Interview with Michael Gordon and Jeff Zeleny of The New York Times
Q: When you formulate your position for where we go from here in Iraq, which experts to you consult with? What informs your judgment and assessment of the next steps?
Senator Barack Obama: Well, we have a pretty wide circle of advisers. We talk to everybody from the usual suspects in Washington – various foreign policy experts – to mid-rank military officers, many of whom have served in Iraq, to higher ranking officers like General Scott Gration who flew repeated combat missions and has helped to advise us on a range of these issues and people like Richard Danzig, who is one of our key foreign policy advisers. So it's a pretty wide circle.
Obviously, I keep up with the reports that are coming directly from the field as well, although, we're usually one step removed. My former foreign policy adviser is a Naval intelligence officer who is stationed in Anbar – he's obviously doing his thing, he's not reporting his observations – we don't have people on-line reporting to us on a regular basis so the information is coming back to us a month late, two months late, depending on the rotation.
But we are certainly taking into account what we are hearing in the field, from mid-level officers and a general assessment that we're receiving from them, is the same assessment that you're reporting in the newspapers, which is that the surge has had some impact that is to be hoped for. We put in an additional 30,000 troops that there has been some lessoning of the horrific violence that we were seeing last year and earlier this year, but that we still have a situation which there is an ongoing sectarian conflict, that violence is still occurring.
The way I view my roll as a candidate and as president is to look at the broader strategic concerns that this country has to face. My plan is premised on those broader strategic concerns, understanding that I'm going to be in constant consultation with the military in terms of how we tactically execute a strategy that's been put forward, a strategy's not going to be formed in a vacuum and we're going to have to listen to the actual troops in the field.
Q: So if you become president in January 2009, you'd be inheriting a situation where it seems there would be in excess of 100,000 troops in Iraq or somewhere around that number – between 10 to 12 combat brigades – or some reduced level of violence, but still significant sectarian tensions, what would be the first step you would take as president?
OBAMA: My first step would be to call in the joint chiefs of staff, the military commanders who are on the ground and most familiar with the situation there. I'm assuming that Petraeus might still be our lead in shaping our activities there and assign a new mission, which his that we're going to begin a phased redeployment. It is going to be responsible. It is going to be taking pace at a ... It will be conducted at a pace that will ensure the safety of our troops that will give us time to fill the diplomatic void that I believe the president has left, in both Iraq and in the region. It will provide us the time to engage in the humanitarian activities that are going to be necessary because the humanitarian crisis that is projected for withdrawal has actually already occurred.
We've already gotten huge numbers of internally displaced Iraqis as well as Iraqis in other countries, so my job is to say to them, my strategic goal is to get us out of the business of street patrols and counter insurgency. We are not going to be engaging in combat activities day-to-day in Iraq. How do we do that responsibly and safely for our troops and how do we marry that and how do we couple that with the kinds of strong efforts and humanitarian efforts that are going to be required to stabilize the country.â€
Q: Ambassador Crocker told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that if the United States withdrew forces on a chronological schedule, without adjustments to take account of developments, it would backfire. It would not succeed on putting pressure on the Iraqi government to achieve a political accommodation. How do you assess that argument?
OBAMA: I fundamentally disagree with the ambassador on this. I think Ambassador Crocker, as well as General Petraeus are trying to play a bad hand well and are trying to play out the mission that has been given to them. But I see no evidence, whatsoever, that our actions to date have encouraged the kinds of political reconciliation that has been the objective of the surge and our purported objective of the last several years. I believe the reverse.
I think the only way we are going to get the Iraqi factions, as well as powers in the region that don't have an interest in seeing Iraq collapse, to focus their attention on what are the compromises and accommodations that we have to make is if they understand that we are proceeding with a withdrawal, that we are not going to maintain permanent bases there, that there is going to be a new reality on the ground and they are going to have to make the series of decisions that they may have been putting off for a very long time.
Q: Following that up, what is your schedule for withdrawing forces from Iraq? How fast would these withdrawals be carried out? What time frame?
