Stars and Stripes' interview with Sen. Barack Obama
August 11, 2008
WASHINGTON — Democratic Sen. Barack Obama wants to keep Guardsmen and Reservists closer to home, believes military families need a bigger voice in government, and sees a long-term U.S. presence in Iraq even with his plans for a drawdown of combat troops there.
In an Aug. 6 interview with Stars and Stripes, the presidential candidate said his opposition to the increase in troop levels in Iraq last year “doesn’t detract from the heroic work that our troops have performed,” and believes his plan for a similar “surge” in Afghanistan is a more balanced, responsible plan.
Here is the full transcript from the candidate’s interview:
Q: A lot of the issues we’ve been following for the military have been touched on, but not the specifics that we’d like. I wanted to start with Afghanistan, which you mentioned earlier today. You’ve talked about sending more combat brigades there, but in the last week Secretary of Defense (Robert) Gates said there’s no immediate plan for that. I don’t know if that’s something we should be doing immediately, getting troops in there, and if so how can we do that in the next six months, seven months?
Sen. Obama: In speaking with the commanders in Afghanistan, as well as folks who are out in the field, the strong impression was that more troops are needed and that we are spread thin. It’s not the only solution, but it is part of a more comprehensive focus on what I consider to be the central front on terrorism.
We still have to do a better job of dealing with the narcotics industry in Afghanistan, which is funding a lot of terrorist activity. We still have to push the Afghan government to work more effectively in providing basic services to their people. Our infrastructure spending has been lacking. We don’t have the kind of non-military expeditionary force that we could use. USAID, State Department, having enough non-combatants who are in the field helping to, essentially, build a state and build a country. I think we have to do more in training both the Afghan Army and police.
We’ve made more progress on the Army side, less on the police side. And get the judiciary system to work more effectively. And probably most importantly, we have to get Pakistan’s cooperation in the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) and along the borders of Pakistan of Afghanistan where Al Qaida and the Taliban are still setting up safe havens and training folks and engaging in incursions. So all those things matter. And there’s also probably room for more effective coordination between NATO forces and a greater unity of command.
But in the absence of some additional U.S. troops, I think we’re going to continue to see our policy drift. Now, obviously it is tough to get more troops in Afghanistan so long as we’ve got the number of brigades deployed in Iraq that we do. This fits with my larger strategic belief that a phased withdrawal in Iraq, where we hand over more responsibility to the Iraqi government, push them harder on political reconciliation, expect more from them in terms of spending their money on reconstruction in Iraq, all can facilitate a greater focus on Afghanistan.
I’ve said in the past the work that our troops have done in Iraq is extraordinary. Violence is down. (Iraq) Prime Minister (Nouri) al-Maliki has signaled a greater interest in taking on responsibility, and the assessment I got from commanders there is that although Iraqi forces still need support, they are increasingly taking the lead. In those circumstances, for us to begin a careful, phased withdrawal, starting with those areas that we have clearly secured the area, and then eventually moving to those areas that are still posing problems, that is how we’re going to free up the kinds of troops we need in Afghanistan.
Q: Is that an acknowledgement then that the surge strategy in Iraq worked?
Here’s my view, because I know there has been a lot of back on forth on this. I’ve consistently said that our troops have done a magnificent job and they have contributed greatly to the reduction in violence.
My opposition to the surge has always been based on a larger strategic concern, which is, if you recall, the debate during the surge had to do with whether or not we were going to double down on an indefinite occupation of Iraq, or we were going to start putting more pressure on the Iraqi government to achieve political aims, or political reconciliation. I continue to believe that an open-ended commitment to Iraq is a mistake. Given that the surge was couched in the language of an open-ended commitment, I would have continued to oppose such an open-ended commitment.
We weren’t presented with the choice, “Let’s start with a surge with a plan for a timetable for withdrawal.” That wasn’t the choice that was presented to us. But that doesn’t detract from the heroic work that our troops have performed. And there is no doubt that because of their work, along with the awakening among Sunni tribal leaders and the Shiite militias standing down, that we have achieved an environment in which the Iraqi government, I think, can start stepping up to the plate.
Q: You’ve talked about a drawdown. I don’t know how you envision the long-term presence in Iraq. When you talk drawdown, are you talking eventually no troops in Iraq, or are you thinking something like Germany and Korea?
What I’ve said is that we need a residual force to start with. So, without putting a precise number or a precise time frame, I’ve set a series of missions that we’re going to have to continue to perform for a decent stretch of time.
