MR. TIM RUSSERT: Our issues this Sunday: on election night, there were two Senate races too close to call. The next day, Democrats Jim Webb of Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana were declared winners, giving Democrats control of the U.S. Senate. How will these two independent-minded and outspoken senators shape the debate on Iraq, the economy, and congressional prerogative? With us, Senator-elect Jim Webb and Senator-elect Jon Tester, together only on MEET THE PRESS.
PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH: If Iran has a nuclear weapon, it’ll be incredibly destabilizing.
MR. RUSSERT: Iran continues its nuclear ambition. Can there be a diplomatic solution? Our guests: Ted Koppel of the Discovery Channel, whose two-hour documentary, “Iran-The Most Dangerous Nation,” debuts tonight; and Robin Wright, author and diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post.
And in our MEET THE PRESS MINUTE, Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman died this week at the age of 94. He appeared here almost 25 years ago, and was asked to forecast our economic future.
But first, two of the newest Democratic members of the U.S. Senate: Jon Tester of Montana, Jim Webb of Virginia.
Gentlemen, welcome both.
SEN.-ELECT JIM WEBB (D-VA): Good to be here. Thank you.
MR. RUSSERT: Senator Webb, let me start with you. The election, held 12 days ago. Looking back now, what were the voters saying?
SEN.-ELECT WEBB: Well, I think—you know, I can’t, I can’t comment for the whole country. I think that there’s a lot of concern everywhere I went about Iraq, and a lot of concern about the, the issues of economic fairness in this country, and thirdly, accountability. Those were the third theme—the three themes that I ran on during the campaign, and that’s what we were hearing.
MR. RUSSERT: Senator-Elect Tester, what did the voters say 12 days ago in Montana?
SEN.-ELECT JON TESTER (D-MT): Well, I think it revolves around many of the same issues that Jim talked about. I think fiscal responsibility I’d also add to that mix. But health care, energy, what’s going on in foreign policy, and, and what’s going on ethically back in Washington, D.C., were definitely issues that I heard about.
MR. RUSSERT: Jim Webb, let me show you and our viewers what you said during the campaign about Iraq. “If we want a new direction in Iraq, we need a new team in Congress. A Democratic Congress will demand from day one that the President find a real way forward in Iraq.” What’s “a real way forward”?
SEN.-ELECT WEBB: Well, first of all, I, I was saying even before we went in that there were three major issues in the Middle East that had to be addressed. One was the Israeli/Arab situation, the other was terrorism, and the third was, was Iraq, and that if we lumped them together that we risked in—having a problem with all three of them. That has happened.
So in the—in looking at Iraq, you need a larger scope than simply what’s going on with—with the government, with the troops inside, which people keep talking about. And I’m looking forward to hearing what the Baker commission comes forward with, the Iraq Study Group. But what we need—and I’ve been saying this for more than two years—is a diplomatic approach that will bring the countries in the region to the table so that we can have ownership, some ownership, diplomatic ownership from the countries that have long-term cultural and historical ties with Iraq. And from that umbrella, then we can address the issue of moving our combat troops out and still affecting the war against international terrorism. I think that’s doable. It’s a leadership question rather than simply an issues question, and that’s what I’m looking forward to trying to bring to the table.
MR. RUSSERT: You’re talking about Iran and Syria.
SEN.-ELECT WEBB: We need to talk to Iran and Syria. I think it was a great mistake not to as this moves forward, and that’s one thing that I’ve been encouraged to hear from former Secretary of State Baker that, you know, you need to talk to your, your enemies as well as your friends. You don’t have to give up anything in terms of, you know, national concerns to be talking to them, but it’s impossible to resolve the situation now without talking to them.
MR. RUSSERT: Jon Tester, during the campaign this is what your Web site said: “An open-ended occupation is not in the best interest of the United States, the Iraqi people, or the Middle East. The time has come to support our troops by laying out a plan to bring them home.” Realistically, what kind of plan would you lay out to bring the troops home?
SEN.-ELECT TESTER: Well, I think many of the things that, that Senator-elect Webb talked about would be part of the plan. But I will tell you, we, we need to work with our allies within—in the region. We also need to talk to our enemies and put diplomatic pressure on them. But we also need to visit with our allies around the world to, to develop a plan to, to make, to make this war come to some sort of conclusion and get our troops home. Right now, as it was—been for, you know, since I got into this race in May of ‘05, there is no plan, and, and there’s no end in sight to this. And, and we really need to focus on, on the war on terror and national security issues. And I think that this war has taken our focus off of that.
That being said, we’re there. And as some folks told me on the campaign route, there’s really no easy solution here. Getting out tomorrow isn’t, isn’t probably the right thing to do; staying and getting out later’s probably not the right thing to do, and that’s why we do need to have a plan. The president as commander in chief needs to provide leadership in this, and in the process we all need to work together and get something that really works for this country and works for the Middle East also.
MR. RUSSERT: Jon Tester, is it fair to say that neither the Democrats nor President Bush at this time really have a plan?
SEN.-ELECT TESTER: Well, I mean, possibly. I mean, I think, I think ultimately what, what’s really fair to say is that what’s been going on there hasn’t been working. And, and we need to come up with, with some, with some focus on, on the war in Iraq. And we need to all understand that, you know, what’s going on there hasn’t been successful. We’re losing lives, it’s costing money, I think we’re losing stature in the world. And so it’s important that we, we, we broaden the scope of, of who we’re working with, and, and, and come up to some sort of solution that works for this country, and really focus on Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda and those kind of things that, that we were focused on, you know, four years ago.
