How Much Longer Will U.S. Be in Iraq?

This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," January 17, 2005, that has been edited for clarity.

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UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... there's really no word can come close to my feelings. I mean I feel jubilant, I feel great, good. I'm 50-year-old man and this is the first time that I vote as an Iraqi.


JOHN GIBSON, HOST: Iraqi nationals registering to vote all offer the world today. The election a real sign of progress in Iraq, but coalition troops and their Iraqi counterparts are struggling to put down the insurgency. So how much longer will U.S. forces have to stay in Iraq?

Joining me now, former presidential candidate and former senator from South Dakota, George McGovern (search). Mr. McGovern, welcome.

So how much longer do you think American forces should stay in Iraq?

GEORGE MCGOVERN, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, I hope this election will be a success. I don't think anyone supposes that we went into Iraq with our army in order to conduct an election. We went in on the mistaken notion that they were an imminent threat to the United States, and that secondly they had something to do with the 9/11 tragedy. Neither of those assumptions proved to be right.

And that's why virtually the entire world was opposed to the American army going in there. For my part, I hope we'll get out just as quickly as we reasonably can. I would think that could come rather soon after this election.

GIBSON: On the basis of that opinion — and I've known for some time that you have held it — I was kind of startled to read an editorial by you, or a letter to the editor in which you said, "I'm for keeping Donald Rumsfeld (search) as Secretary of Defense" and I'll let you answer why.

MCGOVERN: Well, because he's opposed to putting anymore American soldiers in there. He's had requests from some of his advisers, some of the military people, and others, including some Democrats as well as Republicans, to put in more forces. All that does is to provide more targets for these Iraqi guerrillas to shoot at.

And I believe this war was a dreadful mistake. I don't think that it's going any better than the conflict in Vietnam that tied us up for so long. We were told that if we pulled out of Vietnam there'd be a bloodbath, there'd be a terrible slaughter of the Vietnamese people by the Ho Chi Minh's forces. That never materialized.

We were told that the dominoes next door, meaning the countries next door, would quickly topple to communism. No dominoes fell; there was no bloodbath.

GIBSON: Well, the things didn't go too well in Cambodia.

MCGOVERN: Well, Cambodia had nothing to do with Vietnam except it...

GIBSON: OK. But Mr. McGovern, what about this: if your idea is that you're seeking or looking towards the safety of American troops, don't increase numbers, increase the safety of those who are there?

MCGOVERN: It might. But if we're there on mistaken grounds that Iraq was no threat to us when we went in, then it doesn't make any difference whether you have a million soldiers there or 500,000 or 150,000. We finally got up to 550,000 in Vietnam, it didn't seem to change the military equation at all.

And I think we're on an impossible task. We've sent the bravest young men we could produce in this country and to a war to which they never should have been sent.

GIBSON: But Mr. McGovern, why is it that 70 percent of the troops actually support what they're doing?

MCGOVERN: Well, I'm glad that they do because God knows they're going to need all the morale factors they can get. I hope that's true that they believe in what they're doing. If not, it would be a terrible thing to have young men risking their lives and killing the local people if they didn't believe in what they're doing.

You probably could have gotten similar polls in Vietnam. Most soldiers answer the call.

GIBSON: What about World War II when you served?

MCGOVERN: Everybody was for it. I don't recall any dissent at all.

I heard it said on this program a few minutes ago that if we were fighting the Battle of the Bulge all over again, these generals would be assailed. I don't believe that. I never heard any criticism of American military operations in World War II. Why? Because we knew Hitler was an inhuman monster who had organized the most powerful military aggregation in the history of the world and was jumping over one country after another.

GIBSON: But in an age of terrorism, would you really trust Saddam Hussein to be sitting there today?

MCGOVERN: No. I'm glad he's gone. But I don't think he was any threat to us. We had...

GIBSON: Long term, maybe?

MCGOVERN: I'll tell you why I don't think so. President Bush Sr. very skillfully smashed the Iraqi army in the Gulf War. He drove Saddam Hussein (search) and his forces out of Kuwait. And then they invoked economic sanctions on Iraq; they had American aerial overflights every day. For several years they had international weapons inspectors...

GIBSON: Mr. McGovern, he was shooting at those Americans. Do you just let that go on forever?

MCGOVERN: As long as there were few or no American casualties. I don't recall us having heavy losses of life then. And I don't know where the shots came from; whether they were from independent guerrilla operations there or ordered by Saddam Hussein. But he did not so much as stick his big toe beyond the borders after Bush Sr. clobbered him in the Gulf War, which he should have been clobbered and I supported that intervention.

But we had him contained and in my judgment, so that he was no threat to anybody beyond his borders.

GIBSON: Former presidential candidate and former Senator George McGovern.

Mr. McGovern, good to see you. Thanks a lot.

MCGOVERN: A pleasure to be with you.

GIBSON: All right.

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