updated 3/15/2006 2:07:22 PM ET 2006-03-15T19:07:22

Guests: Susan Page, Craig Crawford, Bernard Trainor, Michael Gordon, James Webb, Hilary Rosen, Ed Rogers

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST:  Tonight, new horrible polls.  Four out of five Americans, once told our troops would have a cake walk in Iraq, told it would be a slam dunk that Saddam had WMD, told by Cheney we would be greeted as liberators,  then that the insurgency was in it‘s last throes, no longer believe in victory.  Let‘s play HARDBALL.

Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews.  Iraq continues to plague George W.  Bush as we approach the war‘s three year anniversary.  New poll numbers out just today show the president‘s job ratings at an all-time low, again. 

A USA Today-Gallup poll shows only 36 percent approve of the way George Bush is handling his job.  The war in Iraq has come to define the Bush presidency, with 140,000 U.S. troops facing fire every day, the war has taken a nasty toll on support for the president. 

The Gallup poll shows that two years ago, 79 percent said they were certain the U.S. would win the war.  Today that number is down to 22 percent.  One in five.  Fifty-seven percent of the country calls the war now a mistake.  That‘s a clear majority.  And 67 percent say the president does not have a clear plan for handling the situation over in Iraq. 

Altogether, it is a stark portrait of American frustration.  More on this in a moment.  Later, more numbers.  This time the growing financial cost to the war.  A new study warns that Iraq could ultimately cost American taxpayers over a trillion dollars.  But first, HARDBALL‘s David Shuster has this report. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID SHUSTER, HARDBALL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Three years after U.S. forces led the invasion of Iraq, this is not what the Bush administration or the American people expected to see.  The ongoing sectarian violence in Iraq, which in the last day included 87 people killed execution style, has led to the worst approval numbers in the five years President Bush has been in office. 

For the second straight month, a CBS news poll found the president‘s approval rating at 34 percent, disapproval is at 57 percent.  Among those who have served in Iraq or have an immediate family member who served, 40 percent approve, 54 percent disapprove. 

ALAN LICHTMAN, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY:  You have to look back to Richard Nixon in the toils of Watergate to find extremely low presidential ratings at this point in a second term. 

SHUSTER:  This week, the president launched a series of speeches to win back support for the war.  On Monday, he acknowledged problems on the ground. 

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  There will be more tough fighting and more days of struggle.  And we will see more images of chaos and carnage in the days and months to come. 

SHUSTER:  But polls show American frustration is building and pessimism is growing.  Forty-seven percent say it is not likely the U.S.  will achieve success in Iraq being up from just 35 percent two months ago.  In December, the president reasserted what he called a plan for victory, and his approval rafting on Iraq stood at 37 percent.  Now, it‘s down to 31 percent. 

The president‘s problems of Iraq have taken a toll on his other policy initiatives.  Today the president was in upstate New York defending his highly criticized Medicare prescription drug program. 

BUSH:  I‘ve always believed that the consumer has got more options from which to choose.  It provides higher quality. 

SHUSTER:  Passing the program was a Bush success.  But his new plan to create health savings account is floundering and his proposals to make his tax cuts permanent are in trouble.  On Iran, the Bush administration is trying to stop that country‘s nuclear program. 

DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  The Iranian regime needs to know that if it stays on its present course, the international community is prepared to impose meaningful consequences. 

SHUSTER:  But the administration‘s ramping up its rhetoric as the public is growing even more weary of the White House approach to foreign policy.  Congressional Republicans were nervous about the upcoming midterm elections, hoped that President Bush can follow the path of Ronald Reagan.  His second term took a turn with the Iran-Contra scandal.  He rebounded following this apology.

RONALD REAGAN, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages.  My heart and my best intentions still tell me that‘s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not. 

SHUSTER:  By the end of his presidency, Reagan‘s approval numbers were back above 60 percent. 

(on camera):  The problem for this White House is that President Bush has already given a lot of speeches on Iraq.  And unless the situation there improves, the president‘s numbers may not improve much either.  In the meantime, as the recent port deal demonstrated, President Bush is vulnerable, and now even members of his own party are no longer afraid to take him on.  I‘m David Shuster for HARDBALL at the White House. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, David.  Here to dig in to these president‘s rough new numbers are Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today, they had the big poll today, and MSNBC‘s political analyst, Craig Crawford. 

Susan, your paper put this on the front page.  What is the lead in all of these numbers for you? 

SUSAN PAGE, USA TODAY:  We‘re approaching a milestone Sunday, it will be the third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.  Milestones have been tough for President Bush on Iraq because it reminds people of how they thought the war would be over by now.  They thought it would involve fewer U.S. deaths than it‘s involved.

And one of the interesting things we found out, Americans are convinced that this war is what President Bush is going to be remembered for as president.  They do not think it‘s going well and they are not optimistic that it is going to end better than it is today. 

MATTHEWS:  Is this Bush‘s war, Craig? 

CRAIG CRAWFORD, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Absolutely.  It always was, always will be, even after he‘s president.  If we get democracy in the Middle East some day, he‘ll be seen as a great visionary. 