MR. RUSSERT: Jim Webb, John Abizaid, the military commander for the Middle East, came to Congress, and this is what he testified to on Wednesday, “that to begin a significant troop withdrawal from Iraq over the next six months would lead to an increase in sectarian killings and hamper efforts to persuade the Iraqi government to make the difficult decisions needed to secure the country.” Your reaction?
SEN.-ELECT WEBB: Well, I can, I can understand why the military people would have concerns about the notion of beginning this process with the announcement of troop withdrawals. It’s, it’s almost backwards from the way that we should be solving it. There’s a tremendous amount of sectarian violence either way and there’s, and there’s going to be. There are limits to what our military can do. And what I’ve been proposing and which—something I think that General Abizaid might, might have a different feeling about if he were testifying, I would think, is that we need a diplomatic approach that creates some stability, some agreement among the players in the region. They all have long-term interests, obviously, in, in the stability of, of Iraq, and from that approach then you begin troop withdrawals and—of combat troops, and still be able to affect the issue of international terrorism. That is a workable formula, I think, and it goes a long way toward addressing the situation that he was talking about.
MR. RUSSERT: What happens if the situation deteriorates and it becomes a whole widespread civil war, total chaos? What do we do then?
SEN.-ELECT WEBB: Well, again, there are limits to what the United States military can do in that region. And, in fact, when the United States is operating unilaterally, it creates further potential for the kind of thing that you’re talking about because of the resentments of having the, the, the United States there alone.
So the, the key, to me, for years has been getting these countries that are tangential and other countries that have long-term interests in the stability of Iraq to take some diplomatic ownership. And we did this in, in ‘01 after we went into Afghanistan when, when we were putting the formula together that resulted in the Karzai government, we got the countries tangential to Afghanistan and others, including Iran, by the way, Iran, India, Pakistan, to become a part of the, the process that created the, the, the solution, the governmental solution. And that’s what you need in Iraq, in, in my view. You need these countries to have—to—with, with—some of them with compatible ethnic populations and this sort of thing to, to be participating so that there is some accountability in the region other than the United States for a solution.
MR. RUSSERT: You are a highly-decorated veteran; back in 1985, you were on MEET THE PRESS as second—assistant secretary of defense, reflecting on Vietnam. And let me show you what you said then and come back and talk about it.
SEN.-ELECT WEBB: OK.
(Videotape, April 28, 1985):
SEN.-ELECT WEBB: If I had one lesson that stands out in my mind, it is that you cannot fight a war and debate it at the same time.
MR. RUSSERT: That’s what we’re doing right now, aren’t we?
SEN.-ELECT WEBB: In a, in a way. I mean, any time you have these, these situations that go on for a long period of time, you have to be able to, to answer questions now. And I, you know, I’m one of these people who—there, there aren’t many of us—who can still justify for you the reasons that we went into Vietnam, however screwed up the strategy got, whereas I don’t think there were legitimate reasons for us to have taken this move into Iraq, again, with the situations that come—the other situations in the region that were a lot more...
MR. RUSSERT: You opposed it publicly two years before we went in.
SEN.-ELECT WEBB: I did. And, and on strategic grounds that the—if, if you’re going to work in this region, the Arab-Israeli situation should be first order priority. We need to find Dennis Ross or, or someone of, of, of that stature to come in and, and really aggressively attempt to bring a resolution to that situation. We need to address international terrorism. We created what I was calling at the time a strategic mouse trap by going into Iraq when we did. We have to fix that, that’s the reality that we’re dealing with. But, again, the way to fix it is to work from the diplomatic into the military rather than the other way around.
MR. RUSSERT: Your son, Jimmy, 24, is a Marine in Iraq, you wore his combat boots throughout the entire campaign. Is it hard talking about this war knowing that your own son is over there?
SEN.-ELECT WEBB: I have, you know, feelings as a father that I have, you know, I have to separate from the policy issues, because there are a lot of people who have loved ones there and, you know, so I, I think in terms of policy issues I can separate that. Very difficult personally, I have to admit.
MR. RUSSERT: Jon Tester, let me show you what Major General J.D. Thurman, the senior commander of American forces in Baghdad, said. “Part of our problem is that we want this more than they do,” talking about the Iraqis. That’s a very powerful statement.
SEN.-ELECT TESTER: Well, I mean, I—the—you know, if you go back to what, what Senator-Elect Webb said about diplomatic pressures, you know, I think that is, is just so right on the mark. It, it really is critically important that we visit with our allies to develop, to develop a plan for the region, and also keep our enemies close on this thing. Because I think it’s in everybody’s best interests to try to find some sort of resolution here. And I don’t know if it’s wanting it more than they. I think it’s, it’s knowing what we accomplish when we’re done. That, that’s part, that’s part of what is, is mysterious to me when I look at what’s going on in Iraq right now.
MR. RUSSERT: One of the things that happened the day after the election, Jim Webb, was that President Bush announced the Donald Rumsfeld was leaving; that Robert Gates was going to replace him as secretary of defense. And there’s a photograph of Mr. Gates meeting with John Warner, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee. Would you like to be able to vote on Mr. Gates’ confirmation, rather than have him confirmed before you’re sworn in?
