Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) debated the Iraq war on Meet the Press Sunday morning. The discussion got heated at times, with McCain accusing Kerry of misquoting generals, and Kerry charging McCain with ignoring key points of contention.
Here's a transcript of a key portion of their debate, moderated by Tim Russert.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me start with you, Senator McCain. What should be the U.S. strategy in Iraq for the next year?
SEN. McCAIN: The U.S. strategy in Iraq should be to defeat al-Qaeda, to do everything we can to reverse the increasing influence of Iran in Iraq, and to achieve or move towards the goal of military security and a functioning government.
MR. RUSSERT: General Petraeus was in Washington, and he testified and he agreed that in order to do that we will lose, on the average, two U.S. men or women per day...
SEN. McCAIN: Mm-hmm.
MR. RUSSERT: ...15 will be wounded or injured per day...
SEN. McCAIN: Mm-hmm.
MR. RUSSERT: ...at a cost of $300 million per day. Is it worth it?
SEN. McCAIN: Well, General Petraeus’ answer was pretty much the same as mine. All of us are saddened and frustrated by the course of this war. It was very badly mismanaged by the former secretary of defense and this administration. I, late in 2003, said this strategy is doomed to failure, that we had to fix it, that we had to adopt the strategy that we’ve now adopted. And it is now succeeding. Are we heartbroken at the loss and sacrifice of these brave young Americans? Of course. But the point is that now that we are succeeding with this strategy—and that’s the opinion of most observers—and abandon it and go—either go back to the previous failed strategy, which some Democrats want to do, or set a date for pullout and indicate that we’re leaving the neighborhood, then there’s no doubt in my mind of the consequences. And that’ll be genocide, chaos in the region and far worse than the situation we have today, which I believe can succeed if given sufficient time.
MR. RUSSERT: Senator Kerry, your response.
SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA): Well, the Bush-McCain strategy of escalating our troops in the middle of a civil war has no relationship directly to what you need to do to resolve the civil war. So you can put additional troops in and secure a small area here or there, but everybody knows there are not enough troops to be able to secure all of the areas you need to secure and, most importantly, it does absolutely nothing to resolve the fundamental differences, Tim. A policy of putting more troops in and staying is a policy for staying. It is not a policy for winning or for changing the equation. And the fact is that over the last four and a half years, they’ve had ample opportunity to make any of the fundamental political decisions that really don’t relate to security. An oil revenue law does not take security to be passed. A de-Baathification law does not take security to be passed. It takes political will. They haven’t shown the political will. We have to change the fundamental equation and create leverage in our relationship.
Second major point, this is making us weaker in the war on terror. It is emboldening Iran, empowering Iran, empowering Hamas, empowering Hezbollah. The United States has lost leverage in the region. We need a better policy, and there is a better one.
MR. RUSSERT: Which is?
SEN. KERRY: The better policy is to re-establish that leverage, is to make it clear to the Iraqis that we are leaving over a period of time.
MR. RUSSERT: How long?
SEN. KERRY: That we’re transit—over a year. That is what all of us have said. Fifty-two votes, a majority of the United States Senate, has voted to do that. And Republicans are, are, are obstructing our ability to be able to change the policy of the war. The fact is that we have no leverage. If the president says a year from now we’re going to have 130,000 troops there and we’re going to go back to where we were almost a year ago when the country almost fell apart, that is not putting pressure on the Iraqis.
MR. RUSSERT: A phased withdrawal over the course of the next year?
SEN. McCAIN: It depends on the situation on the ground. In all due respect to the comments that John just made, he would think that we have pursued the same strategy for the last four years or so. The fact is we have changed that strategy, albeit way too late; and in Anbar province, parts of Baghdad, the Kurdish areas, there are areas of secure environment. There is significant political progress on the ground in the local environment. I am convinced that the Maliki government, if they are told we are leaving, they have to stay in the neighborhood, and they will adjust to conditions in the neighborhood. That’s dealing—making deals with al-Qaeda and others.
This consequences of a set date for a withdrawal, in the view of many who opposed us going into the war in the first place—General Scowcroft, General Zinni, others—would be—including a piece by Dr. Kissinger in this morning’s Washington Post—all agree that setting a date for withdrawal would cause us to have severe national security problems in the future. General Jim Jones’ commission testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week that if we set a date for withdrawal, it will have severe national security implications not only in Iraq but the region.
Look at the region. What do, what do the Saudis do when they feel they have to help the Sunni? What happens when the Iranians gain further and further leverage in the region? What happens as far away as Afghanistan and Pakistan? The Syrians, who are now exporting suicide bombers into Iraq, the lethal explosives that’re coming in from Iran—all of that will accelerate, and we will be—have cause, unfortunately, to return. And I understand, again, the frustration that people feel. But to somehow assert that we’ve been pursuing exactly the same tactic is simply not in keeping with what we have been doing on the ground. And I’m proud of General Petraeus’ leadership, and I’m appalled by the attacks that’ve been made on him.
SEN. KERRY: Tim, let me, let me answer that, if I may, because it’s a very important distinction that’s got to be drawn here. John keeps using the word “withdrawal,” that, that, you know, a, a fixed date withdrawal is somehow going to abandon Iraq. We’re not talking about abandoning Iraq. We’re talking about changing the mission and adjusting the mission so that the bulkier combat troops are withdrawn, ultimately, within a year, but that you are continuing to provide the basic backstop support necessary to finish the training, so they stand up on their own, and you are continuing to chase al-Qaeda.
