Wednesday, October 25, 2006; A15
During the years that he led opposition to the Vietnam War, former
senator George S. McGovern (D-S.D.) says, he consoled his family with
the proposition that the United States would never again commit such a
"tragic mistake," as he put it. But McGovern said in an interview last
week that America is headed down "the same road" in Iraq
McGovern, the 1972 Democratic nominee for president, is out with a new
book prescribing what the country ought to do to turn things around. The
title neatly summarizes his advice: "Out of Iraq: A Practical Plan for
Co-written with William R. Polk, a former professor and State Department
Middle East expert, the 142-page volume calls for a phased withdrawal of
140,000 U.S. troops beginning by year's end and finishing by June 30.
The authors say the Iraqi government should request the presence of an
international force, including Arab and Muslim troops, to help keep
order after the departure of the Americans.
McGovern and Polk call for an aggressive program of U.S. reconstruction
aid to rebuild the Iraqi infrastructure destroyed in the war. Among
other steps, the two say the United States should "express its
condolences" to the Iraqi people for the large number of Iraqis killed,
incapacitated, incarcerated or tortured. "A simple gesture of
conciliation would go far to shift our relationship from occupation to
friendship," they write.
In a telephone interview from his Mitchell, S.D., home, McGovern cast
doubt on the assertion by President Bush that withdrawal would embolden
U.S. enemies and create a haven for terrorists in the heart of the
Middle East. It is the American presence in Iraq, he and Polk believe,
that is fueling much of the violence. Their proposal is based on the
conviction that the United States will eventually be forced out. Better
to leave "in an orderly way" and "in a manner that will prevent further
damage to American interests," they write.
At 84, McGovern remains active in civic affairs, speaking on college
campuses and addressing the cause that remains his life's passion: world
hunger and malnutrition. Along with former senator Robert J. Dole
(R-Kan.), McGovern has been promoting an effort to create school lunch
programs in developing countries.
Last week, McGovern spent about 50 minutes talking about his ideas for
Iraq. Here are excerpts from the telephone interview:
*-- Michael Abramowitz*
/QTell me a little about how this book came about./
AI found that lots of thoughtful people had come to the conclusion that
the war was a mistake, but they would say now that we are there, we
can't pull out. It's the same argument I combated for 15 years during
the Vietnam War. . . . We concluded that instead of reducing terrorism,
the [Iraq] war was aggravating it -- that we were in a more dangerous
position with regard to Iraq and other countries as a consequence of the
/You interviewed military folk?/
Yes, [Polk] did. These are people who are on the job, so they are not
eager to have their names attached to a withdrawal plan right now. What
he found is that top people in the military don't think this war can be
won. . . . How do you end this? You begin to plan a systematic
withdrawal. We're not talking about a stampede for the border -- none of
this silly business of cut and run.
/Reports from Iraq are that the nature of the violence has changed, from
a Sunni insurgency to more sectarian violence. Do you think that the
book is a little out of date in the sense that any U.S. withdrawal would
not affect this kind of violence?/
It's possible. We say in the book that we are not promising stability,
but . . . we think you are never going to have stability in Iraq as long
as a foreign army is in that country.
/What are the kinds of similarities that you see between Vietnam and the
situation in Iraq?/
I think one obvious similarity is that neither Vietnam nor Iraq
constituted a threat to America's security in the world. . . . Secondly,
we didn't know much about either one. We didn't even have people ready
to go into Iraq that spoke Arabic. . . .
All those years we were in the jungle of Vietnam, losing 58,000 young
Americans and probably being responsible for a couple of million
Vietnamese deaths, my four daughters and my son used to get discouraged
about ever ending that war. They would say, "What good does that do? You
keep sounding off. You run for president, you got smashed in the
election, what good does it do?"
I would say: "Look, I am an old history teacher. . . . Even bad things
in history usually have some good factor. And in Vietnam, the good thing
about it is that it is such a tragic mistake we will never again do that
again." . . . But I didn't count on terrorism. . . . I really think we
are following the same road in Iraq. This time the fear is not communism
-- it is terrorism.
/Why do you not see the threat the same way [as Bush]?/
I see terrorism as a threat to the United States, but I think it's
growing worse in the way we are trying to handle it. That's a problem
that is not essentially a military problem. . . . I do fear the
terrorists. I feel more threatened by six years of the
Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld plan for fighting it than I did before.
/Would you have been okay with an effort to just get rid of Saddam
Hussein and leave?/
I think it's good that he is gone. Now, having said that, I also wonder
if, on balance, we improved our own security. We got rid of an SOB -- we
all know that. . . . But what has happened as a consequence of that,
Iraq is now in a civil war. People say if we pull out, we'll have a
civil war. Well, they have got one going now. Saddam Hussein, for all of
his viciousness, would not have permitted that to happen.
/Is it your point that we should never try to overthrow a bad guy?/
I don't like what is happening in the Sudan now. I don't like what
happened in Rwanda. . . . It is a very tough, agonizing issue. But
frustrating as it is, I still think we're better off trying to work
through the United Nations. It's a frustrating organization. It's
bureaucratic. But I still think that's the forum where we ought to press
/What would be your advice to the Democratic Party?/
They have got to be more assertive. They can't lay down and go along
with policies that many of them know are mistaken. . . . I am
disappointed in my old colleagues in the Senate, not all of them. . . .
But by and large, the Democrats seem to have been intimidated into
silence or kind of a mushy policy on foreign questions.
/Is there any figure out there you see as someone who is promising for
the Democrats in '08?/
I haven't settled on anyone yet. . . . I don't think we have really
brought our alternative positions into clear focus yet for the American
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