updated 12/16/2005 9:16:33 AM ET 2005-12-16T14:16:33

Guests: Bill Nelson, Kit Bond, Robin Wright, Bob Shrum, Pat Buchanan, Ken Allard

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC ANCHOR:  Will the big turnout in Iraq unite the country or divide it forever?  Will the victors share the victory with the losers?  Will the losers, who once ruled Iraq, except the short end of the stick?

Also today, President Bush bows to John McCain‘s stand on torture, but where was the vice president when this deal was cut?  Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews.  And welcome to HARDBALL. 

The citizens of Iraq bravely faced down terrorists and turned out in record numbers to cast their votes in the historic parliamentary election.  Because of the heavy turnout, the Iraqi election commission extended voting for one hour and said results will be announced within two weeks.  More on the elections in Iraq in a moment. 

And later tonight, President Bush says Congressman Tom DeLay is not guilty of money laundering weeks before his trial is scheduled to begin.  But still refuses to comment on the guilt or innocence of the vice president‘s top aide, Scooter Libby in the CIA leak case. 

But first, President Bush needs a political victory.  And there‘s a lot riding on the elections in Iraq today.  Let‘s get the latest from Baghdad and NBC‘s Richard Engel. 

Richard, what‘s the news today after this balloting in Iraq? 

RICHARD ENGEL, NBC NEWS:  Well, this is being considered by many Iraqis to be potentially a turning point in the violence that they‘ve been suffering through for the last three years. 

Iraqis are very encouraged that Sunnis took part in this election while many people in the United States, after the first election a year ago in January, celebrated that as a huge success.  People here were concerned that because Sunnis weren‘t involved the first time, they boycotted the first election, that it wasn‘t a representative vote. 

This time, however, that was the thing you heard most from Iraqis, that there was high turnout and that this vote was representative and they‘re hoping that over the next few weeks, perhaps a couple of months of negotiations that it‘s going to take to form a government, that the representative vote that took place today will translate into a representative government. 

MATTHEWS:  Will the Sunni minority feel they got something for voting today? 

ENGEL:  It all depends on what they are willing to accept.  People in Fallujah told us insurgents said they are willing to give this a chance.  These are Sunni hard-liners who formed the core of the insurgents here. 

They said they are going to participate today.  They did participate today.  And they‘re going to almost give the United States and Iraqi forces something of a truce.  But if they don‘t get what they want, they don‘t feel that they‘re represented in this government, perhaps that means they want the prime minister or they want several key ministries, the defense ministry or the interior ministry.  If they don‘t get that, then these people said they‘re going to return to violence. 

So this is very much a critical phase.  And the Sunnis are, after boycotting the first time, giving it a chance, but always keeping that option to go back to what they call national resistance. 

MATTHEWS:  Do they understand that they‘re outnumbered 4-1? 

ENGEL:  There is a school of thought that says the only reason that

the Sunnis are participating in this election is that they realized over

the past year after having ruled—been ruled by a government dominated by

Kurds and Shiites that if they don‘t play ball, they‘re going to be overrun

that the Kurds in the north are going to push them out of certain mixed areas, that the Shiites in the south are going to do the same and that the American marines are mainly going to continue hunting them down in the center. 

So there is definitely a school of thought that says they had no choice, they were pressured and they realized that they better join this process or in the end they‘ll be left powerless and potentially overrun. 

MATTHEWS:  Richard, I was listening to Tom Friedman on—this morning on the Imus program, and he said that the tricky time is coming up now in the next couple of months, that we‘re going to see whether the Shia, who are the majority, are willing to accept partners in this new government, the partnership of the minority Sunni and where the Sunnis are not setting outrageous expectations, in other words, they accept the junior parternship.  Is that how you see it? 

ENGEL:  Absolutely.  We could have a situation where the Sunnis are going to try to want to lead and they came in and they feel that they participated so heavily, they could have unrealistic expectations.  The same way the Shiites who believe as the majority in this country, they should be the ones who hold the key government posts.  Neither side wants to compromise.  So there is some room for maneuverability. 

Moderate candidates, people who are in the center, people like Iyad Allawi are hoping that the potentially intractable positions of both the hard line Shiites and the hard line Sunnis will make it possible for them to emerge as consensus candidates.  But we‘re going to be hearing a lot of these possible coalitions and coalitions that are going to be falling apart in the weeks, and I think even months ahead. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Richard Engel in Baghdad, thank you very much for your gutsy reporting, sir.  Thank you. 

Joining me now is Senator Bill Nelson, Democrat of Florida.  He‘s a member of both the Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees.  And Senator Kit Bond, Republican of Missouri who sits on the Select Intelligence Committee. 

Senator Nelson, George W. Bush placed a big bet here the last couple of years.  He said he could create through U.S. military action and political action, the creation of a civil democracy in the middle of the Arab world.  Has he won his bet? 

