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Press Conference with Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE); Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE); Senator Carl Levin (D-MI): "Non-Binding Resolution on Iraq"

Interview

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Date:
Location: Washington, DC

SEN. BIDEN: Good afternoon, folks.

Today Senator Hagel and Senator Lugar and I --

SEN. LEVIN: Levin.

SEN. HAGEL: Levin.

SEN. BIDEN: Levin. Jiminy Christmas. I just left Lugar. He went down to the White House rather than come up here. (Chuckles.)

Senator Levin and I -- (laughs) -- are introducing a bipartisan resolution that opposes the president's plan to escalate the war in Iraq. The resolution says that we and many of our colleagues -- Democrats and Republicans alike -- are in agreement on that deepening America's military involvement in Iraq by escalating our troop presence is a mistake.

Just as important, it says that we and many of our colleagues -- what we're for: a strategy that can produce a political settlement in Iraq. That's the only way to stop the Shi'ites and the Sunnis from continuing to kill one another and allow our troops to leave Iraq without leaving chaos behind.

Last week, the secretary of State presented the president's plan to escalate our troop presence in Iraq to the Foreign Relations Committee. As many of you who were there saw, the reaction from Democrats and Republicans alike ranged from profound skepticism to outright opposition. This resolution will give every senator a chance to say where he or she stands on the president's plan. And I believe that when the president goes way off course, as he is in this case, on something as important as Iraq, the single and most effective way to get him to change course is to demonstrate that his policy has waning or no support from both parties.

The more we make Iraq a partisan issue, the more likely the president is to dig in, in my view. The more we -- we in a bipartisan way show the American people across the board that we don't want to go down this path of escalation, the better our chances to get him to reconsider his approach. Iraq is not a partisan issue. It's a challenge that we must meet as Americans, and we must do it here in the Senate in a bipartisan way.

The very first sentence of our resolution says something that the three of us believe profoundly, and I will quote from it. "U.S. strategy and presence on the ground in Iraq can only be sustained with the support of the American people and the bipartisan support of the United States Congress." Ladies and gentlemen, this resolution will demonstrate that, and it will demonstrate it right away, that support is not there for the president's policy in Iraq. The sooner he recognizes that reality and acts on it, the better off all of us will be.

I now yield to my colleague, Senator Hagel.

SEN. HAGEL: Thank you, Senator Biden.

If you do not yet have a copy of the resolution, we can provide you one.

In addition to what Senator Biden has just said, I would add we have before us -- we, as citizens in this country -- one of the most challenging issues that has ever faced our country, certainly in modern times. There is no one here in the Congress, no one that I'm aware of in this country, that wants to see this country humiliated, defeated, or in any way lose its purpose. And I think that feeling is shared as well when it comes to the future of Iraq, the future of the Middle East.

This is a big issue. It involves all of us. The Congress of the United States has a role to play. I don't believe we have played that role very effectively the last four years. But the Congress of the United States, as Article I of the Constitution, we are a coequal branch of government. Separation of powers, of course, but the system works best when we join together in a bipartisan effort to try to frame a bipartisan consensus to deal with the great challenges of our time.

I know of no challenge that is greater today before this country than Iraq. When a nation commits its men and women to war, that is the greatest challenge that any of us will ever deal with in our time in the Congress, certainly in any high office. We owe it to the American people to help find a consensus of purpose that must be bipartisan. As Senator Biden noted, the American people not only deserve, but they expect that bipartisan consensus.

This resolution is not about trying to assign blame on the administration. It's not about replaying past mistakes. There are facts at the front end, but most importantly this resolution is about how do we go forward. Can we find some consensus, some bipartisan consensus, a role that the Congress can play to help this country find some high ground with a policy that will take us forward in Iraq and the Middle East? It is difficult.

Some of us feel that the course that the president announced Wednesday was not the appropriate course. We spent a good deal of time, the three senators, personally in writing this resolution because we felt it must reflect a responsible approach. The words must be responsible. America looks to its government for a responsible policy.

