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MSNBC Interview with Senator Barack Obama (D-IL)


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MR. OLBERMANN: We're joined now from the Capitol by the Democratic senator, Barack Obama of Illinois.

Senator, good evening. Thank you for your time.

SEN. OBAMA: Thank you.

MR. OLBERMANN: Were you convinced at all by that speech? And if not, what are you going to do about it?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, the one thing I share with the president's assessment is the belief that the American people and American troops have done everything imaginable that has been asked of them, and they've done a great job in difficult circumstances.

I am not persuaded that 20,000 additional troops in Iraq is going to solve the sectarian violence there. In fact, I think it will do the reverse. I think it takes pressure off the Iraqis to arrive at the sort of political accommodation that every observer believes is the ultimate solution to the problems we face there.

So I am going to actively oppose the president's proposal. I don't doubt his sincerity when he says that he thinks this is the best approach. But I think he is wrong, and I think the American people believe he's wrong. And we are looking at a variety of options here in Congress to place some sort of condition, some sort of meaningful consequences to the failure of the Iraqi government to meet the benchmarks that the president mentioned in his own speech.

MR. OLBERMANN: I want to ask you more about that in a moment, Senator, but we had a new, I guess, a wild card thrown into this equation here tonight. And I'm wondering about your response to the part of the speech in which the president said that, as, in fact, the Baker-Hamilton Commission suggested, there needed to be an addressing, the dialogue with Iran and Syria. The president's version of it appears to be summarized by this, "These two regimes are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq. Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces."

Did the government of this country tonight threaten the governments of Iran and Syria?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, look, I think there's nothing wrong with us, as part of a broader military strategy, making sure that Iran and Syria aren't engaging in mischief in Iraq. I think it is a mistake for us not to be in a dialogue with Iran and Syria, no matter how odious those regimes are, in terms of thinking are there some mutual interests in stabilizing conditions there.

But the problem is, is that we have no leverage in the region right now. Essentially what the president said is the same thing he said six months ago, and the same thing he said a year ago, and that is: Be patient, we are going to do whatever it takes. And the problem is, the Iraqis, I think, take that message to mean that no matter how little they are compromising with each other, Americans are still going to be present. As long as we are not willing to provide any consequences to failure for them to arrive at political compromise, we're going to continue to see the sort of sectarian bloodshed that's been evident over the last several months.

MR. OLBERMANN: A variation on my first question, sir. What do you do about it? You're in the Foreign Relations Committee. Those hearings about Iraq began today, and were somewhat necessarily overshadowed by the president's speech tonight.

SEN. OBAMA: Right.

MR. OLBERMANN: Are non-binding resolutions enough, or do you have to go after, as was suggested last week, appropriations line by line in supplementary appropriations bills, or do you have to stall the budget? What do you have to do try to intervene or interfere with this plan, if you think it's an inappropriate plan for this country?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, I know that Harry Reid and the Democratic leadership, their first step is to present this non-binding resolution. I don't think that will be insignificant.

I was hearing Joe Scarborough talk prior to me coming on about people like Sam Brownback. Sam Brownback issued a press release today from Baghdad saying, based on having met with the Iraqi government leadership, he does not have confidence that additional troops would make a difference, and he's going to oppose it. Norm Coleman, prior to the president's speech, Republican from Minnesota, said the same thing. I think we may get 51 votes saying this is a bad policy, which means that there are going to be a number of members of the president's own party who have a problem with it.

But I believe that we have to go beyond that. I think that we have to look at a variety of options where Congress can exercise its responsibilities. I know nobody in Congress, Republican or Democrat, who is going to in any way strand troops who are presently in Iraq. We've got to make sure that they have all the resources necessary to come home safely and to execute the missions that have been laid out for them.

But I think that we should, in whatever legislative form it's going to take, say to the president there have to be consequences for the failure to meet benchmarks. If we don't do that, then we are simply looking at an open-ended commitment in which the various factions in Iraq will have no incentive to change their behavior.

MR. OLBERMANN: Constitutionally, are you convinced you and the House of Representatives can do that, as Senator Kennedy suggested? Can you have, in essence, a reauthorization vote, or has the president, as Senator Biden suggested, really got a blank check at least in terms of keeping troops there?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, you know, that's the kind of issue that I think is being investigated right now. My suspicion is, is that it's not going to end up being a constitutional issue in the sense that I think Congress can legislate how monies are used. That's part of its powers. But I think that there are going to be some significant institutional issues in terms of how do we constrain a president who is pursuing what the vast majority of not only the American people but also experts and military observers consider to be wrong-headed policy.

We have a responsibility to do something about that, but we've got to do it in a way that does not put any of our troops in danger. And that is a difficult line that we're going to have to cross, but I think that it's something that we can arrive at.

And my hope is -- I had a long conversation with Secretary Rice today, prior to the speech, at her office. And what I indicated to her is I don't consider this to be a Republican or Democratic problem. I am happy to take responsibility to be crafting part of the solution of how we arrive at the best possible outcome in Iraq, but that requires a certain openness on the part of the president, and it requires an acknowledge that after $400 billion dollars, over 3,000 lives, that the burden of proof in terms of devoting more resources to this process is on the president. And up until this point, he has not met that burden of proof.

MR. OLBERMANN: Not to overwhelm the importance of the lives of American troops in harm's way in Iraq by any stretch of the imagination, Senator, but the politics of this, it seems as if to some degree today the gravity got turned off in that building in which you stand. The president quoted and cited only one other American politician by name in his speech, and that was Senator Lieberman, who is ostensibly still a member of your party, certainly caucusing with you. Mr. Brownback, Mr. Coleman, may have said more today than any Democratic response could have. And you just mentioned that you don't see this as a Republican-Democratic thing anymore, which would be new for almost any issue in this country for the last four years. And yet, on the other hand, your colleague, Senator Durbin of Illinois, just basically said the Iraqis should not be using us as the 911 service every time there's a problem and expecting 20,000 more troops, while the president is potentially expanding not only sending those 20,000 troops to Iraq, but potentially bringing in issues regarding Iran and Syria, essentially expanding the whole playing field, not just the playing field in Iraq.

Where are the politics on this now?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, look, I think the politics are pretty clear. The American people spoke in November, and they said that we have shown our resolve; we have shown our commitment; we have devoted our most precious resource, not just our money, but more importantly, the lives of young Americans; and at this point, we want to see some sort of exit strategy.

I don't think the American people think that it has to be immediate. I think we recognize that there are responsibilities that we have to the Iraqi people, having launched this invasion.

I for one don't think that re-litigating the original decision to go in is particularly fruitful, despite my objections to it back in 2002.

But what I do believe is that we have to set clear benchmarks in terms of the direction we're going -- it has to be premised on the idea that there's a political strategy to get Shi'a and Sunni working together -- and that we have to exercise the leverage that we have, our troop presence as well as economic aid there, and exert that leverage so that we can arrive in some sort of political accommodation.

My point is that that shouldn't be a Republican and Democratic issue. That should be a realist versus ideological perspective. And I think the realists are winning out, and I think you'll see that in the president's own party. You're going to see a lot of folks who are asking very tough questions from his party, and I think that's a useful thing.

MR. OLBERMANN: As we saw today.

The junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama. Great. Thanks for your time. Good night.

SEN. OBAMA: Thanks so much, Keith.


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