updated 11/30/2006 11:19:18 AM ET 2006-11-30T16:19:18

Guests: Feisal Istrabadi, Richard Haass, David Satterfield, Chris Carney, Eugene Robinson, Michael Smerconish, Matthew Dowd, Steve McMahon

DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC HOST:  Tonight, President Bush‘s meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki in Jordan is postponed.  What does this mean to the U.S. and our troops in Iraq?  Let‘s play HARDBALL.

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

With Iraq in chaos, with support for the war all but gone, President Bush is in the Middle East tonight to try to fix a failing war and a broken company.  The president was supposed to meet with Prime Minister Maliki today, but that meeting was postponed until Thursday. 

This comes on the heels of a new memo that surfaced, written by national security adviser Stephen Hadley.  The memo raises doubts over Maliki‘s ability to lead. 

Meanwhile, President Bush continues to blame al Qaeda for the surge of sectarian violence in Iraq.  Is the president right, or is the ongoing chaos and mayhem the result of something deeper and more widespread?  Former Secretary of State Colin Powell said today Iraq is in a civil war.

But whatever President Bush wants to call it, will he reach out to U.S. enemies like Iran and Syria now that his own nominee for defense secretary, Robert Gates, says he should?  And what would Iran and Syria help?  We begin tonight NBC White House correspondent Kelly O‘Donnell, who‘s traveling with the president in Jordan. 

Kelly, the summit has been delayed.  What happened? 

KELLY O‘DONNELL, NBC NEWS WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT:  Well, good evening, David.

What we are learning from White House officials is that the president was onboard Air Force One en route to Jordan when he received a phone call from the U.S. ambassador to Iraq who told him that the meeting would not happen. 

So when the president arrived here, he did meet with the king of Jordan, his host for the couple of days that he‘s here, and we saw pictures of the two getting together.  They had dinner and now the president has now called it a night. 

Now, Prime Minister Maliki was not a part of any of these planned sessions, and the White House is trying to explain how this all happened.  They say it was not a snub.  They say it was not in response to that memo you mentioned that is somewhat critical of the Maliki government and lays out some of the concerns that the president‘s national security advisor has about him. 

But what does it all mean?  Now, advisors say it will go forward tomorrow, there will be an opportunity for the two leaders to talk face to face.  But after so much anticipation to not have this go forward when it was on the schedule—and it is unusual for the Bush White House to cancel something like this, to not go forward with planned events. 

So did Maliki cancel it?  The White House says it was a joint decision between the Jordanian delegation and the Iraqi delegation, even though there are some published reports that say that Prime Minister Maliki did not want to participate if the issue of Israel and Palestine was a part of the conversation.  And that‘s something King Abdullah has been wanting to talk about. 

So the White House is not giving us all of the detail on this, except to say that the president was alerted on his way here, and they‘re trying to still put the best face on this and say that it will happen tomorrow. 

SHUSTER:  But, Kelly, reading the body language on this, was the White House, in fact, disappointed that this summit did not start the way that they had planned? 

O‘DONNELL:  Hard to tell, because we are talking to a number of senior officials who are in connection with the president today or being able to judge his body language, and they‘re being very defensive about this, insisting that it was not disrespect to the president, that in fact, the king and the prime minister had a very good and productive meeting. 

They claimed that was enough for today, that the king is not available tomorrow so they were trying to maximize the schedule.  There were a lot of explanations being floated, and they are not giving any hint that this is a problem. 

When reporters repeatedly pressed them about the perception that it looks like Maliki was a no show, deliberately perhaps insulting the president or trying to send a message to the president, they pushed back on that and they really disputed it and said that that‘s just not their understanding of it, and that the three leaders—the king, the president and the prime minister—don‘t see this as a problem.  That‘s the White House view right now. 

SHUSTER:  OK.  NBC‘s Kelly O‘Donnell traveling in Jordan.  Kelly, thank you very much.

We go now to Iraq‘s deputy permanent representative to the U.N., Feisal Istrabadi.

Mr. Ambassador, welcome.

FEISAL ISTRABADI, IRAQI DEP. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.:  Thank you. 

Pleasure to be with you.

SHUSTER:  President Bush traveled a long distance to meet today with both Jordan‘s King Abdullah and Iraq‘s prime minister.  The meeting didn‘t happen.  Why not? 

ISTRABADI:  I don‘t know.  I mean, I don‘t have any particular information more than you do, sitting here, you know, however many thousand miles away.  I don‘t think this is that big a deal.  I think that these are two leaders who have met many times.  They speak often and they are going to meet tomorrow.  I think that it was always intended that they would meet today and tomorrow, so as it is, they will meet tomorrow.  I really wouldn‘t read too much into this.

SHUSTER:  I‘m sure you read the same memo that everybody else read this morning when they woke up, and that is a memo that essentially criticized your prime minister.  That was not something that you welcomed, was it? 

ISTRABADI:  Well, it‘s certainly not helpful coming at this time, but the fact of the matter is that this government enjoys broad support in Parliament of a coalition of parties in what is, in fact, a national unity government.  And so this prime minister has a mandate to govern in Iraq.  He is democratically elected and that really, in the end, is what matters, that and getting the handle on the violence, of course. 

SHUSTER:  But Mr. Ambassador, but do you believe that he does have control over some of the militias that are causing this trouble in Baghdad?  Do you really believe that?