SEN. BILL NELSON, (D) FLORIDA:  Well, I hope so.  He certainly got into it in an unreasonable fashion with mistaken information and massaged information and lack of information to the representatives of the people on the Congress.  But now that we‘re there, let‘s certainly hope that this experiment, this election works and works well.  And then we‘ve got to have a reasonable plan as we withdraw. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to Senator Bond.  Same question.  A big bet on the table, lots of chips, lots of American lives lost, endangered, lots of casualties, a half trillion dollars in expenditure.  Has the bet paid off?  Do we have a working democracy on the way in Iraq? 

SEN. KIT BOND, ® MISSOURI:  We‘re moving in that direction.  And it looks very good.  The information on which the president went into war was intelligence which was not adequate because our intelligence system had been substantially downgraded in the 1990‘s.  But our Senate Intelligence Committee and the Silverman Robb Committee both said it was the inadequacy of the intelligence, not any massaging or misleading of the public. 

Now the president has gone on record to talk about what‘s going right in Iraq.  And I can tell you from troops in the field, including my son, who say that they hear nothing about the good things that are going on and the president is talking about and will talk about the fact that the Iraqis are going to vote, they‘re participating, they‘ve got a long way to go to establish a government, but this is certainly an encouraging sign that Iraqis of all religious faiths want a democracy. 

MATTHEWS:  So you, Senator Bond, believe it‘s still a good bet that sometime in the next couple of years we‘re going to have a working democracy in Iraq?  Because that‘s what it‘s all about.  It‘s not home hospitals we have, or how much electric power.  Is that going to be a working democracy or the same old kind of tyranny we‘ve had before over there? 

BOND:  It‘s our best hope for safety and security in the world.  If we don‘t eradicate the Baathists and the Sunni hard-liners and the al Qaeda, Ansar al Islam terrorists from Iraq, then future generations are going to experience the same kind of tragic terrorist attacks that we experienced on 9/11 here in America.

And the best hope for it is to continue to build up Iraqi security forces and to work with them to bring them into a political process.  Establishing a democracy is not easy.  It took us a long time in this country.  But this is our best hope to move back the front in the war on terror so we are not threatened here at home. 

MATTHEWS:  I‘m having a hard time getting an answer from either of you senators.  Do you believe that based upon the huge evidence today that the Bush policy is working?  Yes or no, Senator Bond? 

BOND:  Yes.  Oh, yes.  It‘s yes.  But the process isn‘t over with. 

Yes.  We‘ve made tremendous progress to date. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Senator, same question to you, Senator Nelson.  Is the Bush policy of creating a democracy in the middle of the Arab world working or not? 

NELSON:  Chris, I don‘t know.  I certainly hope so. 

MATTHEWS:  When will we know?  When will you know? 

NELSON:  Well, we‘re going to know as we start to withdraw if we have adequately trained the Iraqi army so that they can provide for their own security.  And you talked about all of that infrastructure.  I‘ll tell you one infrastructure is important to allow them to get to pump their oil so they have some income coming in.  We‘re not going to know for a while. 

MATTHEWS:  If we don‘t know for a while, how do we know when we can start removing troops then, Senator Nelson? 

NELSON:  When the Iraqi army can start standing in and providing their own security.  We have to be a lot more aggressive at the training of the Iraqi army and we ought to be a lot more aggressive at getting other nations to help us in the training of them. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me go back to Senator Bond.  The president was unusually candid.  I think he‘s been now for a couple of weeks talking about the fact we‘re not just fighting terrorists over there, we‘re fighting Sunnis who don‘t want to be under the huff of the Shia majority and also we‘re fighting some old Saddam types who are part of the old Baathist regime and also we‘re fighting actual terrorism coming in from outside, they‘re working for Zarqawi as part of al Qaeda.

He also said that they made mistakes.  I never heard the president say this before.  Why do you think the president took until now to say there were big mistakes in the intel that took into this war?

BOND:  I think we said there was big mistakes in the end of ... 

MATTHEWS:  The president? 

BOND:  No, we said it and I think it‘s good that the president said it because, you know, now we—he‘s said what everybody knows, the intelligence was bad. 

Unfortunately we‘ve had a political drumbeat by some on the other side who follow the Howard “We Can Never Win” Dean, and the Democratic party on their one line that if somehow the president was guilty of changing the intelligence, which he was not, and that we can never win. 

He said we need to know that while the intelligence was inadequate, clearly Iraq was a far more dangerous place even than we knew.  That‘s what our Iraqi survey groups found after they had cleaned out Saddam and went into Iraq. 

NELSON:  Hey, Chris, you put your finger on it—candor, straightforwardness.  When I wore the uniform of this country, it was during Vietnam and that was the problem with the administration.  They weren‘t up front with the American people.