SEN.-ELECT WEBB: I would, and that has been misinterpreted by, by some. I heard there was a column by Robert Novak saying that I have some personal animus toward Mr. Gates. I don’t even know Mr. Gates. But if this is an individual that I’m going to be working with for the next two years, I would like to be able to ask my own questions, and to examine, you know, his, his qualifications. And I, I think that’s sort of logical. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen, but certainly I would like to be able to, to sit down in his confirmation hearing and take a vote.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to the issue of congressional corruption. Jon Tester, here’s a campaign ad that ran all across the state of Montana. Let’s watch, and come back and talk about it.
(Videotape, Jon Tester campaign ad):
AD ANNOUNCER: Look around Montana, and you’ll see, Jon Tester is catching on. (Several people shown getting haircuts similar to Jon Tester) He’ll put an end to Senator Burns’ kind of corruption and make the U.S. Senate look a little more like Montana.
SEN.-ELECT TESTER: I’m Jon Tester, and I approved this message. I approve the haircut, too.
MR. RUSSERT: Take away the haircut, let’s talk about corruption. You talked about Senator Burns’ kind of corruption. Right now there are proposals before the incoming U.S. Senate, senator-elect, which will talk about free meals and airplane rides, and so forth. Two of the areas that some in the Senate, some Democrats, don’t want to go near are establishing an Office of Public Integrity, and also full disclosure for the so-called “earmarks,” money that Senators target for their home states. Are you in favor of a comprehensive reform package that would include the creation of an Office of Public Integrity, and deal with earmarks?
SEN.-ELECT TESTER: I, I, I’m, I’m not—I will tell you that, that building a bureaucracy in Washington, D.C., is not something that I’m crazy about, so developing another office is something I’d take a hard look at before we did it. I do think that we need to get a hold of the earmark situation, and make sure that they’re, they’re transparent, make sure that the people who are offering the earmarks, we know who they are.
But, but really transparency in government is the key here, Tim. When you talk about influence that the K Street lobbyists have on the process, I think we can limit that. But ultimately, in the end, we—you need to have people in Washington, D.C., who are honest, who, who can’t be bought. And, and we will come up with an ethics plan, we talked to Senator Reid about that, that, that will take care of some of the, the free meals and travel and all that stuff. I also hope that we, we get something as far as, as posting who the senators meet with, to the best of their ability. And I know that’s, that’s tough when it comes to staff in offices this size, but, but the fact is, is the people back home need to know who we’re meeting with, so that they have the opportunity to put their two bits in, in, too.
When you talk about a representative government, it should be for everybody not just the moneyed interests. And, and when we have a situation like’s been back there the last couple of years with, with—and you know the names, I don’t have to bring them up again—that, that have had the dealings with, with, with lobbyists and, and, and money transactions. I just don’t, don’t think it speaks well for public service at the local level, state level, and especially at the federal level. And we’ve got a lot of good people back there that do a lot of work, sacrificing family and a lot of other things, and we need to make sure that, that ethics and honesty is a, is a foundation quality for our government.
MR. RUSSERT: One of the issues in your campaign was Senator Burns saying, “I may have said some outrageous things, but I bring home the goods, I bring home the pork for Montana.” And Senator Harry Reid, the Democrat, said, “If you vote for Jon Tester, we’re going to put him on the Appropriations Committee as soon as possible.” That’s where the pork is, that’s where the earmarks are, but you didn’t get on that committee. What happened?
SEN.-ELECT TESTER: Well, I think that Senator Reid did the best he could do, and, and I think that—I don’t think any of the freshmen got on that committee. I hope that I will get on it as soon as possible. I’ve talked to Senator Reid about that, and I think it will happen. I’m very happy with the committees I got—I’ve, I’ve received in the Senate. And, and, you know, I’ve, I’ve been in the process in state government for eight years. I can, I can deal with, with issues of importance to Montanans through the amendment process on the floor and, and will do that.
But I think part of what will enable me to do exactly what I talked about with amendments is transparency in government. You can’t affect the process unless you know what’s transpiring on the floor at the time. So there has to be transparency and opportunity for debate.
MR. RUSSERT: So if you got on the Appropriations Committee, you would want complete transparency for that committee?
SEN.-ELECT TESTER: Absolutely. I think, I think it’s very important to be able to offer a debate. What happens—offer to—be able to debate the issue. What happens when earmarks are done until late at night and there’s not opportunity for total transparency is you get a lot of projects funded that are truly pork projects that shouldn’t be funded, taking money away from good projects that should be.
MR. RUSSERT: I want to ask you both about the economy. Jim Webb, when you were running, you said, “I’m not just running about Iraq, I’m running about what I see happening to the economy in this country, the divisions between rich and poor, as a Jacksonian Democrat.” And let me show you an op-ed piece that you wrote on Wednesday for The Wall Street Journal, and have both you and Jon Tester talk about it.
“The most important ... issue in politics today is our society’s steady drift toward a class-based system, the likes of which we have not seen since the 19th century. America’s top tier has grown infinitely richer and more removed over the past 25 years. It is not unfair to say that they are literally living in a different country. Few among them send their children to public schools; fewer still send their loved ones to fight our wars. They own most of our stocks. ... The top 1 percent now takes in an astounding 16 percent of national income. ...