ISTRABADI:  He doesn‘t have control over the militias that are causing trouble in Baghdad, no.  But what we are attempting to do in cooperation with our multinational forces—with our allies in the multinational forces, is to assert the authority of the government over those militias. 

I‘m not going to argue with you that that has, in fact, occurred as of this date.  Obviously, it hasn‘t, but it is essential for us to do that and the point of these meetings tomorrow is to continue a common strategy to get that done. 

SHUSTER:  Well, let‘s be clear.  Let‘s be clear here.  What is it that the United States could do for Iraq that would improve the situation there?  

ISTRABADI:  Well, I mean, I‘m not a security expert and so I can‘t get into sort of operational—suggestions for operational details.  That‘s not what I do, but I can tell you that what is essential for us is to know that we have—and in fact, we do know that we have a reliable partner and ally in the United States, which is with us as we attempt to assert the authority of this government.  It is essential for us to disarm these militias.  The prime minister has made that very clear.  I think the president agrees.

SHUSTER:  But, Mr. Ambassador, with all due respect, I mean, you have known.  The Iraqi government has known that for the past three years, and since the government was formed a year ago, you‘ve had that support and the situation has gotten worse.  So what specifically should the United States do?  The polling suggests that 70 percent of Iraqis want the United States to just get out.  Would that be wise? 

ISTRABADI:  Well, first of all, three years ago, we didn‘t have a government.  And this government was not founded a year ago and, with all respect—you know, I appreciate that this is a rough and tumble show, but we need to get the facts straight.  This government was formed at the end of May, beginning of June. 

SHUSTER:  Right, but you‘ve had several elections over the past several years.

ISTRABADI:  And three years ago, we were under the formal occupation and rule by Ambassador Bremer.

SHUSTER:  Well, let‘s look forward, Mr. Ambassador.

ISTRABADI:  OK.

SHUSTER:  How long do you want the United States, the American people to wait for the Iraqi government to either be able to assert control or take responsibility?

ISTRABADI:  Well, I think that the United States‘ role has to be to support us as we attempt to assert control over militia groups and insurgents who are attempting to disrupt the Democratic project. 

If this project is seen is a failure, if the United States withdraws prematurely, two things will happen.  Number one, Iraq will suffer a catastrophic decline.  If you think this is chaos now, watch to see what happens when the United States, if the United States, precipitously withdraws.  That will make what is happening now in Iraq look like a tea party. 

You will then be sending, secondly, a message to all groups who oppose the reestablishment of some sense of decency, normalcy and democratic governance in Iraq that they have obtained a victory over those forces that have promoted democracy in the Middle East in the past several years.

Now, this is something that will be seen as a victory for al Qaeda and others in the area that have hostile intentions, not only with respect to the United States, but with respect to all of us who want to see a Democratic and decent future in the Middle East. 

SHUSTER:  Ambassador, thank you very much for joining us.  We appreciate it.

ISTRABADI:  My pleasure.  Thank you.

SHUSTER:  Richard Haass is the president of the Council on Foreign Relations.  He was director of policy planning for the State Department, and a principal advisor to Colin Powell when he was secretary of state.  He joins us now.

Mr. Haass, what is your reaction to the ambassador? 

RICHARD HAASS, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS:  I think the ambassador is right about one thing, that the fact that the meeting did not take place in and of itself isn‘t that important.  It does, though, show the difficulty the Iraqi leader is in. 

He‘s under tremendous pressure at home for being too close to the Americans.  At the same time, he‘s obviously reading in the “New York Times” and elsewhere the fact that the United States is extraordinarily unhappy with him.  So he‘s in, again, an extraordinarily difficult position.

And secondly, when you hear the Iraqi ambassador talk, you are beginning to get a sense now of the growing mistrust between the two sides.  On one hand, you have got an American administration that sees the current Iraqi prime minister as either unable or unwilling or both to do what is needed to make Iraq a serious partner. 

And you now how the Iraqis, obviously, voicing concerns about what they would see as a premature American withdrawal from their country, leaving them to their fate.  This is not the sort of situation you want to see. 

SHUSTER:  But given that there‘s a growing distrust, as you said, and given that the fact that the Iraqi government seems to be unraveling, is there anything that the Bush administration could say in the meetings tomorrow that would change things? 

HAASS:  Well, if by change you mean is there anything we could do to turn Iraq into a successful, thriving, democracy, I think the short answer is no.  If you‘re asking is there anything we can do to reverse the deterioration, the unraveling of the situation, the answer is maybe.  And that‘s where I think you‘ll see the administration look at some things, possibly with a greater emphasis on advising and training, you‘ll see one last push to try to get the Iraqis to form a broader-based government and so forth. 

But if you asking me, am I optimistic this is going to end happily, again, the answer is no. 

SHUSTER:  But what about one of the proposals that‘s now being floated at the Pentagon.  A Pentagon official‘s apparently considering the idea—at least Pentagon officials are considering the idea that instead of aiming for reconciliation, the United States ought to pick a winner and align ourselves and throw our full weight behind the Shiites and al-Sadr. 

Is that a wise idea?

HAASS:  That is one of the worst ideas I‘ve heard in a long time, and there have been a lot of bad ideas out there.  If we were to do that, just think what would happen.  You would alienate not just the Sunnis, say eight or nine million in Iraq who would fight to the death, but all the surrounding countries, or many of the surrounding countries, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which are Sunni countries who would then be sending volunteers into Iraq to make sure that their Sunni kith and kin did not lose.  That seems to me a prescription not simply for a civil war, but for a regional war. 

