Transcript: Sens. Levin and Graham Debate Iraq Progress

This is a rush transcript from "FOX News Sunday," November 25, 2007. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

CHRIS WALLACE, HOST: Joining us now to discuss the latest from Iraq are two influential members of the Senate Armed Services committee, the Democratic chairman Carl Levin, who's in his home state of Michigan, and Republican Lindsey Graham, just back from Iraq, in his home state of South Carolina.

Well, gentlemen, let's start with the military side.

As we said, Senator Graham, you went to Iraq over Thanksgiving. Is the surge working? And how different are things on this trip than they were on your last trip?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM R-S.C.: It's working amazingly well, beyond my expectations. I think history will judge the surge as probably the most successful counterinsurgency military operation in history.

Violence is down. Economic activity is up. It's not just about more troops. It's how the troops are used. So hats off to General Petraeus and all under his command. You're making military history and a phenomenal success. I was amazed, really.

WALLACE: Senator Levin, the U.S. military says the drop in violence is dramatic. Let's put up the numbers. Iraqi civilian casualties are down 60 percent since the troop surge reached full strength in June, 75 percent in Baghdad.

Doesn't that show, at least on the military side, that the president's policy is working?

SEN. CARL LEVIN, D-MICH.: Well, it shows an improvement on the military side, but the president's policy very specifically had as its purpose — the surge's purpose was to give the Iraqi political leaders the breathing space to work out a political settlement, and that purpose has not been achieved.

They're just as far apart as ever. And I think there's a growing frustration with the Maliki government, even among our own military leaders, for the Maliki government's failure to make political improvements. That growing frustration is reflected in a State Department bulletin that just came out which said that the greatest threat which now exists in Iraq is no longer Al Qaeda, it is not the insurgency of the Sunni insurgency, it is not the militias.

The greatest threat to any success in Iraq is the failure of the Iraqi politicians to work out their political differences.

WALLACE: Senator Graham, let's talk specifically about that. That was the point when the president announced the troop surge in January, breathing space. The Maliki government, the national politicians in Baghdad, have failed to reach any of the major benchmarks.

Isn't that, one, a serious failure? And two, why can't we get them off the dime?

GRAHAM: Well, number one, it's hard to have democracy when people are getting killed in droves. And the better security is going to produce better political results. They've passed a budget, something we haven't been able to do.

But the four major benchmarks — I predict and hope very much that by January of 2008, the de-Baathification law, which will allow Sunnis to come back into the government and have jobs, to be a full partner in Iraq, will be passed. I was told that by Maliki, by Abdul Mahdi, a Shia vice president. I expect that to happen.

The surge was necessary to bring about the conditions for political reconciliation. I think we're on track at the national level.

Local reconciliation is very robust at the local level. I think it will migrate to the national level. If it doesn't in January, then I will be very disappointed, sit down with Carl and see what we can do on the political side to push them.

WALLACE: Well, let me ask you about that, Senator Graham, because there's a story on the front page of the New York Times today that says that the Bush administration is lowering expectations for the Maliki government meeting any of these benchmarks.

GRAHAM: I'm not going to play that game. I've been on this show many times, and I was criticizing the old military strategy. It was leading to failure. And the Congress' efforts to take away from General Petraeus the ability to perform his mission I'm going to fight as long as I'm in Congress.

We're on the right track with the surge. We have the right commander. And we put benchmarks out there for the Maliki government to meet — oil revenue sharing, which will be done through the budget, but it's not formalized; de-baathification; allowing local elections.

The Sunnis are ready to participate. So I saw the old strategy fail. I'm seeing the surge work beyond my expectation. And I think we will have political dividends at the national level in Baghdad soon.

But if they don't deliver, I will work with Democrats and Republicans to put more pressure on the Maliki government through changing aid, maybe making loans instead of grants. But we need to leave the military alone, not micro-manage what the military's doing, because it's in our national security interest to allow this surge to continue.

WALLACE: Senator Levin, what do you think about that idea of allowing them till January and then trying to put more pressure on them?