And that policy can only be sustained if it's bipartisan and there's a consensus of purpose as to what it is we want to accomplish with our foreign policy.

For that, I think what we have done here is a good reflection, generally, on behalf of not all, but many people in this country, reflected by how many members of Congress feel, both Republicans and Democrats. I would leave it to Chairman Biden and Chairman Levin to talk about the procedure and the process that we will use to go forward. But we must have a national debate on this issue because it affects this country -- will affect this country, the actions we continue to take, for many years to come.

Thank you.

SEN. LEVIN: Our goal is to produce a bipartisan majority -- a majority of Senators who oppose deeper military involvement in Iraq, who oppose additional troops going to Iraq. We believe that the only way to end the violence in Iraq is for the Iraqi political leaders to step up and resolve their political differences; to recognize that the responsibility to save their country is theirs; and that a message that is -- would be sent by additional American troops going there is the wrong message for the leaders of Iraq to hear.

The message that more troops would send, the message that deeper military involvement would send is that, somehow or other, it is in our hands what their fate in Iraq is, where the message needs to be now, after all these years, that the only way the violence will end in Iraq is if the political leaders in Iraq step up and reach the political compromises that are so essential if Iraq is going to end the spiral of violence that it is now in.

Iraq's own prime minister, Maliki, said this just a few weeks ago: that the crisis is political, and the ones who can stop the cycle of aggravation and bloodletting of innocents are the Iraqi politicians. This resolution, in addition to saying that we do not support increased troops, deeper military involvement, also calls for the transition of our military mission to a more limited one of training, counterterrorism and protecting the territorial integrity of Iraq, it also calls for the greater engagement of other countries in the region in the stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq.

General Abizaid just a few months ago said the following. He said that he had talked to the American commanders about additional troops from America going to Iraq, and they all said no. And the reason is because, he said, "We want the Iraqis to do more. It is easy for the Iraqis to rely upon us to do this work," General Abizaid said. "I believe," he concluded, "that more American forces prevent the Iraqis from doing more, from taking more responsibility for their own future."

Finally, the Iraqi government has a poor track record of keeping committees -- keeping commitments and meeting the benchmarks which it has set for itself. For America to supply more troops while the Iraqi leaders simply supply more promises is a -- is not a recipe for success in Iraq. Telling the Iraqis that we'll increase our troops to give them more breathing space will only postpone the day when Iraqis take their future into their own hands and decide whether they want to continue to fight a civil war or to make peace among themselves.

This resolution sends a powerful message not just to the president and to the American people, but also to the leaders and the people of Iraq that Congress does not support an escalation of our military presence in Iraq.

Q Senator, already one of your colleagues has come out -- Senator Cornyn has said -- I guess we reported, that this is nothing more than a political ploy. He says it would, quote, "send the wrong message." He says this shows a lack of seriousness on your part -- (off mike) -- that you don't understand the consequences of failure in Iraq. I wonder if you would react to that.

SEN. HAGEL: Well, he was talking about me personally?

Q In general, this particular -- (off mike) --

SEN. HAGEL: Oh. I've not had a conversation --

SEN. BIDEN: I'm sure he wasn't talking about you. He was talking about me. (Laughter.)

SEN. HAGEL: Well, the way you framed the question shows your lack of seriousness of purpose. I can't answer for Senator Cornyn's remarks. All I can do is answer for myself, as is the case of my colleagues.

In my situation, I don't know if there has been a member of the United States Senate over the last four years -- certainly in the Republican Party -- who has been more consistent and clear and direct on this issue than the senior senator from Nebraska.

To somehow come up with a conclusion that it shows a lack of seriousness, I am a bit befuddled about what the Texas senator is trying to describe.