SHUSTER:  Is there any validity to the idea that Maliki can still bring this government under control, can still begin them together?  That if he gets certain promises from the president, can go back to Baghdad, manage to keep his government together?  Maybe he can just wait this out? 

HAASS:  I‘m skeptical.  Even if he keeps the government together, I don‘t think he can translate that into doing what it is we want, to have an effective security situation, to come up with a political and economic arrangement that would essentially leave most Iraqis satisfied.  So keeping the government together is not an end in itself. 

The real question is whether through this or some alternative government, he could put together an Iraqi leadership that can essentially do what needs doing, particularly on the security front, stare down or disarm the militias.  And, frankly, I just don‘t see that happening. 

SHUSTER:  Colin Powell said today in Dubai in a speech that Iraq is in a civil war.  How much longer do you think that President Bush can continue to deny Iraq is in a civil war?  Or does that not matter at all? 

HAASS:  I think it matters a lot.  It‘s not simply a semantic issue.  If Iraq is seen as in a civil war by the administration, it has all sorts of policy consequences, and it will more than anything accelerate tremendously the drive or the push to get U.S. forces largely out of Iraq.  It‘s not clear U.S. forces have any useful role if, in fact, you think there‘s a civil war.  This is actually a distinction with a difference. 

That said, I tend to agree with my former boss.  It may not be an all-out civil war, but it sure looks like one.  And I would say that Iraq right now is something of a cross or a blend between a civil war and a failed state.  What you do not have is effective central authority.  You have the growing war between and among militias. 

SHUSTER:  The Baker-Hamilton exhibitions is supposed to come out with its recommendations next week.  One of the recommendations that has been leaked out is that the United States needs to talk to Syria and Iran.  What would that cost the United States?  What would we give up, as far as dealing with Iran?

HAASS:  Well, simply to talk with them, I think we give up nothing.  The last time I checked, diplomacy is not a form of endorsement.  It‘s not a favor we do for other countries.  It‘s simply one of the instruments of national security, if you will.  It‘s a favor we do for ourselves.  So I think we should talk. 

I do think we should set up some sort of a standing regional forum.  I can‘t sit here and tell you it‘s going to succeed, but I do think that both Iran and Syria have a stake in Iraq not becoming a failed state.  They don‘t want to see it split up.  They don‘t want to see massive refugee flows.  They don‘t want to be drawn into an all-out war.  So I think there‘s a decent chance that a regional conference could produce some good. 

SHUSTER:  OK.  Richard Haass from the Council on Foreign Relations, thanks for joining us.

HAASS:  Thank you.

SHUSTER:  When we return, we will hear from the top adviser on Iraq, the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. 

And coming up later, Congressman-elect Chris Carney, Pennsylvania.  He worked in the Pentagon in the lead-up to the Iraq War.  Now that Carney is in Congress, what‘s he going to do about Iraq?

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

How will this leaked Hadley memo affect relations between President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki when they meet tomorrow?  Does the Bush administration have confidence in the Maliki government?  And with the Baker commission set to release its findings on Iraq next week, would the Bush administration consider opening a dialogue with Iran?

Ambassador Satterfield is the senior adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and he‘s also the coordinator for Iraq. 

Thanks for being with us.

AMB. DAVID SATTERFIELD, SR. ADVISER ON IRAQ TO SECY. RICE:  Happy to be here.

SHUSTER:  Ambassador Satterfield, this was a snub today, wasn‘t it? 

When the Iraqis would not meet with President Bush today in Jordan?

SATTERFIELD:  Well, the trilateral meeting that was planned for this evening was a social call between the king, the president and the prime minister.  The prime minister had had a very good session with King Abdullah earlier in the day.  The decision was made that there was no need for this essentially courtesy meeting.  The real meeting will be tomorrow morning with the president. 

SHUSTER:  But courtesy meeting or not, it can still be a snub, even if it‘s just drinks and dinner.

SATTERFIELD:  We don‘t see it that way, and that‘s certainly not the way the president views it.

SHUSTER:  OK.  I want to ask you about Colin Powell.  Colin Powell gave a speech today in Dubai, and he said that Iraq is in a civil war.  What is the position of the current Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice?

SATTERFIELD:  The situation in Iraq is what it is.  It is a threatening situation in which violence under a sectarian label is increasingly taking hold of the people, of the government.  It has to be stopped.  It has to be dealt with.  And labels are less important than the reality of this violence and how to deal with it.  That‘s what the president is going to be discussing with the prime minister tomorrow. 

SHUSTER:  But Mr. Ambassador, a lot of Republicans are suggesting that when the president does not accept a particular label, in this case civil war, that he‘s not in line with reality in Iraq.  So was the former Secretary of State Colin Powell—was he wrong when he called this a civil war? 

SATTERFIELD:  We are trying to deal with the situation as we find it.  We are trying to support the government of Prime Minister Maliki in his efforts to build capable Iraqi security forces, to get a handle on the sectarian violence which is very real, very threatening.  It‘s killing Iraqis.  We want to help the Iraqi government bring it to a close.  That‘s where our focus lies. 

SHUSTER:  Mr. Ambassador, President Bush said that much of the violence being perpetrated in Iraq is a result of al Qaeda.  Is that the position of the State Department? 

SATTERFIELD:  Al Qaeda has been responsible for prompting and sustaining sectarian violence over course of the past year.  It‘s a campaign which is brutal, which is bloody.  It‘s a campaign that has to be brought to a close.

