updated 11/29/2006 11:15:23 AM ET 2006-11-29T16:15:23

Guests: Jimmy Carter, Robin Wright, David Gergen, Joe Trippi, Ed Rogers

DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Civil war and now George W. Bush is vowing to keep the troops in Iraq.  Tonight President Jimmy Carter weighs in. 

Let‘s play HARDBALL. 

Good evening.  I‘m David Shuster in for Chris Matthews. 

Tonight Iraq finds itself locked in a brutal civil war, Sunni versus Shia with al Qaeda in the mix, plus agitations now from Iran and Syria. 

President Bush has traveled abroad to the NATO summit and to the Middle East to try to bring some order to a chaotic and increasingly dangerous situation.  But today, one day before a face-to-face update from Iraq‘s prime minister, the president vowed to keep troops in Iraq until the mission is complete. 

Will the Bush administration reach out to U.S. enemies like Iran and Syria?

At this stage in the game, would it even work?

Is the president correct in fingering al Qaeda for all the sectarian violence we see day after day in Iraq?  Or is it the result of something much deeper, long standing hatreds that the Bush administration fed and misunderstood?

Jimmy Carter is the 39th president of the United States.  He has been an outspoken critic of the Iraq War and of the Bush administration policies in the Middle East.  Carter is a Nobel Laureate and he‘s the author of a controversial new book called “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid”. 

I spoke with President Carter earlier today. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SHUSTER:  President Carter, first of all, thanks for being with us.

JIMMY CARTER, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  David, it‘s a pleasure to be with you.

SHUSTER:  As you may know, NBC is now calling Iraq a civil war and has instructed all its news people, including those of us at MSNBC, to refer to is as such. 

Do you agree that Iraq is a civil war? 

CARTER:  I think it‘s just a matter of semantics.  Obviously, the White House says it‘s not a civil war and you say it is.  The civil wars in which the (INAUDIBLE) has been involved in the last few years are much more serious than the situation in Iraq.  For instance, we worked for 19 years trying to bring peace to southern Sudan, in which two million were killed.  And we just finished holding an election, the first Democratic election in the Republic of Congo, where four million people have died in the last eight years. 

So comparatively speaking, to the American Civil War and to those, it‘s not a civil war.  But I don‘t argue with the semantics of it.

SHUSTER:  Well, is Iraq headed in that direction? 

And there was a U.N. report which suggested already 650,000 civilians have been killed.  Do you think it has the potential of being as bad as the Sudan?

CARTER:  I don‘t think so because Sudan was horrendous in that two million people died.  And now they have some elements of peace there.

But it‘s obviously serious in Iraq.  And I don‘t think that American intervention, even if we wanted to exert the power of our military force there, could successfully interrupt the internecine violence that is killing people still on the streets. 

SHUSTER:  Let‘s talk about President Bush.  He‘s meeting tomorrow with Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki.  Are you very optimistic that anything can come out of this meeting tomorrow? 

CARTER:  Hopeful, but not confident.  You know, I don‘t know if Maliki is yet in the frame of mind to risk the major political support that he has from the Shiites in trying to force them to control the street violence.  I just don‘t think he is.

If he should decide to do so and make an adequate profession to President Bush and then go back home and carry it out, that would be a pleasant surprise.  I don‘t think he has the desire—or willingness is a better word—or the power when he gets back home to enforce what President Bush wants. 

SHUSTER:  The president said today that much of the violence in Iraq is being carried out—or is due to al Qaeda.  The Pentagon doesn‘t necessarily subscribe to that view.  What‘s your view?

CARTER:  I don‘t either.  I think al Qaeda and outside influences, maybe from Syria and Iran even, play a role, but I think a minimal role.  They might incite the violence, but most of the violence is obviously perpetrated by one Iraqi against another.

SHUSTER:  Then why would the president say this? 

CARTER:  Well, I don‘t know.  You‘d have to ask him.  It may be that he‘s correct.  I just don‘t think he is.  I don‘t think most of the violence in Iraq has even been precipitated or orchestrated, certainly, not by outsiders, including al Qaeda.  But as I say, they have played some role. 

SHUSTER:  Does it anger you, though, as somebody who has a very point of view about Iraq than the Bush administration—does it anger you when you hear President Bush fall back to “al Qaeda‘s responsible”?

CARTER:  No, it doesn‘t anger me.  You know, I realize that the president has to justify the policies that he and his advisers have adopted.  This particular administration has been remarkably reluctant to admit that they have ever made a mistake, and when they take on the position that al Qaeda has been a major cause of the violence in Iraq, I‘m not angered or surprised when they maintain that that‘s an undeviating opinion of theirs. 

I think the next opening, obviously, might come when the study commission headed by Lee Hamilton and Jim Baker make their recommendations.  And I think that this will be an opening for President Bush, without losing face, to say, well, we‘re going to change our policy in compliance with what you recommend—some of them.  We‘re going to reject some of them for various purposes.  And that might lead to major steps forward.  I hope it will.

SHUSTER:  James Baker, even though he‘s in the other party, is a long time friend of yours.  You‘ve had a close relationship with him.  Do you think that he feels confident he can provide some political cover or some new ideas for the Bush administration that they haven‘t already outrightly dismissed? 