MATTHEWS:  What‘s interesting is in the poll that your paper had today, or was it CBS‘s poll, they asked people if we do achieve democracy in Iraq, let‘s take a look at the recent polling.  Americans are not only pessimistic about the outcome of the war, but they also don‘t believe that a democratic Iraq would make America safer. 

Twenty-eighth percent say the United States would be more safe from terrorism if Iraq becomes a democracy, 64 percent says it won‘t make a difference, has it been worth the cost?  Twenty-five percent say yes, 70 percent say no, compared to 63 percent down.  So it‘s going down.  The number of people who think it‘s worth the cost.  And even people who, if you speculate, suppose we win, suppose we get a real thriving democracy over there, will that make us safer?  There‘s no support for that belief.

CRAWFORD:  People would rally to that, but in the president‘s defense, heck, if you did polls of Abraham Lincoln three years into the Civil War, I‘m sure he would have been in the low 30‘s. 

MATTHEWS:  But he didn‘t start the Civil War. 

CRAWFORD:  Well, I don‘t know I might take issue with that. 

MATTHEWS:  I disagree.  Fort Sumter was not his—

PAGE:  The fact that this was a preemptive war, a war of choice makes this even more Bush‘s war than it would be otherwise, and you know, you find the argument that President Bush has continued to make this part of the global war on terror.  People are no longer buying that, the majority of Americans in our poll and others. 

MATTHEWS:  Should they buy it? 

PAGE:  You tell me.  People no longer believe that this is part of the war on terror, they think it‘s a separate enterprise. 

MATTHEWS:  Because they see al Qaeda still out there, right? 

CRAWFORD:  Sure.  Bin Laden releases tapes on a regular basis.  But also I think this has been such an event-filled presidency, with two wars, 9/11, the worst natural disaster in history.  I think we‘re seeing some Bush fatigue setting in, not only within the White House, but fatigue with him. 

MATTHEWS:  The interesting thing is the intellectuals who argued this for the president, outside the White House, Bill Kristol, The Weekly Standard, who takes pride in the fact that he pushed this war as hard as anybody could without any political power, Kagan his partner in this kind of writing.  That inside you have Fife and Wolfowitz and Scooter Libby and Cheney, and Rumsfeld all pushing the war.  So many of those people who were the ideologue have left the administration. 

PAGE:  Vice President Dick Cheney was a leader in that whole argument and he‘s still around. 

MATTHEWS:  He still has all guns firing, but the problem is it‘s the staffing.  A lot of people who liked this president, who believed in this war, believe it‘s been badly handled.  Craig Crawford, you‘ve got your ear out there.  There was a little buzz today that maybe a shakeup in coming in the White House, maybe the president needs to have a new team like Ronald Reagan did. 

He came back to life in the last couple years of his administration because he brought in people like Howard Baker and Ken Duberstein and all of a sudden the lights were on again. 

CRAWFORD:  I don‘t think Bush has any problems a new vice president, chief of staff or maybe secretary of defense.  He‘s not shown an inclination to get rid of people.  I don‘t know, I think the Republican party might like to see that, a new vice president.  Of course the problem is, that would be President Bush‘s successor, by definition, if he named a new vice-president, and that would...

PAGE:  There‘s no sign, I haven‘t seen any signs—

MATTHEWS:  Mike Wallace retired today.  Mike Wallace, who I thought would never retire, announced his retirement.  If he retires maybe Cheney‘s going to see the light.  What do you think?

Let me ask you about Iraq as kind of a mill stone around the president‘s neck.   What do you make of that? 

CRAWFORD:  I think the president is in a situation with the public where they‘re not even tuning him in.  Whatever he has to say about Medicare, Iraq, Iran, I don‘t think people are actually listening to the president anymore, because it‘s become very repetitive, his rhetoric.  So I don‘t think he‘s getting his message out.  In terms of message delivery, I think this White House has imploded. 

PAGE:  People are pretty optimistic about the economy.  That used to be the one factor that would drive a president‘s approval rating up, but if you look at Bush‘s approval rating, it‘s falls almost perfectly with growing opposition to the war in Iraq.

MATTHEWS:  We‘ve seen the numbers.  It goes down almost at a 45 degree angle ever since 9/11.

CRAWFORD:  This needs a new dynamic, new people—

MATTHEWS:  Look at this number.  This is done by NBC.  That‘s November 2001.  Now it does zigzag a little bit.  But the trend as we study in economics in grad school.  The clear slope of that line is down from 70 some percent popularity down to 30 some.

PAGE:  And the fact is we thought President Bush probably couldn‘t go below 40 percent because he has a really strong base, a base that continues to be with him.  But even Republicans now, seven of 10 Republicans say the war was not a mistake. 

MATTHEWS:  Was a mistake.

PAGE:  Was a mistake.  No, seven out of 10 say it was not a mistake, but that‘s a new low for Republicans.  He‘s beginning to see erosion even among people...

CRAWFORD:  ... At least he knows in the worst of times he‘s got a third of the country behind him.

MATTHEWS:  You were down there, didn‘t you notice the lack of attention to the issue of Iraq?  It hardly ever got mentioned down there.

CRAWFORD:  Oh, in Memphis.

MATTHEWS:  Memphis, yes.

