updated 12/1/2006 12:34:25 PM ET 2006-12-01T17:34:25

Guests: Condoleezza Rice, Wayne Downing, Michael Feldman, Bob Corker

DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC HOST:  The leader of Iraq says that Iraqi security forces will be ready to take command in seven months.  Does that mean our troops will be home by Christmas next year?  Let‘s play HARDBALL. 

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

HARDBALL.

There is now a timetable for Iraq but it‘s not coming from the Bush administration.  Today in Baghdad, after returning from a meeting with President Bush in Jordan, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said that Iraqi police and security forces would be able to assume command in seven months.  That kind of optimism, if it‘s realistic, could mean the beginning of a withdrawal of U.S. forces next year.

But we know from a White House memo by the president‘s national security adviser that the Bush administration is worried that Maliki may be ignorant of what is really going on and doesn‘t have the capabilities he thinks he does.  Today, President Bush called Maliki the right guy for the job, but the president also beat back suggestions that U.S. troops will start leaving Iraq anytime soon.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I know there‘s a lot of speculation that these reports in Washington mean there‘s going to be some kind of graceful exit out of Iraq.  We‘re going to stay in Iraq to get the job done so long as the government wants us there. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  Has the Iraqi government, though, now set its own timetable and benchmark for success?  And what does it mean for U.S. troops, the Bush administration‘s commitment to Iraq, and the oversight decisions facing the incoming Democratic-controlled Congress.

Tonight, NBC News anchor Brian Williams conducted an exclusive interview with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and we will get the latest military analysis from General Wayne Downing. 

We begin, however, with the latest on the summit in Jordan with NBC‘s Richard Engel in Amman.

And, Richard, when Maliki says his forces will be ready to take over by June ‘07, is that credible? 

RICHARD ENGEL, NBC NEWS MIDDLE EAST CORRESPONDENT:  It is very difficult to see that as a realistic opportunity.  It all depends on what he means by ready.  This is not new.  Maliki has been saying this for several months.  He told me just a few months ago the same thing, that his forces would be ready to assume full security responsibility by tend of ‘07. 

He said this before.  The problem is, whenever American forces and other coalition forces in Iraq have given more authority to the Iraqi government—and they have done this several times, particularly in southern Iraq—they have not been able to maintain security in those areas.  They‘ve fallen into lawlessness and militia control. 

That is exactly why President Bush today was coming out with his statement saying that Maliki needs more tools.  That means he needs more resources, more weapons, more trainers, to help his security forces expand so that as they take more control, they can actually hold the area that they are supposedly responsible for—David. 

SHUSTER:  Richard, there were high expectations for this summit.  Did it live up to its billing? 

ENGEL:  It depends who you ask.  Here in the Middle East, absolutely not.  It was expected to be a major diplomatic summit, a peace summit incorporating many different agendas across the Arab world, from Lebanon to reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. 

Instead, it was a two-hour lunch followed by a brief press conference about Iraq between the president and Nouri al-Maliki.  That was certainly not what the king of Jordan wanted.  He wanted the peace process to be the top agenda.  Instead, it was mostly a bilateral meeting. 

SHUSTER:  Richard, clarify for us.  Does the Iraqi government want the U.S. troops to stay there for the long term or not?  And do they believe that U.S. troops are part of the problem or part of the solution?

ENGEL:  This Iraqi government has many different factions within it.  There are hard-line Sunni groups who have made it clear that they want the American troops to leave.  There is the Sadr movement which has temporarily suspended its cooperation with the government.  They have said that they want American troops to leave. 

Maliki, in the past, has asked for American troops to stay.  The foreign minister, who represents the Kurds, wants American troops to stay.  This government, particularly the prime minister, is very dependent right now on American forces. 

The Iraqi security forces, the police and the army—and I have spent a lot time going out with them—are not able to operate independently.  They don‘t have any aircraft.  They have no heavy weapons. 

When the Iraqi police, as they are today, want to go on patrol and even stop to fill up their vehicles with gas, if they go into dangerous neighborhoods, they need to be accompanied by American forces.  They are in no condition right now to implement any kind of security in Baghdad, particularly in western areas in Iraq where they are almost not present at all, David.