LEVIN: It was the Maliki government themselves that a year ago adopted the so-called benchmarks that they would have revenue sharing by a year ago, that they would have provincial elections by about a year ago.

They failed to meet their own benchmarks. And just to continue to say that if they don't do something by a certain date that then we'll take some action to put pressure on them is the mark of a lack of pressure.

You've got to put pressure on them now, and the way to do it is to set a goal, which is what we had in our last vote, just simply a goal for the removal of most American forces from Iraq.

That even got support from the former military commander, Governor — I mean, General Sanchez, over the weekend, who supported the effort to set a goal — not a binding deadline, but a goal — for the removal of most American troops, leaving a number there for the limited missions.

That's what we must do to put pressure on the Maliki government and not to change the benchmarks.

That article in the New York Times was deeply disturbing. That the administration might consider eliminating these benchmarks that have been set by the Maliki government for themselves it just seems to me is trying to make something look successful which is not.

We need pressure on the Maliki government. Hang on to the benchmarks that they set for themselves and set a non-binding goal, at a minimum, for the removal of most American troops.

WALLACE: Senator Levin, as you point out, congressional Democrats tried to pass and failed to pass, at least in the Senate, a bill that would have funded the war for a few months but would have linked it to troop withdrawals and also some restrictions on deployment.

The question now is, are you going to fund the troops to continue the surge, to continue fighting this war?

LEVIN: We're going to fund the troops. We're not going to cut funding for the troops. The bill that we had a majority for in the Senate that was filibustered by the Republicans would have provided funding for the troops for the months that you indicated but also would have said that we would establish a goal for the removal of most American troops by the end of next year.

It was not a binding goal. It was simply a goal. And the refusal of this administration and the support of this administration's refusal by that filibuster by the Republicans in the Senate sends exactly the wrong message to the leaders of Iraq, that somehow or other, we're not going to put pressure on them to do what they promised to do.

I think that's a terrible message to them. It's the wrong message to our troops and to the American people, who say that we've been there now 4.5 years, it is time to at least have a goal.

Why in the name of heaven are we not willing to at least establish a goal for the removal of most of our troops that's not binding?

WALLACE: Senator, let me let Senator Graham answer that question.

GRAHAM: Why in the name of heaven would we undercut the most successful military operation in counterinsurgency in American history, maybe world history, because of this idea of putting — capping troop strength, changing the mission, undercutting Petraeus?

If you want to bring back chaos in Iraq, pass the Levin-Reid amendment. If you want Al Qaeda to come back, go back to the old strategy.

I cannot tell you how infuriating it is for me to sit here and listen to Congress trying to undercut a military commander and strategy that's produced results that are the precondition for reconciliation.

We'll never have reconciliation if the Congress runs this war. If we tell our enemy that we're going to start leaving at a date certain and start pulling troops out because of the next election here in America, they will come back.

We're on the verge of changing Iraq for the better, and the only way we will lose this war is to allow Congress to take it over, and we're not going to do that.

We should rally together as a Congress, push the Maliki government, stand by the military and quit playing this game of trying to undercut a successful military strategy by having the Congress set the mission, Congress determine the troop strength of that mission — no sense to me.

WALLACE: Senator Levin, we've got about 30 seconds left. I'm going to give you the last word.

LEVIN: No one's trying to undercut the military. It's our military commanders...

GRAHAM: Oh, my goodness.

LEVIN: ... who are saying that it's the Maliki government's failure to work out the political settlement which is the greatest threat to the success of their mission.

We have supported our military commanders. We have given them the funding that they've asked for. And now they're saying it is the Maliki government's failure to reach a political settlement which threatens their success.

We are supporting our troops. We're supporting the military commanders. It is they that say put pressure on Maliki.

WALLACE: Senator Levin, Senator Graham, we're going to have to leave it there. Thank you both so much...

GRAHAM: Thank you.

WALLACE: ... for sharing your holiday weekend with us. And please come back, gentlemen.

LEVIN: Take care. Thank you.

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