Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who has cosponsored legislation requiring President Bush to implement the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, is the next in a series of conversations about Iraq.
JIM LEHRER: Now the fourth of our conversations with U.S. senators about Iraq. We've talked this week with Republican Lindsey Graham and Democrats Carl Levin and Joe Biden. Tonight, we balance the plate with Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander. He supports the recommendations made by the Iraq Study Group.
Senator Alexander, welcome.
SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER (R), Tennessee: Hello, Jim, how are you?
JIM LEHRER: Just fine, sir. You voted yesterday against allowing an up-or-down vote on the Democrats' withdrawal legislation. Why did you do that?
SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER: Well, first, I don't think that we should have a fixed withdrawal deadline. The Baker-Hamilton recommendations, which you just mentioned, rejected that idea. They said that, in a war, that while you might have a goal or a direction -- and they recommend that we move combat troops out of the combat business into what they call support, equipping, and training over the next year, but they say subject to developments on the ground.
So the president is the commander-in-chief. We don't have 100 generals over here in the Senate. Actually, we do, but we don't want them running any war. And so I'm opposed to a fixed withdrawal deadline for that reason.
JIM LEHRER: This was not a party issue for you, Democrats versus Republicans?
SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER: Well, I don't want it to be. We've had too many partisan votes, and that's the reason why I've spent so much time on the Baker-Hamilton recommendations. We now have eight Democrats, six Republicans who would like for the Democratic leadership to back off a little bit, spend a little more time on consensus-building, and less on partisanship, and would like for the president to be more flexible. I think if they both would, we'd have 60 or 70 votes for a unified bipartisan consensus here about where to go in Iraq.
Not a vote for the president
JIM LEHRER: So your vote shouldn't be interpreted, also, as an automatic vote to support the president's position either, is that what you're saying?
SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER: Well, that's correct. I support the president's constitutional prerogatives, and I support the idea of having a commander-in-chief to run the war, rather than 100 generals saying, "Go around that street or up here." But, no, I would like for President Bush to re-read David McCullough's biography of Harry Truman. And if you'll remember Truman...
JIM LEHRER: I do.
SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER: ... after 1946 was about in the same bush President Bush was in. He'd just lost the Congress. It was the end of a war then. He had a mission he thought was very important, in that case rebuilding Europe, but his poll ratings were at the bottom. And he knew that if it was a Truman Plan to rebuild Europe, it wouldn't work.
So he called in General Marshall and his secretary of state, Atchison, and said, "Let's call it the Marshall Plan. Go up to the Hill and persuade Arthur Vandenberg, the leader of the Republicans, to support it," and we had the Marshall Plan.
And the analogy's pretty good in terms of today. If President Bush will embrace the Baker-Hamilton plan, the fact that it's not his plan, and that it brings Democratic support both from those who recommended it and from the Democrats in the Senate and in the House who support it, then we could have a unified position.
JIM LEHRER: I was struck, Senator, by something you said two days ago in your speech on the floor of the Senate during this debate. You said, quote, "I do not believe that President Bush, even if he is right in September," meaning September 15th, when Petraeus is to give his report, "is likely to be able to persuade enough people to support his strategy to be able to sustain this strategy." Those are strong words, Senator. Why did you say that?
SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER: Well, I said that for just the reason I mentioned. President Truman understood that in 1947. He knew that a Truman Plan probably wouldn't pass the Congress, but a Marshall Plan would. And so he swallowed his pride, and he borrowed Marshall's prestige, and he embraced that plan and brought the Senate in.
A part of the president's job is to set the agenda. The rest of it is to persuade enough people he's right. President Truman went from being an unpopular president to today being regarded as one of our near-great presidents. President Bush, I think in September now, when Petraeus comes back, General Petraeus, could do the same thing with the Baker-Hamilton report, updated by Petraeus, but not if it's a Bush plan. He has to have a broader base of support than just his own recommendation today.
Four parts to Baker-Hamilton
JIM LEHRER: Well, in capsule form, what is it that you support about the Baker-Hamilton approach? What is it that the Baker-Hamilton approach would accomplish that all these other plans would not do?
SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER: Well, there are four things, very quickly. One is, out of the combat mission and into support, equipping, and training mission for our troops within about a year, which most estimates are would reduce the number about in half.
JIM LEHRER: But no mandate. It's just a suggestion?
SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER: No mandate, no requirement. In fact, it expressly rejects a deadline and says "subject to developments on the ground, according to a plan drawn up by the commander-in-chief."
JIM LEHRER: OK.
SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER: Second, define a long-term, but narrow interest in Iraq. That means for support, search and rescue, enough special operations to go after al-Qaida and keep it from becoming a haven, embedding in Iraqi troops. That's a significant military force, for a long time, but in a limited and different role.
And, third, step up diplomatic missions and political missions, because, as General Petraeus has told us, most of the counterinsurgency solution is not military. It's diplomatic.
And then there's the last thing. It's the bipartisan quality of it. I mean, these were 10 Americans. You couldn't have gotten a better 10, really, five Democrats, five Republicans, Bill Clinton's secretary of defense, the first President Bush's secretary of state, Lee Hamilton, Sandra Day O'Connor, and they unanimously agreed on a set of recommendations.
The president could embrace that; 14 others here have, eight Democrats, six Republicans. More would. I'm convinced there are 60 or 70 who would if the president would just embrace it and the Democratic leader would back off and stop playing so much politics.
