CBS News anchor Katie Couric talked exclusively, and separately to both presidential candidates. What emerged was a kind of long-distance debate. Their differences over the wars have never been sharper ... or clearer. Couric met with Sen. Barack Obama in Amman, Jordan. He had just flown in after visiting Iraq and Afghanistan. What follows is a full transcript of the interview.
Katie Couric: Sen. Obama, first of all, you have not been to Iraq since 2006. What did you learn on your recent visit that surprised you? Or what was new?
Barack Obama: Well, there's no doubt the scary situation's improved. And it was very encouraging to see that markets are reopening; that in places like Anbar Province you have seen a complete reversal in terms of the attitude of Sunni tribesmen towards American forces there. That I think is a terrific momentum builder. And we've gotta keep on making sure that we're making progress on those fronts. What hadn't changed was there's still enormous suspicion between the Sunni and the Shii'a. And until I think that gets resolved and the central government is able to bring in Sunnis and give them confidence that their voices are heard, that their interests are met, that their constituencies are benefiting from oil revenues. Other steps that the government may be taking to improve economic opportunity, I think you're still gonna … have a fragile situation there.
Couric: ... Prime Minister Maliki on the same page when it comes to a troop withdrawal by 2010. Why do you believe that the Iraqi security forces, which have taken so long to get up to speed, will be equipped to protect the country at that point?
Obama: Well, keep in mind that, and I can't speak for Prime Minister Maliki now, but under my proposal, you'd still have U.S. forces with a capable counterterrorism operation in the region. You would still be training Iraqi security forces. We'd still be providing logistical support. We would still provide protection for our diplomatic corps and other civilians as well as our forces on the ground.
So we would still have the capacity to help promote effective actions by the Iraqi security forces. And, in fact, we're already starting to see more and more of those forces take the lead in actions where we're playing more of an advisory role. The key is for us to not inhibit the Iraqis from taking that kind of responsibility on.
Couric: You talk about a residual force remaining in Iraq, but you've been hesitant to really give a number … to people. You haven't been specific, though some of your advisors have said it could be tens of thousands of troops. Why can't you be more specific as to what you envision?
Obama: Now, keep in mind that when I talk about timetables, people say that's too specific, with respect to residual force, maybe not specific enough. I think this is an example of a tactical issue. How do you execute a mission that requires commanders on the ground to make that decision? My job as commander-in-chief would be to indicate to them here's our goal, here are the missions that we need to carry out. Now, you tell me what it is that we need in terms of boots on the ground, in terms of equipment, in terms of other capabilities that are gonna be required. The overarching strategy is not something that I can deflect to the general. That's something that I have to make a decision at of, if I am president of the United States.
Couric: Having said that, if General Petraeus or the chairman of the joint chiefs, Admiral Mullen, say to you, "Hey, President Obama …"
Couric: …if that comes to pass, "you cannot take out the final complement of combat troops. You need them in the theater," you would say?
Obama: I will always listen to the commanders on the ground. And I will make an assessment based on the facts at that time. As I've said before … I am not interested in a false choice between either perfect inflexibility in which the next 16 months or the next two years I ignore anything that's happening in Iraq. Or, alternatively, that I just have an open-ended, indefinite occupation of Iraq in which we're not putting any pressure on the Iraqis to stand up and … take this burden on. What I'm gonna do is to set a vision of where we need to go, a clear and specific timeframe within which we're gonna pull our combat forces out.
But I am gonna continue to listen to the commanders on the ground as well as others who are gonna be working on diplomatic front, are gonna be dealing with the economy of Iraq, all of which are gonna contribute to the safety and security of the Iraqi people.
Watch the CBS Evening News piece on the candidates' vision for Iraq.
Watch more of Couric's exclusive interview with Barack Obama in Jordan.
Couric: And base your decision still on conditions on the ground as well?
Obama: Well, as I said before … I would not be doing my job if I'm not paying attention to the facts.