And you can‘t get the American people to support a war effort unless you‘re candid and straightforward and everything is on the table.  And that‘s what this administration has to do instead of all of these head fakes and slight of hand tricks that have been going on. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to Senator Bond.  You opposed the McCain approach on the issue of torture of terrorists or terrorist suspects, I should say.  Here is what Senator McCain said today when he and President Bush reached an agreement on his proposal to ban cruel and inhumane treatment of detainees.  Let‘s listen. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN ®, ARIZONA:  We‘ve sent a message to the world that the United States is not like the terrorists.  We have no grief for them.  But what we are is a nation that upholds values and standards of behavior and treatment of all people, no matter how evil or bad they are.  And I think that this will help us enormously in winning the war for the hearts and minds of the people throughout the world in the war on terror. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  So Senator Bond, Senator McCain has won this argument. 

BOND:  I think that Senator McCain as a war hero who was tortured speaks with a great deal of feeling, but even he said there are exceptional circumstances when we have to use enhanced techniques.  Let‘s be clear.  We don‘t use torture. 

When somebody gets out of line as they did in Abu Ghraib, we punish them, court martial them, send them to prison as we should.  But in 11 out of the 12 top al Qaeda operatives that we have caught, we have used what they call enhanced interrogation techniques that have gained information from them that are now allowed us to stop terror attacks already planned and already in the works for the United States and elsewhere.  And there are occasions ...

MATTHEWS:  And why did the vice president—I only have 30 seconds, senator, but why did the vice president fight McCain on this hammer and tongue if you‘re all in agreement? 

BOND:  Well, because McCain—Senator McCain has said something that his amendment does not permit and that is that there are certain circumstances when you know a top operative has information on a terrorist attack underway where you use the same kind of techniques on him that we use on our volunteer troops when we send them through training.  Nothing that—we are not using things that we don‘t do to our own troops in their training. 

MATTHEWS:  Is that OK with you, Senator Nelson? 

NELSON:  Chris, they‘re not in agreement and finally, John McCain has won because John McCain did what is the right thing.  He said it cannot be the policy of the United States to torture because, ultimately, that will come back on us and be done to us and if anybody has got credibility on that, John McCain has. 

MATTHEWS:  So President Bush said uncle. 

NELSON:  He did. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, Senator Kit Bond, thank you. 

BOND:  Thank you.

MATTHEWS:  Senator Bill Nelson, thank you. 

Coming up, as Iraqis head to the polls in overwhelming numbers, will a fully-functioning democracy actually take root over there, and inspire reformers all the way across the Middle East?  That‘s what the president hopes for and actually predicts.  Or will Iraq align itself with Iran?  That could be big trouble.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Coming up, as Iraqis go to the polls, President Bush predicts democracy will spread all across the Middle East.  How likely is the president‘s vision?  HARDBALL returns after this. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  While it‘s a big day in Iraq today with high voter turnout and little violence, is the tough work ahead?  Robin Wright is diplomatic correspondent for the “Washington Post.”

Robin, so many times in the era of say, the last half century, we‘ve had third world countries, maybe particularly in Africa, maybe in North Africa, where the European power gives them independence. 

They have a nice election.  They have a nice new constitution that‘s bright and shiny and the minute the western powers are gone, they go back to their old ways of tyranny or one-party rule or something like that, or more violence.  How do we know that the nice election held today in Iraq isn‘t going to give way to the old ways the minute we leave? 

ROBIN WRIGHT, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  We don‘t, but the fact is, this is best moment probably since the fall of Saddam for the Bush administration.  This is a moment that the Iraqis, all of them, the majority of each of the major communities, has indicated they want to be part of the political process. 

Of course, the real issue is what happens next and the reality is that all of the controversial issues that were deferred during the constitutional debate have to be taken up this spring during a four month review process.  And it sounds terribly dull, but that‘s when the sparks are likely to fly.  And we‘ll get an indication of whether we can get beyond the insurgency and not break down into a civil war. 

MATTHEWS:  Who is most likely to give, the majority Shia who have all of the cards or the minority Sunnis who could say no deal, no peace? 

WRIGHT:  Well, you‘ve identified the real issue and the fact is that the majority Shiites and their allies, the Kurds, have all of the trump cards and the Sunnis have very little.  They‘re 20 percent of the population, limited oil reserves in their territory.  So they have not much to argue with except their trump card which is the violence and the insurgency. 

They clearly have not given up aspirations for a major role in Iraqi politics and this is going to be a battle on the floor of the national assembly in a major way and the Sunnis have little to go into that argument with except the violence and of course, that‘s the one they can play. 

MATTHEWS:  Do they want what the Christians used to have, the Maronites used to have in Lebanon?  Even though they were outnumbered, they made agreements not to have any recent censuses, and so they could always say we‘re half as much or we‘re equal in number to the majority.

WRIGHT:  That‘s a very good comparison, actually, because Lebanon had a gentlemen‘s agreement, which was a division of power among the Christians and the various Muslim sects to make sure that their Christians didn‘t feel they were overwhelmed.

And I think that‘s the same kind of deal the Sunnis are looking for, one that will belie their small status.

MATTHEWS:  Will they get it?

