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NBC "Today" Interview with Senator Barack Obama (D-IL)


Location: Unknown


MS. VIEIRA: Democratic Senator Barack Obama is a member of the Foreign Relations Committee and a potential candidate for president.

Senator, good morning to you, sir.

SEN. OBAMA: Good morning, Meredith.

MS. VIEIRA: I mentioned that you're on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Later today, Secretary Rice will come before you and the other members. What's the first question that you want to ask her?

SEN. OBAMA: What I want to find out from the secretary -- and I actually had the opportunity to ask her yesterday in a private meeting -- is the same question that Matt asked, which is, why do we have any confidence that the Maliki government is prepared to engage in the sort of political compromise that is the ultimate solution to sectarian violence in Iraq?

And the problem with the president's proposal to add more troops is that it misses the essential problem. The essential problem is a political problem, not a military problem. And we have not seen any evidence that the Maliki government is prepared to make the political accommodations with Sunnis and other disaffected parties in Iraq that will lead to an end of the bloodshed.

MS. VIEIRA: But the president said last night that he had made it clear to the prime minister and other Iraqi leaders that America's commitment is not open-ended, and he said that Maliki understood that and would make changes by November. You do not believe that?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, here's the problem. And I said this directly to the president, and I didn't get an adequate response. What are the consequences under the president's plan if there is a failure to meet various benchmarks and milestones?

MS. VIEIRA: What should they be, Senator?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, my belief is that the only leverage we have over the Iraqi government at this point is a phased redeployment of troops. If we send a signal to the Iraqis that we are not going to continue to throw the lives of young Americans at this problem -- we are willing to be partners with them, we're willing to provide them economic aid, we're willing to provide them training and logistical support, but they've got to take responsibility -- then it is possible that they would recognize their own well-being and power in their government is dependent on them arriving at the sort of political compromises that are necessary. That's not the message that was sent. And so there is no evidence that they're going to significantly change behavior.

MS. VIEIRA: But Senator, what if the president is right and if he were to remove the troops, redeploy them, that the country, Iraq, would fall into total chaos? We would lose total control of that country. Are you willing to face that possibility?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, look, as somebody who thought that going in was a bad idea in the first place, I have been very measured over the last couple of years precisely because I think we've got a responsibility, both strategic and humanitarian, to make sure that Iraq does not collapse entirely. And there are a series of judgment calls that have to be made.

Nobody's calling for a precipitous withdrawal. What we're saying is that if we can begin a phased withdrawal and give the Iraqi government a sense that we are not engaging in an open-ended commitment, we're not going to babysit a civil war and we're not going to continue to throw American troops at the problem, that they will actually arrive at the sort of political solution that's necessary.

MS. VIEIRA: Well, Senator, as we reported earlier, the troops are leaving today. They're starting -- the surge is starting.

SEN. OBAMA: Right.

MS. VIEIRA: So what can you do, as a senator, what are you willing to do, to stop the troops from going there if indeed you feel they should not go there?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, one thing that the president and I agree on is that American troops, some who appeared in the stories that you showed prior to me coming on, have done everything that we have asked them. It's extraordinary sacrifice and commitment that they've shown throughout this process.

And so I don't know anybody in Congress who's willing to strand troops that are in Iraq to make sure that they have the resources. We want to make sure they have the capacity to carry out their mission and to come home safely. But --

MS. VIEIRA: So there's nothing you can do to stop the surge then.

SEN. OBAMA: No, but what we are going to do -- and, you know, I'm going to try to take the lead on this, along with others -- not just Democrats, but I think some Republicans as well -- to see what kinds of conditions can we place that constrain the president to some degree and ensure that if benchmarks are not met and milestones are not met, that there are consequences.

And, you know, that's a difficult thing because the president is commander in chief and he can, as you noted, order troops to go to Iraq. But we are going to investigate every avenue that we have available to make sure that the president cannot, in an unconstrained fashion, pursue what I think many of us and the American people consider to be a wrongheaded policy.

MS. VIEIRA: Would you support Senator Kennedy's resolution, then, that would force the president, really, to go to Congress before authorizing any other troops to be sent there?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, I think there are a range of options that are going to be proposed. I think the first order of business in the Senate is an up-or-down vote on a nonbinding resolution to see who approves and who doesn't approve of this plan. And I'll note that there were at least four Republicans yesterday who said, in anticipation of the president's proposal, that this was a bad idea. I think that there's a strong feeling in the Democratic caucus that this is a bad idea.

I think this is no longer a Democrat or Republican problem. This is an American problem. We need a nonpartisan solution to the problem, but we also need a president that acknowledges that we have not seen the kinds of political compromise between Shi'a and Sunni on the ground in Iraq that would allow for the stabilization of the country.

MS. VIEIRA: Senator, before you go, a Democratic colleague in the Senate, Chris Dodd of Connecticut, is throwing his hat into the ring this morning. Do you have anything that you would like to toss our way?

SEN. OBAMA: (Laughs.) You know, Chris Dodd is a wonderful man, and I think he'll be a terrific candidate. So I don't have any announcement other than to wish Chris Dodd luck at this point.

MS. VIEIRA: All right, Senator Barack Obama, thank you so much for your time this morning.

SEN. OBAMA: Thank you.


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