We’re going to have to continue to provide logistical and intelligence support to the Iraqi military. We’re going to have to continue to provide training to the Iraqi military. We are going to have to continue to protect our diplomatic forces, our civilians on the ground in Iraq. Our embassy, we’ve got to protect. And, I believe we’re going to have to continue to have a counter-terrorism strike force, if not directly inside of Iraq then certainly in the region, that can provide insurance against any resurgence of either Al Qaida activity inside of Iraq or serious, destabilizing violence inside of Iraq.
Those are all tasks that we’re still going to have to perform, and that means a certain number of troops. What those troops would be to accomplish those missions, I would leave up to the commanders, or I would at least consult closely with commanders in order to achieve the goals.
Q: The other big issue in the region is Iran. You spoke about that earlier today. Is there a military role in that that you see, or is it all a diplomatic role?
I think, I’ve said before that we never take military options off the table. And Iran poses a grave threat to the region. One of the constant refrains during my travels in the Middle East, not just from the Israelis but from a number of Arab observers as well, is that Iran’s possession of a nuclear weapon would be a game-changer. It would probably trigger a nuclear arms race in the region. At the very least, it would change the balance of power so significantly that Iran would be much more aggressive in some of its activities like supporting Hezbollah and Hamas.
So we need to prevent Iran from possessing a nuclear weapon. I believe our strongest tools at the outset have to be strong diplomacy, big carrots and big sticks that can change their calculus. We’ve tended to have vague carrots and inadequate sticks in dealing with them. So they just keep on blowing through red lines that this administration has set. If we’re serious, then we’re going to have to mobilize the international community, and I think reaching out to Russia and China more than we’re doing is going to be real important.
Q: How effective do you think that will be? There have been efforts to reach out to them that have been unsuccessful.
Part of what we have to do is look at our broad, strategic relationship with the Russians and the Chinese and prioritize what are the issues that are most important in our relations with those two countries. I think that Iran ranks as high as anything. We have to listen carefully to determine what are their interests in order to secure their support.
Q: I wanted to talk to you about stop-loss; It’s been an issue for a lot of our readers. Where do you stand on the use of stop loss?
I believe that we should stop the policy of stop loss. Every troop that I met during my recent visit, even those that have been on four or five deployments, take enormous pride in their work. Morale was extraordinary. They understand that the sacrifices they’re making are on behalf of our nation. Their families, despite being under enormous stress, are willing to bear that burden.
But giving people predictability in their deployments, I think, is absolutely critical. When you have policies that essentially renege on the deal that’s been made, or you signal the people after they’ve been deployed, “You know what? We’re going to stay an extra three months.” Or an extra five months, because of inadequate planning by our civilian leadership.
That hurts morale, that hurts recruitment. That’s one of the reasons why I’m in favor of increasing our ground forces: 65,000 for our Army, 27,000 for our Marines. That can help relieve some of this pressure. I think it’s also important that we return our National Guard and reserve to its traditional mission, which is primarily one of homeland security.
Our National Guardsmen and reservists take enormous pride in the work they’ve done. But we have put an enormous burden on them. Our National Guards here back home are not adequately trained to meet a potential catastrophe here in the United States. We saw that during Katrina. We saw some evidence of that during the tornadoes in Kansas. There are a whole bunch of units all across the country that essentially have left all their equipment behind, back in Iraq. So there’s going to be an important reset function for the next administration.
All of those things, I think, are going to require a long-term strategy. It’s not going to be solved overnight. But we have to set out some very clear goals in terms of the directions that we’re moving.
Q: Does it concern you at all, though, if there are limits on the guard or with policies that you may be tying the hands of military leaders?
I think that we have to distinguish between critical situations that direct our immediate national security and what our military commanders may want in terms of flexibility in non-emergency situations. I don’t think there’s any doubt that if, heaven forbid, there was another attack on us that required us to open another front against terrorists, that we would do what’s required. I don’t think we’d have a shortage of volunteers that would be willing to fight.
But in situations in which good planning can prevent these kinds of unpredictable deployments, that should be the default rule, that should be the standard by which we’re operating.
Q: Have you thought at all about the role of women in combat? There are still restrictions on where they can serve.
Let me say this -- When you’re traveling through Afghanistan or Iraq, in the kinds of wars that are being fought, where more often than not you’re seeing casualties coming from IEDs or mortar fire, women are already in a combat zone. They’re already taking hits. They’re already showing extraordinary courage and valor in the battlefield.
So some of the lines between combat and non-combat roles have been blurred. My strong belief is that we should strive for maximum equality between the sexes in all branches of the military with the caveat that effectiveness is our number on criteria. But I think the threshold should always be very high in proving that somehow effectiveness is enhanced by placing restrictions on women.