“This ever-widening divide is too often ignored or downplayed by its beneficiaries. A sense of entitlement has set in among elites, bordering on hubris. When I raised this issue with corporate leaders during the recent political campaign, I was met repeatedly with denials and, from some, an overt lack of concern for those who are falling behind. A troubling arrogance is in the air among the nation’s most fortunate. ...
“With this new Congress ... American workers have a chance to be heard in ways that have eluded them for more than a decade. Nothing is more important for the health of our society than to grant them the validity of their concerns. And our government leaders have no greater duty than to confront the growing unfairness in this age of globalization.”
Very strong words. What do we do? Roll back tax cuts? Roll back trade agreements? What do we do?
SEN.-ELECT WEBB: No, and I, I strongly believe that, that it’s the most important country—issue facing our country. We have corporate profits at an all-time high, wages salary—and salaries at an all-time low as a percentage of our national wealth. And it’s sort of a three-tiered problem, a very difficult problem; it’s going to take years, years to break it down.
The first is, what is fair trade in the, in the age of globalization? We can talk about free trade agreements, but when are, when are they not fair? China’s the best example of that, where we have a situation now rather similar to what we were seeing with Japan 20 years ago, but much more dangerous in terms of its size and our—and the issues of national security, where you have a devalued currency that is enabling them to bring goods into this country at a very low price. And at the same time, they’re using that money to help finance our national debt. We’re becoming dependent on them.
The second is, what has happened to the American workers in, in this environment. Because when you look at the movement from GATT toward the WTO, the American workers, the workers around the world, were not addressed as an, as an issue in terms of fairness. So we have situations here, a different type of, of economic and governmental system, where does—where do you pay health benefits? Where do you pay retirement benefits in the different countries? What’s equality of condition on a workplace that all goes to the worker?
And then the third is, who is benefitting from the bene—you know, from the, from the larger benefits of globalization? It’s not getting down to, to the workers. And that can be addressed, in my view, as a—at a starting point through corporate tax loopholes, there’re many of them; through how the tax code is structured that—in a, in a way that benefits the, the, the top 1 percent.
But this is an issue, it’s not just rich and poor anymore. It’s an issue of what is happening to workers worldwide and how the American worker fits into it. And that is my number one priority as a senator.
MR. RUSSERT: Jon Tester, do you share that concern? And would you be willing to roll back the 1--tax cut of the Bush administration on the top 1 percent and look at trade agreements?
SEN.-ELECT TESTER: Well, I, I think we do need to look at trade agreements for some of the reasons that Jim Webb just talked about. You know, as I go around the state of Montana, you see more and more people working more and more jobs, trying to make ends meet, and I’ve got story after story about folks who are really having trouble making their, their, their budget balance. And, and it ends up, you know, where we have a society where there’s no middle class, and, and the working poor aren’t being addressed.
And I think we do need to address, I think we do need to address it in the tax code, make sure we have a tax code that works for the middle class, small business, working families, family farms and ranches, and make sure that those people are empowered to move our economy forward. Those are the folks, really, that, that brought us here, was a vibrant middle class, and they’ve been forgotten about over the last many years, and it’s time to show them some attention.
And when you look at, look at the tax cuts from the Bush administration, let’s look at it from the middle class. Let’s look at those tax cuts that empower the middle class and move forward. And I can’t agree more with what Jim said about the, the trade, free trade vs. fair trade, devalued dollars and workers’ rights in other countries. We’ve got to make sure these trade agreements work for us and other countries so we’re not continually pushing jobs out of this country.
MR. RUSSERT: It’s been quite interesting watching both your campaigns and reading about your backgrounds. Here’s the cover of The Weekly Standard magazine, Jon Tester, where you’re in front of a truck with a shovel and considerable girth, which doesn’t make you a bad guy, I know the feeling. Are you a new kind of Democrat? Are you different than some of the national Democrats the country’s heard from over the last decade?
SEN.-ELECT TESTER: Well, I don’t—you know, I don’t know. My, my focus really is on what I talked about, the middle class, and, and, and the people who have really built this country. I think Democrats have been focused on that in the past, but it really is a priority of, of mine. You know, as I look out my window here in Big Sandy, I see more farms than aren’t lived in than what are lived in. We really need to have some policies that, that, that move forward, that work for production agriculture. We’ve got to have some policies that work for the middle class. One of the reasons I am a Democrat is because I think the Democrats have focused on the middle class, and I hope they put more of a priority on it into the future, and, and it’s one of the things that I feel very, very strongly about. It’s, it’s where I come from.
MR. RUSSERT: You said when you walked into the Senate—in the Senate chamber for the first time, it was like walking into your barn. There was no other place in the world quite like it.
SEN.-ELECT TESTER: Well, it’s—I mean that from a very positive standpoint. The barn was built by my grandad nearly a hundred years ago and it’s a very, it’s a very special place for me, as was the Capitol, very, very impressive, and it’s a place where I hope to be able to do some really good work, working on both sides of the aisle, finding the common ground to help move this country forward and the state of Montana forward, both domestically and in a, in a—from a foreign affairs standpoint. So, it’s, it’s a marvelous place, you know that, Tim, and I really look forward to the challenges that are presented to me over the next six years.