CRAWFORD:  Yes, I think they wanted to stay away from that because that event was so much about appealing to economic conservatives who were disgusted with the spending from the Republicans in the White House and Washington.  And I think that‘s what we‘re going to see much of the midterm focus on, to get those folks out because there‘s nothing much they can say about Iraq that‘s going to turn out the Republican vote.

PAGE:  They may try to focus on those issues, but I think voters are very focused on the issue of Iraq, particularly if we get to the midterms and we‘ve not started to see a withdrawal of U.S. troops.

CRAWFORD:  But you know, midterms are such a low turnout election that a lot of that niche turnout that matters—and I think maybe some of the independent voters, even moderate Republicans who are concerned about Iraq, may not vote anyway.

MATTHEWS:  I think you made a good point there.  It‘s not that the Democrats are against the war, it‘s that the Republicans are losing their thrill about this war, that down to seven out of 10 and they‘re the strong people.  Anyway, thank you very much Susan Page of “USA Today” and Craig Crawford from here.

Up next, where did the Bush administration go wrong in Iraq?  NBC News military analyst General Bernard Trainor and “New York Times” military correspondent Michael Gordon are the authors of the new book “Cobra II” and they‘ll take us inside the invasion and occupation of Iraq.  This is inside the belly of the beast.  This is going to be great.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  With a mounting casualty toll and deep sectarian divisions, the war in Iraq has been drain on the Bush presidency.  According to the latest CBS News/”New York Times” poll, a whopping 70 percent of Americans now think the war has not been worth the cost, despite the fact that the Bush administration thought Iraq‘s oil supply would pay for it, its reconstruction, the war has cost the United States $5.9 billion a month.  MSNBC‘s chief Washington correspondent Norah O‘Donnell has more on the rising dollars and cents cost of this war—

Norah.

NORAH O‘DONNELL, MSNBC CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT:  Good evening, Chris.  Well the price tag is staggering and despite the fact that more troops may be coming home this year, the cost of the war is actually growing and experts say the total cost could exceed $1 trillion and reach $2 trillion if we stay in Iraq through 2015. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

O‘DONNELL (voice-over):  This is a high-intensity war with a high price tag.  Now after three years, the total cost to taxpayers will exceed $400 billion.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD (D), WEST VIRGINIA:  Those numbers are also incomprehensible in their enormity.

O‘DONNELL:  Congress is set to approve $72 billion for this year alone.  Costs are running $5.9 billion a month for Iraq, another billion for Afghanistan.  Up 18 percent from last year, despite the president‘s pledge to transition this year to Iraqi security forces.

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D), DELAWARE:  He‘s determined to get down to under 100,000 troops this year and he‘ll be down to 30,000 by next year.

O‘DONNELL:  The pricetag for the war is higher than ever projected.  Larry Lindsey was fired for claiming Iraq would top $100 billion.  Paul Wolfowitz said oil revenues would cover the cost.

PAUL WOLFOWITZ, FORMER DEPUTY DEFENSE SECRETARY:  We‘re dealing with a country that can really finance its own construction and relatively soon.

O‘DONNELL:  Three years later it is still not true.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, SECRETARY OF STATE:  They are producing currently at below the prewar range.

O‘DONNELL:  Perhaps most alarming, a study by a Nobel Prize-winning economist and a Harvard budget expert warns in the end, the cost of the war will surpass $1 trillion.

LINDA BILMES, HARVARD UNIVERSITY:  If we had spent the money that we spent in Iraq on Social Security, we could have fixed the system for the next 75 years.

O‘DONNELL:  But the president has argued, it is worth the cost.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  We will not lose our nerve.  We will help the Iraqi people succeed.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

O‘DONNELL:  Chris, one military expert I spoke with today said the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are now approaching the cost of the Vietnam War.  And what has many lawmakers fear is that this war has largely been funded with these emergency funding requests, making it very hard to track where the billions are actually going, and how much more will actually be needed.  Chris?

MATTHEWS:  Thank you very much, Norah O‘Donnell, a great report.  Why didn‘t the war in Iraq go according to the plan initially put out and could the insurgency have been prevented?  A new book called “Cobra II” reveals how the Pentagon was caught off guard by Saddam‘s paramilitary units in the opening days of battle and how warnings from field commanders were dismissed. 

Retired Marine Corps Lieutenant General Bernard Trainor and Michael Gordon, chief military correspondent for “The New York Times” co-wrote this book. 

Let‘s begin with the news of the day.  A day after President Bush said Iran was supplying components for roadside bombs in Iraq, those IED‘s, the chairman of the Joint Staff overruled him.  Peter Pace said he does not have any proof that Iran‘s government is behind it.  General Trainor, extraordinary that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs would challenge the president just 24 hours after he made a claim like that.

LT. GEN. BERNARD TRAINOR (RET.), AUTHOR:  Well, this is kind of interesting.  The previous chairman, generally speaking, was quite in sync with the secretary of defense.  And this is the second time that General Pace has kind of bearded General Rumsfeld, previous. 

In fact, shortly after he was made the chairman, when Rumsfeld was questioned about the treatment of prisoners by internal security forces of the new Iraqi government as to what troops should do, the—Rumsfeld took the position, well they should cordon themselves off and Pace said “No, they should stop in and stop it.”  Rumsfeld kind of countered him and he came back and said, “No, they should—if it‘s something that‘s illegal, they should stop it.”  And now this is the second time that he‘s going against Rumsfeld.  I can‘t imagine the secretary of defense is too happy with that.