CARTER:  Well, I talked to Jim Baker recently, as a matter of fact.  He hasn‘t mentioned anything about providing political cover.  His main concern is to get unanimity within this bipartisan committee and to work with Lee Hamilton and the other Democrats to get some cohesion among that group. 

I think the main thing I hope they will come forward is a proposal that there be an international conference that includes Syria and Iran, as well as the more moderate Arabs, Egypt and Jordan and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, so that the Iraqi people can see that an international group of great substance and interest in them—it may include people like from France and Russia—will replace the United States as an occupying power with a group of more benevolently inclined powers that have economic and political strength to give the Iraqis the sense that‘s accurate that they can control their own affairs in the near future. 

SHUSTER:  President Carter, did you really call former Defense Secretary—current Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld one of the worst defense secretaries ever?

CARTER:  I can‘t deny it.  I think he was one of the worst we‘ve had, but I don‘t remember calling him that in the past. 

SHUSTER:  Why do you think that? 

CARTER:  Because his policies that he pretty well enforced on the military have proven to be so erroneous.  And I don‘t doubt that his motivations were honorable.  I don‘t doubt that he is a very fine and intelligent man.  But the facts have shown that the adventures in which he led the military and the way he carried out the military policies after the adventures proved to be, I think, irresponsible, have proven that he was not a good secretary of defense. 

SHUSTER:  Were you satisfied in the way in which his departure was announced, that the Bush administration said we need a fresh look, a new set of eyes to look at Iraq?  Was that good enough for you?

CARTER:  Oh, yes.  Of course it was.  And I think we now have a chance to have a more effective secretary of defense that will have the confidence of the American people and the confidence of bipartisan leaders in the Congress. 

SHUSTER:  There‘s been a lot of talk, of course, people look at Iraq, the difference between the Sunnis and the Shiites, and the idea that here in Washington, members of Congress, top policy makers are not steeped enough in these differences.  If you ask a member of Congress, what is the major difference between a Sunni and a Shia, sometimes they just give you a blank stare. 

Are you frustrated at all that Washington doesn‘t know more about the Muslim world, about these sectarian conflicts than we do?

CARTER:  Well, I wouldn‘t personally assume that your premise is accurate.  You know, I don‘t know what Congressmen know or don‘t know.  I would guess the ones that are involved deeply in, say, the Defense Committee and the Appropriations Committee, that have responsibilities for Iraq policy and implementation of it, would become conversant about the difference between the two parties.

But I think it‘s more important to know what the two parties now want and what causes their dissension and their divide than it is to understand the nuances of their religious faith. 

When I was president and dealing, for stance, with the Iranian hostage crisis, I brought in scholars to the Oval Office to teach me about the differences between the different Islamic groups.  It‘s very difficult to understand. 

But the fact that—the Shiites live in the south, that they have a lot of oil where they live.  The Kurds live in the north.  There‘s a lot of oil where they live.  They both would be willing to have an independence and not share their oil wealth with the Sunnis in the middle of Iraq.  I think all of those are factors that almost every American now understands.  And I think it‘s the most important thing for us to understand. 

SHUSTER:  Do you trust the Iranians?  You talk about a global conference, international partners, maybe Syria and Iran.  Can Iran be trusted though, as far as bringing peace to Iraq, but also achieving our own security objectives for the region?

CARTER:  Well, I think in almost every instance, including the example of the United States, we can be trusted so long we make a commitment that the fulfillment of which would make us—would benefit our country.  And if Iran does to to come to an international conference, if it does occur, and if they make a commitment to do things that in the long term would be beneficial to Iran, then I think they should carry it out.  If they are forced to promise something that would be contrary to their best interests, then you couldn‘t trust them to honor it. 

SHUSTER:  But the Iranian leadership has suggested that one of their interests is seeing Israel wiped off the map.  Why should the United States be involved in discussions with a country whose leadership has stated that over and over? 

CARTER:  I don‘t think the United States would dream of having any discussions with Iran about the future of Israel.  That‘s a different subject.  But Iran as a key player, an important player, in the future concerning Iraq, I think is a much different issue and one that would be—

SHUSTER:  But isn‘t the Palestinian-Israeli conflict part and parcel of this?  I mean, you write in your book about the significance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as far as the influence over the Muslim world, and if they are connected, why then shouldn‘t the United States say to the Iranians, Look, we are not going to talk with you until you change your rhetoric about our allies in the region? 

CARTER:  I think that‘s one of the most serious problems that our country has inherited in the last few years, an unwillingness to talk to anyone who disagrees with us or who won‘t accept, before a discussion, all the premises that we demand.  That has precluded us from any direct discussions with North Korea, which has been a serious mistake, from having discussions with Syria, which I think is a mistake, and having discussions with Iran, which is a mistake.

But the discussions that you need to have with a country are the issues on which you and that country have differences of opinion, but a common interest in the solution.  And I think it‘s inconceivable that the president of Iran would be consulted about the future of Israel.  But I think it‘s very logical that the president of Iran and the people there would be involved in the discussion about the future of Iraq.

