Transcript: Top Senators Discuss Iraq on 'FOX News Sunday'

The following is a partial transcript of the Oct. 22, 2006, edition of "FOX News Sunday With Chris Wallace."

"FOX NEWS SUNDAY" HOST CHRIS WALLACE: Well, with a new sense of urgency in Iraq and a nuclear showdown with North Korea, we've assembled the four most powerful members of the U.S. Senate on national security: from the Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Chairman Richard Lugar and ranking Democrat Joe Biden, and from the Armed Services Committee, Republican Chairman John Warner and ranking Democrat Carl Levin, who's nursing his wounds in Detroit after game one of the World Series.


In any case, Senator Warner, have we now reached a tipping point in Iraq where President Bush's open-ended commitment to creating a unified, stable, democratic Iraq has to be reconsidered?

SEN. JOHN WARNER, R-VA.: I think the administration is constantly revising and looking forward. This article in the New York Times and in other periodicals — Post, so on — it does indicate clearly the forward thinking of the administration, working with the government of Prime Minister Maliki.

I stress, we've given sovereignty to that country. You said starting up the government or whatever. That government is up and functioning. Our job is to keep it moving forward.

But the key to this thing is impressing upon that government that they've got to come to grips with what is causing this increase in violence and killing, both Iraqis and our own armed forces, which incidentally — I just got back — are doing a brilliant job, our troops.

It is Maliki, you've got to come to grips with the private militias and get them out of business so that you're moving forward as the government unified and not the government of Sadr or Hakim or the Kurds. It is one government, united, bringing about peace and stability for that country.

WALLACE: I want to get back to that in a moment, but let's do a whip-around of your three colleagues.

Senator Biden, are we at a tipping point? Are we at a crossroads? Is it time to change policy?

SEN. JOE BIDEN, D-DEL.: It was time to do it two years ago. What the president is calling for, at least what appears to be the case, of consideration of benchmarks, the United States Congress voted on about a year and a half ago. And my good friend, the chairman of the committee, took a Democratic proposal and made it even better, which basically called for the same thing.

The truth of the matter is there's a need for radical change in policy. There's a need for a political solution in Iraq and a bipartisan solution here at home. Without those two things happening, there is no possibility, in my view, we succeed in Iraq.

WALLACE: Senator Lugar?

SEN. RICHARD LUGAR, R-IND.: I think it's important to stress another dimension, and that is there's 40 to 60 percent unemployment in Iraq. The oil production is going down; there's corruption there.

In essence, even if you had a military solution or stability, it's not really clear how people pay for their government, physically how it continues on.

And therefore, as a part of the planning, we're going to have to rethink the reconstruction of the country in a way we haven't. We've sort of zeroed out in appropriations this reconstruction group at the State Department, even though the Defense Department is willing to give us some money.

That's a critical element of this, because the stability of this is going to come about when people are employed, Iraqis are employed, reconstructing their country. Quite apart from the division of the oil money, if there isn't very much oil money, that becomes academic. And I just stress that as a part of this planning.

WALLACE: Senator Levin?

SEN. CARL LEVIN, D-MICH.: Well, the administration has refused to consider changing course for the last couple years, although it's been obvious that the violence in Iraq has been increasing consistently. The killings have been increasing, and yet when we call for change of course, as we have for the last two years, to put pressure on the Iraqis to work out their political differences — since our leaders in Iraq tell us there is no military solution, there's only a political solution in Iraq, and the leaders in Iraq have got to work out those differences or else the killings will continue and the violence will continue.

Every time that we Democrats and a few Republicans call for a change of course, instead of the president's bumpersticker, "stay the course, stay the course, stay the course," we've been labeled as cut- and-runners.

And I don't know if this administration is finally listening to what the reality is and recognizing the reality, but I hope so. And we shouldn't wait til the end of the year to come up with milestones. We ought to be doing that now. We should have done it long ago.

And we shouldn't wait until after our elections are over to tell the Iraqis that we are going to have to tell — we're going to have to set a time when we're going to begin to leave Iraq. Because without that pressure of our troops leaving Iraq a few months down the road, the Iraqis are not going to do what only they can do, which is to work out those political differences.

WALLACE: One of the things that strikes me, in listening to all four of you, is you talk less about the military situation and more about the political situation.

I want to ask you about that, Senator Warner, because there were a couple of developments this week that I'm sure all of you felt were pretty troubling. One was that Prime Minister Maliki said that he wants to delay taking on and disarming the Shiite militias until the end of the year or some time next year.

We also had this kind of remarkable event where the U.S. arrested one of Muqtada al-Sadr's, the radical Shiite cleric, top aides for supposedly being involved in death squads, and then Maliki put pressure on the U.S. to release him because he didn't want to confront one of the main supporters of his regime, namely Muqtada al-Sadr.

Question: Do you still have confidence that Prime Minister Maliki is strong enough, tough enough, willing to do what needs to be done to bring this country together?

WARNER: I think we have no other course but to give him our confidence and our support. I thought Rumsfeld spoke very toughly yesterday, or the day before. He said, "Better that you get this done now than later." I mean, it was tough talk. The president has been very forthright and tough on Maliki.

You've got one other fact that you should know about. Maliki went to see Sadr and Grand Ayatollah Sistani just 48 hours before there was this Shia-upon-Shia fight down in Amarah. Now, that's clearly showing that his conversations with those two people were not fruitful. You have got to hold him to it. Maliki has to give more authority to the Iraqi army.

