PODCAST TRANSCRIPT: Hello, this is Senator Barack
Obama, and I am resuming my podcasts after a couple weeks Christmas
Break. And I am calling from a cell phone at a hotel overlooking
the hills of Amman, Jordan. It's actually a beautiful city, Jordan.
The sun is setting and I am just come back from my first trip into
You know, obviously Iraq has dominated our foreign
policy for the last several years. Listeners to my regular podcasts
or those who followed my campaign, I think, are aware of the fact
that I have been deeply skeptical about the administration's policy
towards Iraq and the initial invasion. I felt it was important for
me to visit Iraq myself and get some sort of first hand report about
what was happening there.
So, I started the trip actually from Kuwait, where
the US maintains several bases that are used to provide logistical
support for what's happening in Iraq. I met with troops as well
as some of the generals who are in charge of logistical support.
They talked about the enormous efforts that are required to maintain
our presence in Iraq. There are about 20,000 troops in this base
in Kuwait and they typically provide initial training for troops
before they deploy into Iraq as well as providing water and fuel
and are used as a launching site for operations in Iraq.
I had the opportunity to meet with a number of troops
from Illinois as well as play a little basketball with some of the
troops in the gymnasium there. And so I had a chance to talk to
them about their feelings about what was happening. I think it's
fair to say that morale among almost every US troop that I met was
high. I think everybody is very proud of the work that they're doing
and understandably so. Because regardless of how you feel about
the war, what's astonishing is just the pride that our men and women
in uniform take about accomplishing the tasks before them. The effort
in Iraq is just an unbelievable logistical task.
We flew into Baghdad and then I was helicoptered
into the Green Zone. And when you visit the Green Zone, which is
several miles wide and long in the center of Baghdad, you really
get a sense that US military operations have built an entire city
within a city. There are thousands of US military personnel and
coalition forces - everything from embassy personnel to logistical
support to troops that are about to be deployed into other areas
of the country.
It's an impressive achievement and in conversations
with US personnel there all of them felt a genuine sense of progress
after this most recent election. The feeling was that there was
a great opportunity for the first time in sometime to create a national
unity government that actually had some claim of legitimacy with
the Iraqi people.
I had a meeting then with Ambassador Khalilzad,
the US Ambassador to Iraq, who discussed the meaning of the most
recent election. His belief is that there is an opportunity to create
a government that unifies Shiite, Sunni and Kurd, but that it's
not going to be easy. That the election in and of itself doesn't
create that unity. In fact the election was largely along sectarian
lines. But that hopefully there is a recognition on the part of
the leadership in all these various factions that recognizes a unified
Iraq is better than the alternative, regardless of how difficult
it is. And overall I was impressed with the work that he was doing.
Later that evening I had dinner with the President
or Iraq, President Talabani as well as a number of ministers in
the current Iraqi government, representing various factions. And
the general impression was that they recognized the need to arrive
at accommodations; and that was a cause for some small optimism.
The next day we took Blackhawk helicopters and went
out to Fallujah, which is the site of some of the worst violence
in Iraq. I did not travel through the city proper but rather flew
into the primary US military base out there, and had a briefing
from both their general as well as the colonels who were in charge
of troops out there. As we arrived we learned that just a day earlier
five marines had been killed, and obviously people were pretty somber
about that. It's still very dangerous work to be done.
And in discussions with our military, one message
that came across repeatedly was that there is not going to be a
military solution to the problem of Iraq; that only political accommodations
can solve some of these problems. One of the colonels that we met
in Fallujah, who is in charge of intelligence, pointed out that
you've got 50% unemployment rates in many of the western portions
of Iraq. And what that means is that the insurgency is going to
continually grow unless the central government pays attention to
the concrete needs of the people in that area. It also means that
despite the work of the US military in apprehending the leaders
of the insurgency in that area, there are always young men who are
willing to fill the shoes of those who are apprehended. And as a
consequence, the insurgency and the dangers posed by the explosive
devices that they are setting throughout the country will continue,
as well as the suicide bombings. This colonel really felt very strongly
that the problem we faced was not a matter of foreign fighters,
but rather a combination of foreign Jihadists and, more importantly,
the homegrown support that continues to be generated.
We went to Kirkuk in northern Iraq where the situation
is a little bit more stable, although there is significant tension
there. Kirkuk is the site of a lot of oil wealth that the Kurdish
want to incorporate into their regional government and is being
resisted by Shiite and Sunni alike. And so a very complicated political
process is taking place in that region.
You know, as you fly from Baghdad airport to the
Green Zone and then out to places like Fallujah and you look down
on the countryside and over the city, you realize how devastating
this war has been for the country. It still looks shell-shocked.
The land is muddy and fallow and strewn with skeletons of old trucks
and cars and the imprints of buildings that are now reduced to rubble.