SHUSTER:  President Carter, you have just written your 21st book, and we are going to talk to that on the other side of this break.  We will be back with President Carter to talk about “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,” his latest book.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  We‘re back with the 39th president of the United States, Jimmy Carter.  His new book is called “Palestine: Peace rMDNM_Not Apartheid.”  President Carter, why did you use the word ‘apartheid‘ in the book‘s title?

CARTER:  Let‘s look at the entire title, if you don‘t mind.  The first word is Palestine, which involves the land that belongs to the Palestinians, not the Israelis.  I didn‘t refer to Israel, because there‘s no semblance of anything relating to apartheid within the nation of Israel.

And I also emphasized the word ‘not‘ -- that is, peace, and not apartheid.  That is what I hope to accomplish with this book, is sort of move to that goal.  But there‘s no doubt that within the Occupied Territories—Palestinian land—that there is a horrendous example of apartheid.  The occupation of Palestinian land, the confiscation of that land that doesn‘t belong to Israel, the building of settlements on it, the colonization of that land, and then the connection of those isolated but multiple settlements—more than 200 of them—with each other by highways, on which Palestinians can‘t travel and quite often where Palestinians cannot even cross.

So the persecution of the Palestinians now, under the occupying territories—under the occupation forces—is one of the worst examples of human rights deprivation that I know.  And I think it‘s—

SHUSTER:  Even worse, though, than a place like Rwanda? 

CARTER:  Yes.  I think—yes.  You mean, now?

SHUSTER:  Yes.

CARTER:  Yes.

SHUSTER:  The oppression now of the Israelis—of the Palestinians by the Israelis is worse than the situation in Africa like the oppression of Rwanda and the civil war? 

CARTER:  I‘m not going back into ancient history about Rwanda, but right now, the persecution of the Palestinians is one of the worst examples of human rights abuse I know, because the Palestinians—

SHUSTER:  You‘re talking about right now, you‘re not talking about say, a few years ago.

CARTER:  I‘m not talking about ancient history, no.

SHUSTER:  Rwanda wasn‘t ancient history; it was just a few years ago.

CARTER:  You can talk about Rwanda if you want to.  I want to talk

about Palestine.  What is being done to the Palestinians now is horrendous

in their own territory, by the occupying powers, which is Israel. 

They‘re taken away all the basic human rights of the Palestinians, as was done in South Africa against the blacks.  And I make it very plain in this book that the apartheid is not based on racism, as it was in South Africa.  But it‘s based on the desire, of a minority of Israelis to acquire land that belongs to the Palestinians and to retain that land, and then to exclude the Palestinians from their own property and subjugate them, so that they can‘t arise and demonstrate their disapproval of being robbed of their own property.  That‘s what‘s happening in the West Bank.

And the people in this country, in America, never know about this, they never discuss this, there‘s no debate about it, there‘s no criticism of Israel in this country.  And in Israel, there is an intense debate about the issues in this book.  In this country, no. 

SHUSTER:  I agree—I mean, I wish we had that sort of debate that they‘re having in Israel, I wish we had that in the United States.  But give us a sort of sense, how much of the responsibility for the conflict, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, do you think belongs to the Israelis for their tactics like seizing land and occupying territory that didn‘t belong to them, how much of it is the responsibility of the Palestinians for their suicide terror attacks and their bombing within Israel proper?

CARTER:  As a matter of fact, the basic cause of the conflict is a sustained occupation of other people‘s land by the Israelis.  And this is a direct violation of United Nations resolutions, it‘s a direct violation of an international quartet‘s road map, it‘s a direct violation of the commitments that leaders of Israel have made in the past, at Camp David when I was president, and in Oslo, promising that Israel would withdraw from occupied territories.  They have failed to do so.

In response to that—and I‘m not excusing them—there have been acts of violence.  As a matter of fact, though, Hamas, the number one accused persons of violence, have not committed an act of suicide bombing, that cost an Israeli life, now since August of 2004.  And I hope that they won‘t do that anymore. 

Other participants of the Palestinian society, smaller ones, have committed some atrocities, but the loss of life and the entire Occupied Territories has been horrendous and has been caused by both sides. 

SHUSTER:  I want to talk politics before we let you go.  You helped your son, Jack, run against Republican Senator John Ensign in Nevada.  Jack lost.  You said in another interview this was a tough loss.  Explain that. 

CARTER:  Well, you know, any loss by one of your children in a political campaign is difficult for parents.  I have three other children.  I have 11 grandchildren and one great grandchild.  And we‘re all very close family.

We all went out to help Jack.  He took on that task of running for office against a well established, very wealthy, handsome and popular senator, because he was primarily disturbed about the lack of reaction of the government to the Katrina disaster.

And Jack had never run for office before, though he had helped me win the presidency.  But he ran a good campaign.  He did well.  And afterwards, Jack said it was worth the effort.  He learned a lot about his state.  He learned a lot about the nation.  He learned about people.  He learned about politics. 

And my guess is that Jack will not run for another office, but the political experience was good for him. 

SHUSTER:  One person who may run for office again, Al Gore.  At least that‘s something I understand you would like to see.  Have you encouraged Al Gore to run?  What have you said to him to try to get him to run?

CARTER:  I encouraged him so much in 2004 to run that he finally said, “Mr. President, please do not bother me about this any more.  My family and I have decided I‘m not going to run.”  He almost got angry with me.