SHUSTER:  Richard, is there enough trust between the U.S. military and the Iraqi security forces so that if the U.S. were to provide air cover or artillery or armored vehicles just by giving them to the Iraqis or provided our own, are U.S. military commanders confident that those—that that equipment would not be used by—to sort of settle scores with the militias or as part of the sectarian violence? 

ENGEL:  No, in a simple answer.  There is not enough confidence and that‘s why the American trainers are supposed to be present.  It is to help the Iraqi forces use their equipment and it—from what we were hearing today, there‘s all the indications that the Iraqis will soon be receiving more equipment. 

I spoke with Prime Minister Maliki, and he talked about how they need more light weapons, they need more vehicles to make the Iraqi forces more mobile, more effective.  He talked about a new campaign that will be using helicopters extensively.  That would be new. 

So it seems that the Iraqi government and the American forces are trying to go on the offensive in the near to medium term, but do they trust the Iraqi forces to be in command and to be more effectively armed?  Right now, no.  That‘s why the trainers are there. 

SHUSTER:  And, Richard, bottom line—do you think that there is an opening now, or does it appear that there‘s an opening for a gradual withdrawal of the U.S. forces given that at least Maliki himself, in a very public way today, has essentially set his own timetable for success in Iraq? 

ENGEL:  The plan and what we are hearing today was not new.  President Bush was basically saying we have to stay what we are doing, we have continue along the same course which is to transfer more authority to the Iraqi forces so that American forces can eventually pull back.  It‘s the same strategy we‘ve heard before.

All that we were hearing today is that it has to happen faster and that Maliki has to have more tools to make his security forces more effective.  Obviously, that would allow the Americans to pull back.

Today, there was a recognition that the White House and others in Washington had been asking Maliki to do something that right now, he is unable to do. 

SHUSTER:  NBC‘s Richard Engel in Amman, Jordan. 

And certainly with an investment of U.S. military equipment that will certainly, though, raise the stakes.

NBC News anchor Brian Williams sat down with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Amman today, and began by asking her why Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki and President Bush did not meet as scheduled last night. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS ANCHOR:  Madam Secretary, thank you...

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, SECRETARY OF STATE:  Pleasure.

WILLIAMS:  ... on a busy day for making time for us.  When the president of the United States travels such a great distance to meet with the Iraqi prime minister and the first meeting between the two men is canceled, how is that not seen as a snub to the Americans? 

RICE:  Oh, come now.  The prime minister met with the king of Jordan, who he was supposed to, in a very successful bilateral, went on to a meeting with the Jordanian prime minister and his government.  And they decided they really didn‘t need a trilateral.  They would wait and the president would meet with Prime Minister Maliki this morning. 

And that‘s what happened, and they had a wonderful meeting this morning.  I think you could see that the chemistry between the two men is very, very good.  And so this was a matter of simply deciding they didn‘t need a trilateral.  In fact, the Iraqis had thought all along they probably didn‘t need a trilateral, and it turned out that they didn‘t. 

WILLIAMS:  What could the president have said to the prime minister this morning that hasn‘t been said?  What hasn‘t been tried?

RICE:  Well, in fact, they had a very extensive discussion this morning of a report from a joint committee that‘s been working on questions of how to accelerate the transfer of security responsibility to the Iraqis, as well as how to accelerate and, if necessary, adjust the kinds of capabilities that the Iraqi forces have to deal with, what is essentially a situation that has emerged since the Samarra bombing in February, which is the sectarian violence in Baghdad.

And so this was an opportunity to hear from those—that committee.  It‘s a committee that General Casey, Ambassador Khalilzad, and the national security adviser of Iraq, Mr. Rubaie—Dr. Rubaie—has been working on.  And so it was a chance to see that. 

It‘s a good thing, I think, for the prime minister to hear directly from the president what the president has been saying to the American people, that we are committed to Iraq, that we are committed to its future and that the United States sees its own security as inextricably linked to the success of this Iraqi government.  And that‘s something that is a good thing to be able to see in person. 

WILLIAMS:  A preliminary report today about this so-called Baker group, the Iraq Study Group, has them recommending what could be called a graceful exit of all U.S. Army over time brigades from Iraq.  And yet, the president‘s position today appears to be in collision with that.  Do you worry about that?  And I know the group‘s report is yet to be issued. 

