Iraq and veterans care continued to be the topics de jour this weekend. Consider THIS WEEK on ABC:
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: President Bush may be traveling through Latin America, but his focus is still on Iraq. He asked Congress yesterday to fund more than 4,000 new troops on top of the 21,500 he asked for in January. Democrats in Congress say it’s time to start bringing troops home. And we’re joined this morning by one of them, Senator James Webb of Virginia.
STEPHANOPOULOS: So is the president going to get this request?
WEBB: Well, you know, as long as he has the authority as commander-in-chief to conduct the war, he’s going to be able to control a lot of these sorts of things. I don’t think people are going to go against him in terms of cutting back the appropriations for more troops.
So, Congress will pressure the White House to bring the troops home by giving it the funding it requests. Brilliant! Sen. Webb then clarified how a timetable is anything but.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But you Senate Democrats are trying to put more pressure on the Maliki government and you’ve said, you’ve introduced legislation this week, Senator Reid, the majority leader has, calling for a goal of getting all combat forces out of Iraq by next March 31st. But this summer, you told Joe Klein of “Time” magazine, I want to show what you told Joe Klein. He was talking about a discussion you had and he said when he, Webb, talks about the war in Iraq, Jim Webb, the Democrat running for the U.S. Senate from Virginia likes to paraphrase Dwight Eisenhower on the war in Korea, “Anyone who tells you we can set a timetable for withdrawal, doesn’t understand war.” If a timetable was wrong then, why is it right now?
WEBB: Well, I don’t think that we should have a specific timetable for getting out. I’ve always said that.
STEPHANOPOULOS: So you’re against this legislation by Senator Reid?
WEBB: I think what, first of all, let’s say, let me clarify two things. The overt pressure on the Maliki government to solve the problem from within has not come from most of the Democrats. You’re hearing it, for instance, even from Senator McConnell yesterday and this is sort of an odd situation. It shows the unreality of a lot of this debate, and we’re now — the Republicans are saying this is Iraq’s last chance. This is their last chance. Maliki has to get it right.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Isn’t that true, though?
WEBB: No, let me be clear here. There’s only so much that a weak central government surrounded by armed factions can do. We saw that in Lebanon. I was there as a journalist. You had almost identical situation in microcosm but the rhetoric from the Republicans and other people who are saying that is almost counterintuitive. They’re saying, “This is your last chance” when you’re a weak government and you’re not able to basically control the factions that you’re responsible for.
Actually, Sen. Webb makes a good point here. Pressuring a weak, fragile, unstable government may be good rhetoric, but doesn’t actually accomplish anything.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But let me go back to this issue of a timetable. I understand this isn’t a timetable.
WEBB: I want to get to that. But I think this is a very important point here. They’re saying, “This is your last chance, but what does that mean if the Maliki government cannot do it?” Are they going to favor a total withdrawal? We don’t know. I mean I think that’s an unrealistic thing to say.
Now, with respect to timetables I’ve said over and over again the first thing — I mean for three years before I ever thought I’d run for office — that the first thing that must happen is a diplomatic umbrella. The sort of thing that we saw yesterday, and by the way I congratulated Secretary Rice on the Senate floor last Monday about this, and from there you can start withdrawing. What I’ve said is you can’t simply start withdrawing and then expect a diplomatic settlement to fall into place. That’s a sign of weakness.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But this is still a timetable for withdrawal.
WEBB: No, we now have, first of all, the beginnings of a true diplomatic process in place. This legislation, last time I read it, which was on Friday, basically says we will begin withdrawing combat troops from the streets of Iraq within four months, 120 days after the signing –
STEPHANOPOULOS (Reading from text of bill): “With the goal of redeploying by March 31st, 2008, all United States combat forces from Iraq, except for a limited number for protecting U.S. personnel, training and equipping Iraqi forces or conducting counterterrorism.” But that is still a timetable for withdrawal.
WEBB: Well, that’s — no, it’s a timetable to begin and to get our troops off the streets of Iraq, which, by the way, even the United States military, active duty military, I think, agrees with. Only 35% of the active duty military agrees with the Bush plan according to the “Service Times” poll. So it’s a way to push this administration, as we’ve been doing in these hearings, to couple military withdrawal with a diplomatic effort and that’s the way this should have gone. What I’ve been opposed to and I’m still opposed to, is the notion that we should be withdrawing militarily in the absence of rigorous diplomacy.
And just how well is that diplomacy working? On MEET THE PRESS there was this interview with U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad:
TIM RUSSERT: Did you talk directly to the Iranians during the course of the day?
KHALILZAD: I did talk to the Iranian across the table, and also I shook hands with him and talked two minutes or so with him. But most of exchanges were across the table dealing with Iraq issues.
RUSSERT: The Iranian ambassador said there were no direct talks with the Americans. Is he correct?
KHALILZAD: I think he’s correct in that sense we did not have direct, bilateral, substantive talks other than shaking hands, saying some words about their interest in discussions with the United States, but no substantive bilateral meeting, that is correct.
Meanwhile, on the issue of veterans’ health care it is looking, once again, like the American public has not been getting the real truth. Back on This Week:
STEPHANOPOULOS: Meanwhile, you’ve also been holding hearings, of course, on the scandal at Walter Reed and the rest of the V.A. medical system. You have a lot of experience with this.. A Vietnam veteran, wounded in Vietnam, also the former counsel to the House Veterans Affairs Committee. And one of the things that’s coming out about this is that we’re starting to learn that there’s been a dramatic undercounting of the number of wounded.
