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Congressman On Iraq's Decision To Expel U.S. Troops


We're joined now by Representative Mike Gallagher. He's a Republican who represents Wisconsin's 8th District. He's also a Marine who served twice in Iraq, commanding intelligence teams there. Among his other assignments, he served with the Central Command's Middle East assessment team under General David Petraeus. The congressman is now serving on the House Armed Services Committee, and he's with us now.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

MIKE GALLAGHER: Happy to be with you. Thank you.

MARTIN: First of all, as somebody who served in Iraq, can I just ask you your reaction to today's vote in the Iraqi Parliament demanding that U.S. forces leave the country?

GALLAGHER: Well, I think the vote was significant but for precisely the opposite reason that some are suggesting. They were barely able to muster a quorum - about 170 out of 328. That's half plus four. Furthermore, it was a non-binding resolution that says U.S. troops should leave on an undefined timetable, which may mean never. And furthermore, we know the vote does not represent the consensus within the country.

MARTIN: So as a practical matter, is there a concern - particularly as somebody who served time there and obviously, you know, sacrificed, you know, a good part of your life to do that and probably lost, you know, friends and colleagues there - are you concerned that whatever the U.S. has achieved through its military presence in Iraq could be undone? Or do you think it's just premature to even have that conversation?

GALLAGHER: Well, my first class on Middle East politics as an undergrad, my professor said the fundamental rule in the Middle East is things can always get worse. So yes, I'm always concerned about what will develop. And I think everyone should be concerned about what the Iranian reaction should be. But we should also be confident that we did the right thing in taking out Soleimani, that we are the superpower, and Iran simply can't match us if they choose to escalate.

So while our position in Iraq is uncertain - and just because we've been in Iraq for 16 years, it doesn't mean we have to stay there. I think a lot of my constituents would like us to leave. I understand where they're coming from. But personally, as someone who served in Iraq and who served with a lot of fine Iraqis, I'd like to continue the partnership.

MARTIN: You've made it very clear over the last couple of days that - you've said that killing this military commander with the U.S. airstrike was worth it to save American lives. The administration says the killing disrupted active threats to the Americans in the region. Have you seen any intelligence to support that?

GALLAGHER: Well, I'm in Green Bay, Wis., right now, so I don't have access just yet. But we'll be back in D.C. tomorrow. My understanding is we are going to have a very fulsome intelligence brief from Pompeo, from Esper and others.

Now, no one should be sanguine about, you know, the complexities of the Middle East and, you know, Iran's next move. We should prepare for it. But I do think this was the right call. And ultimately, historically, if you look at Iran's behavior, the only thing that has forced them to back down is when they are confronted with American strength and resolve.

MARTIN: Now, back to the U.S. response. President Trump tweeted yesterday that if Iran attacks any Americans or American assets, the U.S. has a list of 52 sites, including some of significant cultural value to Iran, that would be hit, as he put it, "very fast and very hard" - unquote - in retaliation.

You know, some people have pointed out that the U.S. hitting culturally significant sites in that manner for that reason could be considered a war crime. And the U.S. has sharply condemned other groups who've done the same thing. You know, as somebody who's spent time in the region, what do you say to that?

GALLAGHER: I just would say that I hope Iran chooses not to kill Americans. Iran has been systematically escalating for months if not years now. And we acted, and now the onus is on Iran not to escalate any further. I'd have to see the exact sites on that target list. I have not. I apologize.

But again, I just think we need to remind ourselves that it is Iran that has been consistently escalating in this process. If they choose to escalate further, we will have to respond. But I truly hope for the sake of the Iranian people who have suffered enough under the yoke of their corrupt, terror-sponsoring and brutal regime who are taking to the streets and risking their lives for the better part of the last two years to protest that regime that Iran does not choose that...

MARTIN: Let me just be clear about this. Are you saying it would be acceptable to you for the U.S. to strike a mosque or a temple in retaliation for an attack on an American? I mean, the fact of the matter, this attack on the - on Soleimani was an attack on a military commander. It was targeted. It - these were specific individuals.

Now, people have - can debate whether that was appropriate or not, but there was clearly an attempt not to involve civilians. It was clearly an attempt not to involve some collateral damage. And now the president is saying he's willing to damage culturally significant sites. That's acceptable to you?

GALLAGHER: That's not what I'm saying. What I'm admitting to you is that I haven't seen the list of the sites that the president is talking about. This is an opportunity for us next week to ask questions of Pompeo and Esper. But certainly, Congress doesn't necessarily get involved in targeting decisions that DoD makes. And I'm sure the president will get that advice. But for me to comment further on DoD targeting decisions, I think, would be irresponsible.

MARTIN: OK. So before we let you go, there are analysts - mainly on the Democratic side, it has to be said, but others as well - have expressed concern about whether the president is, in fact, taking advice from people with deep experience in the region and whether he has a coherent strategy here. I mean, as a person who invested, you know, years of your life in working in this area, do you think he does? I mean, do you see a coherent strategy emerging from this administration?

GALLAGHER: Well, with the caveat that, you know, I'm not privy to discussions within the National Security Council, occasionally, the White House asks me for my thoughts. But when it comes to the killing of Soleimani, this was not a haphazard decision. This was a target that I believe was presented to the president on multiple occasions prior to this, gone through extensive vetting within DoD - and that includes legal vetting as to the underlying authorities for doing it. And so he does have some great people to draw upon with recent tactical experience in Iraq.

MARTIN: That was Representative Mike Gallagher, Republican of Wisconsin. He's a member of the House Armed Services Committee, and he served many years in Iraq.

Representative Gallagher, thanks so much for talking to us.

GALLAGHER: Thank you. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.