OBAMA: Based on the conversations we've had internally as well as external reports, we believe that you can get one to two brigades out a month. At that pace, the forces would be out in approximately 16 months from the time that we began. That would be the time frame that I would be setting up. That also gives us time to make sure that we are strengthening the Iraqi forces. Obviously, I would prefer that we start this process now, but let's assume that there are 100,000 troops when I get there, that means that we're talking 14 to 15 months from now.
According to all the reports, we should have been well along our way in getting the Iraqi security forces to be more functional. We then have another 16 months after that to adjust the withdrawal and make sure that we are withdrawing from those areas, based on advice from the military officers in the field, those places where we are secured, made progress and we're not just willy-nilly removing troops, but we're making a determination – in this region we see some stability. We've had cooperation from local tribal leaders and local officials, so we can afford to remove troops here. Here, we've still got problems, it's going to take a little bit longer. Maybe those are the last areas to pull out.
Q: If you saw that the Iraqi government, under the duress of American withdrawals, was not making progress or if sectarian violence was beginning to increase in Iraq, would you call a halt to withdrawals or proceed anyway?
OBAMA: I think that it is important to understand that there are no good options in Iraq. There haven't been for a very long time. I've said previously that I would not be surprised to see some spikes in violence as we begin the withdrawal. It is not going to be a perfectly smooth transition. But I think there is a way of managing this that keeps this violence contained. Now, at some point the Iraqis are going to have to respond to a change in the security situation inside Iraq, one way or another, and those in the region are going to have to respond as well.
During that 16 months, I'm engaging in very systematic, tough diplomacy, not just with the various factions in the region, but also with Iran, with Syria, the Saudis, Jordan, with the United Nationals Security Council program members. Once it's clear that we are not intending to stay there for 10 years or 20 years, all these parties have an interest in figuring out how do we adjust in a way that stabilizes the situation. They're all going to have a series of complex differences and we're going to, obviously, have to monitor it carefully about what those interests are to make sure our interests are protected. But what I don't want to do is to make our withdrawal contingent on the Iraqi government doing the right thing because that empowers them to make strategic decisions that should be made by the president of the United States.â€
Q: The Bush administration has little influence on Iranian behavior in Iraq. How would you elicit cooperation from Iran and Syria that the Bush administration has failed to obtain? Would we offer assurances that we would not be engaged in a policy of regime change. What would you do?
OBAMA: I think you foreshadowed my answer. You've got the Bush administration expecting Crocker to make progress on the very narrow issue of helping Shia militias at the same time as you've got Dick Cheney giving a speech saying it is very likely that we may engage in military action in Iran and the United States Senate passing a resolution, suggesting that our force structure inside Iraq is dependent in someway on blunting Iranian influence. You can't engage in diplomacy in isolation. There's got to be a broader strategic context to it.
The Iranians and the Syrians are acting irresponsibly inside Iraq. They perceive that it is a way to leverage or impact or weaken us at a time when they're worried about United States action in a broader context. I've already said, I would meet directly with Iranian leaders. I would meet directly with Syrian leaders. We would engage in a level of aggressive personal diplomacy in which a whole host of issues are on the table. We're not looking at Iraq, just in isolation. Iran and Syria would start changing their behavior if they started seeing that they had some incentives to do so, but right now the only incentive that exists is our president suggesting that if you do what we tell you, we may not blow you up.
My belief about the regional powers in the Middle East is that they don't respond well to that kind of bluster. They haven't in the past, there's no reason to think they will in the future. On the other hand, what we know, is that, for example, in the early days of our Afghanistan offensive, the Iranians we're willing to cooperate when we had more open lines of dialogue and we were able to identify interests that were compatible with theirs.â€
Q: So what assurances would you offer them to get them to be more cooperative – try to convince them that the U.S. would not pursue regime change?
OBAMA: There are a series of serious problems that we have. Iraq is one. Their development of nuclear weapons is another. Their support of terrorist activities – Hezbollah and Hamas are a third. On all these fronts, we've got severe issues with their actions. We expect them to desist from those actions, but what we are also willing to say is as a consequence of their changes in behavior, we are willing to examine their membership in the W.T.O., we are willing to look at how can we assure that they've got the kinds of economic relationships that can help grow their economy.