SHUSTER:  But back to my question, are they responsible for much of the violence?  I‘m not saying they‘re responsible for no violence.  Are they responsible, as the president said, for much of the violence?

SATTERFIELD:  Al Qaeda is certainly responsible for prompting the outbreak of sectarian killings, forced movement of populations that has begun over the course of the last nine months.  Yes. 

SHUSTER:  Do you believe that Prime Minister Maliki is capable of holding his government together, cracking down on the militias in Baghdad, essentially getting them to back off?

SATTERFIELD:  We believe Prime Minister Maliki is capable on leading on all of those issues.  That‘s what he‘s pledged to do to his own people.  That‘s what he‘s told the president.  The president is going to be talking with the prime minister tomorrow on what the prime minister needs in order to carry out those steps most effectively, what capacities he requires. 

SHUSTER:  But how much longer should the American people wait?  I mean, it‘s been several years.  How much longer should the American wait for Maliki to demonstrate or for the Iraqis to demonstrate that they have things under control, or at least that they are headed in that direction?

SATTERFIELD:  The stakes in Iraq are enormously high: the stakes of success and the stakes of failure for the American people, for the people of the world. 

Obviously, we want to see more progress made.  The president has made clear that we‘re not happy with the slow progress on reconciliation or governance on addressing the security situation.  We‘re talking with the prime minister on how to accelerate those processes now. 

SHUSTER:  I know, but back to my question.  How long should the American people wait?  How long should Maliki be given to try to at least change things to the point that, instead of the violence getting worse, the violence is decreasing?  How long?

SATTERFIELD:  Action—action needs to be taken for the sake of the Iraqi people, for the sake of the American people, as rapidly as possible. 

SHUSTER:  So in other words, the Bush administration is not willing to give Maliki any sort of timetable, saying you have “X” amount of time to change course, as far as making the violence decrease?  There‘s no timetable; there‘s going to be—there‘s going to be no statement by the president to Maliki that he has three months, six months, nothing?

SATTERFIELD:  The prime minister is well aware he is a limited amount of time in which to act, not based upon a U.S. calendar or U.S. timetable but upon realities on the ground in Iraq in Baghdad. 

SHUSTER:  Mr. Ambassador, regarding diplomacy, President Bush was asked at a news conference just the other week about possibility of talking with Iran.  He said no.  The incoming defense secretary, who still has to be confirmed, Robert Gates, says that yes, we should be talking with Iran.  What is the position of the State Department?

SATTERFIELD:  We advocate an approach, we the administration, which deals with the threat posed to the region, to Iraq, to the international community, by Iran in a comprehensive fashion. 

Can diplomacy be an element of that approach?  Yes, it can; but it does not stand on its own.  There are major steps which Iran needs to take.  They‘re well aware of what they are on the nuclear issue, with respect to their interference in Iraq.  We‘re waiting for them to take the move.

SHUSTER:  Right, but that‘s what President Bush said and again, Robert Gates is saying that the United States needs to engage in dialogue.  Yes or no: should the United States engage in dialogue with Iran?

SATTERFIELD:  Dialogue for its own sake, whether with Iran, Syria or any other country, achieves very little.  Dialogue that is part of a carefully constructed package of steps, a comprehensive strategy, can have value. 

SHUSTER:  Mr. Ambassador, you‘re frustrated; everybody is frustrated with the situation in Iraq.  How do you see this ending?

SATTERFIELD:  We see it ending in a success for the Iraqi people, a success for the region, for the United States and for the world in a self-sustaining, self-defending Iraq that‘s an ally in the war against terror.  That‘s how it needs to end.

SHUSTER:  Well, I think everybody would agree, that‘s how it needs to end.  But I think the problem, Mr. Ambassador, is that nobody right now can see how we‘re going to get to that point. 

But in any case, thank you, Ambassador David Satterfield.

Up next, Chris Carney consulted the Pentagon in the lead-up to the Iraq war.  Now he‘s one of the new members of Congress.  What‘s his advice now?

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

President Bush is in the Middle East tonight trying to figure out a way to fix a broken country.  The Baker Commission will report its recommendations next Wednesday and Democrats seem to be waiting until then before starting talks at the White House. 

Can Democrats get the Bush administration to start bringing home the troops?

Chris Carney is a newly elected congressman from Pennsylvania and he served as a Pentagon intelligence analyst in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion.

Thank you, Congressman-elect.

CHRIS CARNEY (D), CONGRESSMAN-ELECT FROM PENNSYLVANIA:  Thank you.

SHUSTER:  First question, you heard the Ambassador Satterfield there.  He said the Bush administration is not going to—well, he declined to say whether the Bush administration is going to give any sort of timetable to Maliki, any sort of threats.  Do you think that‘s wise?

CARNEY:  I think it is at this point.  I have not called for a timetable myself.  I did hear General Casey a couple of weeks ago, when he was talking about the insurgency, saying that it would take 12-24 months to train up the Iraqis to take care of the situation themselves.  That‘s what I advocate, is that the Iraqis start to take control of their own destiny here.

SHUSTER:  Mr. Carney, the Pentagon is going to be sending more troops into Baghdad.  We‘re told that it‘s going to amount to about 3,500 troops.  Is that a wise move?

CARNEY:  Thirty-five hundred, give or take, is not going to make a huge difference.  I don‘t know that it‘s wise or not, frankly.  I don‘t think it is.