Now, I think John and others have a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship of al-Qaeda to Iraq. Number one, it wasn’t there. I thought one of the starkest things that General Petraeus said, “Did this have anything to do with al-Qaeda? Was al-Qaeda in Iraq before we attacked?” “No, it wasn’t,” he said. There was no al-Qaeda there. So we are in Iraq today on false pretenses, in the middle of a civil war, expending our troops while Iraqi politicians use us as cover for their own games. And the only way you will change that is to change this equation. When the president says to them, “We’ll stay as long as it takes,” they can make the decision to take as long as they want to make any decision necessary. You wouldn’t negotiate the sale of your home the way we’re negotiating in Iraq. There’s no leverage. We’ve said we’re there. You have to create uncertainty. You have to create leverage. And the only way to do that is to say to them, “This mission is transitioning. You have to take responsibility for this security over the course of the next year, and we’re going to take a different position.”
Now, there’s one other ingredient to that, and it’s been missing. You have to surge the diplomacy here, not the troops. There is such a stunning absence of real diplomacy in this effort. Where’s Condi Rice? Where is the effort of this administration to be engaged in a standing summit and conference, where you go into a room and the president gives the instructions, “You don’t leave here until you know one of three things: They’re either willing to have pluralism and settle these differences and do the passing of these laws, or they’re going to live in some kind of a semi-partitioned, you know, form where Sunni can’t go kill Shia and Shia can’t kill Sunni, or it’s impossible.” A president ought to be demanding those answers. And I believe that, you know, what we’re doing today—no young American ought to give their life or be grievously wounded so Iraqi politicians can delay making fundamental decisions that they haven’t made over four and a half years, and their constituencies won’t let them make them.
SEN. McCAIN: You know what John is advocating is to go back to the failed tactic of before. And whether al-Qaeda was there before or not, al-Qaeda is there now. Al-Qaeda is there now. Who blew up the mosque in Samarra? Who just went in the northern part of Iraq and killed 500 innocent impoverished people? Who is it that continues to set off most of these suicide bombs to try to increase the sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia? It’s al-Qaeda. It’s al-Qaeda in Iraq.
MR. RUSSERT: Is the problem...
SEN. McCAIN: Now, now—let me...
SEN. KERRY: But, John, you’re just ignoring what I said.
SEN. McCAIN: ...could I just finish—could I just finish what I’m saying please, and then be—and General Petraeus has said, and I take his word for it, Iraq is now the central front in the war against al-Qaeda. Now, John and his friends don’t believe that. I believe the compelling evidence on the ground indicates that clearly, and to, and to say we’re going to have a date for withdrawal in, in, in complete ignorance of the facts on the ground, in my view, is a recipe for failure and disaster.
SEN. KERRY: Let me, let me speak to that also. I read and listened to the testimony of John McCain questioning General Petraeus. And John McCain...
SEN. McCAIN: Good.
SEN. KERRY: ...asked him about—John McCain asked him about being a central front. And he said, “How do you know it’s a central front?” And he said, “Because I talked to the head of the national intelligence and another general, and they tell me al-Qaeda says it is their central front.” Now, al-Qaeda can choose to make it their central front, but we’re not leaving al-Qaeda to that front. Everything in the Democratic proposal that has 52 votes, a majority of the Senate, says we will leave troops to continue to chase al-Qaeda. That’s number one.
Number two, Tim, al-Qaeda views Shia as apostates. They are not legitimate Muslims. The fact is you’re better off as a Christian or as a Jew than as a Shia in the eyes of al-Qaeda. And Iran, linked as it is already to Maliki, who was in Iran a month ago, holding hands with the leader of Iraq, they’re already linked. The Shia will never allow al-Qaeda to take over Iraq. The Kurds will never allow al-Qaeda to take over Iraq. That’s 80 to 85 percent of the country. And the Sunni in Anbar have now decided they don’t want al-Qaeda. We are the attraction for al-Qaeda. And if we begin to reduce our footprint, as the Iraq Study Group has said we should do, as General Jones said we should do, as those seven soldiers of the 82nd Airborne, two of whom were just recently killed, wrote in The New York Times the other day, as we should do, then al-Qaeda, believe me, will be driven out by the Iraqis themselves.
SEN. McCAIN: Surely you don’t believe that General Petraeus reaches his conclusions by talking to somebody. He lives and works there.
SEN. KERRY: I’m quoting what General Petraeus said.
SEN. McCAIN: Gen-oh please.
SEN. KERRY: I’m quoting what he said to you, John.
SEN. McCAIN: General Petraeus, General Petraeus has said hundreds of times that it is the central front in the war against terror in al-Qaeda...
SEN. KERRY: I’m just quoting what he said to you.
SEN. McCAIN: ...because of the conditions, because of the conditions on the ground and you are quoting him incorrectly, and...
SEN. KERRY: No, I’m quoting him absolutely correctly.
SEN. McCAIN: ...selectively. No.
SEN. KERRY: And moreover, you’re not answering the fundamental issue.
SEN. McCAIN: But the fact is, but the fact is when, when, when Senator Kerry says that we will just take care of al-Qaeda, then you go into a place where they’re fighting. “Excuse me, sir. Are you al-Qaeda or Sunni or Shia?” Please. We’ve got to have sufficient—and General Jones did say if we set a date for withdrawal, and it’s on the record, if we set a date of—for withdrawal...
SEN. KERRY: Yes it is.
SEN. McCAIN: ...then the United States security interests will be negatively impacted and harmed in the area, as well as Iraq.
SEN. KERRY: Once again, you use the words withdrawal.
SEN. McCAIN: So please don’t misquote General Jones again, please.
SEN. KERRY: We will have troops in Iraq.
SEN. McCAIN: You are setting a date for withdrawal.
SEN. KERRY: We have all acknowledged that there will be some troops there to finish the training, finish standing them up.
MR. RUSSERT: How many?
SEN. KERRY: To chase al-Qaeda.
MR. RUSSERT: How many American troops?
Read the rest of the Kerry-McCain debate on Iraq on the Meet the Press website.