We are willing to talk about certain assurances in the context of them showing some good faith. I think it is important for us to send a signal that we are not hell bent on regime change, just for the sake of regime change, but expect changes in behavior and there are both carrots and there are sticks available to them for those changes in behavior. Where those conversations go is not yet clear, but what is absolutely clear is that the path that we are on now is not going to make our troops in Iraq safer. Iran has shown no inclination to back off of their support of Shia militias as a consequence of the threats that they've been receiving from the Bush and Cheney administration. If anything, it probably accelerates their interest in trying to make a situation in Iraq as uncomfortable as possible for us.â€
Q: Would you be seeking a comprehensive rapprochement or if Iran insisted on pursuing their weapons programs, which is entirely possible, would you still try to carve out some sort of side arrangement that would pertain to stability? And what would you be prepared to offer?
OBAMA: I can't anticipate what their response would be. What I can anticipate is that the act of us reaching out to them in a series way, empowered by the Oval Office, not that we'll have Crocker over here doing something, while we do something else, but a serious, coordinated diplomatic effort will, if nothing else, change world opinion about our approach to Iran and will strengthen our ability should they choose not to stand down on the nuclear issue, for example, or to continue to engage in hostile activity even if directly inside Iraq, that it greatly strengthens our position with our allies – both in the region and around the world and strengthens our capacity to impose tougher economic sanctions and take other steps, not in isolation, but as part of a broader international effort.
Q: If you were to open such a discussion with Iran, would you retain a military option for striking Iran's nuclear facilities if they persisted on that course, or do you believe that it would be wiser to craft a deterrent and detainment strategy for Iran and acquiesce their nuclear capability?
OBAMA: I don't think the president of the United States takes military options off the table, but I think that we obviously have to measure costs and benefits in all the decisions that we make. Iran is one problem. Pakistan is another problem. Afghanistan is another. Iraq is yet another. My decision making, with respect to military options versus diplomatic options, a containment strategy versus a strike strategy, is going to be informed by how is that going to impact not just Iran, but how is that going to impact the stability of the region and how's that going to impact our long-term security interests. One of the fundamental differences that I've had with consistently with the Bush administration, is that we look at all these things in isolation and as a consequence, we never ask ourselves the very simple question that John Warner asked in the Armed Services Committee when he was talking to Petraeus, â€˜Is this making us safer?' That is ultimately is our goal.
Q: When Vice President Cheney said we cannot allow Iran to become a nuclear weapon state, do you agree with that?
OBAMA: What I believe is that we should do everything in our power to prevent that in the broader context of our long-term security interests.
Q: And if we fail to prevent it?
OBAMA: I'm not going to speculate on whether we're going to fail.
Q: You've argued that the United States should leave behind residual force in Iraq and the region. How large would the force be and how much would be inside Iraq versus the Persian Gulf Region?
OBAMA: I have not ascribed particular numbers to that and I won't for precisely the reason I was just talking to Michael about. I want to talk to military folks on the ground, No. 1. No. 2, a lot of it depends on what's happened on the political front and the diplomatic front. Even something as simple as protecting our embassy is going to be dependent on what is the security environment in Baghdad. If there is some sense of security, then that means one level of force. If you continue to have significant sectarian conflict, that means another, but this is an area where Senator Clinton and I do have a significant contrast.
I do not believe that we can remove troops at the pace, for example, that Governor Richardson was talking about. I do think it is important for us not only to protect our embassy, but also to engage in counter-terrorism activities. We've seen progress against AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq], but they are a resilient group and there's the possibility that they might try to set up new bases. I think that we should have some strike capability. But that is a very narrow mission, that we get in the business of counter terrorism as opposed to counter insurgency and even on the training and logistics front, what I have said is, if we have not seen progress politically, then our training approach should be greatly circumscribed or eliminated.
I am happy to train a government that is functioning as a national government. I do not want us to be in the business of training and equipping factions or militias that are going to be turning on each other. I want to be absolutely clear about this, because this has come up in a series of debates: I will remove all our combat troops, we will have troops there to protect our embassies and our civilian forces and we will engage in counter terrorism activities. How large that force is, whether it's located inside Iraq or as an over the horizon force is going to depend on what our military situation is.
