Kirsten Gillibrand talks to Metroland about her trip
to Iraq and Pakistan
by David King
taken by Kirsten Gillibrand and her staff during their visit
to Iraq and Pakistan.
Gillibrand has no chance.” That was the consensus around this
time last year. Gillibrand was facing an election district
that had a majority of registered Republicans, and many thought
that a woman who ran on reforming Congress and bringing an
end to the war in Iraq would be soundly defeated by the incumbent.
It’s a year later, and much has changed. Gillibrand (D-Greenport)
has been in office for half a year. The country as a whole,
including the 20th Congressional District, seems to have become
more and more disdainful of the Bush administration’s handling
of the war. And in the next election cycle, many say, Republicans
everywhere will face a steep climb thanks to President George
Bush’s dismal poll ratings. Despite all those changes, one
thing has stayed the same. America is still at war in Iraq.
On July 7, Gillibrand returned from a weeklong trip to the
Middle East as a member of the Armed Services Committee, a
trip that included visits in Iraq and Pakistan. In a one-on-one
phone interview with Metroland, Gillibrand described
her trip and explained how it will affect her policymaking.
sense did you get from the troops you were able to speak to?
troops in Iraq are incredibly brave and incredibly strong.
They work every day in a war zone. It is very intense for
them; they are young guys, and every mission they are sent
on, whether they are on a convoy with supplies or tracking
Al Qaeda, they are taking their lives into their own hands
every day. It is incredible, and they inspire me because they
are so dedicated and focused on their mission. In terms of
politics, they don’t talk about the politics of it. In Kuwait,
waiting in line, one soldier said to me, “Do what you can
do to get us out of here. It is hard to see what progress
is being made. I’ve been here for a long time.” I asked a
number of troops what kind of an impact the debate back home
was having on them. And they replied, “Oh, ma’am, we’re in
uniform. We don’t talk about politics, but we appreciate the
raise and what you are trying to do to reduce our rotation
A number of soldiers said, “We will complete any mission you
give us.” And they will do it bravely, strongly, and with
unparalleled commitment. They look to Congress and the administration
for policy. But the debate does not undermine them or make
them feel bad. You talk to the older guys, the generals, and
they have a broader perspective. I spoke to a commander in
special ops and he told me, “We killed 10 members of Al Qaeda;
let us stay the course. We are making progress.” They see
progress, but they are not looking at geopolitical issues
and whether or not this is the best approach for undermining
terrorism. Another general told me, “You know, the debate
in Washington is having an impact. What is happening now is
Iraqis are realizing they have to take things into their own
hands and make a decision to create stability in their region.”
In the Anbar province, tribal leaders have expelled Al Qaeda
in their region. They don’t want what Al Qaeda are selling.
They like their modern lifestyle, they like their lives how
they are living them now. From my perspective, that is a key
step in undermining terrorism. It will take the Iraqi people
themselves to reject terrorism, to choose stability over civil
war, and those are the benchmarks we are creating.
is life like for people in Iraq? What do they have to look
today is a very unstable and unsafe place. We took a military
plane into Iraq, and we had to file down into the airport.
If you don’t, you will be exposed to rocket fire and grenades.
We took a Blackhawk helicopter into the Green Zone, and we
were incredibly vulnerable to attacks. Any terrorist with
a shoulder-fired missile could have taken it down. That is
the situation our soldiers live in every day. On that helicopter,
we went to the embassy, and two rockets were fired on the
embassy while we were there having the meeting. Attacks are
happening every minute of every day. And when they say there
is success in the Anbar province, success there is instead
of 50 attacks in one week there are 10. It will be a very
long time before it is safe.
The real focus of American policy should be economic growth,
political progress and a diplomatic effort. That is where
we can make a difference. We have to bring the parties together.
Young Iraqis have to have jobs to go to. That is going to
bring about a much more hopeful result. When they are buildings
roads and hospitals, they will choose peace over civil war.
They will realize, “I have a job. I’m providing for my family;
I don’t want to be in a 20-year civil war.” And they will
have hope for their own future.
your campaign, you insisted that we would need to give Iraqis
a stake in their country’s oil to ensure they had an incentive
to work together. Is that still possible?
a job and having oil revenues are important to make sure the
Iraqis have a real stake in their country. It is still troubling
to me that 50 percent of oil revenues are still on the black
market. We need to take the oil production and secure it,
and give each group a certain stake. Right now they are trying
to change the Iraqi constitution so that 80 percent of oil
wells will be run by foreign entities. It would be a huge
mistake. It is being debated in Iraq right now, and people
are standing up against it. They realize that that kind of
arrangement will have a destabilizing impact. When the country’s
greatest resources are given away to foreign entities, it
takes away the carrots you have.
you able to speak with any Iraqi citizens?
only meeting I was able to have was at the embassy, where
I was able to meet with some women who received microfinance
loans and started small businesses. They were seamstresses
and involved in fabric-making. Some were in food production.