MR. RUSSERT: Jim Webb, you had this comment in The Washington Post which caught my attention. “Webb said he will model himself after former New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D), whom he described as someone ‘who had government experience that was shaped by the intellectual world.’” A man I knew well, described as independent, maverick, iconoclastic. Do you see yourself along those lines?
SEN.-ELECT WEBB: You know, when this campaign started and people were saying I didn’t know how to do soundbites and debates and this sort of thing. And I sat down one day and I said, “Well, who is my prototype here?” And it would be Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Someone who had government experience, but who was shaped through the intellectual world and who cared about where you measure society, which is at the base, rather than at the top. Where is the health of society. And yeah, very much look forward to, in many ways, following in his footsteps.
MR. RUSSERT: And sometimes got in trouble for his writings.
SEN.-ELECT WEBB: And I, you know, it’s—I—I’m really looking forward to, to trying to do the—some of the same things that he did in terms of putting, putting my experience in the intellectual world onto the problems, the practical problems of today.
MR. RUSSERT: Jim Webb and Jon Tester, congratulations to both and we look forward to covering your tenures in the Senate.
SEN.-ELECT WEBB: Thank you. Appreciate being here.
SEN.-ELECT TESTER: Thank you. Thank you, Tim.
MR. RUSSERT: Coming next, insights and analysis on the war in Iraq and the relationship with Iran from Ted Koppel, who just spent three weeks reporting from the region. His new Discovery Channel documentary airs tonight. And author and Washington Post columnist Robin Wright will be here as well, coming up right here on MEET THE PRESS.
MR. RUSSERT: Iraq and Iran. Insights and analysis from Robin Wright and Ted Koppel after this station break.
MR. RUSSERT: And we are back. Robin Wright, Ted Koppel, welcome both.
Ted Koppel, tonight, Discovery Channel, 9 p.m. to 11, two-hour documentary on Iran. You just got back. Let me show you as you visited the former U.S. Embassy in Iraq—in Iran. Let’s watch.
(Videotape, “Koppel On Discovery: Iran-The Most Dangerous Nation”):
MR. TED KOPPEL: This, of course, is what used to be the U.S. Embassy, until a bunch of radical students back in November of 1979 seized it, and took all the Americans inside hostage. There are other reasons why the U.S. government considers Iran to be dangerous these days, but if you want to talk about the roots of American resentment toward this country, what happened inside the U.S. Embassy here is a pretty good starting point.
But raise that with almost any Iranian, and he or she will respond by saying “Ah, yes, but look at what you guys did back in 1953, when the CIA conspired with British intelligence to overthrow the freely-elected prime minister Mohammed Mossadeq, replacing him with the shah.”
And that’s essentially the way you can define U.S./Iranian relations these days. Tit-for-tat, grievance for grievance. When a group of Iranian journalists were denied entry to the United States, trying to accompany President Ahmadinejad to the general assembly at the United Nations, the Iranians immediately responded by saying, “Well, when Koppel and that Discovery group leave, that’s it, we will be issuing visas to no more American journalists.”
MR. RUSSERT: That’s incredible. Here we are, concerned about Iran becoming a nuclear power, with the war in bordering Iraq, and we’re still dealing with tit-for-tat on journalist visas.
MR. KOPPEL: I’ll give you another example. When I arrived in Tehran, I was taken in to be fingerprinted. It took about an hour, because they don’t fingerprint anybody else. They only fingerprint Americans. And the only reason they fingerprint Americans is because we do retinal scans on people who come from the Middle East, and they don’t have a retinal scan machine. I asked someone later, “What do they do with the fingerprints?” Because the guy who fingerprinted me had never done it before, and he got so much ink on that you couldn’t even read the fingerprint. He said, “They, they just throw it away. They’re just doing it to be”...
MR. RUSSERT: Harassment.
MR. KOPPEL: Yeah. Well, it’s tit-for-tat.
MR. RUSSERT: What’s the sense of the country? What did you find there, Ted?
MR. KOPPEL: It’s not—look, all of us have been to totalitarian countries, and, in its own way, Iran is a totalitarian country. But there is a different feel. In some countries, you sort of feel as though all the air has been sucked out of the atmosphere as soon as you walk in. That’s not the way it is with Iranians. Iranians are eager to talk, they will criticize their president, some of them just as savagely and with the same kind of sarcasm that people at—in Georgetown salons in this town criticize President Bush. In fact, frequently they will draw that kind of analogy between their own president and President Bush. That surprised me a little bit.
Having said that, if you cross some of these invisible red lines that they have, you can be jailed for the most innocuous things. And you can be brutalized for the most innocuous things. It’s not an easy place to live.
MR. RUSSERT: Robin Wright, 27 years ago, when the embassy was taken over, it’s an eternity, when you think of the population of Iran, a country of 69 million people. Seventy percent are under the age of 30. They don’t remember that event from their own memories.
MS. ROBIN WRIGHT: No. And, in fact, they are, in many ways, the most dynamic force for change in the region. We focus so much on the ayatollahs and hard-line president, when in fact, the real future of the country is likely to be decided by this enormous body of people who really do understand a global era. They are connected through the Internet. There are, as Ted’s documentary points out, tens of thousands of blogs. Everyone’s connected. There is a real engagement. They will—many of the people I know in Iran have seen American movies before I see them. They are, they are very savvy about us, just as savvy about us as we are ignorant about them. And that’s what, in many ways, is the fe—the hope for us. I’ve often argued that the solution to U.S./Iran relations is really in bridging the gap, particularly with that age group, rather than dealing with, you know, bombs or a military solution.