This is a serious resolution put forward by serious people who care about our country. There is no moral high ground that one group of senators has over the other. If there is a disagreement on policy, that's what a democracy is about. It is not in the interest of our country and our future and the consequences of our country for us to be mute. We are not only failing our country and our constituency, but we're failing the Constitution of the United States. There should be strong, passionate disagreement.

But for one, as I have said many times, I will do everything I can to stop the president's policy as he outlined it on Wednesday night. I think it is dangerously irresponsible to continue to put American lives in the middle of a clearly defined tribal/sectarian civil war is wrong.

I might feel somewhat different if I had any confidence that that would change things. It will not change things. We've been there four years. We've spended -- expended a tremendous amount of American blood and treasure. And so for anyone to allege or question the motivation of anyone who challenges the president position, that somehow we're not serious, that somehow it's a political issue, needs a little more schooling in this business.

Q Senator? Senator?

SEN. BIDEN: I would point out one thing. Almost every single voice from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to General Abizaid to General Casey to the Iraq Study Group said -- whether they're for this or not have said what we've said: more troops is a bad idea, beginning to draw down troops, forcing the Iraqis to deal with the political realities is a good idea.

Q Senator, what do you think of --

Q (Senator Levin ?), I was wondering if you could tell me how many other Republicans you think you'll get, other than Senator Hagel. And also, if you feel so strongly, why a symbolic, non-binding resolution? Why not one that caps troop levels or cuts off funding?

SEN. BIDEN: The single most important thing to do is generate a consensus here in the United States Congress. The one message that any president -- not just this one, any president -- will understand if, on a major policy initiative, which is going to take time to unfold -- it's not like 21,500 people are getting on a boat, heading to the Persian Gulf and debarking at one moment and all of a sudden be in place. This is a process. I cannot believe that the president of the United States would not pay heed to a bipartisan resolution passed by the United States Senate, notwithstanding it's not binding, to send a significant message to the president: you're heading in the wrong direction. And that's why we started this way.

Q Senator, what do you think --

SEN. LEVIN: I'm going to just -- I want to just add one word here.

First of all, the seriousness of this matter was clearly indicated by the majority of the American people last November. They gave us a very serious message about wanting to change course in Iraq.

But just how serious this resolution is, although it's not binding, is reflected by the fact that the Republican leader in the Senate has threatened to filibuster it. This resolution will have a major impact if a majority -- a bipartisan majority -- of the United States Senate, and hopefully then the House of Representatives, support this. The impact is demonstrated in all kinds of ways, but not the least of which is the effort being made by the White House today, in the meeting with Republican senators called to the White House, but also in the fact that there is a threat of a filibuster against it by the Republican leader.

SEN. HAGEL: Let me add one thing to this. Just to kind of reframe your question, these two senators didn't "get" this Republican senator. This Republican senator got them. This was not initiative by the Democrats to get me.

I remind you, again, I don't know of anyone who has been clearer on this position and this issue than me the last four years.

Now, as to your question, how many Republicans, you'll have to ask Republican senators where they stand.

It will be right before the Foreign Relations Committee. I hope it will be reported out with a bipartisan vote. I hope then we'll have an opportunity to debate it on the floor of the Senate.

But some of my Republican colleagues have been rather clear on this issue. And any of you who were part of or listened to or covered Secretary Rice's hearing last week heard some of my Republican colleagues. Now, it's up to them. They'll sort that out as to whether this is the right resolution or not. But some of them have been rather unequivocal where they are on this.

But I want to make that point because this is not a Democrat issue, that somehow they've gotten a Republican to come over.

SEN. BIDEN: That's true.

SEN. HAGEL: This a bipartisan -- a genuine bipartisan effort. This is one that the three of us worked on. I had as much input and wrote as much of this as my Democratic colleagues.

SEN. BIDEN: I would say more --

Q Can I just have one quick follow-up on that? You say that it's not a partisan issue. But at the same time, you-all, the Democrats, are saying that the import of this will be the bipartisan message it sends to the White House. We talked to several Republican senators who were unequivocal in their position, saying that they support you. But when they looked at the language of this, they thought it went too far, specifically, for example, using the word "escalate," which many people think has become a partisan term.