MATTHEWS:  rMD+IN_rMDNM_When we look back on this war, Michael, hopefully years from now when it‘s over finally, people ask how did we get into it?  If it doesn‘t turn out as well as they said it would and I‘m going to ask, I always ask, why didn‘t the generals warn us?  Was there a problem with subordination, that they had to go along with what they were told, that they couldn‘t speak out and say there were problems here?

MICHAEL GORDON, AUTHOR:  Well, you know, the military is a hierarchical institution and I think what happened is, you know, Secretary Rumsfeld takes the position—he said, “I gave the generals everything they wanted.  It‘s their plan.”  And that‘s true in a literal sense.

But also in the whole gestation of this plan, as we‘ve documented it in the book, when General Franks and CENTCOM would come in, Rumsfeld was always there.  Why can‘t it be smaller?  Why can‘t it be done faster?  He was an insistent sort of source of pressure on this point and eventually it did have a profound influence on the plan. 

MATTHEWS:  You pointed out that Fedayeen, which were the best fighting force that Saddam had, were allowed to disband.  We went past them on the way to Baghdad—General.  What‘s the significance of that? 

TRAINOR:  We didn‘t allow them to disband.  The Fedayeen was a parallel military troop to the conventional army and Republican Guard.  And it was Uday, one of Saddam‘s sons—yes, and these people were embedded throughout particularly in southern Iraq for the sole purpose of putting down any sort of coup or attempt against the regime. 

They were a counterinsurgency force, which became ultimately the core of an insurgency, but they weren‘t there to stop an American invasion.  They were there to put down the Shias, because Saddam Hussein was most concerned about a coup against him, an uprising which he had seen in 1991. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, could we have captured them? 

TRAINOR:  Well, no.  We certainly could have—if we had more forces, we could have tracked them down more, but as it was, the goal was to get to Baghdad, which was considered the political center of gravity, and take Baghdad, destroy the Republican Guard along the way and war would be over and then we could come on out. 

We didn‘t realize in the planning, didn‘t have the intelligence to support it, that the Fedayeen were as strong as they were, and as effective as they were, and the army and the Republican Guard were as weak as they were.  So we went on and we took Baghdad, and we just took care of the Republican Guard but we didn‘t take care of the Fedayeen.  It would have taken an entirely different strategy.

Now I say the field commanders were very good in adapting.  They suddenly recognized that they had a war that they had not planned on and they adjusted to it very quickly, but that message was never bought at the Central Command level with General Franks, much less at the Rumsfeld level. 

MATTHEWS:  Let talk military politics.  If you were to take a group of generals that ran this war and put them together in a room under Sodium Pentothal and asked them what they thought of the war, whether they thought it was a working proposition for America to go into a country like this with less than 200,000 troops, take it over, occupy it and run it for a number of years, and democratize it, would they say that was doable? 

GORDON:  Well, they would say it was doable, but not the way it was done is the short answer.  You know, all of the senior commanders who Nick and I have talked to, who were in there in that long, hot summer of 2003, they feel like there was a window of opportunity, where yes, there would have been some resistance, but it need not have been this virulent. 

We need not have been, you know, facing as many opponents as the United States has to encounter at this time, but it would have taken more forces for the postwar, not for the drive to Baghdad, but for the phase that followed.

It would have taken a really well thought out nation building policy, something the Bush administration was determined to avoid since they looked at the Clinton experience in Bosnia.  So if you had had more astute policies, the view of the generals who were there at the time was we wouldn‘t necessarily be in this fix today. 

MATTHEWS:  Is it a good use of the U.S. military, General, to not assign them taking over a country?  They were masterful at that, Tommy Franks, they took it over, they took the capital, the statues went down.  But is it a good use of men you‘ve worked with, women you‘ve worked with, to be a conservatory (ph) force, to basically be a peacemaking force? 

TRAINOR:  Well, this is one of the arguments of the administration, that we have an army to fight wars, not to build nations, and they were very critical of what Clinton had done in the Kosovo and the southeast European situation.  And they were not going to get mixed up in that. 

So the idea was that we were in a war, we defeat the enemy and then we make use of the Iraqis to take care of themselves and we will also invite in the international communities to take over.

So the plan was exactly that—to win the war quickly, eliminate the military dimension, and turn it then over to the Iraqis themselves to police themselves, and the international community to help to build a nation.  Well, it was a smear.  It just couldn‘t be done. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, when did the mission creep come aboard there?  When did we decide we‘re going to stick around here and build this country which has caused almost 3,000 American casualties? 

GORDON:  Well, the irony is, if you don‘t accept your nation building

burdens up front and you don‘t resource them, you don‘t adequately plan for

them, you don‘t point the right people to them—we pointed people with no

nation building experience.  rMDNM_

Nothing personal against Jerry Bremer, but he didn‘t have it.  General Franks didn‘t have that background.  If you don‘t prepare to do this—they didn‘t prepare to do it because they didn‘t want to be caught in a quagmire, and that‘s exactly what happened. 