But I don‘t have that much doubt, first of all, that Al Gore was elected president by votes in Florida and throughout the nation in the year 2000.  And I think, had he run in the year 2004 he would have won. 

And if I had to choose now a candidate out of all the ones that exist, at this point, at least, Al Gore would still be my preference. 

SHUSTER:  What did you think of the Democrats taking over control of Congress in this past election just a few weeks ago?

CARTER:  Yes, I was happy.  I thought it was wonderful.  And although I was overseas during most of that time in India and then Nicaragua and so forth, I thought that we had an excellent chance to carry the House.  I was pleasantly surprised when we got a majority of the Senate. 

SHUSTER:  President Carter, 39th president of the United States, you have just written your 21st book.  It‘s called “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid”.  Thank you very much for coming in to discuss it with us.  We appreciate it.

CARTER:  I enjoyed it, David, very much.

SHUSTER:  It‘s good to have you here.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SHUSTER:  When we return, incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she‘s sad for President Bush.  We‘ll find out why. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Congress may still be on break, but there‘s still tension in the air on Capitol Hill as Democrats wait to officially take over in January.  Today, we got a good sense of what life will be like the incoming Democratic House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, jousting with the president.  The issue today was Iraq.  Let‘s watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  There‘s a lot of sectarian violence taking place, fomented, in my opinion, because of these attacks by—by al Qaeda, causing people to seek reprisal. 

NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), SPEAKER-ELECT OF THE HOUSE:  My thoughts on the president‘s representations are well known.  The 9/11 Commission dismissed that notion a long time ago, and I feel sad that the president is resorting to it again. 

We want to work in a bipartisan way with that, but if the president persists on the course that he‘s on, that will be more difficult. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Mike Viqueira is an NBC News congressional reporter.  He joins us here in the studio.

And Mike, Nancy Pelosi feels sorry for President Bush?

MIKE VIQUEIRA, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  Well, she feels sad.  You‘ve got to remember that this is a woman coming off a triumphant election.  Corruption and the war in Iraq, obviously, were two things that drove the Democrats into the position they‘re in now.

The Capitol is abuzz is people moving in and out of offices, Democrats moving across Statuary Hall.  This is the atmosphere we have now as Pelosi, very unusually, here for a large part of the congressional recess, getting things done, meeting with the Italian deputy prime minister today. 

She says she‘s sad.  She says this does not speak well for the bipartisanship that‘s going to be needed to approach the issue of Iraq.  She says what‘s needed now is multilateralism, engagement of diplomacy, and that‘s where she wants to go with this.

SHUSTER:  Were any of the Democrats who were looking up today and seeing Nancy Pelosi, the head of their caucus, using rather cutesy language, referring to the president, did that strike any of them as strange?

VIQUEIRA:  Again, they‘re on recess.  So I‘m not sure how they reacted.  I think that this is more or less the same thing that Nancy Pelosi has been saying for the last year or so.

Remember, she‘s been calling it a grotesque mistake the entire war, and has for quite some time.  She‘s for calling for withdrawal with John Murtha some two weeks after Murtha laid the groundwork, called for a withdrawal.  Pelosi joined him. 

So it‘s really not that out of character, not that inconsistent with what she‘s been saying for the past several months.

SHUSTER:  One of the issues that is still festering on Capitol Hill for Nancy Pelosi is the issue of who‘s going to be the House Intelligence Committee chairman. 

VIQUEIRA:  Right.

SHUSTER:  She‘s not going to pick Jane Harman.  She‘s bypassing Alcee Hastings, who had his own troubles.

VIQUEIRA:  Right.

SHUSTER:  What‘s going on?  Why has that not been filled?

VIQUEIRA:  Well, Alcee—Alcee Hastings got the word, the bad word, the good word, from Nancy Pelosi face to face today.  They met for about an hour and twenty minutes in her office.  Nancy Pelosi saying to Alcee Hastings, who‘s next in seniority after Jane Harman, that he—sorry—is not going to get the job. 

Unclear how they worked that out at this point.  I would imagine there was some horse trading going on.  We don‘t know at this point.

The net person in line, Sylvestre Reyes, a Democrat from El Paso.

SHUSTER:  That nobody‘s ever heard of.

VIQUEIRA:  Well, he‘s a member of the Hispanic Caucus.  Remember, they‘ve got very diverse—relatively diverse caucus over there.  There are no fewer than four members of the Congressional Black Caucus who are going to be in positions of considerable responsibility, including the whip, the No. 3 and three committee chairmen—four committee chairman are going to have a lot of responsibility.  The Hispanic Caucus wants to be there, too. 

SHUSTER:  Now, this is a time when people are leaving Capitol Hill and moving in.  What‘s the atmosphere like?  I understand that Democrats are going to give some severance package to Republican staffers? 

VIQUEIRA:  Well, you know, I was talking to a gentleman named Mike Capuano.  He‘s a Democrat from Massachusetts.  Nancy Pelosi has made him in charge of the transition.

And there‘s a lot that goes into it.  He spent the last few days looking over this vast amount of real estate on the House side that has suddenly come under Democratic control.

Nancy Pelosi is going to move across Statuary Hall from Tip O‘Neill‘s speaker‘s office into what has traditionally been a Republican speaker‘s office.  That‘s one thing. 