SHUSTER:  So what should Democrats be advocating, then?

CARNEY:  Well, we should be advocating, honestly, that the Iraqis take over for themselves, that we, the United States, train the Iraqis and make sure that they can take care of their own security situation. 

And we also need to advocate that the administration start talking in truthful terms about how to characterize this insurgency.  It is a civil war. 

SHUSTER:  But on the first point—I was going to say, but on your first point—on your first point, how do we get there?  I mean, how—should the Democrats stand united behind a timetable and say, “OK, Iraqis, you have six months to improve the situation or else we‘re leaving”?  What‘s wrong with that? 

CARNEY:  Well, I mean, you can take a knee and run out the clock in that case.  I think we need to work with the Iraqis to make sure that they are able to take care of themselves, that they are able to manage the security situation and bring the insurgency under control. 

SHUSTER:  But how do you convince the Iraqis? I mean, you‘re sort of an outlier as far as Democrats are concerned, because it sounds like you don‘t like the idea of having some sort of timetable or starting to pull out the troops.  But how do you convince the Iraqis that they need to be more aggressive as far as taking responsibility for the situation themselves?

CARNEY:  Well, I‘m not opposed to a timetable.  I‘m just not at that point yet where I think we need to do it.  Mr. Maliki understands that he has a lot of stake here for himself.  And if we can keep the pressure on, to make sure, through diplomatic efforts, that he starts bringing the insurgency under control, I think we can get there. 

If at some point, we see no progress, then a timetable, I think, must be called for. 

SHUSTER:  Congressman-elect Carney, what is the one thing that you think the Democratic Party, the new Democrats who are coming, such as yourselves, are going to be in the majority in January, what‘s the No. 1 thing Democrats can do to either end this war or have a successful completion to what the United States has already done?

CARNEY:  Well, we need to ask the tough questions of the administration.  You know, we have a number of elected officials, new members coming in who have military backgrounds.  And we know the questions to ask the administration.  And that‘s what we‘re going to do.

Once we have an honest dialogue and debate in this country, then we can start coming to solutions in Iraq. 

SHUSTER:  A lot of your colleagues, though, are suggesting that some of the questions ought to be asked about the prewar intelligence, and you were working with Doug Feith. 

Given that your knowledge of what was going on, in your collection of intelligence, do you think that there were mistakes?  And do you think that perhaps even you, yourself, or Doug Feith should be part of hearings in January? 

CARNEY:  We made decisions based on the intelligence at hand, based on the best information available at the time.  I saw a lot of intelligence, basically 10 years worth, watching the relationship of al Qaeda and its state sponsors across the spectrum, not just Iraq. 

Were mistakes made?  Mistakes were always made, but mistakes were made

by everyone. 

SHUSTER:  Congressman Carney, one more question for you, and that is what‘s the first thing you think Democrats ought to be doing when they get back in January?  Should it be Iraq?  Should it be something like minimum wage?  Should it be economic issues?  What‘s your opinion?

CARNEY:  I think domestic issues: minimum wage, economic issues, jobs, job creation, health care, certainly are things we need to start working on right away.  You know, certainly, the war is important.  It will always be there, but we have to start focusing on the issues that matter to the American public, as well. 

SHUSTER:  We‘ll see how you do.  Thank you, Congressman-elect Chris Carney.

CARNEY:  Thank you.

SHUSTER:  Up next, we will talk about the fight over the war and what Congress and the president will do about it with the “Washington Post‘s” Eugene Robinson and Philadelphia radio host Michael Smerconish.

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(STOCK REPORT)

SHUSTER:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

The scheduled meeting between Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and President Bush did not take place tonight, but it is a go for tomorrow. 

NBC‘s David Gregory interviewed U.S. ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad in Amman, Jordan, today.  Let‘s take a look at part of that exchange.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID GREGORY, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  What is the prime minister specifically have to do to turn things around?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO IRAQ:  Well, he has to deal with the militia issue.  He says that there shouldn‘t be a militia as well as a government at the same time.  That cannot be.  The militias have to be brought under control.  He needs to develop a practical plan: when, what will be done. 

Second, he has an ambitious plan for reconciliation, to bring those who are outside the political process into the political process, to reduce the sources of violence, in other words.  And he needs to deliver on the plan and to implement the plan.

But I think he‘s working hard.  He‘s got a difficult situation.  I mean, I don‘t want to sugarcoat the situation.  You know it‘s a very hard situation that he has to deal with.  There are terrorists.  There are sectarian groups involved in violence against each other.  There are neighbors that are interfering in the affairs of Iraq to make his life difficult, because they do not want Iraqi to succeed.  They understand that this is bigger in Iraq, what‘s happening in that country. 

So he has got a lot to do, and we want to help him.  The president will discuss what it is that we can do in terms of changing our own tactics and strategy to be transferring more capability of the forces and more responsibility to him to deal with the situation. 

GREGORY:  Are more U.S. troops going to go into Baghdad?

KHALILZAD:  That is a discussion that General Casey is having with the Iraqis.  Whether some other forces from other parts of Iraq, additional coalition forces from the other parts of Iraq, can be brought into Baghdad.  This is what General Casey is focusing on and is considering and discussing with the prime minister. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SHUSTER:  That was NBC‘s David Gregory with U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad.  You can watch more of that interview tonight on “NBC Nightly News”.