There is very little traffic on the streets; a few people are on
foot. It reminds you of how devastating war is.
The conversations that I had with troops who had
lost friends and colleagues reminded me of how personally devastating
war is to soldiers and their families.
And I think generally it emphasizes, in my mind
at least, how our foreign policy has to be tough but it has to also
be smart; and that we have to possess some element of humility about
our capacity to remake other countries and other cultures.
I think there are several things that I at least
learned from the trip, some of which reinforced some of my previous
thoughts and some thoughts that are new:
Number one, we have probably a six-month window
in which to create the sort of national unity government that can
actually deliver a basic government to the Iraqi people and deliver
the sort of political accommodations that are the necessary precursor
for any solution to the violence in Iraq. Whether that's going to
happen or not will depend on the degree to which the Shiite majority
shows restraint and recognizes the need to bring Sunnis into all
levels of government, particularly the security forces. It's also
going to depend on the degree that the Sunnis are willing to recognize
that they are never going to have the same degree of power given
their numbers as they did under Saddam Hussein.
The second thing that's going to need to happen
if there is going to be any modicum of success in Iraq is that the
security forces themselves have to be representative of all portions
of Iraqi society. Right now the security forces are dominated by
Shiite. There have been some disturbing reports about the Ministry
of the Interior and the police being used as a vendetta force against
Sunnis. That obviously helps to fan the insurgency, which raises
a broader point.
And that is that it's going to be important for
whatever government that is elected to actually start building institutional
We met with some of the officials that are in charge
of reconstruction over there; and it's clear that the basic structure
of civil service - a non-corrupt, technocratic approach to solving
problems and delivering services is not deeply imbedded there and
has to be developed. And changing that culture is going to take
time but it's going to have to start. And whatever else the national
unity government accomplishes it's got to recognize that it needs
a basic structure of service delivery to gain the confidence of
the Iraqi people.
Finally, and I think most importantly, what's clear
is that there is not going to be a military solution to this problem.
I heard this repeatedly, not just from civilians or observers, but
from the military - our military - the recognition that the insurgency
cannot be defeated by armed might alone. And it is absolutely critical
that our policies recognize that.
I remember having a conversation with one of the
colonels out in the field, and although he did not believe that
a rapid unilateral withdrawal would actually be helpful, there was
no doubt that the US occupation in Iraq was becoming an increasing
source of irritation. And that one of the things that we're going
to need to do - and to do sooner rather than later - is to transition
our troops out of the day-to-day operations in Iraq and to have
a much lower profile and a smaller footprint in the country over
the coming year.
On the other hand, I did also ask some people who
were not particularly sympathetic to the initial war, but were now
trying to make things work in Iraq - what they thought would be
the result of a total withdrawal and I think the general view was
that we were in such a delicate situation right now and that there
was so little institutional capacity on the part of the Iraqi government,
that a full military withdrawal at this point would probably result
in significant civil war and potentially hundreds of thousands of
deaths. This by the way was a message that was delivered also by
the Foreign Minister of Jordan, who I've been meeting with while
here in Amman, Jordan.
The sense, I think, throughout the entire region
among those who opposed the US invasion, that now that we're there
it's important that we don't act equally precipitously in our approach
to withdrawal, but that we actually stabilize the situation and
allow time for the new Iraqi government to develop some sort of
I guess the final point I just want to make is how
proud I am of the US troops there. One of the things that I continually
emphasized to them was that regardless of how any of us feel about
the administration's decision to go into Iraq, all of us are extraordinarily
proud of the work that they're doing. What the US military accomplishes
on a day-to-day basis, in just setting up and rebuilding portions
of the country that have been destroyed and in carrying out extraordinarily
difficult tasks on a day-to-day basis is amazing.
And particularly when I was talking to the Illinois
troops many of them are guardsmen and reservists - some of them
on their second or third rotation - it was important for me to emphasize
to them that the folks back home fully support them even as we have,
I think, a very legitimate debate back in Washington about what
we're doing there.
The fact is that our US military is probably the
most capable institution on the planet in terms of carrying out
extraordinarily difficult assignments. But it's incumbent on our
civilian leadership in Washington to make sure that we don't provide
them with assignments that are impossible to accomplish. And I continue
to be concerned that we have set out for ourselves just an enormous
task of rebuilding an extremely volatile and large country, and
the military is not going to be able to do it alone so we're going
to have to have some good policies from Washington to move it forward.
Anyway, I hope everybody had a wonderful holiday.
I will be returning to Washington after several days in Israel and
the Palestinian territories. It's obviously a difficult time there,
given the grave illness that Ariel Sharon is suffering. It's thrown
the entire Middle East into tumult and I may have some more to say
about that when I get back. So hopefully I'll be able to deliver
a podcast next week and look forward to being back home to see my
wife and kids next week as well.
Take care everybody. Bye-bye.