JIM LEHRER: But, Senator, some would suggest that may have been a great thing a few months ago, but it's too late for this. We're now involved in a surge. We're now involved in a whole, new strategy that has nothing to do with Baker-Hamilton and what you're suggesting.
SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER: Some have suggested that. Of course, the Baker-Hamilton plan included the option of surge. And Lee Hamilton, who everybody has a great respect for -- he was the other part of the 9/11 Commission that we all admire -- said this week that the Baker-Hamilton recommendations are just as relevant today as they were in December, that the situation was grave and deteriorating then and it is today, that we need a different mission for our troops then, we do today. We need a long-term limited mission in Iraq then, we do today. We need more diplomatic efforts then, we do today.
Democratic support for the policy
JIM LEHRER: So what do you think is going happen after the surge, Senator, after it's over? I mean, after -- let's be specific. What do you think you're going to hear and the world's going to hear on September 17th from General Petraeus?
SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER: Well, we heard from General Petraeus today, a number of senators. And I have a special admiration for him. He commanded the 101st Airborne Division in Tennessee, and he's really about the best we have in our military.
But I heard from him today. He suggested to me that what we learn in September won't be radically different than what's happening today. He's prepared to make a recommendation; we'll all respect that.
I think it depends on the president. It depends on whether he's read Harry Truman's biography by David McCullough, whether he's willing to remember that he's got the right to set the agenda all by himself. But if he wants to succeed, he needs to borrow the prestige of others, and the Baker-Hamilton option is the best.
And then it depends on Harry Reid. If he'd spend half as much time building consensus as they have planning slumber parties for senators, why, we'd be sending the troops the single best message we can send them, which is that we not only fund them, but we've got a unified mission that most of us support, and I believe that exists here. It's staring us in the face; we just need for the president and the Democratic leader to agree on it.
JIM LEHRER: So what is it that most of the senators support? There are 60 votes in the United States Senate to support something on Iraq?
SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: What is it?
SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER: Well, the Baker-Hamilton recommendation.
JIM LEHRER: But I mean...
SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER: If the president would -- well, one, two, three. One, a redeployment of our troops from combat.
JIM LEHRER: But the Democrats have already said they want something firm, they want dates.
SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER: The Democrats have said that, but eight Democrats in the Senate have also said they support Baker-Hamilton. Many more have said to me that they are comfortable with it. Senators are actually rereading it. And in the House, you have 50 members of the House, about half-Republican and half-Democrat, who've also said that.
So Baker-Hamilton is an option, in my opinion, for most senators, if the Democratic leadership would back off and if the president would embrace it.
JIM LEHRER: Just as a practical matter, Senator, whatever actually happens in the Senate and elsewhere, do you think it's possible for the Iraqis to have full reconciliation and actually build a viable, centrally controlled country? Or should it be divided up in three provinces the way Senator Biden and others have suggested?
SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER: Well, I think Senator Biden -- I think it's more likely to be different than Senator Biden imagines. I imagine it's more likely to be the way what's now Germany was after the Thirty Years' War or the way our country was long before we had a Constitution. I bet that, over the long run in Iraq, it builds up neighborhood by neighborhood, province by province, somewhat in the way we're seeing security develop in Anbar province, and out of that eventually becomes a central government. Switzerland's that way.
JIM LEHRER: But it isn't going to happen by what's happening right now in the central government of Iraq, right? Is that what you're saying?
SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER: I think it's more likely to happen bottom-up and that we're beginning to see that -- I think we probably will move to a situation where we actually select areas, where we're invited into provinces and neighborhoods where -- what happens is it's like what's happening in Anbar province, where they get sick of al-Qaida and sick of having their kids not be able to go to school without being kidnapped, and sick of having their brothers shot at night because of something they said, and say, "We want security. Come in and help us." And we say, "OK, we'll do that, if you want it." And neighborhood by neighborhood, province by province, that begins to happen.
JIM LEHRER: But also, meanwhile, a civil war continues while this happens?
SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER: I suspect so.
JIM LEHRER: And more and more people die, both Iraqis and Americans?
SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER: I suspect so. The Thirty Years' War was 30 years long. I don't know how long this will be. But there's no good solution. The Baker-Hamilton recommendations said that, but the sooner we're on a unified track, the better.
What was particularly ironic to me last night in the debate we had was many senators were lecturing Baghdad about their inability to come up with a consensus. Yet here we are, the oldest democracy, the so-called greatest deliberative body in the world, and we can't come up with one, even though it's staring us in the face.
Change in Iraq
JIM LEHRER: And do you see any signs it's going to change?
SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER: I do. I see seeds of consensus in the Senate and in the House, the three elements that I mentioned in the Baker-Hamilton report, I see many of us agreeable. And while I know I'm sounding a little bit like a broken record, if the Democratic leadership would back off, and if the president would be more flexible and get out David McCullough's book about Truman, I think we could see a unified mission by September.
JIM LEHRER: But isn't it fair to say that the president has not backed off and the Democratic leadership has not backed off?
SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER: That's exactly right.
JIM LEHRER: All right, so you're speaking about a hope here.
SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER: I'm speaking about a hope, but this is the biggest issue facing our country. And we have an obligation to say to those troops fighting in Iraq, "We not only fund you, we agree on what you're fighting for."