WRIGHT:  You know, I have real doubts that they can.  I don‘t know.  It will depend on who comes out of this election ahead.  If you see the emergence of some strong secular parties, if for example the former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi does well, you can begin to see perhaps the emergence of what‘s known as the kind of political center, something with gravitas, in the middle of the road, something that can bridge or provide an umbrella for all Iraq‘s diverse political factions.  But you know, we‘re not going to know until we find out what happened in this election.

MATTHEWS:  You know, I think it‘s rare in American history, maybe you have to go back to Lincoln, where—or maybe Roosevelt in backing the British before World War II, where a president has put so many chips on the table. 

Not just the lives of the 2,000 or 3,000 men and women who have been lost and will be lost, more I guess is coming.  A half trillion dollars in U.S. Treasury, the hostility of a lot of the Arab and Muslim world for at least a period of time.  All of that on the table, isolation from Europe.  All with the idea that there will be a bonanza here at the end of this, there will be some kind of working democracy in the Middle East that will spread.  Does that look like a good bet tonight based on what you know? 

WRIGHT:  It‘s no certain bet at all.  I think you make a very important point, that there‘s been no time really since World War II that the United States had more on the line in a foreign environment.  The fact of the matter is we could walk away from Vietnam and assorted other conflicts. 

Where they got messy for us in Beirut and Somalia and elsewhere.  But Iraq, because of its own oil reserve, because of the neighborhood it‘s in, because of the potential for instability throughout the region is far more important and even if we are able to draw down troops, partially next year, totally within the next two or three years, the fact is Iraq is going to be very important and a drain on us in terms of our political prestige and our economic resources probably for the next decade.

MATTHEWS:  And he‘ll continue—the president will continue to put chips on the table. 

WRIGHT:  Well, I think he has to.  I mean, this is really his legacy.  This is what his presidency has turned into and that is the broader war on terrorism, the situation in Iraq.  He justified this week the war in Iraq on the grounds of democracy. 

And if Iraq doesn‘t work, that hurts the chances for democracy.  The issue is will Iraq become the model for democracy or the issue that discredits democracy in the region?

MATTHEWS:  Boy, it‘s powerful stuff.  I haven‘t seen anything like this in a long time in American life where so much depends on one proposition and it‘s the president who‘s made the proposition and no one has come out with an alternative proposition.  So it‘s interesting.  We‘ll be back with you again and again.  Robin Wright of “The Washington Post.”

Up next, the Pentagon is answering critics who say a secret Pentagon database of American citizens amounts to spying on us.  That story when we return.

And later, President Bush says he doesn‘t think Tom DeLay is guilty of money laundering.  So what?  Who‘s he to decide?  Why is the president speaking out on a guy who is facing a court situation?  Is he the jury?  Big question.  By the way, why doesn‘t he talk about the CIA leak case and Scooter Libby, who‘s facing 30 years.  Is he guilty or not?  Help us figure this thing out constitutionally, when we come back.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Is the Pentagon spying on us, on Americans?  NBC‘s senior investigative correspondent Lisa Myers broke that story that the Pentagon has a database that improperly lists some American anti-war groups, including one based at a Quaker meeting house as threats to our security.  Lisa, what‘s the latest on this? 

LISA MYERS, NBC NEWS SENIOR INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT:  Well, Chris, basically the latest is that the Pentagon has reversed court.  Officials today admitted that some of the information on peaceful, anti-war activists should not have been in the secret database. 

The Pentagon also announced the thorough review of domestic intelligence operations, which are supposed to be limited to collecting information on real threats to U.S. bases and personnel. 

The Pentagon also says that all military intelligence officials will be ordered to take refresher classes on how to properly collect and store intelligence, especially involving U.S. citizens, which is about as close to the Pentagon ever comes, Chris, to admitting that mistakes were made.

MATTHEWS:  Well, let‘s go to the active voice from the passive voice, because I love people that explains that mistakes were made.  Who in the Pentagon decided to take it upon themselves to go out and dig up information on American peace groups?

MYERS:  Well, that is not clear.  This database is a collection of a lot of databases that are compiled around the government.  Some of them include specific references to FBI reports.  But a number of references, including the ones on some of the anti-war protesters are based on reports by a military intelligence group based in Florida. 

So clearly some of this information was collected by the Pentagon.  Perhaps individuals at a lower level went beyond what they were supposed to do, but that begs the question, where were the safeguards?

MATTHEWS:  I thought the FBI—I remember back during Vietnam days, people involved in anti-war activities would always be worried about J.  Edgar Hoover coming down on top of them and taking pictures and nailing them one way or the other.  How did the Defense Department elbow its way into this world of domestic intelligence and surveillance?

MYERS:  9/11.  After 9/11 the Defense Department was given limited ability to collect intelligence within this country, only so far as it pertains to protecting U.S. personnel and bases.  And that meeting at the Quaker meeting house that you referred to was actually listed as a threat in this Pentagon database, as a threat to the national security.