But he does say that, unlike in ‘95 when Republicans took over, they threw a lot of committee staffers, Democratic staffers—remember, there was a huge turnover here.  The ratios are turned on their head.  No severance package.  Capuano says that he‘s going to give some of these Republican staffers a severance package.  He says that makes us better.

SHUSTER:  Real quickly, how much will it be?

VIQUEIRA:  I have no idea.  He was asked whether he was going to have to raise taxes to pay for it. 

SHUSTER:  Yes, the taxpayers don‘t like that (ph).

VIQUEIRA:  I don‘t think it‘s going to be quite that much.

SHUSTER:  The staffers out of a job, and they‘re getting a severance package.

Mike Viqueira, congressional reporter for NBC, thank you.

Up next, the “Washington Post‘s” Robin Wright and “U.S. News‘” David Gergen will be here. 

And later Democratic strategist Joe Trippi and former Bush 41 adviser, Ed Rogers will also join us. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(STOCK REPORT))

SHUSTER:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Ahead of his meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki tomorrow, President Bush blamed al Qaeda for much of the violence in Iraq and stood firm against opening a dialogue with Iran, unless they suspend their nuclear program.  What is the president hoping to get out of his meeting with Maliki?

Robin Wright is the diplomatic correspondent for the “Washington Post”.  And “U.S. News and World Report‘s” David Gergen was a White House adviser to presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton.

Thank you both for joining us.

Robin, I want to start with you.  Jimmy Carter said in his interview with us a short time ago he‘s not at all optimistic about the meeting with Bush and Maliki tomorrow.  Is this really a case of the president being forced into diplomacy, and isn‘t it too late?

ROBIN WRIGHT, “WASHINGTON POST”:  I‘m not sure it‘s too late, but I think yes.  The administration has been forced into crashing on a policy review, trying to reach out to Iraqis to find out what is doable, to try to pressure them to do more. 

We‘re probably more at odds with this new government today than we have been at any time since the election last year. 

SHUSTER:  And David, given that, what do you think the mood of the president is?  I was struck, and a lot of people may be struck, by the idea that the president is out there, before he even meets with Maliki and gets the latest status report, he‘s already saying, “I‘m not going to pull the troops out until the mission is complete.” 

Why would you say that unless you‘ve already made up your mind and tomorrow was just sort of a window dressing sort of meeting?

DAVID GERGEN, “U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT”:  Well, first of all, I agree with everything Robin just said. 

Secondly, it seems to me the president was directing his remarks as much to the Baker Commission as he was anywhere else.  And that is, he‘s already defiantly saying that, in fact, to the Baker Commission: “first of all, I‘m not going to talk directly to Iran nor Syria.  We can let Iraq do that.  Thank you very much.”  Which has, you know, been the heart and soul of a lot of the diplomatic effort that the Baker Commission is supposedly bringing to this, to get the regional players, especially Iran and Syria, into the conversation.

Secondly, the president is saying, you know, at very the time the Baker Commission is meeting in Washington and they‘re arguing about setting a deadline, the president is saying, “Forget the deadline.  I‘m not doing it.  I‘m going to stick to what I want to do.” 

So I think there‘s a lot of defiance coming out of the president on the trip. 

SHUSTER:  Well, I was going to ask what—I mean, what‘s changed?  And what do you think the mood is at the White House right now, given that Robin just said, that the relationship between the Bush administration and this Iraqi government is as bad as it has been?

GERGEN:  Well, I think what‘s changed are the facts on the ground.  This is spiraling down so quickly, I think it‘s breathtaking how rapidly it‘s descending into chaos and—and just almost catastrophe now.

And I think it‘s knocking everyone‘s assumptions for a loop.  Because people thought maybe this was containable, maybe there were ways you could do something here.  But now it‘s changing so rapidly on the ground; the violence is escalating. 

The other thing I think that was surprising for the president today to blame this all on al Qaeda.  Just from his own people out briefing the press, saying, yes, al Qaeda is an important element of this, but we‘ve got an all out—you can call it a civil war.  You can not call it a civil war.  But it sure looks like one, where Shiites are as much involved with this as al Qaeda is, and you‘ve got a struggle for power.  It‘s a struggle about power at this point. 

SHUSTER:  It would also seem to suggest that the president isn‘t sort of keeping track of Middle Eastern history.  For him to come out and suggest, Robin, that this is al Qaeda that‘s fomenting the violence seems to ignore, doesn‘t it, the idea that the Sunnis and the Shiites have been at each other‘s throats for decades? 

WRIGHT:  Well, that‘s not necessarily true in Iraq.  They actually lived side by side, increasingly intermarried.  There had not been the kind of sectarian strife until the ouster of Saddam Hussein and the beginning of this insurgency, which exacerbated the gap between the Sunni and the Shia.  It changed the balance of power inside Iraq. 

I think this is something that there have been—sure, for 14 centuries, there have been differences between the two sects, but I don‘t think it‘s fair to blame it on that.  This is...

SHUSTER:  But do the diplomats believe, as the president does, that al Qaeda is largely responsible for much of the violence?