MATTHEWS:  I want to ask you gentlemen when we come back, why didn‘t we simply get a roster of the Iraqi army, peel it down, maybe down to the major level, call those guys in the next day and say you‘re going to show up tomorrow morning or we‘re going to come out and kill you.  But if you show up, we‘re going to give you $100 a month.  We want an army. 

I want to ask why we didn‘t do that.  Then we wouldn‘t need an army.  We‘ll be right back with General Bernard Trainor and Michael Gordon.  This is HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with retired Marine Corps Lieutenant General Bernard Trainor, who‘s also an NBC News military analyst, and “New York Times” military correspondent Michael Gordon.  They‘re the authors of a new book “Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq.”  Are there any villains of this book?  Tommy Franks? 

GORDON:  Well, I think villains is little strong.  You know, we strive to be as fair as possible but I think the people who really bear the onus and the principal responsibility is Secretary Rumsfeld and General Franks.  For the design of the plan, I think as far as the decision to go to war, I think that rests with President Bush and Vice President Cheney. 

MATTHEWS:  But the implementation was based upon a low number of troops compared to what was needed, right, General? 

TRAINOR:  Well, no.  In terms of the fight to get to Baghdad, they had sufficient troops.  There was never a point where we felt that the Iraqi army could in any way contest us, so that wasn‘t the problem. 

The problem was enough troops after the war, but having said that, the big surprise was The Fedayeen and they certainly could have used more forces there to deal with the Fedayeen on the way to Baghdad. 

MATTHEWS:  Could they have rooted them out, these people, before they organized an effective insurgency? 

TRAINOR:  No, I don‘t think this.  They would always be there, it would just be a matter of degree.  It‘s like any sort of insurgency.  They‘re amorphous and they‘re difficult to get at, and they don‘t contest you on your grounds.  They just fade away, so no.  But, it would be a much safer place if we had the sufficient forces there.  The insurgency wouldn‘t have been as aggravated. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, I promised this question.  As we say on television, I teased it.  It is the big question a lot of people have, which is why didn‘t we take an existing army of foot soldiers that spoke Iraqi, that were Iraqi, that could‘ve been drummed into service, and made them our army, rather than try to recreate an army over there—Mike?

GORDON:  Well, you‘ll be surprised to learn that this was, in fact, the White House plan, that in March, President Bush was briefed by Doug Feith that we were going to use the existing Iraqi army for security duties, and Jay Garner, the first civilian administrator, wanted to use them as a source of manpower. 

That was the going in plan.  This plan was turned on its head by Ambassador Bremer, who decided to dissolve the army as part of a broader de-Baathification campaign. 

MATTHEWS:  Who gave him orders. 

GORDON:  Well, the decision, as he himself has said, was approved by Secretary Rumsfeld.  But, interestingly, Condi Rice and the national security adviser was not informed in advance of this decision, neither was Secretary Powell and neither was the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  So how this was all done, I think, says a lot about how the Bush administration makes national security policy.

MATTHEWS:  Who did it, the butler?  I mean, who told Bremer what to do?  He did this on his own? 

TRAINOR:  Well, he got the support of the secretary of defense, the tacit support.

MATTHEWS:  Was he was an ideologue?  He wanted to get rid of the Baathist Party elements in the army?  Is that what he was up to?

TRAINOR:  I think he saw himself in the role of a pro-counsel ...

MATTHEWS:  Like MacArthur? 

TRAINOR:  Yes, and that he would administrate the country until it was back on its feet with an entirely new cast of characters with the Baathists out.  And he had a vision along those lines and this was, for lack of anything else, it would probably fit in with the vision of the secretary of defense also. 

MATTHEWS:  So this was made on this ground, this decision not to use the Iraqi army to police that country? 

TRAINOR:  Well, they surprised the military out there because they had a plan already in the works with ...

MATTHEWS:  OK.  The commander-in-chief can make ultimate decisions.  Why didn‘t George Bush, when he saw this happening, say that‘s not the plan.  Call over there and say get the enrollment, I want to see the rolls of the army over there.  You can find it somewhere and I want all those guys called into service?  Why didn‘t he just change the policy of the way he wanted it? 

GORDON:  Number one, when this plan was put into effect by Bremer,

U.S. generals were meeting with Iraqi generals trying to do exactly this

TRAINOR:  They did have the roster.

GORDON:  ... with the CIA station chief, by the way.  Number two, President Bush‘s posture is Bremer is the man on the scene.  I‘m empowering him to make decisions.  Let him make decisions.

Number three, the entire policy was based on bad information because they did get those rolls and they did go through to see how many of the senior officers were Baathists.  And you know what they discovered? 

MATTHEWS:  What?

GORDON:  That a far fewer number of Iraq officers were Baathists then they had assumed when they made the decision to ... 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  So instead of having these guys fighting for us over there, they‘re all home with no money, angry at us, bitter at their doors being kicked down in the middle of the night, and they‘re plotting to kill us. 

GORDON:  Well, it‘s a little worse.  They decided to give them money after they protested.  They gave them money, they just didn‘t help us. 

MATTHEWS:  I know, they took the money and ran, and they worked against us.

TRAINOR:  Yes.  Worst possible place. 