What we're not going to be doing is engaging in broad-based counter insurgency. We're not going to be providing long-term and constant embedded training operations and logistical training operations and the sort that, I think, Senator Clinton has in some cases talked about. We're certainly not going to be engaging in what I consider mission creep, where we are structuring our forces based on preventing Iranian influence in Iraq, something that Senator Clinton has talked about as a possibility in a previous interview. We're not going to be using forces there to strike at what she's called other terrorist organizations, without being clear as to whether those are just terrorist organizations inside Iraq or terrorist organizations outside Iraq. We're going to be focused very narrowly on making sure that Al Qaeda in Iraq and terrorist activities in Iraq are prevented.â€
Q: Senator Clinton has suggested that the differences among leading Democrats are largely semantics, do you agree?
OBAMA: I think her disagreement with Senator Edwards may be a semantical difference, in the sense that if we're going after terrorists, there's combat involved, presumably. On that front, I don't disagree with her that going after terrorists is a combat function. But it appears that based on interviews – and maybe she'll clarify – that the mission that she is envisioning is a much larger one than the one that I'm envisioning. There's been a pretty long list of the things that she wants to accomplish. We have a very narrow list of things that we want to accomplish: protecting embassies, protecting civilians and counter terrorism in contrast to counter insurgency.
Q: You said the residual force might be in Iraq or in the region, but in the September speech you said the force would be in Iraq. Which is it, is it going to be in Iraq or in the region?
OBAMA: It's going to depend on what the situation is. I have said that I don't want permanent bases in Iraq. I said that in September and I will continue to say that. Whether that counter terrorism activity can be conducted best by maintaining those forces in Iraq or whether it's possible to have them deployed in places like Kuwait is going to be something that I determine based on how best we can carry out those functions and what the military advisers are suggesting will be most effective.
Q: So just to clarify, what you're saying is the counter-terrorism mission might not be based in Iraq?
OBAMA: That is a mission that we have to carry out, but we ought to do by how best to accomplish it. It's conceivable that we may be able to locate that counter terrorism force outside of Iraq. There may be larger strategic and political reasons why it would be advantageous to have it outside of Iraq, but I don't want to hamstring our military from being able to strike at terrorist targets successfully. That should be a priority.
Q: What would be the advantages of not having it in Iraq?
OBAMA: It depends on how the political negotiations are going, both on the Iraqis as well as on the regional powers. If it's viewed as more provocative inside Iraq, and we can do the job just as well, locating them elsewhere, then that would obviously bear on my decision making.
Q: In your plan presented in September, you mentioned if there was widespread sectarian killing, you said you would reserve the right to send American forces back into Iraq as part of an international effort to stem the sectarian killings and to protect the population. So there are some circumstances that even after the pullout of combat forces, you would envision a population security mission. Would you be prepared to do this unilaterally? How bad would it have to be before you would contemplate going back into Iraq?
OBAMA: I don't think this is something that you can perfectly calibrate. You have to look at the situation on the ground. As I've already noted, I believe that there will be a spike in violence as we make a transition. Keep in mind that I think that there's going to be more violence over the long haul by us not changing the course, so I'm weighing – again – bad options.
It is conceivable that there comes a point where things descend into the mayhem that shocks the conscience and we say to ourselves, this is not acceptable, anymore that what happened in Darfur is not acceptable. At that point, my strong, strong preference would be to work in concert with the international community. Now I think there are some things that we can do to prevent some of that, that are non-military. I think it's important, and I mentioned this in the speech in September, for us to start setting up an international commission that is tracking some of the activities that are going on in Iraq and allow for the perpetrators of mass violence to be held accountable.
Now, obviously, we're not in a very strong footing right now to do that, when we just provide immunity to Blackwater Security Forces. That undercuts that message. Part of what we want to have is a structure in place that says, â€˜We're starting to keep track of what's going on and there's an international mandate to insure that crimes against humanity are not taking place.â€
Q: Presumably, the purpose would be to discourage the sectarian acts that would compel you to go back into Iraq. In terms of enforcement, would you then try to apprehend the war criminals, the way it's done in the Balkans, taken into custody? Or would it be to simply put them on a list?