WRIGHT:  I‘m not sure there are a lot of people inside the U.S.  government who still believe that.  Clearly, the foreign fighters are a powerful component, because they are—have engaged in so many of these utmost devastating suicide bombings.

But the reality is that the sectarian—the new sectarian fighting, the escalating sectarian fighting, is really overwhelming both the insurgency and the foreign fighters so that you have at least three wars going on. 

I talked to a senior member of the Iraqi government, and I asked him. 

I said, “Is this a civil war?”

And he said, “It‘s worse than that.  In a civil war, at least you can just—you can tell who is fighting who, and we can‘t tell that anymore.” 

SHUSTER:  David, how difficult—go ahead.

GERGEN:  The other thing—the other thing, it seems to me, out of what Robin just said, is—is there is a real sense in the Middle East now that we are at a crisis point. 

You know, King Abdullah of Jordan said he wanted—something dramatic had to come out of this meeting with Maliki tomorrow.  It‘s very clear now that the Saudis actually summoned, in effect summoned Dick Cheney there, because they wanted to talk to him in Saudi Arabia about the crisis.

And from all indications today from the president, we don‘t—it does not appear anything dramatic is coming out of this tomorrow.  Indeed, it appears the president is, you know, steady on course and will not change.  And I think the rest of the world is saying, “My God.  The place is burning down.  Are you not going to change course?”

So I think we‘re in a very, very tense moment now. 

SHUSTER:  Robin, talk a little bit about Vice President Cheney‘s visit to Saudi Arabia.  Was this, in fact, a case where Saudi Arabia summoned the vice president?  And what message could the vice president have possibly delivered that would satisfy them?

WRIGHT:  Well, yes, he was summoned by King Abdullah.  We don‘t know the nature of the discussions.  It is quite unusual that, in the aftermath of these kinds of talks, nothing has leaked. 

They did talk about the four flash points in the region: Iraq, Iran‘s nuclear program, Lebanon and the Arab-Israeli conflict.  But there was—there was another component and I have yet to crack what it was. 

But this is clearly a reflection of the deep concern in the United States‘ closest ally in the Middle East and one of the most important in terms of our own energy needs, that they would summon a vice president.  This is, in many ways, unprecedented.

SHUSTER:  Robin and David both, Tom Ricks, Robin, your colleague at the “Washington Post” told us earlier that one of the ideas that is at least being floated at the Pentagon is that the United States will essentially abandon reconciliation and pick a winner, go with the Shiites.  How difficult would it be, Robin, to pull this off diplomatically?

WRIGHT:  I think it would be very difficult, in part because if you go with the majority, who are Shiites, their closest ally in the region is in Iran, and that is just a nonstarter for us.  If you go with the Sunnis, this is going with a minority, but you can‘t ignore them because most of our closest allies, including the Jordanians, the Saudis, the Egyptians and others, are all Sunnis.  So it‘s going to be very hard to pick a winner without serious diplomatic repercussions.

SHUSTER:  And David, given all the rhetoric of the Bush administration talking about democracy and representative representation in Iraq, is it even feasible for the Bush administration to consider seriously a proposal to pick a winner in this battle? 

GERGEN:  No.  No, you know, and the vision of a democracy is gone as well.  The real issue now is, is there a way that we can find an exit out of Iraq that‘s both honorable and tries to minimize the damage? 

Clearly, we are not going to get the goals that we set out to, but are we now going to act in a responsible and mature way to get out of there, or in fact, you know, if we just sort of blindly go forward in the way we‘re going forward now, there is a real possibility of a regional war there that could draw the Iranians in, could draw the Saudis in, as Robin can tell us better than anybody else.

You know, we‘re at a real danger point here now, and it‘s—I hope when the president gets back, there will be an opportunity to get the parties to come together and get a bipartisan agreement here, because we have to do that for starters here at home.  We owe that to the troops.  But whether Iraq is now too late to—I think Iraq may well be too late to salvage, but we have to salvage what we can to make sure we don‘t get a regional conflict, to try and minimize the damage.  So that what is now a failure, as someone has said, does not become a catastrophe.  

SHUSTER:  Certainly is going to be an interesting couple of days and weeks.  David Gergen and Robin Wright, thank you both very much. 

WRIGHT:  Thank you.

GERGEN:  Thank you.

SHUSTER:  Up next, we will talk with former Bush 41 adviser Ed Rogers and Democratic strategist Joe Trippi.  This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  Can Iraq be fixed and who is going to fix it?  Can the president bring peace by vowing to keep U.S.  troops in place?  Can Iran and Syria really make a difference?  And where are the Democrats?  Here to dig into all of it are the HARDBALLers, Republican strategist Ed Rogers and Democratic strategist Joe Trippi.  Thank you both for joining us.

And, Joe, I want to start with you.  One of the Democrats who is speaking out, Nancy Pelosi, in reaction to what the president said today about al Qaeda.  She said, “I feel sad for President Bush.”  Is that sort of cutesy language what Democrats really need? 

JOE TRIPPI, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST:  No, I mean, I think it‘s right.  He‘s the only—may be the last world leader to not think that there‘s a civil war going on in Iraq.  And when you look at what‘s coming out now, the way he‘s talking again still about staying the course, I mean, I think a lot of people were hoping—a lot of Democrats were hoping that he would get the message from the electorate last, you know, couple of Tuesdays ago election, that people wanted real change, and that he would adopt that and realize that Democrats are willing to work with him in a bipartisan way to find a solution.  But staying the course isn‘t it.  And I think David Gergen pointed that out in the last segment.  It‘s getting really bad. 

