Barack Obama photo

Interview with the New York Times on Senator Obama's Campaign Plane

September 20, 2008

Q: How would you define success in Iraq?

OBAMA: The argument that Senator McCain has made is that there is some clear standard for what he calls victory or success. He has never clearly spelled out what that would mean. And my criteria for an achievable and sustainable situation would be one in which you are not seeing mass violence in Iraq, you have a functioning, sovereign country that can protect its borders, that it is not a base camp for terrorists, that we have working relations with the country, that it does not pose a threat to us or its neighbors and that the will of the Iraqi people is being expressed, although it may not be a perfect, the machinery of democracy may not be perfect. And that doesn't mean that I wouldn't love to see even better outcomes, right. What it means is that as commander in chief my job would be to examine what resources are required to achieve what goals within what time frames relative to all the other issues that we face when it comes to our national security.

Q: How does your vision differ from Senator McCain's?

OBAMA: It is hard for me to tell because Senator McCain has a tendency to speak in very broad terms about victory and success in ways that for example General Petraeus does not. Just recently he was quoted as saying, “I don't speak in those terms. I am a realist.” Well so am I. And that's exactly what I think we need when it comes to our policy in Iraq: some realism.

Q: You have made the argument that the withdrawal of American combat brigades would be a form of leverage that would encourage political progress in Iraq. Can you give me an example of how the withdrawal of American forces has prompted political change in Iraq?

OBAMA: It is not clear that an ongoing, open-ended presence has prompted political change in Iraq either. The fact of the matter is that we still don't have an oil law. We still don't have provincial elections. We haven'tt dealt with Kirkuk, and the argument for staying is that we haven't made sufficient political progress. So it strikes me that for us to deliver a message of clarity to the Iraqis and to the surrounding countries that we are not looking at a permanent occupation, but we want to partner with you to structure a stable and secure Iraq -- that actually will force the Iraqis to make some decisions that they would not otherwise make.

Now, in some ways, this question has been overwhelmed by events because we now have the prime minister of Iraq suggesting that we should have a timetable. And so the question now becomes if President Bush and John McCain both have argued that our presence there in that sovereign country is based on their desire to see us maintain operations there, and they start saying we would like to take on more responsibility, it seems to me that in part has put us in a position where we need to start figuring out how that is going to work in the most effective way possible.

Q: You have mentioned that your proposal to withdraw combat brigades within 16 months was developed in consultation with military experts. When you were in Baghdad did you ask General Petraeus how he assessed the feasibility of your plan, the pluses and minuses?

OBAMA: We had a wide-ranging conversation. We backed into that question because essentially what I wanted to do was to give him a chance to describe for me what he thought needed to happen and what Ambassador Crocker thought were the developments on the ground. And then I pushed back by suggesting that without drawing down our troops in some careful, strategic way that we would not be able to deal with the problems that I had just seen in Afghanistan before visiting Iraq. So we had that back and forth. And my conclusion, which is something that I said to him and which I certainly don't think he necessarily disagreed with is that his job up until his move to CENTCOM [Central Command] was to focus on Iraq. His job was not to focus on Afghanistan or Pakistan or the other strategic issues that we faced in the region. And so I don't fault him for wanting maximum flexibility in his theater of operations any more than a general who was reporting to him or a commander on the ground who was reporting to him in Iraq might say I want as much as I can get to accomplish my mission in Ramadi or down in Basra or what have you. But he had to make choices within Iraq based on overall strategy and the fact what we have got finite resources. The same is true when you look at our overall national security situation. I have got to figure not only how do we stabilize Iraq but also how do we succeed in Afghanistan, and when the commander on the ground in Afghanistan tells me we need more troops and more resources, and you have got Admiral Mullen saying I don't know to get those troops there unless we start drawing down from Iraq that is something I have to think about. I have to think about the fact that given our current levels of deployment our military is stretched very thin, and that if we had a sudden situation, let's say in North Korea right now, we've got some issues. And that is before we start talking about the expenditures involved at a time when the administration just announced that they want a $700 million credit line. So that is the lens through which I view the situation in Iraq. And that is in no way -- in no way does that reflect any unwillingness to consider General Petraeus's views. I think he has performed with extraordinary ability in Iraq.