MR. RUSSERT: And yet, Ted Koppel, you captured what many young people in Iran are exposed to at an very early age. Let’s just watch more from your documentary.
(Videotape, “Koppel On Discovery: Iran-The Most Dangerous Nation”):
MR. KOPPEL: Still, Khomeini, the religious leader, the revolutionary, the severe, forbidding anti-Western, anti-American presence, remains a force. And the displays of public anger against America that he first inspired more than 25 years ago echo to this day during Friday prayers at the University of Tehran...
(Man shown leading prayer service, congregation shouts in response)
MR. KOPPEL: ...in the streets after prayers...
(Men shown walking through street, shouting in Arabic)
MR. KOPPEL: ...and in the indoctrination of the very youngest. The newest generation of Iranians on their first day of school:
(Children shown standing in formation. Man addresses children over public address system, children shout in response)
MR. KOPPEL: “Death to America! Death to America!” Without much passion, without much emphasis, without any real understanding, they carry the flowers given to them on this, their very first day of school, and they begin their indoctrination against what their leaders tell them is the most dangerous nation: America.
MR. RUSSERT: One universal truth of all school kids in the morning: they yawn.
MR. KOPPEL: They yawn.
MR. RUSSERT: Thank God.
MR. KOPPEL: And don’t know what they—and, and really—but it’s not just the kids, Tim. The amazing thing to me was that, for the most part, and we were witness to, and sometimes sort of involved in some of these demonstrations, surrounded by them, there’s no passion to it whatsoever.
MR. RUSSERT: It was robotic.
MR. KOPPEL: It’s robotic. People are going through it. In fact, people were coming out of Friday prayers when we were there in Isfahan. And, you know, sort of giving us the ‘V for victory sign,’ and all of a sudden somebody there spotted the camera and realized that here was an opportunity, and all of a sudden he started whipping out the “Death to America” slogans. And people go through the motions, but you didn’t get the feeling, certainly with the people, that there was any real enthusiasm.
MR. RUSSERT: Because here’s the other side of Iran. And here we have people who are enjoying life in a very Western way. Rock music, videos, cafes, Internet cafes, pool tables. I mean, Robin Wright, how do we tap into the fact that young Iranians love Western culture, and yet, those same young Iranians, even if they are “reformers,” also think that their country should have a nuclear bomb as a, as a sign of stature in the world?
MS. WRIGHT: Ah, let’s be very careful about that. They all believe they should have nuclear energy because that is the key to development and being a modern country. When it comes to a bomb, that’s a very different issue and I’m not sure that—no—there are no public opinion polls in Iran, so we don’t know—but there’s a very strong feeling that the outside world is trying to block them from having energy because they want to keep it as a kind of third world country that is submissive and dependent.
You know, Iran also has gone through this long war with, with Iraq itself. It was isolated by the outside world. The United States actually provided, again, as Ted’s documentary points out, provided intelligence to the Iraqis. Much—some of which was used in—using chemical weapons against Iranian troops. There is a paranoia. So there are those, obviously, who feel very vulnerable, and there are strong indications that they are looking at developing a bomb. But when it comes to the average Iranian, it’s the nuclear energy issue that’s important to them.
MR. RUSSERT: You encountered a farmer, in terms of...
MR. KOPPEL: It blew, it blew me away. We went for a drive outside Isfahan and I was so tired of being manipulated that I said, “OK, we’re going to drive out of town.” When I say manipulated, you’ve got government minders with you most of the time and they let you do this and don’t let you do that. I said, “Let’s go for a drive.” And they said, “OK.” I said, “All right. Go straight here and make a right here and make a left there.”
We’d gone about 20 miles outside Isfahan and I see a bunch of guys spreading fertilizer in the field. I say, “OK, stop there. I want to talk to these guys.” No way they could’ve set it up. Talking to the guys in the field, all of a sudden this tall dude comes along, he’s the owner, 10 acres. Right? Small land owner. We start talking about the bomb, and even in Farsi I can hear he’s saying, “NPT,” non-proliferation treaty. He’s invoking the non-proliferation treaty and saying, “We have a right. Why can’t we, you know, the Pakistanis have it, and the Israelis have it and the Indians have it. Why shouldn’t we have it?”
And Robin’s exactly right, he was talking about nuclear energy, not the bomb. But I would go a step further than, than Robin. I think Iranians are sort of secretly and sometimes not so secretly pleased that Ahmadinejad is tweaking the United States and making us so upset about this.
MR. RUSSERT: Is there any realistic way we can stop Iran from getting a nuclear bomb?
MR. KOPPEL: Boy, I don’t think so. I don’t think so. I mean, if they want it, the only thing we have to hope is that their, their, their technology is not all that advanced. And unless they buy the technology somewhere else, I’m not at all sure they would get it for at least a few more years.
But having said that, can we stop it? We had no—I had a senior U.S. State Department official tell me we’ve had more diplomatic contact with North Korea than we have had with Iran. No diplomatic contact. The economic and trade sanctions have been in place for over a quarter of a century, really aren’t working. And the military option? Boy, I don’t think that’s—I don’t think that’s an option.