We‘re joined here by “Washington Post” columnist Eugene Robinson and radio talk show host Michael Smerconish.  Thank you both.

Eugene, I want to ask you first your reaction to the ambassador there. 

EUGENE ROBINSON, COLUMNIST, “WASHINGTON POST”:  Well, you know, Ambassador Khalilzad is a really smart guy who speaks the language, who knows the country.  I think he understates the challenges that face Prime Minister Maliki.  I mean, he‘s in a really, really tough situation. 

I don‘t think we‘re entirely sure of Maliki‘s motives, as the leaked memo that the “New York Times” got this morning kind of indicates.  I mean, he—you know, in some ways, seems to be playing much more to the Shiite side than the Sunni side, and so we wonder about that. 

But I think it understates the difficult he‘s—he would have in trying to establish some sort of order.  Just, you know, get rid of the militias.  That‘s easier said than done. 

SHUSTER:  And Michael Smerconish, any time you hear somebody describing somebody else as working hard, doesn‘t that sort of signal that there‘s an elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about?

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST:  Well, David, I‘m willing to talk about it.

SHUSTER:  OK.

SMERCONISH:  I think that this—I think that this memo that has us all captivated was deliberately leaked.  In other words, for a long time, a lot of folks like me have been saying it‘s time to light a fire under the fanny of the Iraqis and let them know sooner or later they‘ve got to stand on their own two feet.  And hopefully, it will be sooner than later.

And the timing of this is such that, to me, it suggests that the Bush administration, you know, took advantage of the fact—no disrespect to Eugene—but that the “Washington Post” and “The New York Times” are always chomping at the bit to run with memos of classified information. 

And this time the administration played “The New York Times”.  It gives credibility to this memo it.  Wouldn‘t surprise me if it were deliberately written so that Maliki would be embarrassed. 

SHUSTER:  But doesn‘t that misread—but doesn‘t that misread the Middle East, where protocol is taken very seriously?  And how does it help the United States if you anger the Iraqi prime minister.  He causes—for whatever reason—maybe they can‘t say—they didn‘t want to meet with the king of Jordan.

But surely, this was a snub.  How does it help things to anger the Iraqi prime minister when we‘re trying to get them to take more responsibility?

SMERCONISH:  Man, this is Plan B, because Plan A, diplomacy and whatever else we‘ve being so far, it isn‘t working.  An so consequently, what, tonight, there‘s a meeting that‘s not going to take place?  Big deal.  They‘re playing a little bit of hardball back.  I think it sets the stage beautifully tomorrow for the president to walk in there and to say, you know, we‘re apologetic for those things that you may have read. 

But they‘ve been delivered a message now.  And the message is, the political heat‘s been turned up at home, here‘s a document that lays out what we think your deficiencies are, and it is time for you to stand on your own two feet. 

ROBINSON:  You know, Michael, I don‘t really disagree with that premise, with your scenario.  I mean, I think it was entirely possible that the memo was deliberately leaked. 

My question is, what good does kind of haranguing the Iraqi government really do, given what we know about its capabilities?  It‘s just not able to establish the writ of law in Baghdad, to say nothing of Iraq in general.

SMERCONISH:  Eugene, when I was in the CentCom region three weeks ago, one of the things that I often heard from our troops who are involved with training or trying to train the Iraqi troops is that they‘re having difficulty getting the Iraqis to focus on tomorrow.  And I say that both figuratively and literally, that, in other words, they were trying to do long range planning, and that the response would come back from the Iraqi troops—and I can‘t pronounce the world—but they would say, essentially, if it‘s God‘s will. 

ROBINSON:  If it‘s God‘s will...

(CROSSTALK)

SMERCONISH:  But that‘s where we‘ll be in six months.  This is an effort for us to say, hey guys, it‘s here, it‘s now, take control. 

SHUSTER:  But it‘s that what the United States needs to be doing, why on earth is the United States using the “New York Times”?  Why doesn‘t the president, the vice president, the secretary of state say directly to the Iraqis, you‘ve got six months.  You‘ve got six months to turn this around or at least to change the direction and make things get better instead of worse.  Why use the “New York Times” story to try to do that?

SMERCONISH:  Too much—too much about face, too much sort of putting your tail between your legs for this administration.  Look, this is an administration—you remember the exchange, David, where the president was asked to identify a mistake that he‘d made in the past, and he had a response that was almost like Eisenhower talking about Nixon, you know, if you give me a minute, I might think of one.  They‘ve never been willing to admit their own foibles and defeats. 

So, for the administration to now honor what you‘re saying is a time line or an exit strategy that they‘re going to articulate publicly, they‘re not willing to do it.  I wish they would. 

So instead what we‘ve got, if you buy into my scenario, is through the back door, we‘re going to let Maliki know our patience has run out. 

SHUSTER:  Eugene, where do we go from here? 

ROBINSON:  I don‘t know where we go from here.  Nobody knows where we go from here.  One interesting thing that‘s happened here in Washington is, you know, remember a month or so ago when there was a partisan divide on Iraq?  there really doesn‘t seem to be one anymore, not like there was. 

I mean, I talked to Mitch McConnell, the incoming minority leader in the Senate, yesterday.  And he made clear, you know, he not calling for a pull-out, but he said, you know, we Republicans heard what the voters said.  And they said that what we‘re doing in Iraq right now isn‘t working and there has to be a new policy. 

So, you know, that‘s one thing that‘s different.  There‘s going to be more pressure, I think, not an immediate call for a pull-out from Congress, but more pressure on Capitol Hill and around Washington for a real change in policy, something substantive.