Q: There are potentially two very important political milestones in Iraq over the next year: provincial elections and parliamentary elections. In Iraq, every time there has been elections like these the American military ha usually increased its forces. And these are important elections and it is important that if they are held they be perceived as transparent, inclusive and fair. A lot of military experts would feel more comfortable if there was a substantial military presence in Iraq through this election period because they don't feel they are out of the woods yet. Would not that be a more logical way to proceed than to tie the reductions to the calendar and reduce at the mechanical rate at one to two brigades a month.

OBAMA: I am sympathetic to those concerns. The problem is that the provincial elections so far have been pushed further and further back. And this is a reflection of an ongoing problem which is if our benchmarks or conditions that we set are contingent on actions by the Iraqis and the Iraqis don't take them then we are not in control of our own circumstances and our deployments, and at some point we have got to break that link. We have got to be able to say to the Iraqis: we are going to make a set of decisions and you've got to react to them. Now, I actually think that a conversation to have with the Iraqis would be: we are going to be beginning these redeployments so we better get these elections going and we're going to be pushing you really hard precisely because we want to make sure that there is no violence surrounding that election. So that is an example of how the leverage conceivable could work in the opposite direction. That is an example of where leverage could be exerted as a consequence of a timetable: we're going to be leaving at a certain pace, so if you're concerned about making sure these elections are not violent let's get going.

Q: You have said that the United States would provide training for the Iraqi forces as long as those forces did not engage in sectarian activities. Would you also use training as a form of leverage to get the Iraqis to move forward on their political agenda? Would you withhold training if they did not accomplish some of their benchmarks?

OBAMA: In some cases they overlap. Let me give you an example. One of the benchmarks we have been concerned about for a while has been integrating the Sons of Iraq into the security forces of the Iraqi government, integrating Sunnis generally into the Army and the Police. So I do think that conditioning some of our military on the idea that you need to build a security apparatus that gains the confidence of all parties concerned as opposed to simply being an arm of one faction.

Q: So you might withhold training if they did not integrate the Sons of Iraq properly into the security forces?

OBAMA: Yes. Because if they don't then what you are seeing if the potential for us to train simply a Shia-led security force that could present enormous problems for the Sunnis, and it would exacerbate potential problems between the two groups.

Q: Even after the combat brigades you would maintain a residual force in Iraq for counter-terrorism and training missions. What would the elements of this force be? Would if include Special Operations forces, close air support, would it include attack helicopters? Would it include Medivac?

OBAMA: It would likely include all of the above. This is an example of where I would be asking the commanders on the ground, having set the mission, which is to prevent Al Qaeda from reconstituting itself and protecting our mission there, our embassy, and potentially the training functions. That question for the commanders would be: “What resources do you need to accomplish this mission?”

Q: Richard Danzig, who people say may serve as your Secretary of Defense if you are election, has said that such a force could be in the range of 30,000 to 55,000 troops. Is that a range that you are comfortable with.

OBAMA: I have tried not to put a number on it.

Q: But he put a number on it.

OBAMA: Richard is a smart guy, who is communications with commanders on the ground, but this is an example of where I don't believe in jumping ahead of commanders.

Q: There are more than 400 military advisory teams that are training the Iraqi Army, police, national police and border units. And there are thousands of Americans involved in this effort. And that is not to mention the provincial reconstruction teams. So there are a large number of Americans out and about. Would you continue those activities, and if you did, wouldn't you need to retain some combat elements in Iraq to protect them?

OBAMA: The answer is “yes” in the sense that I do not want to put US trainers in harms way without adequate protection. So we would make sure that if we are carrying out a training function that they have got the support around them to do so in a safe and effective way. But again the way I view this residual force is to explain to the commanders the mission I am looking to accomplish and have them tell me what do they need to do the job.

Q: But there could be combat elements in Iraq even after the combat brigades are gone?