MS. WRIGHT: Well, I will add one thing to that. There is this illusion that we can go in and strike a few targets and eliminate their program. But the reality is with all the troops we have on the ground, any military operation against Iran would end up having to strike at their defensive positions. Whether it’s along borders, their tank corps, their artillery corps. It would be far more—to be effective, would be far more extensive than anyone envisions at this stage. At least in terms of the public debate about a military option. Much more complicated and costly.
MR. RUSSERT: On the—Thursday in the Financial Times, there was in interesting article written which I’d like to read to you and for our viewers and come back and talk about it because it brings into the equation Iraq.
“Analysts say that as the U.S. scrambles to find an honorable exit from Iraq, opening a new channel to Iran is very much under consideration. Bringing Iran and Syria into the equation is expected to form one of the main proposals of the Iraq Study Group led by former secretary of state James Baker and former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton. ...
“Trita Parsi, an analyst who advocates engagement, says the U.S. cannot conceal its weakness but has limited alternatives. He says that for Iran to be drawn into a dialogue it needs a clear indication that the U.S. is looking to discuss all issues and address a strategic transformation of the relationship, not just a tactical quick fix of the Iraq crisis. ...
“[At] a three-hour meeting last month between Mr. Baker and Javad Zarif, Iranian envoy to the U.N., ... Mr. Baker was told that Iran would consider helping the U.S. in Iraq if ‘Washington first changed its attitude toward Iran.’ ...
“Iran is wary of its last experience of cooperating with the U.S., when it helped oust the Taliban from Afghanistan in 2001 ... only to be denounced by Mr. Bush weeks later as a member of the ‘axis of evil.’”
The grand compromise.
MR. KOPPEL: Well, focus on that last line. Because I think most Americans are not aware of the fact that Iran really was extremely helpful in getting rid of the Taliban in Afghanistan. And I had one political scientist, who’s a childhood friend of Ahmadinejad, tell me, “You know, we’re not without resources. We helped you guys in Afghanistan, but we can also hurt you guys in Afghanistan.”
I had several people make the point to me that Iran today is more influential inside Iraq than the United States, for all that we have 130,000 troops in there. And that if they wanted to make life even more difficult for us in Iraq, boy, could they do it.
MR. RUSSERT: Richard Engel, our correspondent from NBC News in Iraq, says if you want a hotel reservation in southern Iraq, you order the room in Farsi, the Iranian language. The Iranians have built an airport and a train station in Iraq for their pilgrims to come over to. In order to deal with our crisis in Iraq, must we bring in the Iranians, and have a grand compromise on nuclear power and Iraq?
MS. WRIGHT: Clearly we need to deal, and include in some way, the Iranians and the Syrians. But I think we have to also understand, not have any illusions about what they can accomplish. Remember, Iran is a Shiite country, predominantly Shiite, led by Shiites. Syria is led by a Shiite offshoot minority. They can have influence when it comes to the Shiite militias in, in Iraq. But the insurgency is predominantly Sunni, and the foreign fighters are predominantly Sunni. What influence they can have is still in question. They can certainly, when it comes to the issue of civil war, perhaps, whether it comes to the issue of arms, intelligence, funds, it can try to hold them back.
MR. RUSSERT: But Iran could probably help with the militias and the death gangs.
MS. WRIGHT: The militias and the death squads, yes. But the big question, of course, is are we about to see a full-scale civil war? And on that front, the Iranians may be less of an influence. Syria could help to a certain extent, because the insurgents often go through Syria. But reining them in, that’s a different issue as well.
MR. KOPPEL: Robin makes a really important point, that there’s another half to that equation. As she correctly points out, who’s going to help with the Sunnis? And the Saudis, for example, could be of enormous assistance with the Sunnis, and to date have not been. So it’s not just a function of bringing the Iranians into the equation, and bringing the Syrians into the equation, you really have to bring everyone in the region into the equation. And let me say that one dirty word that no one in politics says these days: oil. It’s about oil. Not about the Iraqi oil, but about Persian Gulf oil that supplies 25 percent of all the oil that is consumed every day in the entire world. And if Iraq blows up, and if that spills over into the region, you could have an economic instability throughout the world that we haven’t even begun to consider.
MR. RUSSERT: Less than a year ago, last December, you were on this program, and we talked about Iraq. And you were rather prescient, talking about the elections, and the tone of the debate, and what would happen after that as Democrats would have to deal with real power. Let’s listen.
(Videotape, December 15, 2005):
MR. KOPPEL: The mousetrap that is waiting for the Democrats is if they do not publicly acknowledge that U.S. national interest is, is just fundamentally involved in a stable Iraq and a stable Persian Gulf; if they simply come after the Republicans and take the cheap shots on the war and say you got to bring the troops home at all costs, they might even win the election. But if they win the election, they’re going to find themselves confronting the same issues of national interest that the Republicans are facing right now. The simple fact of the matter is, it is in America’s national interest that there be stability in the Persian Gulf. And if we precipitously pull the troops out of that area now, there’ll be hell to pay.
MR. RUSSERT: That’s the debate.