So if the goal, at least for the Democrats' point of view, is to get as many Republicans on board as possible, why didn't you try to do that before you introduced this --

SEN. BIDEN: Well, we did. But you know, look, you can't write a resolution by committee. We personally -- we did, not our -- we personally, at the suggestion of Senator Hagel, got together to figure out whether we could work out something from which we could work as a template. This is a process.

If you have 10 Republicans saying, "I don't like the word 'escalate,' I like the word 'increase,'" or whatever, that's not a problem. The bottom line here is, we want the administration to understand what became clear in the Foreign Relations Committee hearing, at least in one committee: that out of 21 members of that committee, asking questions of Secretary Rice, there was virtually no one who flat-out supported it, and at least 18 of them openly opposed it.

And so again, there's no pride of authorship in the use of specific words. And we're prepared to do whatever it takes to send two messages: one, Mr. President, do not send more troops.

It'd have the exact opposite impact you intend. Two, Mr. President, the answer lies in the political solution inside Iraq.

Q Senator --

SEN. BIDEN: One other thing. The most important word in here is not "escalate." That word means "increase"; in other words, it can be used -- if the Foreign Relations Committee decides to change words, and I assume there'll be many suggestions for changing wording. The most important words in here other than "we oppose the increased military presence in Iraq" and that "the Iraqis must reach a political settlement if the violence is going to come down" -- the most important single word is "bipartisan." That's what has the great impact here. And when Senator Hagel says that he was right there at the beginning suggesting that we try to figure out a bipartisan approach to this, he is exactly right and deserves a lot of credit for doing what he did.

Q Gentlemen, what is your reaction, please, to Senator Clinton's proposal that she put out this morning of putting conditions on the funding that the U.S. provides to Iraqis?

SEN. BIDEN: I'm not going to comment on -- me, personally -- on other proposals right now. This is a process, as I said. This is a very important first step take.

I am sure there will be other proposals put forward by Democrats and Republicans, which we'll deal with when they occur. But I've been here a long time. I've been here for seven presidents. And I would observe that only when a president concludes he no longer has any possibility of gaining support for his program, whatever it is, in the United States Congress in a bipartisan basis, only then do presidents begin to change course.

Folks, this is a process that's under way at this moment. The president has already sent notice. The Defense Department already sent notice -- and Senator Levin can speak to this more clearly than I -- already sent notice to Marines that were due to come home, you're staying on; already sent notice, notified Army personnel, Reservists, National Guard people, you were scheduled to come home, you're staying on longer; it's already begun. It's already begun. And in order for this not to continue for two and three and five and seven and nine months down the road -- he's digging us deeper and deeper into a hole -- the first and most important, immediate step is to get something done, that we can get done and done quickly; that is, send a message to the president, which I respectfully suggest will generate from the public at large overwhelming support for what we're attempting to do, and then we'll make it known to the president and members of Congress as well that they support this approach.

Q (Off mike) -- doing something about the funding --

SEN. BIDEN: This is -- this is -- stands on its own, period.

If somehow this ends up getting ignored, there's going to be all kinds of proposals put forward. All kinds of proposals.

Look. There's a simple, immediate proposition here: What can you get done that can impact upon the prospect of more troops not being needlessly killed in Iraq? What can we do immediately to impact on the prospect that we don't continue to increase the number of troops in Iraq? What can you do immediately to impact upon the prospects that there will not be further support for this policy, where the president ignored the advice of every major voice, every major voice -- in the government, outside the government, military personnel in the government, military personnel outside the government, former secretaries of State, former secretaries of Defense, and leading foreign policy scholars. He has to listen.

Q (Off mike.)