SHUSTER:  Ed, you don‘t believe that al Qaeda is responsible for most of the violence in Iraq, do you? 

ED ROGERS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST:  Well, I don‘t know if it‘s most, but it‘s certainly a component, and it‘s a meaningful component.  And if the president overstated that, they‘re going to have to tidy up, but I don‘t think we should seize on that.  I mean, more of the same in Iraq is undesirable.  The president has said so, be it sectarian, be it al Qaeda, whatever it is, more of the same is undesirable.  So let‘s give the president a little break and not parse his words too carefully.

SHUSTER:  But this is, generally, a bad time for Republicans, isn‘t it?  I mean, there you have the president, I mean, his own Pentagon contradicts him about al Qaeda.  Republicans, of course, just lost a big election.  The president is essentially being forced into diplomacy, as Robin Wright pointed out in the last segment.  This isn‘t a great time.

ROGERS:  It‘s a dark and stormy time for Republicans, and in politics, you know, bad gets worse.  And so we had a bad election, and for a time things get worse and things look worse and people overreact.  And the Democrats have a honeymoon, and everything they say appears to be magical and refreshing. 

But this too shall pass, and we‘ll get back to equilibrium by the spring.  But for the time, the Democrats have their run.  In politics, you never kick a man when he‘s up.  So just let the Democrats have their run here.

SHUSTER:  Joe.

TRIPPI:  Well, David, one of the things I think is going on is, you know, the Bush administration doesn‘t do diplomacy.  I mean, they haven‘t done diplomacy the entire time that they‘ve been in office, and I think that‘s one of the real problems they are having in terms of switching gears here... 

ROGERS:  Well, they have done some.  They‘ve done some, and maybe they‘re going to do some more.  Maybe the Baker commission is going to give them some more alternatives. 

You know, Strom Thurmond used to say, in politics, you always leave a man a way out.  Maybe their way out is the Baker-Hamilton commission. 

SHUSTER:  All right, well, let‘s make some news tonight.  Should the Bush administration deal with Iran?  Do you believe the Bush administration should deal with Iran?

ROGERS:  Deal with Iran, yes.

SHUSTER:  Talk to Iran.

ROGERS:  Yes, at some appropriate level, yes. 

SHUSTER:  Well, that‘s different than the president‘s view.

ROGERS:  Hold your friends close, your enemies closer.  And so yeah, I think—more of the same hasn‘t worked, hadn‘t worked.  But asking for Iran and Syria to capitulate in a preemptive way to our point of view has not worked.  We have got to do something different. 

TRIPPI:  But Ed, if you really look at what the president is saying, though, it‘s like he‘s almost trying to get in front of the Baker commission or at least tell them where he‘s going, and basically signaling, we are not going to talk to Iran. 

ROGERS:  The president, I‘m sure, is not going to...

TRIPPI:  And we‘re not going to...

ROGERS:  He does not want to negotiate it against himself.  And he doesn‘t want to preemptively capitulate either.  He will open up with Iran and Syria when we got something for it. 

SHUSTER:  But Joe, why don‘t the Democrats—let me stop you here, why don‘t the Democrats get out there—it‘s been a couple of weeks since the election—why don‘t they come out and say, OK, here is our policy.  The troops need to start coming out of Iraq within six months.  You don‘t hear that from the Democrats.  Why—what are they waiting for? 

TRIPPI:  David, I think the Democrats—I mean, most of them are waiting for a bipartisan approach.  They thought the Baker commission would be a great way to start that debate, that... 

(CROSSTALK)

ROGERS:  Their rhetoric is running ahead of reality. 

TRIPPI:  No.  It‘s letting Baker and Hamilton and their commission come forth with their proposals, and then use that in a way with the president to form a bipartisan solution.  And what the president has done, unfortunately, has basically signaled that he‘s not going to go—that it‘s still going his way, not whatever the Baker commission says.  So I think it‘s really about why is the president still just stubbornly staying the course on a war that‘s become—that has failed and now, as David Gergen and others have said, could become more than a failure, but a catastrophe. 

And there‘s no one in the Democratic Party that wants that.  We want a bipartisan solution that gets our troops out safely.

SHUSTER:  And, Ed, why isn‘t the president—why is he delivering these ironclad statements at a time when the Baker-Hamilton Commission is coming forward, Democrats are laying back.  Why doesn‘t the president use more vague language to just protect himself politically, if nothing else?

ROGERS:  Well, maybe he is and maybe we‘re being unfair to some of what he‘s saying.  I mea, the president‘s about to go into a very delicate, a very important political negotiation in Jordan with the Iraqi prime minister, with some other leaders from the Middle East.  The Baker-Hamilton Commission is going to come out and, again, maybe that‘s going to leave a way out or at least some new direction. 

And so it is a very precise, very delicate time, and the president shouldn‘t give anything away in advance of that.  That would be foolish.

SHUSTER:  But we‘re talk about presidential politics when we come back.