MATTHEWS:  Is this going to be a political issue?  We had Bill Nelson on, we didn‘t get to it in the questioning.  But Bill Nelson apparently is complaining about this as a Democrat running for re-election down there, about this Quaker meeting being put under surveillance, I should say.

MYERS:  I think it will be a political issue, in terms of the larger excesses, the Democrats claim have happened since 9/11 under this administration.  I think there‘s still a lot of questions to be asked about what the Pentagon has been doing and how it collected this information. 

Now, the Pentagon official said today that so far as they know, no military personnel were actually sent out to spy on or infiltrate anti-war groups but I emphasize, they say, as far as they know.

MATTHEWS:  Yes, you know, this is the kind of the thing that all gets wrapped up into whether we win the war in Iraq.  If we win it and things are looking good, people forgive the overzealousness of the Defense Department.  If the war tends to go wrong, then they blame everything on the administration. 

MYERS:  Absolutely.

MATTHEWS:  You know, I‘ve seen that before, Lisa.  Thank you much, great reporting.

MYERS:  You bet.

MATTHEWS:  It was your scoop.

Lisa Myers, senior investigative correspondent for NBC News. 

Up next, Pat Buchanan and Bob Shrum.  Those boys go at it.  They duke it out over the future of Iraq, which we know a lot more about today, the CIA leak case and President Bush‘s remark—it was very Nixonesque—for Tom DeLay is not guilty.  Remember Nixon said that Manson was guilty? 

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

For more on today‘s Iraqi election and the detainee deal between President Bush and Senator McCain, we turn to HARDBALL political analyst Bob Shrum and MSNBC political analyst Pat Buchanan. 

Shrummy, I have to ask you this.  The president has a tremendous number of chips on the table—human lives, war heroes, treasury, half a trillion dollars, hostility in the Arab world and in Europe—all betting on one proposition:  that through use of military force and political moxie, we can turn a tyranny into a democracy in the middle of the Arab world. 

Does the president‘s bet look better tonight after this election? 

BOB SHRUM, HARDBALL POLITICAL ANALYST:  Well, Chris, you‘re absolutely right that this has become, in a sense, a one-issue presidency, and the issue is the Iraq war with a side mission of trying to keep the right wing base of the party, the Republican Party, happy. 

I don‘t know whether it looks better tonight.  It looks better tonight but for how long?  I mean, I remember I heard someone earlier on the show say this was a turning point. 

I remember the election in South Vietnam where we said we turned the corner. 

I think the real question here is what happens with the level of violence in the days ahead?  Are we able to slowly and in a reasonable way, assuming you follow the president‘s logic, withdraw some troops?  Because I think troops are provoking the violence. 

So I don‘t think it‘s the headline, the spin, the statements by Iraqi officials or American officials that matter; it‘s what happens in the weeks and days ahead with the suicide bombings and to American soldiers. 

PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Chris, I think it‘s not simply the president has something riding on the line; the United States of America does. 

It is a good day today.  I think the Bush administration is basically

voting Sunni today.  The reason is they want to get the Sunnis out to vote

this general talking to the Sunnis, very interesting.  I‘m sure what he told them, to the Sunnis, is “Look, we‘re going to be leaving here and if you guys want to get into the game, get into it now.  We‘re going to be gone.” 

MATTHEWS:  It‘s Casey, George Casey. 

BUCHANAN:  George Casey.

And what they want, I think, is to get a coalition with Sunnis and Shias who are secular and Sunnis so they move this government away from the Shia fundamentalists, away from Iran. 

MATTHEWS:  Can you square this circle?  Can you have a government run by the majority Shia with strong participation by the minority Sunni to both sides‘ acceptability? 

BUCHANAN:  I don‘t think if you‘ve got a Shia government run by one of these folks that is very close to Iran, I don‘t think the Sunnis can stay with it. 

I think the Americans realize their best bet is someone like Allawi, someone—or a Shia who is a moderate secularist.  Because if the fundamentalists get control, I think the Sunnis are out of the equation. 

MATTHEWS:  But isn‘t this like—Bob, isn‘t that like beating the evangelicals in the Bible Belt? 

Shia—mullah-related Shia dominate that country.  They‘re not regular secular democrats over there. 

SHRUM:  Well, I‘m not sure that all the Shia when they hear us say, you‘ve got to do this, you‘ve got to get together, we‘re going to take our troops out, immediately say, gee, we have to get together with the Sunnis or the U.S. might take its troops out. 

I mean, the Shia militia were so powerful in this election that when Allawi went to a mosque, he was driven out, his bodyguards had to surround him and the Sunni candidates in many cases found it very difficult to go out and campaign.

So the Shias were running an election campaign and, using their militias, they were running an armed campaign in the streets as well. 

I don‘t know that they‘re going to give up power. 

MATTHEWS:  So we‘re going to end up—I mean, you‘ve painted a horrible picture there.  You‘re saying we may end up with two Irans. 

SHRUM:  We could end up with three. 