SHUSTER:  Michael Smerconish, when the Baker-Hamilton commission comes out next week and says the United States ought to start a dialogue with Iran, will you support that? 

SMERCONISH:  I support it today.  I don‘t need the Baker commission to give me cover, because I‘m not running for anything.  I think we should talk to everybody.  I‘ve never understood this mindset that says, no we‘re not going to have a conversation or dialogue with you.  I have conversations with my enemies here in Philadelphia every day.  They call me on the telephone on my program.  And this administration should be doing the same thing. 

SHUSTER:  It‘s a very different position that you have than President Bush has.  But in any case, thank you, Eugene Robinson and Michael Smerconish.

Up next, HARDBALLers Steve McMahon and Matt Dowd will be here.

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

What will happen with Iraq?  Is there something that President Bush and the Democratic Congress can make happen?  Or will Iraqis themselves make it happen once we get out of there? 

Steve McMahon is a Democratic strategist and Matt Dowd served as chief strategist for the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2004.  He‘s a co-founder of HOTSOUP.com, MSNBC‘s online community partner. 

And therefore, Matt, we‘re going to begin with you. 

Colin Powell said today that Iraq is a civil war.  You don‘t disagree with that, do you? 

MATTHEW DOWD, HOTSOUP.COM:  Well, it‘s a messy situation.  I don‘t think there‘s anybody who‘s going to doubt that.  How you define it, with Iraqis are fighting Iraqis, I‘ll leave that to other people to define.  But it‘s a messy, complicated situation right now. 

SHUSTER:  But Matt, isn‘t it important for the president to recognize reality and the minds of so many Americans, who see it ad a civil war?  Now Colin Powell sees it as a civil war.

DOWD:  Well, I think that, you know, it‘s up to the president to how

he‘s going to define that.  I think he does recognize the situation is that

is imperfect at best.  And as I said, it‘s the Iraqis fighting Iraqis to a large degree.  The American troops are there to try to provide some sense of order.  Whether or not he defines it as a civil, I think that‘s totally up to him.  But I think he understands the reality of the situation. 

SHUSTER:  Steve McMahon, does he understand the realities? 

STEVE MCMAHON, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST:  Well, it‘s not clear to me that he got the message from the election.  I mean, Mitch McConnell clearly got the message.  I think Republicans on the Hill, anybody who has to run for reelection understands what the American people said.

And just yesterday, the president said, that one thing I‘m not going to do, I‘m not going to take the troops off the battlefield.  And that‘s exactly what most Americans want to do.  I think Matt is being generous and kind to his former client, and I understand why he‘s doing it.

But you hit the nail on the head.  The president is not living in the world of reality with respect to Iraq.  He hasn‘t been for some time and there‘s no evidence that, no matter what the American voters say or no matter what the circumstances on the ground are, that he‘s going to change his mind. 

SHUSTER:  But even if somebody were to accept your premise, that the voters delivered a message about Iraq, what then are the Democrats waiting for? 

MCMAHON:  Well, the Democrats aren‘t the commander-in-chief, so the Democrats don‘t have the ability to pull the troops out of the battlefield.  What they do have the ability to do is what the Republicans have not done for four years, and that is ask tough questions, ask what the plan is, determine an exit strategy, perhaps set some deadlines and start moving—and start encouraging the administration to do what the administration is eventually going to do anyway, and that‘s bring the troops home.

SHUSTER:  Matt, has the Bush administration thrown Prime Minister Maliki under the bus? 

DOWD:  I don‘t think the Bush administration has thrown the prime minister under the bus, but I will disagree with my friend Steve on one thing.  I don‘t think the message of the election was pull the troops out of Iraq today. 

I think the president wants the troops out of Iraq as soon as possible.  I think Democrats want the troops out of Iraq as soon as possible, and I think the Republicans do.  I think that‘s not the question.  I think the American public doesn‘t say pull the troops today or pull the troops tomorrow. 

The American public says let‘s bring this to an end in a best possible way that preserves what the mission was, and that doesn‘t necessary mean pull the troops out tomorrow. 

MCMAHON:  Well, Matt, I‘m not suggesting that the American people said pull the troops out tomorrow, but I am suggesting that the American people said we want a fundamentally and radically different approach in Iraq, and the one person who seems to have not gotten the message in Washington, D.C.  is the president of the United States, based on what he said just yesterday. 

SHUSTER:  Matt, do you agree that al Qaeda is responsible for much of the violence in Iraq? 

DOWD:  I‘m not a Middle Eastern expert.  I stay in Midwest politics, but al Qaeda is obviously involved in this.  But I think, fundamentally, the problem in Iraq is—you can read every newspaper and see every news report—it‘s not fundamentally an al Qaeda.  It‘s fundamentally a problem with the ability of the Iraqi government to maintain order in their own country.  That‘s the problem. 

SHUSTER:  But there is a political problem here in Washington and that is right now Americans don‘t believe they see either party offering a way out of this.  But we‘re going to talk about that on the other side of this break.  We‘ll be back with Matt Dowd and Steve McMahon. 

You‘re watching HARDBALL only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  We‘re back with Democratic strategist Steve McMahon and former Bush-Cheney campaign chief strategist Matt Dowd. 