STEPHANOPOULOS: We were talking last July and one of the things you said in the interview then was that go count the number of Purple Hearts that have been given in Iraq. It is going to be far more than the official number of wounded but you said then as a candidate you couldn’t get to the bottom of it because you didn’t have the power. Have you been able to find out more about the number of Purple Hearts and are you now convinced that the administration has been undercounting the number of wounded?
WEBB: I think there has been an undercounting, not to the extent that you’re seeing in that clip, but the true problem here and I’m on the Veterans Committee, as well as the Armed Services Committee and we’ve had separate hearings. We’re going to hold joint hearings — is the step after people have served and after they have been treated.
But when people are leaving and transitioning into the veterans system, we’ve got a couple sets of problems.
First is the backlog, when these people are stuck in these outpatient areas in terms of evaluating their claims, trying to get disability assignments for them. The other is the ability of the V.A. to absorb them. We’ve got a 400,000 claim backlog in the V.A. right now.
STEPHANOPOULOS: So what do you think the number of wounded is?
WEBB: I can’t give you that number. I think I could clearly see at the very beginning of this war when I was first talking about this to my friend Chuck Hagel that they were — it appeared that they were counting only those people who had been evacuated out of theater as casualties in the official reports. But it’s not — the number of wounded is not the number of people who have been treated in the V.A. Wounded is a term meaning wounded on the battlefield. Those are people who have had medical problems and that’s where we need to focus on. We need to focus on this threshold and also the threshold from having served your country and then how do you move back into the rest of your life?
Finally, this refreshing exchange over at FACE THE NATION:
SCHIEFFER: We’re back now with Senator Claire McCaskill, freshman senator from Missouri. She is joining us from St. Louis today.
And Senator, we asked you because you were one of the first senators, when this story broke about the trouble going on at Walter Reed Hospital, to recognize the seriousness of what was happening. You moved quickly to try to introduce legislation. I just wanted to check in with you this morning to see what’s been going on. How do you think things are moving on this?
SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL [D-MO]: Well, I’m a little worried, Bob, because what happens in Washington when there’s a scandal is everybody appoints a commission. The president has done a commission, and Secretary Gates has done a commission. And I’m sure all the people that will serve on those commissions are good people. But you know, we need to act. You know, a commission is just another way of delaying and contributing to the bureaucracy, and that’s a huge part of the problem. This is going to take a lot more than a coat of paint on the walls of, frankly, a bad motel which Building 18 really is.
I suggest that everyone in Washington spend some time talking to the soldiers at Walter Reed. That’s what I’ve been doing, and it’s very easy to see where the problems are. And frankly, some of this is just as simple as fixing a morass of paperwork that is freezing families into a level of stress that just is unacceptable for our wounded and the people who love them.
SCHIEFFER: Well, so what should they do? Do we need to just get more people out there assigned on temporary duty to help these people? What would be some of the things you would suggest?
MCCASKILL: Well, as we say in the bill — and a lot of the things that we do in the legislation that Senator Obama and I introduced — a lot of that can be done without legislation. But they need to combine the physical evaluation and the medical evaluation into one process. Right now, you have two silos of bureaucracies. And as a wounded soldier tries to figure out where they’re going to end up after they leave Walter Reed, they get caught up in this tangle. Those need to be combined — those bureaucracies.
I met Sergeant Rutter (ph), a wonderful man from Missouri, who lost both of his legs in Iraq, who’s been at Walter Reed for 10 months. He told me that after the doctor signed his narrative summary, which is very important to these soldiers, it took the report two and a half weeks to go across the hall. Now, come on, we can do better than that. And we need more social workers. They need more caseworkers. They need more legal advisers. And they need a change in the culture of command.
General Kiley needs to be removed from his duty as surgeon general of the Army. Because it’s that culture of command — and by the way, General Kiley — I’ve documented in the Armed Services hearing this week — he knew of these problems. He’s known of them for several years, and he was in the position to do something about it. And he needs to change, he needs to go, we need a new commander over the Medical Command of the U.S. Army and a new culture of command.
SCHIEFFER: Now, one of the things we found out over the past couple of weeks that these problems go beyond Walter Reed. They go to some of the other military hospitals, and they also extend into the Veterans Administration where we’ve seen the secretary of the Veterans Administration — at least two television appearances that I have seen him — where he seemed unfamiliar with the services that were being offered by his own agency. How serious is the problem there?
MCCASKILL: Well, the Walter Reed syndrome spreads to other military hospitals around our country and also into the VA. And frankly, the VA is really a problem. The president has cut the budget in Veterans Administration for the past five years. In the budget that he just submitted to Congress, he went into veteran’s pockets for another $5 billion for the health care they were promised for free. And with all due respect to the head of the Veterans Administration, this is a man that was chairman of the Republican National Committee. The appearance isn’t right. You know, this looks like a “Brownie” situation. Let’s put somebody –
SCHIEFFER: “Brownie” as in FEMA.
MCCASKILL: As in FEMA — you know, this is a political appointment. This is somebody who has spent a whole lot of the last few years defending everything about the White House. Really, that’s not the right person to be leading the agency that’s supposed to protect our veterans. And I really think it’s time we put somebody in charge of the Veterans Administration whose first priority are the veterans and not the politics surrounding the agency.