MR. KOPPEL: That’s the debate. And, you know, the problem now is, now the Democrats have influence, and they’re going to have to deal with it. And I was at least reassured to hear the two senators-elect this morning in effect make that—especially Senator-Elect Webb, who obviously has had more opportunity, I think, to deal with foreign policy issues than Senator-Elect Tester. But the fact of the matter is, you can’t just pull the U.S. troops out of there in the next four to six months. Could you, for the sake of symbolism, begin to, to draw a few of them out? Yes. But that symbolism is going to have effect not only here in the United States, it’s also going to have effect over there in the Persian Gulf.
MR. RUSSERT: Robin Wright, you cover this government, the State Department. You’re watching very closely Jim Baker, Lee Hamilton, the study group. Robert Gates replacing Donald Rumsfeld. Back in Bush 41, who reported to Robert Gates in the National Security Council? Condoleezza Rice, the current secretary of state. Do you believe that what the Baker group recommends will be adopted by this administration, and what do you think they might recommend?
MS. WRIGHT: Oh, I don’t think necessarily they will be adopted. I think one of the most interesting things to happen over the past week is that the Bush administration on Tuesday launched its own debate—own review. It pulled together the secretary of state, the Defense Department, the CIA, and under Stephen Hadley are organizing a very fast review, trying to come out at the same time that the Iraq Study Group comes out with its recommendations for the very reason that it doesn’t want to feel that this is the only plan on the table. It wants to be able to say—to pick and choose, basically, to say, “Well, there’s some good ideas here; we’d like to blend it with our own thinking,” because, because of the very discussion we’ve had: What do you do about Iran and Syria? The administration argues they’ve tried that route. They’ve been open to discussions, and that they haven’t found either the Iranians or the Syrians willing to come to the table on reasonable terms, as they see it. And so this is a way of skirting that issue and, and taking a much more narrow focus.
I think the Iraq Study Group is looking at, as you called it, the bigger game, whether it includes the Arab/Israeli conflict, is uncertain, but it clearly is looking at the neighbors and the regional component of it, whereas the Bush administration’s really trying to fine-tune its program.
MR. RUSSERT: The candidates for president in ‘08, Democrat and Republican, overseeing an exit strategy from Iraq?
MR. KOPPEL: Clearly going to be trying to do that. Whether in fact we will have withdrawn most or all of our troops from Iraq by the time 2008 rolls around, I don’t know.
One quick point I do want to make, and that is very few people seem to recall that Bush 41, the elder President Bush, and Colin Powell, who was then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, kept U.S. troops from going all the way up to Baghdad, kept U.S. forces from overthrowing Saddam Hussein, during Operation: Desert Storm for one principal reason: to keep Iran in check. We’ve done the Iranians a huge favor.
MR. RUSSERT: And the secretary of defense back then was Dick Cheney.
MR. KOPPEL: Yeah.
MR. RUSSERT: Robin Wright, thank you. We’ll keep reading you in The Washington Post. Ted Koppel, tonight, Discovery Channel, 9 to 11. Thank you for this good work, and come back whenever you have something like this. It makes us all proud.
MR. KOPPEL: Thank you. Thanks very much.
MR. RUSSERT: Coming next, our MEET THE PRESS MINUTE with noted economist Dr.Milton Friedman. Is it possible to forecast an economic turnaround? Right after this.
MR. RUSSERT: Deficits, tax cuts, inflation, interest rates, unemployment—all on the minds of Americans in the midst of a recession in the spring of 1982.
(Videotape, March 21, 1982):
MR. BILL MONROE: Our guest today on MEET THE PRESS is economist Milton Friedman, Nobel Prize winner, senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a member of President Reagan’s Economic Policy Advisory Board.
MR. MARVIN KALB: Dr. Friedman, you are speaking with a great deal of confidence and you are clearly a world-renowned economist. With that in mind, could you please tell us when there will be a turnaround in the economy in this country?
DR. MILTON FRIEDMAN: If you were—if I were to say to you, “You are a world-renowned meteorologist. Would you tell me when there’s going to be a rain in the next two days,” would you think that that was a contradiction to the statement? The forecasting of short-run changes in economic activity is by no means a science. It’s not something in which we are a really able to make very good predictions. I think there’s a fair chance that when the historians of business cycles come to look at this period, they will say that the bottom was already reached in January. But that may be wrong. It’s not the kind of statement in which I would want to have a great deal of confidence.
MR. KALB: So what you’re really telling us is that, deep down, you don’t know right now when this is going to turn around?
DR. FRIEDMAN: Nobody knows. Nobody knows. knows.
MR. KALB: Nobody knows.
DR. FRIEDMAN: Nobody knows.
MR. KALB: Not even the president and his people when they say...
DR. FRIEDMAN: Nobody knows exactly when it’s going to turn around.
MR. RUSSERT: Economists, meteorologists, political pundits, do they ever get it right? The economy did slowly start to turn around at the end of that year, and for the next 92 months, the U.S. enjoyed one of the longest sustained peace-time economic growth periods in history. Milton Friedman, one of our most well-known economists of all time, died this week at the age of 94.
And we’ll be right back.
TEXT: Milton Friedman 1912-2006
MR. RUSSERT: Check out the MEET THE PRESS Web site where you can now download both audio and video of the entire program to your computer or MP3 player. The MEET THE PRESS netcast and new video podcast all at mtp.msnbc.com.
That’s all for today. We’ll be back next week. Have a great Thanksgiving.
If it’s Sunday, it’s MEET THE PRESS.