Couric: Before the surge, as you know, Senator, there were 80 to 100 U.S. casualties a month, the country was rife with sectarian violence, and you raised a lot of eyebrows on this trip saying even knowing what you know now, you still would not have supported the surge. People may be scratching their heads and saying, "Why?"
Obama: Well … because … what I was referring to, and I've consistently referred to, is the need for a strategy that actually concludes our involvement in Iraq and moves Iraqis to take responsibility for the country.
Couric: But didn't the surge …
Obama: And …
Couric: …help do that?
Obama: Let me finish, Katie. What happens is that if we continue to put $10 billion to $12 billion a month into Iraq, if we are willing to send as many troops as we can muster continually into Iraq? There's no doubt that that's gonna have an impact. But it doesn't meet our long-term strategic goal, which is to make the American people safer over the long term. If that means that we're detracting from our efforts in Afghanistan, where conditions are deteriorating, if it means that we are distracted from going after Osama bin Laden who is still sending out audio tapes and is operating training camps where we know terrorists' actions are being plotted.
If we have shifted away from the central front of terrorism as a consequence of enormous and continuing investments in Iraq, then that's a poor strategic choice. And ultimately, what we've got to do is - we have to recognize that Iraq is just one of our … security problems. It's not the only one.
We've got big problems in Afghanistan. We've got a significant threat in Iran. We've got to deal with Pakistan and the fact that there are safe havens there. Those are all the factors and all the issues that I've gotta take into account when I'm president of the United States.
Couric: All that may be true. But do you not give the surge any credit for reducing violence in Iraq?
Obama: No, no … of course I have. There is no doubt that the extraordinary work of our U.S. forces has contributed to a lessening of the violence, just as making sure that the Sadr militia stood down or the fact that the Sunni tribes decided to flip and work with us instead of with al-Qaeda - something that we hadn't anticipated happening.
All those things have contributed to a reduction in violence. So this, in no way, detracts from the great efforts of our young men and women in uniform. In fact, that's one of the most striking things about visiting Iraq is to see how dedicated they are, what a great job they do - all those things … are critically important. What I'm saying is it does not solve the broader strategic question that we have been dealing with over the last five, six, seven years. And that is how do we take the limited resources we have, both militarily and financially, and apply them in such a way that we are making America as safe as possible? And I believe that my approach is the right one.
Couric: But talking microcosmically, did the surge, the addition of 30,000 additional troops ... help the situation in Iraq?
Obama: Katie, as … you've asked me three different times, and I have said repeatedly that there is no doubt that our troops helped to reduce violence. There's no doubt.
Couric: But yet you're saying … given what you know now, you still wouldn't support it … so I'm just trying to understand this.
Obama: Because … it's pretty straightforward. By us putting $10 billion to $12 billion a month, $200 billion, that's money that could have gone into Afghanistan. Those additional troops could have gone into Afghanistan. That money also could have been used to shore up a declining economic situation in the United States. That money could have been applied to having a serious energy security plan so that we were reducing our demand on oil, which is helping to fund the insurgents in many countries. So those are all factors that would be taken into consideration in my decision-- to deal with a specific tactic or strategy inside of Iraq.
Couric: And I really don't mean to belabor this, Senator, because I'm really, I'm trying … to figure out your position. Do you think the level of security in Iraq …
Couric … would exist today without the surge?
Obama: Katie, I have no idea what would have happened had we applied my approach, which was to put more pressure on the Iraqis to arrive at a political reconciliation. So this is all hypotheticals. What I can say is that there's no doubt that our U.S. troops have contributed to a reduction of violence in Iraq. I said that, not just today, not just yesterday, but I've said that previously. What that doesn't change is that we've got to have a different strategic approach if we're going to make America as safe as possible.
Couric: If you believe, Senator, Afghanistan is, in fact, the central front in the war on terror, why was this your first trip there? And why didn't you hold a single hearing as chairman of the subcommittee that oversees the fighting force there?