OBAMA: If you've got a red line and that red line is crossed, part of what you want to see is the international community taking action. This is not going to happen smoothly, but it hasn't happened smoothly in the Balkans. It hasn't happened smoothly in Africa. But it begins to create a norm that people understand the international community may enforce and it offers not a perfect, but a modest prophylactic to the kind of activities that not just the United States, but all people around the world want to prevent.
Q: The international participation in Iraq is limited and declining by the day. Would you, as president, be prepared to act essentially alone if need be to carry out the steps or would you only do it if you could attract allied support?
OBAMA: It is unlikely there is going to be much of a contribution in today's political environment. I don't think we should underestimate the capacity of the next president to fundamentally change that political environment internationally. Part of the reason I'm running for president is because I believe I can offer a fresh start to our diplomatic efforts abroad. Now there is no doubt, I don't want to sound Pollyannaish about this, that our allies are not just jumping at the chance to get into Iraq. Certainly their populations are not interested in seeing a whole bunch of German or French or Canadian troops pouring into Iraq.
I think there's a big difference between their willingness to enable the United States down a course that they've already concluded is failed and counterproductive and us going to them with an entirely new strategy that has been executed and designed to lower our footprint, reduce our footprint, inside Iraq. But then to also say to them, there are certain obligations that we as an international community have. And there are strategic interests that we must pursue. The Germans can't afford to see oil prices go up another $30, $40, $50 a barrel. That's going to have an impact on their economy.
There are certain issues that they're going to have to consider as we take those steps. Again, I don't want to overstate my optimism, but I do think our capacity to get a coalition of forces to deal with what could be a problem, and keep in mind we're speculating, we don't know whether this is in fact a problem, but I acknowledge that you never know what could happen. I think it's important for us to know that if we've done our diplomacy right and if we've made our intentions clear, which is not a long-term occupation in Iraq, but rather arriving at the sort of political stability that is sustainable, that we may get different levels of cooperation from our allies than we're currently getting.
Q: So you would do it unilaterally or you would only do it multi-laterally in terms of committed forces?
OBAMA: We're talking too speculatively right now for me to answer.
Q: If you're asking voters to consider your judgment? What kind of people would you populate your administration with? What kind of person would be a defense secretary candidate or a candidate for national security adviser?
OBAMA: On the issue of judgment, I absolutely think that the decision about who the next president should be has everything to do with judgment and character. I will say when it comes to the most important issues in foreign policy that we've faced over the last several years, my judgment has been better than my opponents.
Q: Who would you fill your administration with?
OBAMA: Our campaign is already building a group of advisers who have expertise, in the diplomatic realm and the military realm, that rivals any of my opponents – Republican or Democrat. Dennis can provide you with a list of who our foreign policy advisers are. It will give you a pretty good sense of who we're talking to – people ranging from Tony Lake to Susan Rice to Greg Craig to Richard Danzig, Scott Gration, Tony McPeak, there's a wide range of people who I consult with on a regular basis on these issues. We'd be happy to provide you with a list of people who have officially been working with us on a whole range of foreign policy issues.
Now, in terms of how I would approach the Secretary of Defense job, in particular, why don't we just focus on that for a second. I want the best person, I want somebody who – the reason I say the best person regardless of party – I want somebody who has enough credibility with the military that that person can strengthen the link between our non-military national security apparatus and our military apparatus. Our civilian side and our military side obviously were strained deeply under Rumsfeld. I had a conversation with a group of retired generals and they were absolutely adamant that the fact that we always talk about reshaping our military, but we never have a conversation about reshaping our national security apparatus so those two things work together in a more coordinated fashion.
I want somebody in the Secretary of Defense office who has enough credibility to sell our military on the idea that we're really going to be serious about making progress on those other elements of security that have been neglected under the Bush administration. I want also that Secretary of Defense to be someone who has the confidence of mid-rank officers and troops on the ground that their interests are being looked after. That they are not just being sent into missions based on ideology or based on preconceived notions, but that somebody is their advocate.
One of the things that has happened during the course of this campaign is that you meet remarkable young men and women who have been doing everything that we've asked of them, made enormous sacrifices and oftentimes they don't feel as if those in the higher ranks are thinking about them, certainly don't feel as if they are being thought about after they leave.â€
Q: In your book, you refer to your January 2006 visit to Iraq, I think that's the last time you were there. Why....