MATTHEWS:  This will go down—this will be a big story to be taught at the Naval Academy, won‘t it?  The history of this war. 

TRAINOR:  Case study on mismanagement and bad assumptions. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, it‘s a hell of a book you guys have put together. 

“Cobra II”—what does “Cobra II” mean? 

GORDON:  “Cobra II”—don‘t mean to interject.  “Cobra II” is the name of the land invasion plan that was put out by the allied ... 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Maybe they‘ll be teaching this at West Point and Annapolis years from now. 

TRAINOR:  The original Cobra plan was the George Patton‘s breakout at Normandy if July of 1944.  It was called Operation Cobra and he had the Third Army.  And the Third Army was the organization that was primarily charged with developing the ground plan for Iraq.  So some bright, young historian said, well, why don‘t we call this Cobra II? 

MATTHEWS:  Well, they didn‘t exactly race across France with this one. 

Anyway, thank you very much General Bernard Trainor and Michael Gordon. 

The book is called, “Cobra II,” a good military history of mismanagement.

Up next, can the Democrats turn the president‘s plummeting poll numbers into election year victories?  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

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(MARKET REPORT)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

As Senator John McCain told HARDBALL this weekend, the president is having trouble right now.  A new “USA Today”/CNN/Gallup poll shows that 60 percent of the country disapproves of the job that the president is doing.  Only 36 percent approve.  That‘s a net loss of seven points from just a month ago.  The war in Iraq has clearly taken a toll on the president‘s numbers. 

Back in May of 2003, after the president declared that major combat operations in the war had ended, 72 percent of the country approved his handling of Iraq.  By December of that year—that‘s ‘03 -- after Saddam had been caught, that approval number was down to 59 percent.  In May of 2004, that number fell down to 39 percent after the release of Abu Ghraib photos. 

By January of this year, 2006, after Iraq held elections for a permanent government, the president‘s Iraq numbers dropped to 37 percent.  And right now, just 31 percent approve of the president‘s handling of Iraq. 

A full 63 percent disapprove. 

Here to break it all down politically is Republican strategist Ed Rogers and Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen. 

Ed, how do you fight this one?  How do you fight these numbers?  How do you fight the facts on the ground if you‘re the president? 

ED ROGERS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST:  Hey, the numbers are what are the numbers are.  They‘re not good.  Having said that, the president is doing the right thing, but it‘s about the only thing he can do.  He has to get out there, he‘s got to tell a story with some clarity and some credibility. 

You know, 70 percent of the people in this poll, the CBS poll, believe we are in a civil war.  Sixty-six percent of the people believe the president‘s words are not credible on this, so he‘s got to talk about it, but he‘s got to go to where people really are. 

He‘s got to say some things to break through the cynicism, that break through the credibility gap that has now evolved around the whole Iraq issue.  And it‘s what his presidency is about now, so he‘s doing the right thing.  Quit Medicare, quit Medicaid, focus on this.  He‘s got to get this right.  If he gets this right, he‘ll be fine.

MATTHEWS:  The Democrats, what do they say we should do in Iraq? 

HILLARY ROSEN, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST:  Well the Democrats want the president to stop sugar coating this and saying over and over again that we‘re headed for victory. 

ROGERS:  But we are.  We are headed for victory.  Are we headed for defeat? 

ROSEN:  We have no plan.  We‘re headed for prolonged trillion dollar spending, multiple casualties, and potential civil unrest.  That‘s what we‘re readied for. 

ROGERS:  The Democrats don‘t have a plan. 

MATTHEWS:  Defeat is when both sides, the Shia and the Sunnis go at each other. 

ROGERS:  A civil war.  Real boundary lines, sectarian break up.  Yes,  that‘s defeat, and I talked to people there.  I have friends in Iraq that are Iraqis and they don‘t think they‘re in a civil war. 

MATTHEWS:  Because the Shia are restraining themselves. 

ROGERS:  Because the Shia are restraining themselves, because the disaffected Sunnis are a relatively small number because the Kurdish region is booming.  Your biggest danger when you go to the Kurdish region—I went there before, I went there after, I‘m telling you now it‘s booming.  Your biggest danger in the Kurdish region is being run over by a Turkish cement truck. 

It‘s booming there.  But hey, if you had real boundaries, if you had real sectarian division and if you had—begin to have standing militias fighting each other, that‘s what a civil war would look leak and we‘re not there as much as the Democrats would like for to hope for the worst—

ROSEN:  If the definition of victory is not having a civil war, what did we go in there in the first place.  We are not in a place - when you say what do Democrats want to do in Iraq?  I think Democrats are willing to hold the people who said we were there for a purpose accountable and right now we‘re not feeling that they are being held accountable. 

MATTHEWS:  In other words, don‘t offer a strategy, just say we need new leadership.  Admit that, will you? 

ROSEN:  Seventy percent of the American people do not know why we‘re there and think it was a mistake.  To suggest somehow that is the Democrats‘ fault is just hogwash. 

MATTHEWS:  In terms of policy right now, where do the Democrats stand? 

ROSEN:  I think Democrats are on the range of Iraq.  Some are still trying to be—you‘ve got a Joe Lieberman who is saying the president is right—

MATTHEWS:  Put Hillary in there.  Hillary is with Lieberman. 

