Guests: Senators Durbin and Graham

Guests: Senators Durbin and Graham

By Parker Spizter - December 3, 2010

SPITZER: All right, Kathleen. Now let's switch back to the first quagmire we talked about, Afghanistan, our headliner tonight. A radical new plan for that troubled situation.

Joining us from Washington, South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham who has visited Afghanistan about a dozen times and has been deeply involved in the conversations about Afghanistan. Senator, thank you for joining us.


SPITZER: You know, Senator, obviously with the president shooting over to Afghanistan today, a number of people are saying, why now? You have the tax debate going on. You have the deficit commission coming out. Job numbers that are quite frankly abysmal.

This is his third trip overseas. What do you make of the timing? Is this the right moment for him to do what we believe he should do, which is lead the troops but why today?

GRAHAM: Well, I think it's good that he went today. I'm for the president going to Afghanistan and Iraq as much as possible. Why today, because we're about eight days away from the report by General Petraeus evaluating the current strategy. We need to push the Karzai government to do more. We need to reassure the Karzai government that we're not leaving in 2011. I'm very pleased by the statement by the president that we're going to stay with it and transition in 2014 when the Afghans will be in the lead.

So now is the critical time in Afghan politics and security re- evaluation for the president to be on the ground, thank the troops during the holiday season and get a firsthand understanding of what's going on from General Petraeus. So I support him going now.

PARKER: What do you imagine, what do you envision that that strategy reappraisal will look like? Do you hint of what --

GRAHAM: Well, I do believe there are places in Afghanistan, Kathleen, that have become more secure because of the 30,000 additional troops that we could actually begin to withdraw some troops next summer.

But we're going to need a substantial U.S. presence for a long time to come because the fight is a long way from being over, but we should all be focusing on the 2014 date of giving the Afghan security forces a chance to develop and mature and let them get into lead, then, so the enemy doesn't think we're leaving in 2011.

One thing I put on the table is under the right circumstances it would make sense to me, Kathleen, for America to have an air base in the north and south of Afghanistan for in perpetuity because that way Afghan security forces would always have American air power to combat any effort of the Taliban to come back and have some special forces units assigned to those air bases to make sure Afghanistan never goes back into chaos. I'd like to see that on the table.

PARKET: Just to be clear, you're suggesting a permanent U.S. presence in Afghanistan?

GRAHAM: Something we should consider. We have bases all over the world. We got air bases in the UAE, Kuwait, under the right circumstances I think it would really secure the gains we made to have a U.S. presence in Afghanistan.

Two air bases that would be beneficial to the Afghan Security Forces, only if the Afghans want it as a way to make sure this country never goes back into the hands of the Taliban. I think that would be a good way to end the Afghan conflict.

SPITZER: You know, Senator, I hear what you're saying and I'm actually kind of startled by it because my recollection is this war was about al Qaeda and terrorism, not about nation building in Afghanistan.

You're now suggesting a permanent, in perpetuity presence in Afghanistan, perhaps the most corrupt country, a president who takes bags of cash from Iran. What are we doing? Al Qaeda is in Pakistan. Al Qaeda is in Somalia, Yemen. Why are we going to be sending American troops to die, to prop up a corrupt Karzai who's been antithetical to what we believe in?

GRAHAM: Well, my belief is that we're in Afghanistan to protect national security interests of this nation. If you replace Karzai, who do you replace him with? The people to replace him would be the Taliban and the Taliban would open up Afghanistan once again to al Qaeda.

The only reason they're not in large numbers in Afghanistan now is because the troops we have and the Afghan army is getting better so we've literally driven them out. I want to keep them out and I want to secure the gains we've had.

SPITZER: If it sounds to me like what you're doing is creating a permanent presence in Afghanistan somewhat akin to what we have in Korea propping up a corrupt regime when our true enemy al Qaeda has already left and gone to Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. And we're going to be pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into supporting a puppet regime that takes money from other corrupt nations to what end? The enemy is al Qaeda.

GRAHAM: The end is securing U.S. national security interests. I'm glad we have troops in Korea.

SPITZER: But Senator -- but Senator, the objective here, I always thought, was defeat al Qaeda, which is the terrorist group.

GRAHAM: No, no, no.

SPITZER: You're saying that's not the objective?

GRAHAM: The objective for our country is to never be attacked again by Islamic extremists.

SPITZER: You're now suggesting a dedication of resources that I don't think I've heard from anybody suggest we should do in perpetuity with air bases permanently in Afghanistan.

GRAHAM: Well, here's the benefit of it. The people in Pakistan would not have to hedge their bets because they know we're not going to leave. People in Pakistan would never have to worry about the Taliban coming back again and doing business with them.

Iran would know we're not leaving the region. The people in Afghanistan would know they would have U.S. support in perpetuity so they could make good decisions and get off the fence and come our way, not the Taliban's way. They don't want to go back to Taliban life.