OBAMA: Given how important this is, why haven't I gone back?
Q: If you think of all the things that have happened since January '06, there was the bombing of the mosque in Samara, the rise of the sectarian violence, the replacement of General Casey with General Petraeus, the introduction of the so-called surge strategy, this whole business of Anbar and the rise of the tribes and working with former insurgents has all emerged since then. There's been enormous changes there, although it's still an extremely difficult situation. Why haven't you returned, given the centrality of this issue to the campaign?
OBAMA: I'll be honest with you. Part of it is that my schedule is such that the trips would be one or two days and would be centered primarily around the Green Zone. We might take a helicopter and drop in for a moment somewhere and then come back out. There hasn't been the sense that the information that I was going to be getting there was going to be significantly different than the information that I'm getting here. But it is something that what I know I have missed form the trips there is the interaction with the troops. So I'm seeing the troops here, but I haven't seen the troops in Iraq in quite some time and I think that's something that we'd like to make happen.
Q: Does that mean you're going back to Iraq?
OBAMA: I suspect we will be going back. It probably won't be before Iowa, realistically speaking.
Q: Obviously, there is an enormous desire among Democratic base to pull American forces out of Iraq...On the other hand, no one wants to give Al Qaeda in Iraq any kind of a free hand. But I wonder as you think through this mission, how realistic it really is to posit a counter terrorism capability for Iraq, outside of Iraq and to have such a small force? ....One is an intelligence issue. The way the U.S. military gathers intelligence about Al Qaeda now is really being in and around the country with the population. It's a means of deriving human intelligence and if you don't have that, you're essentially relying entirely on the Iraqis or ....reconnaissance systems from above, so it limits your access to intelligence. Certainly, it limits your responsiveness if you're not in the country. And also, when they do counter terrorism in Iraq now, it's not simply an operation by special operations forces.....If you think back to the Democratic critique of the Bush administration's performance in Afghanistan, when bin Laden got away, that was a mission when we relied entirely on special operations forces and local forces and didn't have sufficient troops to capture anyone or cordon an area off, which makes me wonder how effective a counterterrorism mission can be without a conventional capability in country. Lastly, if there is progress toward political accommodation, you are going to assume the role of training the Iraqi military to some extent, which means you're going to have a substantial number of trainers in and among these Iraqi forces....
OBAMA: Who need to be protected.
Q: ....So when you think this through, obviously you put a lot of effort into what is a very detailed plan which you unveiled in September, why does this lead you to the conclusion that you don't need to have conventional combat capabilities in Iraq and you can afford to take them all out and maybe not even have special operations forces in Iraq?
OBAMA: You raise a series of legitimate questions. As commander in chief, I'm not going to leave trainers unprotected. In our counterterrorism efforts, I'm not going to have a situation where our efforts can't be successful. We will structure those forces so they can be successful. We would still have human intelligence capabilities on the ground. Some of them would be civilian, as opposed to military, some would be operating out of our bases as well as our signal intelligence.
But the analogy with what happened in Afghanistan is somewhat different in the sense that you had the opportunity there, potentially, to dismantle the entire leadership operation of Al Qaeda international, which was the main objective of our invasion into Iraq and we failed on that central mission. With respect to Al Qaeda in Iraq, my hope is if we've done our job, they continue to be much weakened, they don't have any obvious key leadership that is a rallying point for operations there. We may not have the same kinds of broad-based requirements that we might have needed in Afghanistan or Tora Bora.
But listen, I am not going to set up our troops for failure and I'm going to do something half-baked. If the commanders tell me that they need X, Y and Z, in order to accomplish the very narrow mission that I've laid out, than I will take that into consideration.â€
Q: So how will you protect the trainers without forces in Iraq?
OBAMA: The trainers are going to have to be provided with missions that don't put them in vulnerable situations. Understand, Michael, part of what my goal is is that the trainers are not constantly embedded in combat operations because part of what we're trying to set up is a situation where that combat is not constantly happening.
