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NBC "Today" - Transcript


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NBC "Today"

MS. VIEIRA: All three major presidential candidates will get to question General Petraeus today; among them, Senator Barack Obama, who's on Capitol Hill for this exclusive interview.

Senator, good morning to you.

SEN. OBAMA: Good morning, Meredith.

MS. VIEIRA: Senator, what is the key question that you want answered today, number one question you're going to ask?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, I think the most important issue is still the one that was asked in September, which is, how has this war made us safer? And at what point do we know that there's success so we can start bringing our troops home?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, how would you define success?

MS. VIEIRA: Well, my belief is that we are not in a situation where staying for another 10, 15 or 20 years is going to change the fundamentals on the ground. We saw that in Basra. The problem we have is that you've got factions, not just Sunni and Shi'a, but now Shi'a versus Shi'a factions that have not been willing to come around to political accommodations that could stabilize the country.

Our troops have performed magnificently, and I think that they are to be commended for part of reducing the violence in Iraq as a consequence of the surge. But what we have not seen is the Iraqi government using the space that was created, not only by our troops but also by the stand-down of the militias in places like Basra, to use that to move forward on a political agenda that could actually bring stability. And I think the only way to leverage those factions to do that is going to be if they start seeing that the American troops are not going to be there permanently.

MS. VIEIRA: Well, you haven't even said if. You've said when, Senator. You've said if you are elected, that within 16 months you're going to bring all the troops home from Iraq. Senator McCain said yesterday that that is a reckless promise that you cannot possibly keep, a failure of leadership. And even military leaders say that any withdrawal of troops would be dictated by security on the ground. So how can you guarantee you can pull out those troops in just 16 months?

SEN. OBAMA: Meredith, I've been very consistent in saying that we are going to set a timetable and we will have a prudent pace of withdrawal, one to two brigades per month. At that pace we can have combat troops out within approximately 16 months. That will be about two years from now, Meredith, which means that this war will have lasted seven years.

MS. VIEIRA: But that's if everything goes well, sir. What if there is chaos?

SEN. OBAMA: Meredith, there's the possibility of chaos right now, as we saw in Basra. So what we can do is we can stay there in perpetuity. But if we can't have the Iraqi government resolve some of its conflicts within seven years, we won't have it done in 14 years or 21 years. And the height of irresponsibility was going in in the first place and not having these questions answered, as John McCain ratified and went along with.

I think it compounds the irresponsibility if all we're doing is simply moving the goal posts. We won't leave because violence is up. Now we don't leave because violence is down and as we've made progress. And the notion that we would have a long-term occupation of Iraq is not only unsustainable from our military's perspective and our financial perspective -- we're spending $400 million a day -- it's also distracting us from going after al Qaeda and those who actually perpetrated the deaths of 3,000 Americans on September 11th.

MS. VIEIRA: Senator, both you and Senator Clinton have said that Senator McCain favors 100 more years of war in Iraq. Well, on Sunday in The New York Times, Frank Rich wrote, quote, "Really, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton should be ashamed of themselves for libeling John McCain, that, in fact, Senator McCain never said he wanted 100 more years of war; he just felt American troops should be a long-term presence, the way they are in Japan and South Korea."

So are you willing to admit that you have distorted his statements?

SEN. OBAMA: That's just not accurate, Meredith. We can pull up the quotes on YouTube. What John McCain has said was that he is happy to have a potential long-term occupation in Iraq. "Happy" may be overstating it. He is willing to have a long-term occupation of Iraq, as long as 100 years. In fact, he said 10,000 years, however long it took. That is his argument.

The problem is that there's no end in sight because John McCain has not offered any clear point at which he suggests it's time for us to move our troops home. And the American people, I think, have recognized that we have a legitimate national security interest in Iraq. They've been extraordinarily patient. Nobody's been more patient than the military families who are there. But at some point we have to say to ourselves that the Iraqi government has to stand up and make the difference.

MS. VIEIRA: And yet when you look at the latest --

SEN. OBAMA: They have not done that. And that was the premise, remember, Meredith, of the surge.

MS. VIEIRA: And --

SEN. OBAMA: The premise of the surge was that we were going to go ahead and give them the breathing room to take advantage of the political stabilization. And that has not happened.

MS. VIEIRA: And yet when you look at the latest Gallup poll, you are in a dead heat with Senator McCain, considering he supports the war and you oppose it. What do you think that says about the way the American public feels about this war?

SEN. OBAMA: I think what it means is that I'm still in the middle of the Democratic contest and John McCain has been able to rise above his nominating process over the last month and a half.

MS. VIEIRA: All right, Senator Barack Obama, thank you as always.

SEN. OBAMA: Great to talk to you. Thank you.

MS. VIEIRA: You too.

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