I think—well, we could end up with two Irans and three Iraqs.  We could have a Shia Iraq, we could have a Sunni Iraq which has very little oil and very little infrastructure, and we could have a Kurdish Iraq in the north which will upset Turkey. 

Look, I believe Pat is right that the administration is saying, and American officials are saying to the Iraqis, get this thing moving and you don‘t have months and months and months to negotiate.  It can‘t be like last year when the election was held in January and it was only months later that you could get any kind of governing coalition together. 

BUCHANAN:  But the hope here—and I don‘t think it‘s unrealistic—is there are Shia who are secularists who do not want the fundamentalists running this country, who want to keep the country together.  A lot of people have an investment in that.

And if you can get the Sunnis who believe in that and some of the Kurds who believe in that, you can get a coalition which sidelines basically the fundamentalist Shia.

And the question is, will the Iranians who apparently were shoveling in votes, will they sit still for losing what looks like total control of the process?

MATTHEWS:  Your answer is no. 

BUCHANAN:  My answer is I guess not. 

But I think the president is rolling the dice.  It‘s the best bet we‘ve got, Chris, and frankly I think every American ought to hope it works. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  Fair enough. 

Let me go away from Shia and Sunni to more familiar terrain, Democrats and Republicans. 

Bob Shrum, will Democrats continue to beat the drum for removal of U.S. troops and not talk too much about what‘s actually happening over there; just say, let‘s get them home by the end of the year, something like that this coming year?

SHRUM:  Well, I think even General Casey has said the troops—the presence of American troops now feeds the insurgency.  So I think Democrats will continue to push for a set of benchmarks whereby we measure whether we‘re really making progress in Iraq and for some kind of withdrawal at some reasonable point in the future. 

MATHEWS:  Suppose the president says, Bob, if we yank them out too soon, we miss the only chance in modern history to develop a democracy in the Middle East? 

SHRUM:  Well, first of all, I think too soon has to be defined.  I mean, the problem the president has is he had an argument.  He said we have to stay.  We have to help make this thing work.  Well, then he‘s got to set some benchmarks.  What are the benchmarks that are showing us it‘s working?  If six or seven months from now we still have the suicide bombers, we have the kind of situation I think Pat just said we might have with the Shia in terms of Iran, we have a lot of Americans losing their lives, then people aren‘t going to listen to the president about this anymore. 

BUCHANAN:  Let‘s talk politics.  Let‘s talk politics.  The smart person in the Democratic party is Hillary Rodham Clinton.  She‘s not talking for troops coming out. 

She‘s backing the president because she knows, look, he‘s playing this hand.  If it goes down, nobody is going to blame Hillary Rodham Clinton.  If some of these Democrats, I‘ll tell you, Chris, they are setting themselves up to be blamed for undercutting the troops because if this thing goes down, everybody is not going to say, well, Bush made a terrible mistake.  They‘re going to want blame people and a lot of conservatives and moderates will say those guys did the same thing they did in Vietnam.  They do it every time.  They march us in, they cut and run and they go over the hill and they lose for the United States. 

SHRUM:  Pat, Pat...

BUCHANAN:  This is what Democrats have—I mean, they‘re doing it here.  It‘s a stab in the back. 

SHRUM:  If this thing goes down, George Bush is going to get blamed.  And Pat, about the worst thing that could happen to Hillary Rodham Clinton is to be semi endorsed by you. 

BUCHANAN:  I‘m not endorsing her.  I‘m endorsing her sense, and that of her husband who are saying don‘t get out like the left wing Democrats did in the 1960‘s and ‘70‘s.  That kept them out of power for 20 years. 

SHRUM:  She hasn‘t said anything like that.  She said we ought to take a look at this after the election, see where it‘s going and U.S. troops can‘t stay there indefinitely. 

BUCHANAN:  Well, I say that, too. 

SHRUM:  If this war turns out to be a disaster, the person who will be blamed by the public and should be blamed by history, it is be George W.  Bush. 

BUCHANAN:  It‘ll be Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and everybody that got us in, and that will include all of those Democrats who voted us in the war.  But the real ones who are going to get hit are the ones who started calling and griping and saying get out. 

MATTHEWS:  We‘ll be right back.

By the way, this is a black tie event tonight.  We‘ll be right back in a moment with Pat Buchanan and Bob Shrum.  And check out “Hardblogger,” our political blog Web site for the best political debate online.  You can download podcasts of the show, and you can watch what I‘m talking about off the air on my video blogs.  Just go to our Web site, Hardball.MSNBC.com. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEW:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  We‘re back with political analysts Pat Buchanan and Bob Shrum.  Let‘s talk about American politics as translated through out issues of war: torture.  John McCain reached a concord with President Bush today on where and when and why we should use extreme action to try to get the truth out of someone.  Apparently, it‘s pretty much along the lines of what McCain wants, which is not to do it.  Big win for him? 

