NSA James Jones and Senator McCain on Iraq

NSA James Jones and Senator McCain on Iraq

By John King, USA - August 31, 2010

KING: Thirty minutes away from President Obama's address to the nation from the Oval Office, he'll declare combat operations in Iraq over. He'll remind the American people that some 50,000 troops remain. He will also ask for their patience and support as he now pursues a policy in Afghanistan that includes an increase in U.S. troop levels there. Among those helping the president shape these controversial and delicate policies, his national security adviser, James Jones, who joins us right now. First, let me get your assessment of how the president views his challenge in speaking to the American people in just a half an hour.

GEN. JAMES JONES (RET.), NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: I think he's got a very noble task here to signal a milestone accomplishment, which is the end of our combat missions, recognizing how difficult it has been the enormous sacrifice of lives and resources not just on our part but from those of our most steadfast allies, allies who have been with us from the start and many of whom are still with us from Afghanistan, so he'll pay tribute to the courage of our men and women in uniform and our civilians who have fought the good fight. And brought us to this point. This is not the end -- this is not the end of the mission, but it is a milestone. KING: As a general, someone who wore the uniform for years and who has himself been in combat, you want victory. That's what generals go to war for, they go to war for victory. What will we call Iraq? Some people say success, some say get out, will we ever use victory?

JONES: Well I think it's quite possible. I think we're on the path to seeing Iraq emerge as a free Democratic state. A lot of the things that are going on in Iraq are very Democratic. And a lot of things going on aren't Democratic as well. In the formation of the government this morning, I spoke with the vice president's team, the vice president is on the ground working with all parties to form this new government the Iraqis want and deserve. They had an election and they need it. However, it's not to say that there's no government there. There's a caretaker government there. Their government is functioning.

KING: Yet, even your commanding general on the ground who is about to come home after conducting a heroic mission there, General Ray Odierno told this to the "New York Times." Asked if the United States had made the country's division worse, General Odierno said, 'I don't know. There's all these issues that we didn't understand and that we had to work our way through.' He said, 'And did maybe that cause it to get worse? Maybe." Politically, is Iraq in a worse situation or in such a fragile situation that you may get down to 40,000 or 30,000 and then have something horrible happen and then this president would face a pretty catastrophic decision?

JONES: This is a moment where Iraqis and it comes in every conflict where Iraqis have to step up and decide what they want. We can't want a free and Democratic Iraq anymore than Iraqis want for their country. It's my belief and I think it's shared by the vice president who's been really at the forefront of this effort that the main players, the main leaders of the three principal parties, if you will, do in fact want a Democratic Iraq and are willing to make compromises in order to achieve that coalition and it will probably happen in the near future. It would be great if it could have happened by tomorrow. But, what's important is that it happened. I think the pressures from the people are being heard in a Democratic way that it's time to get on with it and form this new government so Iraq can continue on the path that we all want it to be on and that we hope, a year from now, when we pull -- actually by the end of 2011, when we pull the rest of our troops out, there will be 50,000 left for the better part of the year that we will have that goal. If we do, that will change the balance of the power and the whole strategic conflicts of the Middle East.

KING: If you talk with the families, the president meets with the families that have paid the ultimate sacrifice. Many of them have asked the question and many of Americans who aren't so invested might be surprised at this, many of them as the question is it too soon because they don't want their son or daughter to have died in vain. I want you to listen to Carol Roddy, a remarkable woman. She heads the Gold Star Organization in the state of Maryland. She volunteers now at the USO. In about two weeks she will mark the fourth anniversary of losing her son in Iraq trying to get IED. I'm sorry. This is Bob Roddy, the father, Carol Roddy was in earlier today. Listen to his question to the president at this moment.


BOB RODDY, SON KILLED IN IRAQ IN 2006: I don't want it to be a political move because somebody made a promise that we would be out at a certain time. I don't want to come out until we're convinced that they're ready.


JONES: Well, I completely agree with that statement and I think the president does as well. The president set a target for 16 months. He expanded it to 19 months on the basis of recommendations from his commanders and his closest advisers. He would have done 20 months, 21 months. The other thing that's really important to understand is that a year ago, we withdrew our forces from most of the Iraqi cities. So, this is not a light switch that's going to happen tomorrow. We know from a full year's experience that the 600,000-plus manned Iraqi security force, the police forces, have in fact been improving themselves for the better part of the year. So tomorrow morning when we get up, there's no question mark about whether the Iraqis can do it or not. They've been doing it for a year and that should give some sense of comfort to parents who have lost ...

KING: As the president keeps this promise in Iraq, there are many questioning whether he'll be able to keep his promise in Afghanistan which is to begin, not to have everybody out but to begin a draw down from Afghanistan next summer in July. Among those raising questions have been the new commanding general, General Petraeus, who has said if he feels necessary to go back to the president and say that he wants more time that he would do that and the commandant of the Marine Corps has also said publicly and I want you to listen to this that he thinks that by setting a deadline you're sending a bad signal to the enemy.

JONES: We think right now it's probably giving our enemy sustenance. We think that he may be saying to himself, in fact we've intercepted communications that say, hey, we only have to hold out for so long.

KING: Is there tension within the military that and worries that president politically has put July 2011 a circle on the calendar in Afghanistan and politically will feel pressure to start get out?