Obama: Well, the, actually, the subcommittee that I chair is the European subcommittee. And any issues related to Afghanistan were always dealt with in the full committee, precisely because it's so important. That's not a matter that you would deal with in a subcommittee setting. And the fact that I didn't visit Afghanistan doesn't detract from my accurate assessment that this has been the central front on terror.
I've been saying for over a year that we need to have more troops there. My visit confirmed every commander on the ground saying we, in fact, do need the two or three brigades that I've been recommending there. The fact that we're not gonna be able to solve the problem in Afghanistan unless we deal with the border situation with Pakistan, something that I talked about over a year ago.
What I'm encouraged by is that there's been a growing consensus on both sides of the aisle that, in fact, we need to put more effort into Afghanistan. And I think that, you know, my hope is that whoever the next president is, that we're gonna get that policy right because it is absolutely critical for us being successful long term.
Couric: You reportedly chaff when your foreign policy expertise is questioned. If foreign policy is not your weakest area of expertise, what is?
Obama: Well, you know, I … the last time I was asked a question what my biggest weakness was, I said …
Couric: You were disorganized.
Obama: …I was disorganized. This ended up becoming a big political issue. You see … we need somebody who's organized in the White House. So, you know, I …
Couric: But what area do you feel least comfortable with?
Obama: Well, you know … I think that … there are so many issues in which I am not an expert but require you to be an expert. That the most important job that I will have as president is choosing excellent people to help to shape policy and provide me with a clear set of decisions. So …I'll give you … a very clear example.
I know quite a bit about healthcare, from a 4,000 to 40,000-foot level. But I'm not a doctor. I'm not a biochemist. You know, if you ask me about the human genome, I can vaguely describe it to you, but I don't know all the possibilities and potentials. So when I think about what I have to do as a president, my job is to be smart enough to choose really smart people, in fact, not to be intimidated by having people who are smarter than me, around me to give me, sound advice, and then be able to make those decisions.
But when it comes to foreign … you know, I feel confident in my ability to apply good judgment to a broad set of problems that are out there. It doesn't mean that I'm gonna be an expert on everything. It means that … I'm still gonna be consulting with people who have specialized in a particular area or particular region. But I think that I have a good feel for the nature of the problems that we have, the fact that the globe has gotten smaller, that we are all interconnected but that we still have a whole host of ethnic divisions and rivalries … that are people are still steeped in history.
We started talking about the issues here in the Middle East. Obviously … those long-standing grievances are not gonna go away immediately. And that the United States, one of the things that we can provide is leadership based on sets of values and ideals that recognize the equality of people; recognize human rights; recognize the importance of opportunity for all.
I believe those are values that are applicable to a wide range of problems. And that's why I think it's so important for the U.S. to return to the kind of leadership by example … that has made us … not only powerful, but also influential around the world.
Couric: We have a lot more ground to cover. You're heading to Israel …
Couric: … after Jordan. And according to a recent poll out of Jerusalem, Israeli Jews favor John McCain for President 43 to 20 percent, with one-third undecided. Why do you think that's the case?
Obama: Well, I think it … I'm not as well known as John McCain. I think that's obviously a factor. And, you know, I think, understandably, Israelis are very interested in making sure that whoever takes the White House is absolutely committed to their security, regardless of other issues. And they know John McCain. He's been there. Despite the fact that my record is as strong as John McCain's on all the issues related to Israeli security, people just don't know me as well. That's part of the reason why we're gonna spend a day visiting there in discussions and hopefully give people confidence that I have a track record that will assure not only the people of Israel, but friends of Israel back home, that, in fact, Israel's security is paramount.
Couric: There is some speculation, there is skepticism there because they're concerned about your previously stated notion of having talks with Iranian leaders, that somehow that signals to them that you won't be tough enough to Iran.
Couric: What's your response to that?
