March 24, 2008 — -- In an exclusive interview with ABC News, Vice President Dick Cheney was asked what effect the grim milestone of at least 4,000 U.S. deaths in the five-year Iraq war might have on the nation.
Noting the burden placed on military families, the vice president said the biggest burden is carried by President George W. Bush, who made the decision to commit US troops to war, and reminded the public that U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan volunteered for duty.
"I want to start with the milestone today of 4,000 dead in Iraq. Americans. And just what effect do you think it has on the country?" asked ABC News' White House correspondent, Martha Raddatz, who traveled with the vice president on a nine-day overseas trip to Iraq and other countries in the Middle East.
"It obviously brings home I think for a lot of people the cost that's involved in the global war on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan," Cheney said in the interview, conducted in Turkey. "It places a special burden obviously on the families, and we recognize, I think — it's a reminder of the extent to which we are blessed with families who've sacrificed as they have."
"The president carries the biggest burden, obviously," Cheney said. "He's the one who has to make the decision to commit young Americans, but we are fortunate to have a group of men and women, the all-volunteer force, who voluntarily put on the uniform and go in harm's way for the rest of us."
Raddatz noted that some soldiers, Air Force members, and Marines have been on multiple deployments and have been sent back to Iraq because of the stop-loss policy — an involuntary extension of a service member's enlistment contract. The Army alone says 58,000 US soldiers have been redeployed to war because of the stop-loss policy.
"When you talk about an all-volunteer force, some of these soldiers, airmen, Marines have been on two, three, four, some of them more than that, deployments," Raddatz said. "Do you think when they volunteered they had any idea that there would be so many deployments or stop-loss? Some of those who want to get out can't because of stop-loss?"
"A lot of men and women sign up because sometimes they will see developments," Cheney said. "For example, 9/11 stimulated a lot of folks to volunteer for the military because they wanted to be involved in defending the country."
Referring to his talks with US service members in Iraq, the vice president said the men and women he speaks to are committed to the war.
"The thing that comes through loud and clear is how much they are committed to the cause, to doing what needs to be done to defend the nation," Cheney said.
When asked about the toll multiple deployments have taken on U.S. military members, Cheney fired back with a question.
"Of course it is, Martha," Cheney said. "So what would be the solution to that? I mean how would you deal with that?"
Today the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, recommended to Bush a "pause" in the drawdown of U.S. forces after the last surge combat brigade leaves in July. The pause is expected to be four to eight weeks, after which another decision will made on resuming the drawdown.
There are currently more U.S. military members in Iraq than when the United States led the invasion of the country in March 2003.
Petraeus has spoken on the record about his desire for a pause, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates has publicly endorsed the idea. If the security situation is stable, Petraeus will likely signal that the drawdown can continue in the fall.
When asked about the possibility of resuming a U.S. military drawdown from Iraq in the fall, Cheney said what's important is that the U.S. succeeds in Iraq.
"That isn't the way I think about it," Cheney said, referring to the possibility of a drawdown. "It's important to achieve victory in Iraq. It's important to win, to succeed in the objective that we've established."
"It may be that we can make judgements about reductions down the road and the President will make those when the time arrives, but I don't think he's likely to try and say now what the force ought to be at the end of the year," Cheney said. "Conditions on the ground will determine that."
Cheney dismissed the suggestion that a drawdown would be an important message to the Iraqi government that the United States wasn't staying indefinitely in the country.
"The idea that we can walk away from Iraq is, I think, terribly damaging on its face, and to say that, 'well that's the only way we can get the Iraqis to take on responsibility,' I don't believe that's the case," he said.
Without addressing the Democratic candidates specifically, the vice president said those who want to pull out of Iraq are "seriously misguided." He said the presidential candidates would be risking an attack on the homeland if US forces withdrew, arguing that terrorists would find safe havens in other countries.
Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both have said they'd withdraw US forces from Iraq if elected president. Sen. John McCain has advocated a continued U.S. presence in Iraq until security and political situations improve.
When asked if he was talking about any candidate in particular, Cheney said, "I am talking about any candidate for high office who believes the solution for our problem in that part of the world is to walk away from the commitments that we've made in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere."
Today the Democratic presidential candidates commented on the milestone of 4,000 US military dead in the war.
Tens of thousands of our brave men and women have also suffered serious wounds, both visible and invisible to their bodies their minds and their hearts," Clinton said Monday in Philadelphia. "As president, I intend to honor their extraordinary service and the sacrifice of them and their families by ending this war and bringing them home as quickly and responsibly as possible."
In a released statement, Obama said: "It is past time to end this war that should never have been waged by bringing our troops home, and finally pushing Iraq's leaders to take responsibility for their future."
The 4,000 U.S. killed in Iraq figure includes seven civilians who worked for the military services while serving in Iraq.
Last week Cheney made headlines when asked about recent polls that show about two-thirds of Americans say the fight in Iraq is not worth it.
"So?" Cheney replied during that interview. "You don't care what the American people think?" Raddatz asked the vice president at the time.
"You can't be blown off course by polls," Cheney said during that interview.
Today, Cheney defended that answer.
"Look, there are alot of people out there, Martha, that don't agree with me about a lot of things, but if I wanted to be loved, I'd ought to be a TV correspondent, not a politician," he said.
With files from ABC News' Jonathan Karl and Luis Martinez.