So the theory behind the surge, which was that we will give the breathing room for Iraqi politicians to make some better decisions about how they can live together, that has not happened. Now, the fact that fewer people are dying is terrific, but what that does not show is the kind of progress that would allow us over time to give the country back to the Iraqis.
And unless we set up a situation in which that can occur, it's never going to happen, and we could be there for 10 years, 20 years, with enormous implications, both for U.S. deaths, our standing the region, and our standing in the world, our capacity to negotiate with other countries around large problems like Iran's nuclear program or what's happening in Pakistan. Our overall national security I think is damaged the longer that we stay in Iraq.
MORAN: Let me press you on that. The surge did accomplish, in combination with some decisions that Sunni leaders made, the defeat of Al Qaida in Anbar province. If you had had your way, Al Qaida would still be in charge of that portion of Iraq.
OBAMA: Oh, not necessarily, because what I was always very clear about -- in fact, I would argue what's happened in Anbar argues for precisely why we need to start withdrawing. What changed in Anbar was the Sunni leadership making a determination, "You know what? The U.S. isn't going to be here forever, and we're starting to see, get a taste of what Taliban-style rule by Al Qaida in Iraq means for us, and it's not very attractive, so we'd better realign ourselves, start getting armed, and start getting trained so that we can make sure that we are determining our own fate."
It was a response to the recognition they had to be responsible for their own situation. And I would argue that, as we send a signal that we're going to initiate a withdrawal, but not a precipitous one -- the quickest we can get our troops out safely is one to two brigades a month. So you're looking at 16 months to get our combat troops out. If it hasn't started before I'm sworn in, you're talking about two years from now.
Now, if we cannot execute an intelligent, thoughtful exit strategy, and the Iraqi government cannot respond in an effective, positive way, over the course of the next two years to end our occupation in Iraq, then we may be looking at a decade- or two decade-long stay in Iraq. And that, I believe, would be disastrous for our long-term national security.
MORAN: Thank you. Another thing you said which got you into some trouble, you said you would negotiate…
OBAMA: Oh, so many things get me into trouble.
MORAN: You said you'd negotiate with the leaders of Iran and North Korea. So the United States, other countries believe Iran is bent on acquiring a nuclear weapon. What would you actually say to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that would persuade him to stand down?
OBAMA: Well, first of all, Ahmadinejad is not the only power in Iran. In fact, he's not the most powerful person in Iran. The clerics are in Iran.
MORAN: And you'd talk to them?
OBAMA: And I would talk to them, as well. And here's the argument that I would make. The United States reserves its military options, and we are gravely concerned about the development of a nuclear weapon in Iran. We think it destabilizes the region, portends a nuclear arms race. Sunni powers, like Saudi Arabia, may then decide they need to pursue a nuclear weapon. It threatens Israel, our staunch ally in the region.