BUCHANAN:  Oh, it‘s extraordinary.  But look, when you have 91-1 --

91-9 in the Senate, he walks down there with all of those cards, the president had to cave in or the president was going to lose this.  I have one problem with this.  Look, everybody agrees that prisoners of war should be treated as prisoners of war, but when you have got some of these terrorists who have planted bombs and things like that and you have an imminent danger...

MATTHEWS:  Apparently that‘s the exception here. 

Let‘s go NBC‘s chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell.  She asked former Secretary of State Colin Powell about that torture deal just today. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COLIN POWELL, FRM. SECRETARY OF STATE:  I think the McCain amendment, which I think was generated by Abu Ghraib and other complaints about Guantanamo and other facilities in Afghanistan and Iraq, that started this whole debate.  And I think it‘s appropriate that we have now clarified this issue and put down a standard that the world can see and a standard that we can hold the rest of the world to if any of our young men and women are captured. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  Bob, did President Bush say uncle to John McCain today? 

SHRUM:  Well, what I think he‘s doing is he‘s trying to preserve the essence of his presidency which is the war in Iraq, so he‘s becoming much more flexible on some other things.  He unconditionally surrendered to John McCain.  The White House has stopped calling people John Murtha unpatriotic, the president has actually had Democrats in. 

MATTHEWS:  But where is Cheney all of this?  In an undisclosed location?  Because Cheney was fighting with McCain, and he didn‘t even show up in this signing ceremony today. 

SHRUM:  I think the president rejected Cheney‘s advice.  I think he should reject it.  I think this whole notion on every single issue you hold absolutely firm, you show no flexibility, is actually helped to get George Bush in a lot of trouble. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think that the president has been gaining in the polls, Pat, because he‘s been more—I would say more candid rather than more compromising but he‘s changed something the last month? 

BUCHANAN:  Look—yes.  I just think that “Newsweek” cover that he‘s out of touch, I think the president‘s four speeches have shown he is very much in touch.  He‘s has now responsive.  He has come out and saying, look, mistake—we did make mistakes here.  This did go wrong.  We didn‘t find that.  But we are doing this well.

MATTHEWS:  True. 

BUCHANAN:  The president is right where the American people are.  The American people said maybe we shouldn‘t have gone in there.  It‘s a mess.  We may lose this thing.  We don‘t want to cut and run and get out and have it go down the tubes.  The president is right there. 

MATTHEWS:  So by admitting we went in under false circumstances not intentionally, he can win the case we must stay in now.

BUCHANAN:  He said look.  I thought there were WMD there.  They weren‘t there, but we have got a job to do.  And these guys are doing it.  I think he‘s right where the country is.  And again, the Democrats, every time they go on TV, they always are whining or griping or knocking him, nothing positive.

MATTHEWS:  Were the Democrats wrong, Bob, in rallying around Jack Murtha to the extent they did by saying the issue isn‘t whether we got in under false circumstances, or it was a bad policy or whatever, but we got to get out right now?  Were they wrong to change the topic from where they were winning, which is the issue of whether we got in there fairly or not? 

SHRUM:  I think Democrats ought to say what they believe.  And I don‘t think they ought to whine.  I think they are whining.  And I think Pat, of course, has his own very strong views against the war to begin with.  He‘s now strongly for staying. 

I think the country is going to make a judgment over the next several months.  That judgment is going to depend on real events on the ground in Iraq.  Listening to the analysis I‘ve heard on this show tonight and elsewhere today, I‘m not at all sure we‘ve turned the corner.  And if we have a lot of violence...

MATTHEWS:  Would you like to pull out now? 

SHRUM:  ...we have a lot of Americans getting killed.  The president will not be where the country is at all. 

MATTHEWS:  Bob, would you like to pull out now? 

SHRUM:  No.  And I don‘t think Jack Murtha would either.  I would like to set benchmarks.  And I would like to set a date for withdrawal, because as General Casey says, the presence of American troops doesn‘t solve the insurgency, it feeds the insurgency.

BUCHANAN:  Here‘s we are.  You saw that marine that wrote in the “Washington Post,” he said I‘m on two tours of duty.  I‘m on my third.  We can win this thing.  We believe we‘re winning it.  We‘re not getting positive news out of it.  Give us a chance to win this thing. 

When these guys are saying that, Chris, should we really say, look.  We can‘t stand it anymore back here, so we‘re pulling out.  I agree, basically, with Shrumy (ph) on this, we ought to take a look and see.  Now, this thing may unravel, but I say let them have the chance. 

MATTHEWS:  A year? 

BUCHANAN:  I would say if it‘s going well...

MATTHEWS:  When‘s the time to cut and decide? 

BUCHANAN:  If it starts collapsing politically and it looks like a disaster, we‘re going to know it.  It‘s not there yet.

MATTHEWS:  By the way, the election here is next November.  That sounds like that‘s the very time people are going render judgment on this war. 

BUCHANAN:  They ought to.

