A day after a Democratic senator known for speaking out at anti-war protests filed papers to begin exploring the possibility of a presidential run, Senator Hillary Clinton (NY-D) told Matt Lauer on NBC news that she supported a "cap" on US troops sent to Iraq beginning this January. It was her first interview since returning from a trip to Iraq this past weekend as President Bush's escalation strategy is put into effect.
Senator Clinton says that she has no reason to believe that the President's latest plan to secure Baghdad will be successful, adding that the addition of troops in Iraq will particularly undercut efforts in Afghanistan, where she believes more troops are necessary to fight a resurgent Taliban.
Iraqi politicians and military forces are singled out for heavy criticism in Clinton's analysis. At the same time, she is reluctant to use the Congressional "power of the purse" to limit the President's ability to escalate the war.
When Lauer asked "when are you going to get off the sidelines" and decide to run for president, Clinton gave a noncommittal answer.
Senator Barack Obama (IL-D) is expected to make a decision on Feb. 10 on whether or not he will run for the 2008 nomination.
Meanwhile, Tim Russert opined this morning that Clinton seems to be "yielding the left" to Senator Obama, former Senator John Edwards, and others in the crowded Democratic field. He adds that with Obama now entering the race, Clinton will need to declare her candidacy for president in 2008 much sooner than she may have originally intended.
Today, AP reports that Sen. Clinton is calling for a cap on troops in Iraq.
Transcript from inteview:
MR. LAUER: Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton has just returned from a trip to Iraq.
Senator, good morning to you.
SEN. CLINTON: Good morning, Matt.
MR. LAUER: Based on what you saw, Senator, on the ground, based on what you heard from the troops who are serving there, what about this plan to send these additional troops to Iraq, in particular in Baghdad? Do you think the plan can work?
SEN. CLINTON: No. I'm opposed to it. I talked with a number of our troops, obviously our generals as well as our civilian representatives there and members of the Iraqi government, including the prime minister.
I do not think that this strategy has a very high level of success at all attached to it. In fact, I think that at best it's a holding pattern. I support putting a cap on the number of American troops as of January 1st. I support the beginning of a phased redeployment out of Baghdad and eventually out of Iraq completely. I also --
MR. LAUER: But Senator, if we don't send these additional troops in -- yesterday was a day of carnage in Iraq --
SEN. CLINTON: That's right.
MR. LAUER: -- over 100 people killed. The U.N. reports that last year 34,000 Iraqis lost their lives. If we don't suppress this sectarian violence and the insurgency, aren't we just going to see more of the same?
SEN. CLINTON: We're going to see it no matter what, Matt, because the Iraqi government is not committed to taking the steps, both militarily and politically, that would help them to gain control over Baghdad and other places in the country.
I propose putting conditions on the funding that we provide to the Iraqis. I don't think we should continue to fund the protection for the Iraqi government leaders or for the training and equipping of their army unless they meet certain conditions, including making the political compromises that have been called for now for more than two years. I see no evidence --
MR. LAUER: So when you say --
SEN. CLINTON: -- that they are about to do that.
MR. LAUER: When you say you're opposed to sending these troops in and you want to cap the number of troops, I mean, the troops are already on their way. They're heading there right now. Most Democrats have said they will not cut funding for troops on the ground.
So what exactly are you going to do? And what's the window you're willing to give the president to try this new strategy? At what point do you say, "Enough's enough, Mr. President; now I will use the purse strings"?
SEN. CLINTON: Well, the problem, of course, Matt, is that the president has enormous authority under our constitutional system to do exactly what he's doing. He does have the money already appropriated in the budget. But look at what decisions he's making. He's taking troops away from Afghanistan, where I think we need to be putting more troops, and sending them to Iraq on a mission that I think has a very limited, if any, chance for success.
We are doing nothing to change the dynamic with the Iraqi government. They're waiting us out. They intend to do everything they can to impose a particular brand of dominance over the Sunnis. And there's no reason for the Sunni insurgency, therefore, to stop. We need to have --
MR. LAUER: So when the U.S. military official said in Baghdad, quote, "We are implementing a strategy to embolden a government that is actually part of the problem; we're being played like a pawn," you would agree with that?
SEN. CLINTON: I certainly would agree with that. And the other missing element of this, which the administration refuses to pursue, is any kind of regional conference. We need to get the political changes made within Iraq. And we are not putting any leverage on this government to do it.
I don't think begging a government that has shown no willingness to make tough decisions is a strategy. I think putting leverage on them and saying, "You know what, we provide security for the members of this government; we're cutting funding for that; we're not going to fund an army that doesn't show up half the time, that is more aligned with their sectarian position than with the national identity," and I just have to reiterate, we could, with our attention focused on this strategy, which I think is a losing strategy, turn what has been a very positive development in Afghanistan to a loss. We're going to have a big Taliban offensive --
MR. LAUER: Right.
SEN. CLINTON: -- in the spring. We need more troops in Afghanistan. And today Senator Bayh and I have sent a letter to Secretary Gates saying that we need two additional infantry battalions in the south of Afghanistan --
MR. LAUER: Let me --
SEN. CLINTON: -- and don't take away a battalion out of the east of Afghanistan to send it to Iraq on this very bad mission that the president has engaged in.
MR. LAUER: Let me turn the corner, if you will, Senator, on a couple of things. Senator Barack Obama has announced he's opening an exploratory committee, basically the first step toward running for president. Is he completely qualified? He's been in the Senate for two years, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. Is he completely qualified to be commander in chief, in your opinion?
SEN. CLINTON: You know, Matt, we're going to have a really vigorous debate, I think on both sides, with both parties, in this primary season. And the voters will make these decisions. That's what's so great about our system.
MR. LAUER: But do you think he's qualified? I mean, he's a fellow Democrat. Would you be comfortable with him in the White House?
SEN. CLINTON: I'm going to let all of those decisions be sorted out by voters. You know, this is at the beginning of a long process, and we don't even know who all is going to be in it and what their positions are going to be. But what's good about this is we're going to have a real conversation in the country about, you know, what our goals are, how we frankly undo some of the damage that's been done by this administration, and get back on the right track.
MR. LAUER: We don't know who's going to be in it because some people are still sitting on the sidelines. When are you going to get off the sidelines?
SEN. CLINTON: Well, I'll certainly come back and talk to you about that when a decision is made.
MR. LAUER: All right, Senator Hillary Clinton. Senator, thanks for your time this morning. I appreciate it.