Obama: Well, I think that … I'm encouraged to see, for example, the Bush administration send an outstanding diplomat, [Undersecretary of State William] Burns, to participate in discussions with Iran. This is what I've been talking about for the last year and a half. There's a reason why, for example, North Korea, when we weren't talking, developed eight nuclear weapons. And when we started talking, we've now arrived at possibility where we could get those nuclear weapons, and those systems dismantled.
You know, engaging in tough diplomacy is not a sign of weakness; it's a sign of strength. When we engage in that kind of diplomacy, two things can happen. One, we get a breakthrough and the other side responds to the carrots and sticks that we're offering. Tough sanctions if they don't behave but opportunities for greater involvement, for example, in the international community if they do. That's one possibility.
The other possibility is they just reject it. You know, so far the Iranians have not accepted the kinds of talks that we need to deal with in terms of suspending their enrichment program. But the fact that we've tried to talk to them then strengthens our hand in the international community when we wanna get Russia or China to help apply the tough sanctions that are gonna be required to make Iranians know that we mean business.
Couric: If they reject negotiations, how likely do you think a preemptive military strike by Israel against Iran may be?
Obama: I will not hypothesize on that. I think Israel has a right to defend itself. But I will not speculate on … the difficult judgment that they would have to make in a whole host of possible scenarios.
Couric: This is not a speculative question then. Was it appropriate, in your view, for Israel to take out that suspected Syrian nuclear site last year?
Obama: Yes. I think that there was sufficient evidence that they were developing a site using a nuclear or using … a blueprint that was similar to the North Korean model. There was some concern as to what the rationale for that site would be. And, again, ultimately, I think these are decisions that the Israelis have to make. But, you know, the Israelis live in a very tough neighborhood where a lot of folks, publicly proclaim Israel as an enemy and then act on those proclamations.
And I think that you know … it's important … for me not to you know, engage in speculation on what steps they need to take. What I can do is to provide leadership so that the United States government hopefully doesn't get us into a position where those decisions are so difficult. That's why applying tough diplomacy, direct diplomacy, and tough sanctions where necessary is so important.
Couric: Two more questions. You said not too long ago that Jerusalem should remain undivided. And then you backtracked on that statement. Does that play into the argument that some believe that someone more experienced would not have made that kind of mistake?
Obama: Well…if you look at what happened, there was no shift in policy or backtracking in policy. We just had phrased it poorly in the speech. That has happened and will happen to every politician. You're not always gonna hit your mark in terms of how you phrase your policies. But my policy hasn't changed, and it's been very consistent. It's the same policy that Bill Clinton has put forward, and that says that Jerusalem will be the capital of Israel, that we shouldn't divide it by barbed wire, but that, ultimately that is … a final status issue that has to be resolved between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
Couric: Finally, you'll be going to Germany and to France and Great Britain. And according to German press reports, as many as a million people may be gathering to hear your speech in Berlin. Do you worry at all, Sen. Obama, that this kind of crowd in Berlin may be slightly off-putting to the guy in Columbus, Ohio, who's just lost his job?
Obama: Yeah. Well, first of all, I am very doubtful that there will be a million people there. You know, I think we'll get a crowd if the weather's good. And the purpose of the speech is to remind both Americans and Europeans of this special transatlantic bond that has been built up since the end of World War II that has been so critical to the prosperity of all peoples. And I think the guy in Columbus, 'cause I talk to guys in Columbus, they're very interested in making sure that we are restoring respect in the world that that people feel good about America and part of my message is, is that both sides of the Atlantic are gonna have to do … some hard work.
But it's work that must be done because the challenges that we face, whether it's climate change or making sure that we've got a economic system that works for everybody or we're dealing with issues like terrorism, those are issues that no one country can solve alone. And we've got to continue to nurture this wonderful relationship that has existed with former enemies. You know … and that's why Berlin I think in particular is such a great site for that particular message.
Couric: Certainly symbolic.
Couric: Sen. Barack Obama. Senator, thank you.
Obama: Thank you so much. Appreciate it, Katie.