ROSEN:  Hillary is not exactly where Lieberman is. 

(CROSSTALK)

There are a multiple number of Democrats who are saying we supported the original purpose because of what we learned and what we were told.  Now let‘s see victory.  Let‘s see a plan where we‘re not going to have civil war, let‘s see this coalition government actually succeed.  Let‘s see the oil revenues start to play for the money instead of draining U.S. schools and medical help. 

ROGERS:  You have the nuts, the confused and the thoughtful opposition.  That‘s what you‘ve got. 

ROGERS:  Russ Feingold is thoughtful opposition.  He voted against it.  He‘s been principled about the whole thing, he‘s been matter of fact.  I don‘t have any problem with his position.  He‘s consistent and thoughtful. 

MATTHEWS:  I think you‘re wrong on Hillary.  Hillary has yet to say I was misled, I shouldn‘t have voted to authorize the war.  She has yet to say that.  Biden says that.  Just the other day, John Edwards said that on “Meet the Press.”  Hillary hasn‘t said that yet. 

ROSEN:  She says something smarter.  What she says is if we knew then what we know now, we wouldn‘t have had the vote. 

(CROSSTALK)

You speak to me about the Democrats, the vote on the Dubai ports was because the Republicans are going south on the president. 

MATTHEWS:  What I‘m waiting for is the Democrats to say they were misled, they were wrong to vote for this war.  Hillary, Chuck Schumer, Joe Lieberman.  Joe Biden is saying it, Edwards is saying it.  It‘s a long time for these people to admit they were misled.  I don‘t think your party has a policy. 

ROSEN:  It doesn‘t have a policy because it doesn‘t need to have a policy. 

ROGERS:  It‘s a lucky thing. 

ROSEN:  What‘s the point of a Democratic policy.  We are Americans. 

ROGERS:  The Democrats having a position on war and peace, what‘s the point. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  And to keep up with all the action in the race for the White House, check out bios, that‘s biographies, of the contenders and cast your ballot in our virtual Republican straw vote.  This is fun by the way.

Just go to our Web site at hardball.msnbc.com.  McCain and Giuliani are winning the last time I looked.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  I‘m here with Republican strategist Ed Rogers and Democratic strategist Hillary Rosen.  This past weekend, HARDBALL officially kicked off our coverage of the 2008 presidential horse race.  The candidates already planning their campaigns and we‘re already covering them.  Let‘s talk John McCain. 

What was interesting, Ed Rogers, and you‘re the Republican at this panel, was that John McCain, who everyone knows is a maverick and everyone knows he‘s a solo fighter pilot out there, was the biggest lovey dovey there was there with the president.  What‘s the peppermint twins all about here? 

ROGERS:  That‘s the maverick position right now in case you didn‘t notice.  I mean for better or for worse, everybody running for president right now is trying to show their independence and trying to show that they‘re not just more of the same but they have some sort of independent bearing and presence. 

McCain is probably the only person with the self-confidence and the credibility and the history to not have to do that. 

MATTHEWS:  A nice big dog comes up against your side and rubs up against you, that‘s what he was doing with the president. 

ROSEN:  You have to worry both for John McCain and for the Republican party on this one, because the closer he gets and tries to suggest that he‘s the one to assume the mantle of national security and defense and the likes from the president, the more is required of him to articulate how to get out of this quagmire in Iraq. 

MATTHEWS:  Here‘s the way to get out of the quagmire is to double the number of troops over there.  To go in deeper.

ROGERS:  But speaking of ‘08, a way to get out of the Republicans quagmire that we‘re in, that was the talk of Memphis, is for the Democrats to nominate Hillary, Hillary Clinton, not Hilary Rosen.

ROSEN:  The greatest thing about when the Republicans are in trouble is the only thing they can think to do is keep tabling and keep throwing the same stuff out because they can‘t come up with anything that solves the real problems.

MATTHEWS:  You know what I saw, Ed, that might concern Republicans?  I saw a lot of fundamentalism on politics, hard line on abortion, hard line on gay rights, gay marriage, hard line on immigration, hard line on taxes.  I heard a lot of fundamentalism down there that might exclude a lot of the middle-of-the-roaders and independents, even against Hillary.  I mean, your party may be making the tent too small.

ROGERS:  Chris, you have to have enough time with Republican primary precinct workers if that was news to you, that we‘re a pretty conservative lot, when it gets down to our activists and our workers, no question about it.

MATTHEWS:  Does that exclude Rudy, does that exclude John McCain?

ROGERS:  I don‘t think it excludes anybody at this point in time. 

We‘ve got about 10 months before a front-runner emerges, and so we‘ll see.

ROSEN:  What it excludes is the majority of the American people, because what we found in this poll was that 70 percent of independents and 30 percent of Republicans are the ones that are shooting the president‘s numbers down. 

ROGERS:  John McCain would beat Hillary Clinton like a rented mule if the election were today, there‘s no question about it.

ROSEN:  When you go to those numbers, it‘s all about the war.