It would be a reassuring presence to all of those who have taken up arms in support of us and it would be a devastating statement received by the enemy. I want the enemy to know that Afghanistan is never going to be your hiding place ever again and it would help with Pakistan to let them know America is not going to abandon Afghanistan and the problems we have right now is people are uncertain about what we're going to do.

I want Iran to know with certainty that you're not going to develop a nuclear weapon. No matter what it takes we're not going to let you do that. Until they get that message the world is getting dangerous by the day.

SPITZER: You know, Senator, I think we all share the ambition that you set forth, but I think you are articulating the most dramatic -- you're laying out a nation building strategy that would dedicate our troops and our dollar and our armed forces to Afghanistan and to Pakistan and to all the neighboring countries as you say in perpetuity.

And every foreign policy expert we speak to says the world is growing around us, jobs, intellectual property. We're losing our economic base and we are fighting in a country that is known as the graveyard of empires, falling into the worst, most obvious historical trap. You're saying we're going to be there forever?

GRAHAM: No, I'm suggesting that we have a relationship are the Afghan people that no one's ever had in their history, friends. We're not the Russians. We're in the British Empire. We don't want anything they have. We want to make sure the country never falls back into the hands of extremists to protect ourselves.

SPITZER: Senator?

GRAHAM: I can promise you there are plenty of people in Afghanistan who would welcome a permanent relationship with the United States because we're not the Russians.

PARKER: Well, Senator, let me just ask a simple question, do you think we're winning in Afghanistan?

GRAHAM: I think we're back on the offensive. We're cross -- we're going to play Auburn/South Carolina are going to play, we're on their side of the field because the 30,000 troops.

Eliot, if we hadn't put 30,000 troops in place, I don't think we'd ever have a chance to get back on offense, and the question is, how did the Taliban come back? They don't have organized army. They don't have an air force. They came back because of poor governance and lack of security.

What you call nation building I call an enduring relationship to make sure the Afghan security forces always have the edge against the Taliban and generationally we change governance because if you don't provide better governance, the Taliban takes advantage of it.

So we're on offense now. I think we can win by 2014. We're training the Afghan army and police unlike any time I've seen. So I'm quite encouraged, but the culture of impunity, the culture of corruption is still a big hurdle and we're a long way from turning that around.

SPITZER: Well, look, I hear you, but I could not disagree more fundamentally that this is of all the places in the world where we want to dedicate in perpetuity our troops, our dollars and our effort, but I want to go across the border to Pakistan -- GRAHAM: Can I ask you one thing? This has been a fun debate. Do you think al Qaeda would have ever planned the attacks of 9/11 if we had two air bases in Afghanistan after the Russians left?

SPITZER: We will never know to answer to that, but I can tell you this. The way to go after al Qaeda is not by putting military bases in Afghanistan. Use the counterinsurgency and anti-terrorism intelligence and operations that we can use to go after al Qaeda.

As you have said, Senator, it's now in Pakistan and in Yemen and Somalia that's where we go after them. What would you suggest we do with respect to Pakistan, which you said was the base from which they were supporting these terrorist attacks?

GRAHAM: What I would do for Pakistan is I will continue to support them militarily, give them aid, but I would put benchmarks and conditions. I would push them hard to get better into the fight along the border and help us, destroy sanctuaries that exist in Pakistan.

I would try to convince the Pakistani government and military that the extremist on their side of the border is a bigger threat to them than India.

PARKER: All right, Senator Lindsey Graham, thank you so much for being with us. We hope you'll come back and talk to us --

GRAHAM: It's a good discussion.

PARKER: OK, we'll be right back.




PARKER: The president's deficit commission today narrowly missed the 14 votes needed to force a congressional vote on the plan. Eleven members of the bipartisan commission voted for the proposal to cut the deficit including, our next guest.

SPITZER: Joining us on "Constitution Avenue" segment tonight is the second most powerful man in the Senate, Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the assistant majority leader.

Senator, thank you for joining us.

DURBIN: Good to be with you, Eliot.

SPITZER: Thank you.

Senator, now, explain to the public -- you voted for this deficit commission proposal, but simultaneously said you would vote against it if it were actually brought to the floor of the United States Senate -- explain what might appear to be an inconsistency and what your objective is in doing that.

DURBIN: I don't think there was a single person voting for it that didn't take exception to some of the provisions. Now, imagine, this is a plan for a budget for the next 10 years. There were a lot of ideas in there. Some of those I embrace, and many of those I object.

But I thought it was a vote, as I said at the hearing this morning, on a motion to proceed to balance the budget, or at least to bring it closer to balance. And I wanted to be on record, yes. I think that liberals and conservatives and Democrats and Republicans and independents really need to accept the obvious, we cannot continue to borrow 40 cents out of every dollar we spend.

