Tim Russert is NBC News’ Washington bureau chief and host of Meet the Press.  He regularly offers MSNBC.com’s readers his insight and analysis into questions about politics past, present and future.

MSNBC:  Tim, what is your sense of where America stands on the Dubai World ports deal?

Tim Russert:  The American people are firmly against it.  I’ve never seen bipartisanship breaking out in Congress like we have on this issue.

President George W. Bush now has a new 45 day review under way.  If, in fact, Congress passes legislation trying to block the deal – and there’s indication they will still continue to try – the president would need one-third of either house of Congress.  He’d need 34 U.S. Senators to stand by him.

And if it comes to that, it would be a “victory” for the president, but one, I think, for which he will pay a political price.

The Democrats have been long-wanting to demonstrate their “credentials” as a national security party and they’ve certainly been pushing this issue rather successfully.

MSNBC:  Is it safe to say there are a lot of Republicans running for election this term who really don’t want that kind of a win under their belt?

Russert:  You talk to Republicans privately and they are petrified.  They see 1994 all over again, except this time not a sweep by the Republicans, but a sweep by the Democrats.  And there are a lot of Republicans who are breaking from the president of their own party.

Here’s exactly what Republicans say to me:  “We have to deal with Iraq, we have to deal with the Dubai port and we have to deal with the corruption issue.  And, unless we get them under control, this could be a very difficult mid-term election in November.”

MSNBC:  The bills in the House and Senate to require that Americans be in charge of ports, instead of foreign companies – If you lock out foreign companies financed by foreign governments, doesn’t it level the playing fields and allow American companies to do it, financially.

Russert:  It would be a wholesale change.  Not just Dubai, but if you take Los Angeles and Long Beach – out there, 13 of the 14 terminals are managed by foreign owned companies.  So it would be profound change in the way we approach it.  Those who support it say, “Well, our airports are not foreign owned.  Let’s have our ports also American owned.”

It would be costly, there’s no doubt about it.  Usually change is.  But it’s a pretty interesting debate to be having here in March of 2006.

MSNBC:  Also contained in the bills are provisions that sound like a pipe dream, but they’re talking about inspecting every cargo container that comes into the port.  That’s a whooping change and a huge expense as well.

Russert:  At most we do about five to 15 percent now.  What an expense that would be in terms of using radiation detectors and increasing the number of inspectors.  But those who understand this issue say that if there’s dirty bomb that reaches our shores, it’s probably going to come through our harbors and ports.

MSNBC: You mentioned Iraq earlier.  At least 19 people were killed overnight in Baghdad and now there’s word of a possible terror attack - described by one source as “the Big Bang”.  The situation in Iraq is already on the brink of civil war.  This huge terror attack can only destabilize it further. 

Russert:  That’s clearly the goal – the worse, the better for the terrorists.  They believe that if they can get a good old fashioned civil war going between the Shiites and the Sunnis, the United States will be forced to stay on the sideline or perhaps withdraw.  An, out of chaos, they think they can get the kind of fundamentalist, Islamic state they’ve been dreaming of.

MSNBC:  Does this tell us anything about the insurgency – is it getting any stronger, is it getting any more organized?

Russert:  That’s the most important question that can be asked.  Vice President Dick Cheney had talked about the insurgency being in its last throes some time ago.  That certainly is not the case on the ground.

The question is, will the silent majority in Iraq – those 11 million people who stood up and voted – will they stand up and say, “No more.  We need Democracy.  That’s what we voted for.”

And will the Iraqi army be strong enough to not only put down the insurgency, but be stronger than the militias that both the Sunnis and the Shiites have been supporting.

It’s a real battle for the heart and soul of Iraq.

MSNBC:  At this point, doesn’t this have major implications for United States troops that are still there and their coming home?

Russert:  We are there 130,000 strong. And there had been hopes - and plans frankly – that had been discussed to reduce that number of Americans, certainly below 100,000 by the end of this year and some suggested as low as 80,000.  That’s been put on hold.

MSNBC:  From the U.S. perspective, what are the nation’s options - reinforce the current troops with many more troops?

Russert:  I don’t see any plans for that.  I don’t think we have the troops for that.  And there’s certainly no appetite for that in Congress nor, I dare say, at the White House.  The situation on the ground is what it is now.  And if it breaks out into full-blown civil war, there are going to be a lot of people in this country who are going to say, “That’s it.  We gave them a shot, now let’s get home.”  Others will say we can’t abandon it now and leave it at chaos, fearful that Iraq could become very much like Afghanistan was in the 1990s – a place that can become a harbor for al Qaida.

MSNBC:  Not a lot of happy news, but will you be talking about this Sunday, on Meet the Press?

Russert:  Iraq.  Iraq.  Iraq.  What now?

We’ll talk to America’s top military man, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace.

The, we’ll have two men who ran for vice president - John Edwards, who was John Kerry’s running mate in 2004 and Jack Kemp, who was Bob Dole’s running mate in 1996.

We’ll discuss Iraq and port security.  They’ve also been working together, jointly, on the U.S. relationship with Russia, which has kind of been off the radar. 

Russia seems to be slipping back into an autocratic society.  President Putin is cracking down on the press and cracking down on free enterprise, as well as inviting Hamas to come visit him.

With so much going on in the world, we’ll look at it from two different perspectives.

All Sunday, on Meet the Press.


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