MATTHEWS:  Excuse me, what you‘re talking about right now is America right now.  I think you guys have nailed it.  Hillary might be too liberal, you guys might be too fundamentalist.  The country in the middle is going to be fought for every inch of the way.  You‘re going to be fighting over Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and maybe Florida.  Thank you Ed Rogers, thank you Hilary Rosen.

Up next, we‘ll meet the—Hillary‘s for the war—who‘s running against Senator George Allen of Virginia, that‘s former secretary of the Navy James Webb who worked for Reagan.  This is HARDBALL only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Virginia Senator George Allen made a big splash at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference.  We saw it down there in Memphis last weekend.  Many people there were excited about his presidential hopes for 2008.  But before that can happen, Allen is trying to get reelected to the Senate in 2006, this year.

One of the Democrats looking to derail both bids is James Webb, the ex-Republican who served as Navy secretary during the Reagan administration.  He‘s author of the book “Born Fighting,” which is now in paperback, “Born Fighting.” 

You were first a Democrat, then a Republican, then a Democrat.

JAMES WEBB (D), VIRGINIA SENATORIAL CANDIDATE:  I‘m like I think a large number of people in this country who after—during the Vietnam War became alienated from the Democratic Party, basically feeling like they weren‘t welcomed there and went to the Republicans on the national security issues, but never were really comfortable on the social issues over there.  And over the past—well, since 9/11, really...

MATTHEWS:  ... OK, you liked the Vietnam War but you don‘t like this war? 

WEBB:  I think it‘s fair to say.  I think I can give you a justification for why we were in Vietnam and I was very leery of this war, even well before we went in.

MATTHEWS:  Why do you think we went to war?

WEBB:  In Iraq?

MATTHEWS:  Can you give me an honest answer or is it too complicated?

WEBB: In Iraq?

MATTHEWS:  Yes, why did we go to war in Iraq?

WEBB:  I think if I would summarize it, is that first of all, we squandered a historic opportunity on 9/11 to bring most of the nations of the world with us on the war against international terrorism.

MATTHEWS:  Here here, they were all with us.

WEBB:  And we alienated allies almost deliberately and we went after a situation that had existed pre-9/11.  There is a lot of talk among the people who brought us into this war saying that the world changed after 9/11. 

My view is it changed in a way differently than they are saying, that the problem of international terrorism grew from regional to international, rather than vice versa.  And the worst thing that we could have done strategically would have been to go into one country that was not directly threatening us and occupy it.

MATTHEWS:  Do you think we would have been better off just chasing al Qaeda?

WEBB:  I think, first of all, the situation in Iraq wasn‘t that bad when we went in.  We had people on the ground.  We had not had that in 1998 when the resolutions were passed that the—for regime change in there.  We could have contained Saddam Hussein.  The greatest military victory of the last 80 years was the Cold War, where we contained an expansionist nation, wore them down, without a large loss of life and that sort of thing.

MATTHEWS:  Jim, could we have counted on our allies to really force that containment of Iraq, keeping him in his box?

WEBB:  I think so.  I mean, Saddam Hussein was approaching 70 at the time that we went in and he was pretty well beaten down.  We could have done that, focused on international terrorism.  I wrote a piece on this very early on, right after 9/11, about how to fight international terrorism and one of the paragraphs in there was, do not occupy territory, do not allow yourself to become a target rather than a mobile apparatus for going after them.

MATTHEWS:  That‘s what former secretary of defense Clark Clifford, wherever you go you, that‘s where you are going to get be, when you get stuck.  Let me ask you, Virginia‘s a pretty much pro-military state, you‘re a military guy.  How do you launch an anti-war alternative to this war campaign a guy like George Allen in Virginia?

WEBB:  Well I think a lot of people think that this campaign is going to be an antiwar campaign.  It‘s not.  It‘s going to be talking about reorienting our defense priorities.  Iraq is a part of that, but we‘ve lost sight of a lot of the strategic issues.  China and India are sort of redefining the international power centers of the world, those sorts of things on defense policy.

But the other two issues that I think are really strong here that we‘re going to focus on.  First of all, the issues of fairness.  I mean, this country is breaking into three pieces and people aren‘t talking about it.  Economically, the people at the top have never done better.  The middle class is stagnating.  They‘re seeing jobs exported overseas.  And we‘re in danger of creating a permanent underclass, I‘m going to talk about that.  And then the key issue, when we‘re looking at the last couple of weeks is presidential authority and who in the Congress has been standing up to these abuses?

MATTHEWS:  Do you have $20 million or $30 million?

WEBB:  No, I‘m doing this with not a lot of money right now.

MATTHEWS:  How are you going to get on television and make your campaign?  How are you going to get your message across?

WEBB:  We started four weeks ago and we have done—we‘re starting late, but we‘ve gotten a good bunch of people around us and we‘re just going to go out and make the message.

MATTHEWS:  Well welcome to the 21st century, Jim.  To get your message on television is going to cost you a lot of money, unfortunately,  you‘ve got to raise it.

WEBB:  Well, that‘s true, and that‘s something I intend to talk about if I‘m elected, by the way.

MATTHEWS:  OK, well good luck.  I appreciate anybody with the guts to run.  Thank you, Jim Webb, former secretary of the Navy under Reagan.

Right now, it‘s time for “THE ABRAMS REPORT” with Dan.

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

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