JONES: Well as a former commandant I'd hate to disagree to the current commandant with whom I have a great friendship and admiration for the great job he's done with the Marines Corps but I would simply say that in the course of our deliberations on our Afghan strategy, everyone had a chance to voice their opinion around the table, both civilian and military and the strategy that was announced was one that was agreed upon. And, you know, no one should think that, that by summer of next year, that this is a wholesale exodus. The thing that we have to co continually explain, it is conditions-based. At some point and the president, I think, when you look at the length of time we have been in Afghanistan, has made a decision at some point, we have to show our public, not only our own the public around the world that the Afghans, also want this as much as we want it for them. So the idea of beginning of transition to that state of affairs is logical. And it's not going to be reckless. It's going to be based on the commander's recommendation. General Petraeus now he straddles two wars and brings extraordinary leadership and experience along with hundreds of thousands of officers and staff NCOs who have fought in both the insurgents in both theaters. They know what they're doing. They're not going to be reckless.

KING: Not going to be reckless you say. Let me ask you in closing, a huge part of the Afghanistan challenge is across the border in Pakistan and it has proven to be very difficult over the years and I know the administration has been trying to improve relations with the Pakistani government. In the middle of that you have these devastating floods that have set back development in Afghanistan that have raised more questions about the stability of the government of Pakistan, excuse me. How does that complicate the challenge?

JONES: I think it complicates it. This is humanitarian disaster that may affect as many as 25 million people. It will be up to the world community to close ranks and help Pakistan get through this, so they can focus on the very real threat of terrorist organizations within their borders. There is no question that what happens in Afghanistan and the time frame in which it happens has a lot to do with what happens in Afghanistan, with Pakistan, sorry.

KING: General Jones, the president will speak to nation in about 20 minutes. We appreciate your time tonight helping us understand the challenge. We'll see you another time.

When we come back a man who told President Obama to support the surge when he didn't and who on this day, on this day, will talk to us about the challenges ahead. Senator John McCain of Arizona, next.


KING: A moment ago, you heard from the president's national security adviser, now let's get the perspective of the president's opponent in the 2008 presidential campaign, Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, a leading voice of his party on defense and national security issues. Senator just let me ask you off the top quite quickly, how do you view this evening? Is it is a significant milestone and what is the president's challenge?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Well, I think it is a milestone and I think the president pointed out today at -- when he spoke to our troops, I believe it was Ft. Bliss, there's still a lot of work to be done and it's not over. It's significant that we have succeeded. So, I agree with General Jones' remarks who just preceded me that we should give and I appreciate the fact that the president's giving such great credit to the men and women who are serving.

KING: Congressman Pete Ellison, a liberal Democrat was on the program earlier, he made it crystal clear that he's not going to buy what the president is going to tell the American people tonight about Afghanistan and that he has a number of questions and he believes Afghanistan in his views, I'm paraphrasing here, it's much like Iraq. It's gone on too long and it's time to go. Will Republicans stand by the president. the Democrat president. when it comes to the Afghanistan policy or we're in a political season, will we see more partisanship?

MCCAIN: First of all, can I mention, it would be the nice that the president mention tonight that the strategy of the surge was originated by President Bush and that President Obama opposed it and opposed it to the point where he voted to cut off all funds for operations in Iraq. The fact is that, it is of great concern despite what my friend Jim Jones just said about the perception, all throughout the area, whether it be in Afghanistan or Pakistan or India, or Iran, that this date is certain for withdrawal, it means that we're going to be leaving regardless of conditions and I appreciate what General Jones just said. I appreciate what Secretary Gates has said and Secretary Clinton, but the fact is, the perception is out there, that we're beginning to leave no matter what the beginning of next year and the president has to say that. The president has to say it's conditions-based and conditions-based only. That message is not getting through, in fact that's why you see Karzai saying some of the things you're hearing him say. Pakistanis are making certain adjustments. The Taliban are telling -- I was outside Kandahar a police chief said that the Taliban are telling us that you're leaving, you Americans are leaving the middle of the next year and they're going to cut off your heads.

KING: My colleague Wolf Blitzer raised some of your concerns earlier with General Jones' deputy Denis McDonough. I want to listen to how Denis McDonough responded.

DENIS MCDONOUGH, CHIEF OF STAFF, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL: We have had a debate on and off over the last couple of years with Senator McCain. Obviously a couple of years ago he was saying that the center front in the war on terrorism was in Iraq. That's obviously been proven to be wrong.

KING: Would you like to respond a little back and forth there?

MCCAIN: No, except to say that obviously we had to win in Iraq and if we hadn't succeeded in Iraq, by the way, General Odierno, I respect those quotes you have, but many conversations that I have had with him and General Petraeus is that it's very tough sledding with Iraq, they're not going to go back with the chaos and anarchy that existed before the surge began. Of course we had to succeed in Iraq and we can succeed in Afghanistan. We can't send the message that we're not there to succeed an artificial date is guiding our strategy.

KING: Senator John McCain of Arizona, congratulations sir on your recent primary win. We'll continue to track the campaign in the days ahead as well as your thoughts on these important national security. Senator, appreciate your time tonight.


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John King, USA

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