Q: The GI bill that just passed – I know you were a supporter of it …
A strong sponsor, yes.
Q: I don’t know if you have any concerns about retention related to that. A lot of military folks were concerned, even after the adjustments were made with transferability, about keeping the non-commissioned officer corps intact.
I feel very strongly that the strategy for maintaining the excellence of our all-volunteer forces can’t depend on stinginess once they get out. We should give the same kinds of benefits that my grandfather got after World War II, when he got the GI Bill and the GI Bill paid for college.
The GI Bill prior to this bill simply had not been keeping up with inflation. It had watered down these benefits. You can’t tell me that troops today are any less courageous or any less willing to sacrifice than those of an earlier generation.
Whatever effects this may have on retention, I believe, are more than made up for in enhancements in recruitment. I think when all is said and done, what this GI Bill does it shows to our military how much we value their service, it indicates to them that they are going to, that this country is going to serve them as well as they served us, even after they’ve left active duty. And, by the way, it will also continue to do what was one of the biggest side benefits of the GI Bill, which is to strengthen our middle class at a time when we need a better educated workforce.
Q: Recruiting is different from retention though, and I don’t know if it’s a concern keeping the institutional knowledge in the military.
Look, if we’re really concerned about retention then we should be thinking about policies like stop-loss and should be thinking about policies like backtracking on commitments made to people about how long their deployments are going to be.
When I talk to NCOs or other folks who have been in active service for a while, the biggest pressure on them is their families. That’s the biggest burden. With four or five deployments, they’re growing up not knowing their kids. Their spouses are at home, trying to juggle family life by themselves.
So that’s one of the reasons why I proposed a military families advisory council that can continually give me good information about how we can enhance the quality of life for military families. Child care, employment for spouses, those are the issues that are really going to make a difference in terms of retention.
Q: Last question is on the VA. There has been a backlog in that system for years and years, and this administration hasn’t been able to deal with that. What would you change, how can you fix that system quickly?
Partly because my grandfather was a vet, and he instilled in me that we have a sacred trust to our veterans, I joined the veterans affairs committee the minute I entered the Senate. The first issues I worked on in the Senate were veterans issues. Eliminating the practice of charging wounded soldiers for meals and telephone calls at Walter Reed. Fixing the disability payment system in Illinois, where we were ranked 50th for 20 years in a row when it came to disability payments.
So this is something I care deeply about. The backlog isn’t a mystery. It has to do with not enough people evaluating these claims and not a good enough job keeping track of people’s efforts, and not enough money in the system to pay these benefits in a timely way.
So what’s the fix? We need to have every record in electronic form – service records, medical records – so that the minute someone is discharged those records are immediately gone with the push of a button. They are immediately transferred to the VA.
That right away would eliminate a whole host of delays, because if you talk to veterans they’re trying to gather up forms. They apply, turns out they’re missing a couple of records. They’ve got to go back. So just using technology would make a huge difference. We’ve talked about this for a long time, but the Pentagon, DoD and VA have not gotten a system that interfaces that works as quickly as they need to. So that’s point number one.
Point number two: We need more people to evaluate claims, a simple money proposition.
Number three, I think we need to train people more effectively across various regions so that those who are evaluating claims aren’t making it up as they go along. That’s probably an overstatement; obviously, there’s training and there’s standards involved, but we’re still seeing large discrepancies in terms of how claims are evaluated.
And the fourth thing, maybe the most important, is a shift in attitude in the VA. I still think that there is a sense that somehow the job of the VA is to protect the treasury as opposed to make sure that those who served are getting treated with the honor and respect that they deserve.
And that pervades a whole host of issues. The fact that we’re still not adequately screening for post-traumatic stress disorder and giving folks the services that they need. The fact that homeless rates are astronomically higher than the regular population, and yet we don’t have a comprehensive system to provide services for substance abuse, housing, job training.
The fact that we’re not working well enough with National Guardsmen and women and reservists when they’re discharged for the transition back to civilian life, including working with them on employment issues. Many of them may have given up their job or have fallen behind in their job as a consequence of their service. But those all have to do with an attitude that I want to change when I’m commander in chief.
Sen. Barack Obama, aboard his campaign plane
On his opposition to the "surge" in Iraq:
On the strain facing the National Guard:
On dealing with Iran:
On the pressures facing military families:
From the archives
During the presidential primaries earlier this year, Sen. Obama's campaign provided answers to a series of questions asked of all the candidates. See the responses here.