Our professional, I met with him yesterday at the Pentagon, have a degree in confidence in that army if they had more authority, more leeway to make decisions. And it is their job, not the U.S. coalition forces, to subdue and get rid of these private militias.

WALLACE: Senator Biden, do you still have confidence in Prime Minister Maliki?

BIDEN: I remember I was on your show when I came back after meeting with him in July and told you then I had no confidence in him. I have no confidence in his ability and possibly his willingness to deal with taking on that Shia coalition.

When I was down in Basra over the 4th of July, British general telling us, "It's not about an insurgency in the Shia region. It's not about a civil war. It's about a group of militia competing for control of that region."

And without a political solution, Chris, without giving the Sunnis a piece of the oil action, without following up with what they've already done under their constitution, call for a federal system — they've already voted for a system to allow federalism — without us making that work, helping them make that work, I don't know how he can do much of anything. I don't even think his inclination is to do much of anything.

WALLACE: But let me ask you a question. I mean, we'll get into the partition idea, which I know is one of your big proposals, in a moment. If he's not the right guy, and he was the one who was elected by the various elements in the National Assembly, what do we do?

BIDEN: Well, what we do — remember when the president made that secret trip over and they met with him, and I remember I was on a sister show of yours, and they showed me a picture of the president whispering in Maliki's ear, and they said, "What do you think of this?"

I said, "It depends on what he's whispering in his ear. If he's whispering in her ear, 'We support you,' we're in trouble. If the president's whispering in Maliki's ear, 'Look, Jack, let's get something straight here. I'm serious, I'm not joking, you've got to deal with the militia, and you've got to give the Sunnis a piece of the action in terms of the oil revenue, so there's a political solution here. Absent that, you're in trouble."'

So we are now seemingly beginning to say that to him — a little late, but he's the only horse in town and they elected him.

WALLACE: Senator Lugar, do you have confidence — do you still have confidence in Prime Minister Maliki?

LUGAR: Well, I think he's probably the best horse to ride on in the situation. The predicament is such, as Maliki looks at it, is that the Kurds are in favor of democracy generally, but polling in Iraq indicates that they're very conflicted on democracy at all, with regard to the central part of the country and Sunni areas don't like democracy.

And, as a matter of fact, sort of across the board, people would like a "strong" leader — strong in quotes — which is not Maliki. Maliki comes to us, I'm told, a phone call with the president, wanting assurance that we're not going to displace him.

But the fact is we don't have anybody to displace — we're talking about putting pressure on Maliki, but he doesn't have much clout. Now, we probably need to think through how we, the United States, can give this prime minister more clout. Because he can't...

WALLACE: How do we give him more clout?

LUGAR: Well, that's a very good question, but it's a political question once again. Physically, how does our ambassador, how does the president, how does the secretary of state, anybody, weigh in?

Because we keep saying, "Go to your Shiites and get them straightened out, or the Sunnis, or divide the oil," and Maliki is saying, "There isn't any group here that wants to talk about those things." Even the division of the country, they want to put 18 months along the trail. Those are not our timetables; those are Iraqi timetables.

So if there's going to be some intersection, it ought to be politically, to strengthen at least whoever is there. And Maliki, for the time being, is the guy.

WALLACE: Senator Levin, there are a variety of ideas out there about what conceivably could be done to change the situation, to make it better. We've assembled at least part of the menu, and let's put it up on the screen.

Partition of the country into three autonomous regions with a weak central government; a phased withdrawal starting right away; allowing the Iraqi military to stage a coup and install a different leader, a strong man; and sending in still more U.S. troops.

You know, like a Chinese restaurant, Senator Levin, what would you order from that menu?

LEVIN: Well, what I would do is what a number of us have been proposing for a long time, what 40 of us — all the Democrats and one Republican — in the Senate voted for it, which is to notify the Iraqi leaders that we're going to begin a phased withdrawal by the end of the year.

That's not immediately. It's not precipitous. It's to tell them that they've got to take hold of their own nation.

And what the president told Maliki on the phone just a week ago — it was not whispered to him. We were informed, the American public, what the president told Maliki a week ago, which is, "You have our full support." He pledged full support to Maliki.

That is the wrong way to go. That's not pressure on Maliki. That's an unconditional statement of support.

What we need to do is put pressure on the Iraqis to do what only they can do, which is to make the political compromises on power and on oil resources, so that they can become a nation.

If they don't want to do that, if they're going to have a civil war, we have to tell them, "You're going to do that without us." But we have got to begin to leave Iraq, not precipitously, not cut and run, but by the end of the year.

WALLACE: Senator Warner — and we're about to run out of time in this segment, but let me ask you to respond to that. I mean, you talk about getting tough with Maliki and putting pressure on him. Would announcing we're going to begin — not a timetable and we'll get them all out by July, but we're going to begin pulling troops out, would that send the right message?

WARNER: No, I think not. We should not set timetables. We should not indicate a fixed lock-in, because the situation is very dynamic. It's gotten worse. It's gotten fractured. You've got Shia on Shia now, Sunni on Sunni, Al Qaeda moving into al-Anbar. This is a fragile situation.

We've got to remain confident that we can make this government work — not victory this, that or the other thing — make the government work, so it can exercise the levers of sovereignty.

One other pressure on Maliki came this week. I admire General Caldwell, who stood up before the world...

WALLACE: Chief spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq.

WARNER: Correct. And he said, "It's disheartening that the Baghdad campaign, one in which we put 12,000 troops, one in which we expected the Iraqi armed forces to send four battalions — they only sent two." Our military is being very frank and credible with the Iraqi government and Maliki. Get rid of those militias now, not tomorrow — now.