Video: Cheney rips idea of Iraq pullout

NBC News and news services
updated 11/21/2005 7:44:09 PM ET 2005-11-22T00:44:09

Vice President Cheney on Monday said he strongly disagrees with a battle-tested congressman who advocates quickly pulling all U.S. troops from Iraq, calling such a proposal “a dangerous illusion.”

But Cheney stopped short of joining those Republicans who have questioned the patriotism and courage of Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., calling him “a good man, a Marine, a patriot.” Cheney’s subdued comments about Murtha followed those of President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

At the same time, Cheney pressed the administration’s high-voltage attack on war critics, particularly Senate Democrats who voted in October 2002 to give Bush authority to go to war in Iraq and who now oppose his policy, calling them “dishonest and reprehensible.”

“The flaws in the intelligence are plain enough in hindsight. But any suggestion that prewar information was distorted, hyped or fabricated by the leader of the nation is utterly false,” Cheney said in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute.

In a written statement obtained by NBC News, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., raised the possibility that Cheney “or someone else distorted, hyped or fabricated that information and fed it to the president.”

“It defies belief that the vice president can continue to say with a straight face that Congress had the same intelligence as the president and vice president had as we went to war,” Kennedy wrote. “Congress did not have access to the presidential daily briefs that President Bush received on intelligence since the beginning of his administration.”  

In his letter, Kennedy said he plans to offer an amendment that would force the administration to turn over relevant presidential daily briefs.

160,000 troops still in Iraq
As to proposals for a rapid pullout of U.S. troops, Cheney said, “It is a dangerous illusion to suppose that another retreat by the civilized world would satisfy the appetite of the terrorists and get them to leave us alone.” Nearly 160,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton said Monday that an immediate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would be “a big mistake.”

The New York Democrat said she respects Murtha’s call for a pullout, but she added: “I think that would cause more problems for us in America.”

“It will matter to us if Iraq totally collapses into civil war, if it becomes a failed state the way Afghanistan was, where terrorists are free to basically set up camp and launch attacks against us,” she said.

At the same time, Clinton said the Bush administration’s pledge to stay in Iraq “until the job is done” amounts to giving the Iraqis “an open-ended invitation not to take care of themselves.”

Terrorists are ‘testing our resolve’
Cheney ticked off a long list of terrorist attacks on American interests going back more than the two decades that preceded the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, including the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and earlier ones in Beirut, Saudi Arabia and Africa.

“Now they’re making a stand in Iraq, testing our resolve, trying to intimidate the United States into abandoning our friends and permitting the overthrow of this new Middle Eastern democracy,” Cheney said.

He said he respected the right of Murtha to form his own opinion. Murtha has served in Congress for three decades, is a decorated Marine combat veteran from Vietnam, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations defense subcommittee and has long been an ardent defender of the armed forces.

U.S. better or worse off?
“Nor is there any problem with debating whether the United States and its allies should have liberated Iraq in the first place,” Cheney said. “Nobody is saying we should not be having this discussion.”

But, Cheney added, “Those who advocate a sudden withdrawal from Iraq should answer a few simple questions,” including whether the United States would be “better off or worse off” with terror leaders such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Osama bin Laden, or Ayman al-Zawahiri in control.

On Monday, Murtha defended his call to get out of Iraq, saying he was reflecting Americans’ sentiment.

Murtha told CNN, “I’m trying to prevent another Vietnam” and predicted Cheney would eventually see it that way, too. “This war cannot be won militarily, ... cannot be won on the ground,” Murtha said.

Earlier Monday, in his hometown of Johnstown, Pa., Murtha defended his call for a pullout, suggesting he was only following shifting American sentiment as reflected in polls and phone calls and e-mails to his office.

“The public turned against this war before I said it,” Murtha said. “The public is emotionally tied into finding a solution to this thing, and that’s what I hope this administration is going to find out.”

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada called Cheney’s speech “yet another missed opportunity by the vice president to come clean with the American people and lay out a strategy for success in Iraq.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said he wouldn’t go as far as Murtha but would like to see a gradual transition out of Iraq over the next two years. “That will require the administration not to stay the course, but to change course,” Biden told the private, nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., told reporters in Boston that Bush and Cheney have “misled America and they’re still misleading America.”

White House, congressional sparks
The administration has been toning down its criticism of Murtha since White House spokesman Scott McClellan derided him last week as an ultraliberal, likening him to activist far-left filmmaker Michael Moore.

The Iraq debate turned more vitriolic in recent days, with the Senate voting overwhelmingly to require fuller reporting by the administration on progress, and by Murtha’s proposal. That brought sharp criticism from the White House and led to a tumultuous late-night House floor fight when the GOP leaders forced a vote on an immediate pullout measure in hopes of trapping Democrats. It was rejected 403-3.

Meanwhile, troop levels will remain at their present levels as Iraqis prepare for elections on Dec. 15, and will return to a baseline strength of 130,000 when the commanders there determine that conditions on the ground warrant it, Rumsfeld said on Sunday.

Some Republicans on Capitol Hill called Murtha’s position one of abandonment and surrender and suggested that the decorated Marine Corps veteran and like-minded politicians were acting cowardly.

But Bush, who was returning Monday from a tour of Asia, praised Murtha as “a fine man” and said that disagreeing with the administration was not unpatriotic.

Rumsfeld, appearing on the Sunday morning news shows, acknowledged that questions about war ought to be debated, but he also warned that words have consequences for both the insurgents in Iraq and the U.S. troops opposing them.

“The enemy hears a big debate in the United States, and they have to wonder: ‘Maybe all we have to do is wait and we’ll win. We can’t win militarily.’ They know that. The battle is here in the United States,” Rumsfeld said on “Fox News Sunday.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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