria, I mean, this is some -- this is a great concern of neighbors, neighboring countries. Kuwaitis had some issues in the briefing that we got in Kuwait about, what's going to happen when you start a redeployment of troops; how will Kuwait fare in that whole effort? Hopefully that will trigger the international community.
I was glad to see that NATO was actually coming in to do some training. That's important but maybe that will trigger. But as long as we're sitting here saying, oh, well, we'll continue to send money; the president asked for $50 billion more; we have some debate; he gets the $50 million without any strings attached or more reports or goals that were set, because we didn't necessarily have the votes to shut the war down.
I will tell you this, that it's very, very important and clear. We are achieving, as it relates to putting the pressure, not only on the Iraqi government but also on the Bush administration, to follow through, and embracing the principle that American people have of saying that you've got to know when to say when. And hopefully the administration will grab onto that notion and start to bring our troops home.
Now you have Republican senators on the other side of the rotunda that are saying, well, you know, we want to bring troops home by December. We've been saying that all along. When I say we -- majority of Democrats and Democratic caucus. That should be the goal, not as long as we can hold the line in Iraq at what we're seeing, the cost of U.S. casualties and the cost to the U.S. taxpayer.
I know that we have a last question. And maybe that was, but I don't know.
Q If you don't have one --
REP. MEEK: Yes, if we can get one from someone who hasn't asked one. I'm sorry.
Q Congressman Arcuri was talking about supporting a reasonable timeline for withdrawal. Do you still support the Democratic plan that was passed earlier to get out by the end of next summer? Or what's your reasonable timetable?
REP. ARCURI: You know, I think that it's -- again a lot will depend on what General Petraeus says, in my mind. But I think what's important and what I will support, and I try to stay fluid on it. I mean, there are obviously -- you know, the different goals change, but I agree with Congressman Meek. The goal has to be bringing the troops home, not in two years, not in some vague one year, but soon. We need to begin to bring them home immediately with a real and definite goal passed to achieve. So I'm not going to lock myself into a particular time period but I do feel very strongly that we need to begin it and we need to have it achieved in a very short time.
Q Do you think Petraeus will recommend bringing the troops home immediately?
REP. ARCURI: I don't know what General Petraeus will recommend.