What I don't want is trainers who are embedded in Iraqi security forces that are engaging in sectarian warfare. That's part of what we need to change. Where are trainers are most in danger right now and where they have to have a significant protective force around them is in situations where you don't know whose shooting at who and you don't know whose side is fighting Americans and which side is fighting Shia and which side is fighting Sunni. That's precisely why I think it's so important for us to pull back, so that we have some clarity strategically about what exactly our mission is.
Q: Where does Senator Obama's position clearly differ from Senator Clinton's on the way forward? Obviously there are a lot of similarities. Granted there are profound differences in what happened in the past.
OBAMA: As you know, you don't want to look backwards, but obviously our general view about this mission as a whole has been very different. She missed the strategic interests that should have dictated whether we went to Iraq in the first place or not, but she has not been clear about the pace of withdrawal and I have.
She has not been clear about an end date for withdrawal and obviously, those two things are related, and I have. I think it's important to provide some clarity, both to the Iraqis as well as to our military about what we should be trying to accomplish. The follow-on force, we already discussed. The projected mission that she has for our forces there is more extensive than mine and is more ambiguous than mine. When she refers to counter terrorism, she refers to other terrorist organizations. She's not clear whether those are other terrorist organizations in Iraq, like the PKK. Is she referring to organizations outside of Iraq.
That's something she would have to clarify, but when I refer to it, I refer to it exclusively as Al Qaeda in Iraq. Those actors that are carrying out violence in Iraq that could potentially have ramifications for our troops, our bases and so forth. We have a tighter mission than she has put forward in terms of what those forces would look like. We have a significant difference and this is related to how we set up the follow-on force. She implied in March that part of how the forces in Iraq would be structured would be with an eye to blunting Iranian influence inside Iraq and that is consistent with her position on the Kyl-Lieberman resolution, which again suggests that our Iraqi forces should be structured with an eye to blunt Iranian influence. I think that is a mistake. I think that is mission creep.
I think that is very hard for us to suggest that we will maintain forces in what we have called a sovereign country, whose government has relations with Iran, if part of our job is to blunt the influence of Iran. I don't know that Maliki has signed off on that function. I don't know that the majority of the Iraqi legislature has suggested that's an appropriate function for our troops in Iraq. This is part of the broader context of how, I think, we have to untangle this web that's been created by George Bush.
Senator Clinton seems to be comfortable with this notion that somehow even though the single thing that has made Iran more formidable of a threat is our invasion of Iraq that now that becomes the pretext for us continuing down that same course. I think we have to change course – fundamentally. It's not helpful for us to say that haven't troops in Iraq with an eye toward preventing Iran from having influence is a fundamentally different shift from the way George Bush has approached this. On the diplomatic front, which respect to Iran and Syria, I have said that as president I would engage in direct talks with them that focus on Iraq, but also focus on the larger strategic problems that we face in the region.â€
Q: But there is one respect in which you have a more expansive approach to Iraq than she does in that you identify in your plan the possibility of going back into Iraq to protect the population if there's an all-out civil war.
OBAMA: I mean let's ...
Q: And providing monitors to help the population relocate and go after war criminals. Those are three elements – those are new missions for Americans after Iraq that she doesn't postulate.
OBAMA: But they aren't necessarily military missions.
Q: But how do you go back into Iraq without military forces?
OBAMA: No, no, no, no, no. You conflated three things. The latter two that you talked about are not military missions. Let's just be clear about that.
Q: An armed escort is not a military mission?
OBAMA: Look, I want to be clear about what I've said. I think it would be irresponsible for a president to suggest that there are no circumstances – ever – in which we would consider military action as a consequence of humanitarian concerns. I think we have seen great cruelty in our history, over the last 100 years. If there are ways for us to prevent wholesale slaughter, then I think that's something that we have to look at. I have not suggested that is a mission that I have set forth.
I do think there's a difference between me saying, I do not anticipate that happening, because I think we can execute our withdrawal in an effective way. So that is not part of the plan that I'm setting forward in terms of how we get out of Iraq. What I am saying is that I as president am obviously going to be mindful of the possibility of humanitarian disaster and if that were to occur, I am not ruling out that we wouldn't take steps in concert with other nations – even if it was short term – to ensure that a wholesale disaster did not take place.
Barack Obama, Interview with Michael Gordon and Jeff Zeleny of The New York Times Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/284871