SEN. LEVIN: My answer to the question what comes next after this is first we have to try to get this passed. Let me tell you, that is a major challenge, to get a resolution such as this passed. That is our next step.

Q When will that be?

SEN. HAGEL: It's up to Senator Biden when it comes up into the Foreign Relations Committee, and then assuming they adopt it and send it to the floor, it will be up to the leader, Harry Reid, as to when to bring this to the floor.

SEN. BIDEN: The agreement that Senator Lugar and I have in the Foreign Relations Committee is that I will, in a business meeting noticed for tomorrow, notice this resolution. It will be held over for a week, which is the rationale which is available to any senator to do. It's a normal practice in our committee. We have already noticed the meeting for this to be debated and voted on on Wednesday after the president's State of the Union. My hope is -- and I emphasizes hope -- that we will have a sufficient number of votes to report it out, (if with ?) any change, modest change that would be used to attract those who share our view but may not like our specific language. If that is the amendment, if that's the amendment process, I'd assume my committee will be open to that. But if it's to try to undercut the rationale of this, the stated purpose of this amendment, we will oppose it.

Hopefully, we'll report out a resolution. It will be reported to the majority -- to the floor. The majority leader, who schedules these events, the calendar, I assume in consultation with the Republican leader will decide when to attempt to bring it up on the floor of the United States Senate and to complete this string. Then it will be up to the -- if we get that far -- up to the Republican leader to decide whether or not he'll allow it to have a vote, whether we amend it or not on the floor and so on. I mean, this is the process.

Q Did Lugar tell you he opposes the resolution?

SEN. BIDEN: No, he did not make any reference to me whether he was for it or against it.

He did say -- and I agreed, and Senator -- we all agreed -- that this is within the jurisdiction of the Foreign Relations Committee and, quote, "regular business" should be -- proceed. We should move forward with the process. And this is all part of what is the function of the committee system. And so to the extent that he said anything is what he made it clear, that he would hope we would not -- and we do not intend to -- take this directly to the floor and not have the committee do what it is responsible to do -- pass judgment on this resolution.

Q Senator Levin for a bit. Senator Levin, since you're (into ?) the terrorist surveillance program, can you comment, if you're able, on the president's suspension of that program and what you understand that that's essentially --

SEN. LEVIN: Yeah, I'm not prepared to comment. I'm not -- did he do that? When?

Q (Off mike.)

SEN. LEVIN: Yeah. I've not seen it.

STAFF: Last question.

Q Senator, the resolution I understand says that there's a need to bring in other countries to address -- (off mike) -- in Iraq. Why not name Syria and Iran specifically? (Off mike.)

SEN. BIDEN: No. I didn't say it was -- well, let me -- speaking for myself, I mean, we all -- this really was a genuinely tripartite deal here. We went draft after draft, all trying to meet the same objective. And so, speaking for myself, in our hearing today in the Foreign Relations Committee with two very, very, very well-informed fellows, Dennis Ross, who negotiated for 12 years in the Middle East, and Richard Haass, who was the assistant secretary of State, we -- the point raised about the community was that it's not sufficient -- we all agree that although the neighbors should be brought in, we also think that the major powers have to be brought in. We also think this has to -- so to begin to name countries and leave a country out was more difficult than to state what needs to be done.

And speaking for myself, but I don't think it's at odds with my colleagues, there is a sense from the commission that was appointed or the Baker-Hamilton commission, the Iraqi (sic) Study Group, straight through to what a number of former generals have said, through what former secretaries of State have said in op-ed pieces, that you have to -- you have to -- begin to involve not just the region, but the major powers in this solution.

And so that's why, at least from my perspective why, I didn't think it made sense to just name two countries for fear of leaving others out. It's more complicated than just merely Iran and Iraq.

Thank you. Anybody want to comment?

SEN. LEVIN: No, that's good.

SEN. BIDEN: Thank you all very, very much. Appreciate it.

SEN. HAGEL: Thank you.

Q Thank you.


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