Ed Rogers and Joe Trippi are sticking with  us.

And tomorrow on HARDBALL, the “Washington Post‘s” David Ignatius will be here.  He‘s just launched the “Global Power Barometer”, a new online tool that measure which nation‘s ideologies or movements are most powerful, based on how successfully they influence global opinion and events.   You can check it out at blog.washingtonpost.com/postglobal/drg.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

We‘re back with Ed Rogers and Joe Trippi. 

And Joe, I‘ve got to ask you, earlier in this—Jimmy Carter said that he would prefer if Al Gore ran for president again.  I know that you would like Al Gore to run again, so what‘s your reaction?

TRIPPI:  I think Al Gore should run.  I mean, this is going to be a very important election, and when you look at the real issues that are out there, like global warming and this war in Iraq and this economy and the deficits we‘re running, Al Gore has been putting out a lot of bold ideas on a lot of those subjects and doing very well as a non-candidate. 

The real question is, if he does become a candidate, does he start, you know, being the safe, cautious guy that he was when he was a public official. 

ROGERS:  Hey, Joe, make some news tonight. 

TRIPPI:  But otherwise, I think he should get in.

ROGERS:  Make some news tonight.  I know that you‘ve been trying to talk to Al Gore.  Is there any possibility, you think, that he would actually run? 

TRIPPI:  Yes, I think there‘s a chance.  I—every time I‘ve talked to him, he told me no.  But I know that—but I really believe—would like to see him run.  And I‘d like to see Obama run.  I really think we‘ve got some real leaders in the party that need to get out there and provide some leadership, and have a good debate about these issues and get people involved in finding common ground and common solutions. 

SHUSTER:  Given that Iraq is the dominant subject, why not Al Gore?  I mean, do you really think he would be such an easy target for Republicans?

ROGERS:  I love the idea of Jimmy Carter picking the next Democrat nominee.  From one loser to another, from Jimmy Carter to Al Gore.  That suits me.  But having said that, it‘s no secret Republicans are for Hillary.  We want her to run.  She‘s probably the person we have the best chance of beating in a general election. 

But Al Gore is pretty tired.  That‘s no new energy for the party.  He‘s a lousy performer.  I mean he—you know, Al Gore, plus 60 pounds, is he going to do better than he did in ‘04? 

TRIPPI:  And Ed, will all due respect, I mean, there were a lot of Republican losers in this past election.  I mean, a couple of Republicans...

ROGERS:  They weren‘t running for president. 

(CROSSTALK)

ROGERS:  We had a bad election.  We lost a lot.  That‘s over.  Let‘s look at 2008.  It is the Democrats‘ time to win.  Historically, the Democrats—after eight years ago in power, the Democrats are supposed to win.  But they can blow it.  And they can blow it by Kerry.  They can blow it by Clinton.  They can blow it by Gore.  We know what a winning Democratic nominee looks like.  It looks like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.  They don‘t have a Clinton stylistically in this race.

SHUSTER:  Joe?

TRIPPI:  Well, there‘s a lot.  Look, there‘s very strong field.  John Edwards in this field.  Look, I think when you look at what‘s going on, the Democrats are in good stead for 2008.  Any one of the people that you mentioned or Ed‘s mentioned or that we talked about tonight can win against the Republicans.

And I agree with Ed on one thing.  Usually what‘s supposed to happen in politics happens, and you don‘t usually have a two-term president being followed by a member of his own party...

ROGERS:  That‘s true.

TRIPPI: ... and particularly—unless it‘s somebody very popular, like a Reagan presidency, which got us George Bush I. 

ROGERS:  A third term.

TRIPPI:  A third term. 

It‘s not likely that the Republicans are going to pull this off, given George Bush‘s unpopular status right now, the failure in Iraq, particularly if he keeps doing what he‘s doing and staying the course, and you have people like John McCain the only way out is to put more troops in there, which is... 

ROGERS:  The Democrats are so arrogant.  They...

TRIPPI:  ... this is why I think it‘s going to be a problem for them.

ROGERS:  The Democrats never respect the legitimacy of their defeat.  So when they lose an election, they always think it‘s because the other side cheated or some happened, never about their agenda.  This time, they are overestimating the significance of their victory.  They won in ‘06 because they did nothing, not because they did something.  Their agenda is a loser, and that‘ll come through in ‘08 if they‘re not careful. 

SHUSTER:  Ed, Barack Obama‘s going up to New Hampshire.  He‘s somebody I mentioned Republicans should be careful of.  He‘s a great speaker...

ROGERS:  Please, help me, David.  Somebody that underestimates Barack Hussein Obama.  Please.  I mean, this man is a blank canvas where people project their desires and their ideal candidate because nobody knows anything about him.  And he has a deep voice...

TRIPPI:  Have you ever heard him speak?

(CROSSTALK)

ROGERS:   He has a deep voice, he gives a good presentation.  Put me down as somebody that counts him out.

(CROSSTALK)

SHUSTER:  Thank you Ed and Joe Trippi.  Always very interesting. 

We‘ll have you both back. 

Play HARDBALL with us again Wednesday.  We‘ll have much more on President Bush‘s meeting with Iraq‘s prime minister.

Right now, it‘s time for Tucker. 

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

END   

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