I want to ask you both about something that‘s going to be huge in January, and that is the relationship between the Democratic Congress and President Bush.  I want you to both handicap how has Nancy Pelosi, the incoming House speaker, done.  She still has left festering this idea of who‘s going to be in charge of the House Intelligence Committee.  She bypassed an African-American for that post. 

Steve, is that wise? 

MCMAHON:  I think she‘s governing from the middle.  The Blue Dog Democrats wanted her to go a different way on the House Intelligence Committee and she did.  They wanted Nancy Harman (sic) to stay.  I‘m sorry, they wanted Nancy Harman (sic) to stay and Nancy Pelosi is going to go a different direction. 

So I think what she‘s doing is she‘s governing from the middle, which is a good sign.  She‘s demonstrating strong leadership which is a good sign for the Democratic Caucus. 

SHUSTER:  And, Matt Dowd, looking at it from the other perspective, from Pennsylvania Avenue, seeing the sort of problems that Nancy Pelosi has had with Jane Harman and then bypassing Alcee Hastings, do you lick your chops if you‘re at the White House and you see that coming to you? 

DOWD:  Well, actually, I‘m very hopeful.  I agree with Steve.  I‘m very hopeful.  She‘s said a lot of the right things about building consensus, reaching compromise, doing things in a bipartisan way with the White House, and I think she has made some decisions that looked as if she‘s trying to do some things that fundamentally are in the right place for the country and who she‘s picked for certain committees and the substance of those things. 

So I‘m very hopeful.  I don‘t know if that will continue.  It will be hard because of the tugs and pulls that she has in her own caucus, but the things she said and the stuff she‘s done thus far makes me very hopeful that maybe consensus can be reached. 

SHUSTER:  Well, let‘s talk now about the big politics for 2008.  The big news today was that Bill Frist, who actually won a straw poll down in Memphis at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in March, he announced today that despite all the fundraising he‘s been doing, he‘s not going to be running for president. 

Matt, how does that help the rest of the field?  Who might benefit, given that there seems to be a vacuum right now as far as the bedrock conservatives and where they might go? 

DOWD:  Well, the interesting thing, it does demonstrate how short-lived politics are, and predictions today, how different they are tomorrow.  You have Bill Frist who won that caucus in the south among all the candidates, and now is gone from the race before we even get into ‘07. 

Then you have George Allen who led an insiders‘ poll of who would get the Republican nomination, who lost his Senate seat this year and who is, obviously, likely not a candidate.  So two candidate that were leading candidates are both gone before we even get into the start of this race. 

I don‘t know.  We have a lot of good candidates like John McCain, Rudy Giuliani—there‘s probably others—Mitt Romney, that are going to be out there campaigning, but it just shows you how short-lived and how one day in politics can change everything.  And I don‘t think we know fundamentally where this process will end up by the spring of 2008. 

SHUSTER:  And, Steve, on the Democratic side, you have got the governor of Iowa.  Former Governor Vilsack is launching his 2008 bid tomorrow.  Most Americans have never heard of this guy. 

MCMAHON:  Right.

SHUSTER:  Does he have any chance when you are talking about Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, John Kerry? 

MCMAHON:  Well, I would just say two words: Howard Dean.  And, you know, Howard Dean was a governor from a small state, he wasn‘t very well known and rose to prominence and was the frontrunner for along time in that Democratic contest a couple of years ago. 

It didn‘t work out for him but America likes governors.  They are not always fond of senators and Washington insiders, and so I think he‘s going to have a shot.  There‘s a great, strong talented field, including Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and all the others that you mentioned, but I think Tom Vilsack is going to do pretty well. 

SHUSTER:  Given the situation in Iraq—things continue to get worse.  It appears right now at least most Americans don‘t feel that there‘s a way out of this.  How does that cut, as far as both the Democratic side, Republican side, for 2008? 

Steve, why don‘t you start?

MCMAHON:  Well, I think it‘s interesting what the president did yesterday.  He basically, after having destroyed the prospects of Republicans who were running in House and Senate races this year, he‘s now said he‘s not going to pull the troops back one iota until the mission is accomplished.  It‘s not yet clear what that mission is, at this point.  And I think he has jeopardized the Republican nominee in 2008 as a result of his intransigence on this issue. 

SHUSTER:  And, Matt, is he jeopardizing John McCain?  It seems like each passing day gets worse for John McCain, as long as the situation in Iraq continues to get worse.

DOWD:  I don‘t think so.  I mean, still, if you look at polls where John McCain is polled against every other candidate or Rudy Giuliani polled against every other candidate on the Democratic side, they‘re ahead.  I don‘t think that‘s the case. 

I actually fundamentally don‘t believe Iraq is going to be the dominant issue in 2008.  I think the dominant issue is how we‘re going to make government work and how it‘s going to fit the needs and the wants of the 21st century.  That‘s what I think the debate will be about.

It will include homeland security, it‘ll include foreign policy, include many other things, but I don‘t think Iraq will be the dominant issue.  I think it‘s going to be about how do make this government work and in a bipartisan way.  That is where, I think, most of the candidates need to talk about.

SHUSTER:  And, Matt, I respect you a lot.  Real quick, yes or no, do you think that Rudy Giuliani can really get the Republican nomination? 

DOWD:  I think there‘s—I think Rudy Giuliani has a serious shot at the Republican nomination.  I think the idea that...

SHUSTER:  All right.  That‘s it.  We‘ve got to go.  I‘m sorry.  Matt Dowd, Steve McMahon, thank you both very much.  Play HARDBALL with us Thursday.  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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