PARKER: Now, that this plan didn't pass though -- you say you voted for it in order to make your statement that you're interested in having this conversation.

DURBIN: That's right.

PARKER: Do you feel that those who voted against it are not interested in that conversation?

DURBIN: They'll have to explain their own motives for voting no, but I understand it. And many of them were heartfelt. I had some of my friends on the Democratic side, good liberal friends, conservative, progressive friends, you know, like Jan Schakowsky, whom I really value as a close friend, who just saw it differently and thought this did not go far enough in the direction she wanted it to go.

But having said that, though, if you're serious about the budget deficit, we got to roll up our sleeves and come to the table, both sides, if we're ever going to achieve anything.

SPITZER: You know, the irony here and I should preface this by saying I think what you did is not only admirable and courageous, but it's important right.

The irony, though, is we're at the same time that you've struggled to come up with a plan to cut about $4 trillion over a decade. We're about to put back in place and extend some tax cuts -- the impact of which will be to take away that $4 trillion of revenue. So, another alternative would have been for the president just to say, you know what, we can't afford this tax cut right now, it hasn't worked as a matter of economic policy, we balance the books that way.

Why should that not be the way we move forward?

DURBIN: Eliot, of course, is we're in a perilous position with this economy. Today's report on unemployment shows that the rate's gone up. We're not out of the woods yet.

And one of the things I insisted on in this deficit commission, is that before we hit the deficit brake, we're going to wait until January of 2013, because I don't -- I'm not sure we're going to be out of the woods very quickly. I want to make certain that we put enough stimulus in this economy to start creating jobs to help small businesses so that people start earning wages and paying taxes rather than calling for government services.

SPITZER: You referenced before the perilous condition of our economy and you're right, with the unemployment number moving certainly in the wrong direction, today -- the indicators are not good at all. It seems we're almost at the end of our rope. Interest rates are down to zero. The Republican majority soon in the House is opposed to any more fiscal stimulus.

What levers are going to be left to really push this economy forward? How are we going to begin to get that job engine roaring again?

DURBIN: Well, one thing, Eliot, is the small business credit bill, which the president signed into law. I don't believe that's really engaged yet. That has the potential to infuse up to $300 billion in loans to small businesses across the United States of America. That could be a catalyst that will be very, very positive.

SPITZER: How do we get the financial services sector to play a more aggressive role in what we need done here?

DURBIN: I'd like to see a little more-arm twisting out of the White House. I'll be honest with you. When you consider what we did with the bailout funds, the TARP funds, and what it did to save financial institutions, which in their perfidy, made some of the most horrible mistakes in the history of the American economy. And then they turned around, awarded one another bonuses and cut off the credit spigot for businesses across America. The businesses in this country as well as these financial institutions, as we know, have been profitable, are sitting on a lot of cash and reserves. If they would start investing back in this economy, which I think they should, the president ought to urge them to, it could have a positive impact.

PARKER: Paul Krugman today wrote a stinging column about the president. And I'd read a quote to you. "Mr. Obama seems, almost seems as if he's trying systemically to disappoint his once-fervent supporters, to convince the people who put him where he is that they made an embarrassing mistake."

What is your reaction to that kind of criticism of the president?

DURBIN: I understand it, because I hear from the left in our Democratic Party that they want the president to be more confrontational. I understand their sentiment. I feel that many times, myself.

But I also know this president has to step back and look at the overall picture. He has to look at this economy and realize how fragile it is, how important it is for us to create jobs and to invigorate business. And many times, that means making concessions with the Republicans who still have an important voice in this process and will have bigger voice come January. And I know that frustrates our base, and frustrates Mr. Krugman, who I respect very much.

PARKER: Senator, I want to shift gears for a minute to Afghanistan. I guess you're familiar with your colleague, Senator Lindsey Graham, is proposing building two air bases in Afghanistan and keeping our troops there in perpetuity, he said today, on our show actually.

DURBIN: Well, I greatly respect Lindsey. We see the world in some issues in different terms. And when it comes to the United States' presence in Afghanistan, it's a very expensive commitment. It cost $1 million per year for every soldier on the ground. It costs us $40 for every gallon of fuel that is used at Afghanistan.

We are a nation that is very sensitive to our own debt and deficit, and very sensitive to the fact that a lot of the money that we're pumping in to Afghanistan is being diverted sadly into the hands of corrupt officials who are turning it around and using it for bullets to shoot at American troops.

PARKER: OK. One last question, Senator, before we let you go. Is it true you kill rats with your bare hands?


DURBIN: No, that's not true. But it is true I happen to live in one of those glamorous townhouses on Capitol Hill with Senator Schumer of New York and George Miller of California and, yes, we were invaded by rats and, yes, I set the traps.

PARKER: OK. Senator Dick Durbin, thank you so much for being here.

DURBIN: Thank you, too.


Parker Spizter

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