They received $1,500, and they provided real hope for the
communities because they could provide for their families.
It was very inspiring, and the women were urging America to
support these kind of efforts. It was clear that they make
an enormous difference.
was the purpose of your trip to Pakistan?
went to Pakistan to assess what we are doing to undermine
terrorism there. We met with the ambassador. We met with the
military community. We met with the prime minister [Shaukat
Aziz]. One of the things the prime minister said I thought
was very powerful, he said it is the humanitarian work we
are doing that is going to make a difference. He said that
empty bellies are the targets for terrorism. What he meant
is the greatest targets they have are people who are very
poor, with a lack of hope, with a lack of future. Pakistan
is very important; it shares a border with Afghanistan. That
border is where refugees of the war [the Afghanis] had with
the Soviet Union are, and those camps are very poor. And the
Pakistani government believes Al Qaeda does recruiting there.
They asked us to increase funding for education and health
care, and the prime minister said he wanted to work with us
militarily to track down Al Qaeda. And they are looking for
our assistance economically.
trip to Afghanistan was canceled. Did you get a chance to
gauge the severity of the situation in that country while
couldn’t make it there because there were operations going
on there, and they could not guarantee our safety. But Pakistan
is very concerned about its porous borders. In particular,
it’s concerned about the Taliban and Al Qaeda. It really highlighted
for me how broad anti-terrorism needs to be in this decade.
We have to go after root causes: lack of hope, lack of a future,
extreme poverty. Those are areas where organizations like
Al Qaeda thrive. It really highlighted for me that the investments
we need to make in Afghanistan and Pakistan are not military
ones but much more focused on economic and social issues.
have said in the past that you expect more legislators from
the Republican side to change their minds, and you expect
to see significant legislation passed by the fall. Do you
still expect that to happen?
obviously a moving target, but I do see people across America
really demanding a new approach by this administration. All
types of areas of this country—conservative and liberal—are
changing their minds, and more members will be moving away
from the president’s policies. I think we will see a move
away from certain policies and benchmarks, away from military
solutions and toward political ones. I think come this fall—and
even sooner—bills may not pass the House, but we will come
closer to the 218 votes needed.
have made a point to keep an open-door policy with your constituents
and have kept up a busy schedule of Congress on Your Corner
events. Have you noticed a change in your constituents’ feelings
about the war?
talked to my neighbor this morning. He is a conservative Republican
from my district, and he does not think this war is making
a difference. He is concerned it is the wrong approach. He
is concerned about the administration losing its way—and not
just over the war but with the Scooter Libby trial as well.
But that’s just his anecdotal response.
Over the last two years, it’s changed. At first folks wanted
to give the administration an opportunity to pursue its policy.
But there have been so many scandals, and they have undermined
their confidence. The Libby scandal, the U.S. attorneys scandal—people
are losing confidence in the administration. I see it even
among my veteran advisory-board members. They really want
forceful debate and advocacy for something different.
have stated that you believe the way to change things in Iraq
is to put pressure on the administration. With Bush being
so notoriously stubborn, and his poll ratings being as low
as they are, does he really have anything to lose or a reason
to change? Do you still think it can work?
do. Look at the number of Republicans last week who defected,
and it is evident that the pressure is working. We are making
a case to the American people that his approach is not the
best. When senior Republicans start defecting, you are watching
that pressure being effective. I think it is possible that
we will have a significant troop reduction by the end of the
administration, if not a withdrawal, and I think they will
be shifting toward economic solutions.
all have an idea of what it is like in Iraq, whether we have
been there or not. How did the reality of what’s going on
in Iraq compare with your expectations?
is far worse than I ever imagined it would be. It is so unstable.
There are so many threats, and my admiration for our troops
grew exponentially. They are so focused on completing the
mission their commanders give them. You can’t imagine how
proud I was for their strength and courage. Before we went
to Iraq, we went to Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Wounded
soldiers are brought there before they are brought home. I
met two guys who were in critical care. One was hit in the
neck by a sniper’s bullet and the other had shrapnel all over
his body from an IED explosion. I learned so much on this
trip about our soldiers and their sacrifice.