OBAMA: Look, what I have said is that over the course of 16 months we will have removed our combat forces. In the sense that brigades and battalions that are designed to engage an enemy in an offensive way a war as we understand it would have been brought to a close. But if you are in an environment where remnants of Al Qaeda might still be operating then they still have some combat capability -- they better. If we have some Special Forces in the region they are going to be engaging in combat taking out any potential terrorist camps. If we have got trainers in the field who are training Iraqi security forces then I want to make sure that they are protected and part of that means when you are in a dangerous neighborhood that you have got some combat capability. But that's different from their purpose for being there: engaging in combat operations.

Q: The Iraqi foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said that during your trip to Baghdad you made the point that it would be better that the Strategic Framework Agreement be deferred to the next administration and approved by the Congress than negotiating during the Bush administration because they were in a “state of weakness and confusion.” What needs to be done now?

OBAMA: Here is what needs to be done now. Those aspects of our operations involving troop immunity, that we are there at the invitation of the Iraqi government, those functions that were laid out in the UN resolution that is about to expire we have to make sure that those are in place, all right. And so it is absolutely not true that I want any delay on that. I want that done as quickly as possible so that we are not exposing that. When it comes to the SFA when we start talking what our strategic posture is with Iraq long term, discussions about bases, mutual security agreements, broad strategic questions, all of which the Iraqis say they have to take to their parliament, what I did say to Prime Minister Maliki is that he should not expect the next administration to be bound by agreements that are not presented and vetted before Congress and representatives of the American people. And I absolutely believe that. I have said that publicly here back home, and it is something I feel very strong about.

Q: What would be the short term steps you would take and the longer-term policies you put in place to deprive Al Qaeda and the Taliban of their bases in Pakistan?

OBAMA: We have the opportunity with a new government to reshape the relationship. In the past our basic posture was all of our eggs are in the Musharraf basket. You know we delivered $10 billion worth of aid. Musharraf on occasion would make gestures towards dealing with these camps, but when it was publically inconvenient or he got pushback from the intelligence agencies he would back off. We, I think, have to test this new government to see how serious they are about this issue and to see they understand that the threat coming out of the FATA is much greater to their security than India. So number one we have to, I think, have very detailed discussions with Pakistan about what are they willing to do and what are they not willing to do. And we need some clarity, as opposed to ambiguity, on those issues. The second thing we have to describe is our interests, which is that it is intolerable for us to have Al Qaeda base camps maintained in their territories that are planning to attack the U.S. homeland. So once there is some clarity about both what they want are willing to and what we want and are willing to do, how we shape the resources that are going into Pakistan, how we explain the armed mission in Afghanistan, all that is above board and clear. And one of the things that we have to describe to the Pakistani people as well as the government, is that we have a great interest in providing them, with not just military assistance, but providing them with assistance that can help make the lives of the people in Pakistan better, something that we tended to neglect during the Musharraf years.

Q: On Iraq, there are risks involved in every policy. As you begin to draw down are that you would not assume such that you would be prepared as commander in chief to pause the reductions or perhaps even reinforce the troops there, and what would they be?

OBAMA: There are always risks, all right, and we are operating with probabilities. At every juncture in this war there have been risks and judgments that had to be applied. So are there scenarios in which we might have to pause? I have already said, I think, in our last interview if you started to see mass killings or violence that not only looked as if it would destabilize Iraq but offended our conscience then as commander in chief I would always reserve the right to pause a withdrawal. But what I am interested in is setting a strategic goal and getting the ball rolling and sending a clear message to the region, to the Iraqi people, to the Iraqi government that it is time for them to take responsibility and that we want to be a partner in that process. You know, we are not looking to simply abandon them to their own devices. What we are interested in doing is working with them so that they can achieve independence, sovereignty and stability. And if there are holes that need to be plugged we will examine those when they come up. But we got to start now otherwise we just got a policy without direction. And given the limits on our resources and the array of threats that we confront we can't afford that kind of approach.

Barack Obama, Interview with the New York Times on Senator Obama's Campaign Plane Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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