Q& A: George McGovern

Calling Again for Troop Withdrawal

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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

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 Withdrawal Now."

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

Tell me a little about how this book came about.

I 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 invasion.

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 these issues.

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 public.


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