MATTHEWS:  Anyway, thank you.  Bob Shrum, Merry Christmas buddy to you and your.  And to you Pat Buchanan.  And you can watch Andrea Mitchell‘s full interview tonight with Colin Powell tonight on NBC nightly.  

When we return, a view from the ground in Iraq.  Will today‘s election cause democracy, civil war or something in between?  Retired Army colonel Ken Allard, just back from Baghdad, he‘ll be with us.  This is HARDBALL only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back.  Retired army colonel and MSNBC military analyst Ken Allard just came back from Iraq from Baghdad.  He check out the situation on the ground, especially the training of a new Iraqi army. 

Colonel, I‘ve got to ask you, watching the thing today, watching that election today and putting it together with all you saw there last week, where are we headed?  Are we winning this fight to create a democracy or not? 

COL. KEN ALLARD (RET) U.S. ARMY:  It‘s hard not to be optimistic of what you saw today.  The fact that you had great turn out and low-level violence, those are the two adjectives you were looking for.  That says some good things. 

The other thing is—keep in mind, that most of the security was provided on the ground by the Iraqi security forces which functionally did not exist a year ago.  And they‘ve come along way in that 12 months. 

MATTHEWS:  So you believe that largely if we weren‘t there, the same thing would have happened. 

ALLARD:  Absolutely.  I mean, look.  The thing that have you to remember about this is the fact that you can always justify walking away from a fight.  We did that in Somalia we did that in Afghanistan we did that in Vietnam.  And the consequences probably could indeed, be dismissed.  They can not be dismissed in Iraq.  If we‘re there, we have got to win. 

It‘s just that simple.

MATTHEWS:  Why? 

ALLARD:  Simply because of the fact of the geopolitics, the natural resources, but even more than that, what you‘ve also got is you‘ve gotten an Islamic insurgency, it has to be defeated on the ground.  And if you don‘t do that right here, where else are you going do it and when are you going to do it? 

MATTHEWS:  When you are in country, what do you sense as the enemy?  Is it—the president has laid it out pretty clearly.  He says there are a lot of the rejectionists out there, people that just don‘t want to be ruled by the Shia, Mullahs or whatever.  There are some people who are old Baathists who used to do well under Saddam and there‘s a bunch of foreigners that come in just to kill us because we‘re there.  Who do you sense is the enemy when you‘re moving around in Baghdad? 

ALLARD:  It reminds me of an S.A.T. test where the answer was all of the above.  It‘s a very, very lethal environment.  It is a state of nature.  And the army over there has done a tremendous job. 

I read some of Barry McCaffrey‘s testimony to the Senate.  I thought Barry might have overstated it before I went over there.  If anything, he understated how competent that force really and truly is. 

But the reason why they‘re competent is because they have no choice except to be.  Because the threat over there is very, very lethal.  And they have to do everything that you see over there, every single day.  That‘s everything from the force protection measures to the way they go about convoy protection and everything else, simply because of the fact that if they don‘t take those kinds of measures, the enemy is likely to go ahead and take advantage of any weakness at any time.  And they know that and they take the appropriate measures. 

MATTHEWS:  What rushes through your head when you hear about a tragedy over there, an I.E.D., an improvised explosive device blowing up a vehicle and a couple of guys, four or five guys killed?  What does that is?  What is that supposed to—what does that tell you as a person who‘s been there now? 

ALLARD:  Chris, it hits me hard emotionally, because I mean, I saw the same thing in Bosnia because we were all prepared for that kind of threat.  But what you have is very much a weapon of the weak against the strong.  The insurgents know very well they can not stand against any U.S. military force.  In fact, if they try and fire mortars like did today, normally what happens is the return fire is on the way even before the mortar lands. 

MATTHEWS:  Right.

ALLARD:  So they just don‘t do that.

MATTHEWS:  What is there, a guy standing behind a tree with a button or a garage door opener or something, an airplane model kind of thing where he‘s pushing a button and it‘s blowing up when our vehicle crosses a certain spot?  Is that what‘s going on? 

ALLARD:  There is a constant revolution going on in trying to get more and more devious detonation devices.  And it‘s a constant spy versus spy battle between the insurgents and our forces to see what they can do to neutralize that threat.  It‘s just that simple.  And it‘s just that deadly.

MATTHEWS:  Is it any better than it was for us or is it just as bad? 

ALLARD:  No.  It really is.  I think because of the fact that what is also over there is probably the best intelligence and surveillance and target acquisition I have ever seen in the military.  And what that is doing is that is beginning to get the edge on the insurgents. 

And that‘s the reason why the people say look, if you give us time to do even more, what we‘re going to see is those insurgents get even more and more desperate.  That does not mean they won‘t continue to use IEDs.  In fact, the thing that‘s going to be interesting here is what happens in January after these elections are concluded.

MATTHEWS:  We‘re all going to be watching.  Thank you very much for that report.  Ken Allard just back from Baghdad.

Join us again tomorrow night at 5:00 and 7:00 Eastern.  Dan Abrams coming up right now on “THE ABRAMS REPORT.”

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