RICE:  Well, let‘s wait and say what the report says.  But obviously, from the point of view of the United States, the transfer of security and responsibility to Iraqis over time as they‘re ready to receive it is—has been the focal point of our policy from the very beginning.  And what we have in this Iraqi leadership is a leadership that is anxious to take responsibility and that wants to accelerate that process. 

At some point, obviously, that will require less American involvement.  But the American involvement has to be gauged to what needs to be done on the ground, what the Iraqis themselves are capable of doing. 

And that‘s the discussion that the president and Prime Minister Maliki had today.  And it is, by the way, I think, the president‘s view that he looks forward.  And I know I look forward to receiving the outcome of the Baker-Hamilton report, a very eminent group of Americans who have given a lot of time to this effort and to other decisions that are going on within the administration and I think that will also go on with Congress. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SHUSTER:  Brian Williams continues his reports from Jordan coming up tonight on “NBC  Nightly News” and your local NBC station.  We‘ll have more of Brian William‘s interview with Secretary Rice when we return. 

He asked the secretary of state what it would take to have diplomatic relations with Iran. 

And coming up later, Republican Senator-elect Bob Corker.

You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

“NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams got a rare interview with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Amman and asked her if the U.S.  would open a dialogue with Iran. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

WILLIAMS:  Does it worry you that Iran has been trying very hard to work the situation here on the ground and form alliances and relationships?  And is there any construct whatever in which the United States would sit across from any table from Iran and Iraq—Iran and Syria, rather? 

RICE:  Well, Iran has unfortunately not been a very positive force in the region, as we‘re seeing in Lebanon.  One of the things that I think we‘re very concerned about is this attack on the duly elected Siniora government that is being led by Iran and it‘s allies, by Hezbollah, really, with outside influences very much in evidence—Syria, very much in evidence—Syria, having left Lebanon under international pressure after 30 years of occupation, seems determined to continue to try to be a negative factor in Lebanon‘s politics. 

So these are not stabilizing factors, Iran and Syria.  And I think we have to recognize that.  Now it‘s not as if we haven‘t tried to talk to Syria before.  The problem is the Syrians don‘t seem ever to listen.  And so it‘s not a matter of contact.  It‘s a matter of whether or not you can get cooperation. 

And as to Iran, I would just remind everyone that last May, we said that we were prepared sit across from the Iranians as a part of the six powers that are making an offer to the Iranians to give up their nuclear ambitions, and that anything could be on the table. 

The Iranians have not taken up that offer.  I suspect because they do not want to give up their nuclear ambitions.  So there are opportunities here.  The Iranians and the Syrians have not taken them.  And most especially, neither state has shown any inclination to change behavior in a way that would make them stabilizing factors in this region, not destabilizing factors. 

WILLIAMS:  Final question.  How would you describe the situation, I guest mostly where it pertains to Iraq right now?  A lot of people believe the world‘s in quite a fix when you look at where we are.  Is this a moment of crisis?  Is this just an important moment in the scope of history?

RICE:  Well, I think it‘s a moment of challenge.  It‘s a moment of testing.  And it‘s a moment, also, of enormous opportunity. 

Big historical changes like the ones that are happening now, particularly in this region—and if you just enumerate a couple of them.  Syrian forces out of Lebanon for the first time, Lebanon not occupied by Syrian forces in decades. 

If you look at the situation in the Palestinian territories where yes, an election brought to power Hamas, but Hamas has been unable to govern.  And the world is turning again to a democratically elected president of the Palestinian Authority who wants to make peace with Israel and the two state solution—and to pursue a two state solution. 

And perhaps most importantly, an Iraq that has been liberated from a terrible tyrant, a dictator who invaded his neighbors twice.  He used weapons of mass destruction on his own people and on his neighbors.  He‘s now gone.  He sits in the dock awaiting sentencing.

But look, these are huge changes in a region that‘s—that the very stagnation in this region—people call it stability.  I call it stagnation.  The stagnation in this region had produced a circumstance in which the—al Qaeda and extreme itself forces were growing and growing and growing, unchallenged really by healthy, moderate political forces in places like Iraq and like the Palestinian territories. 

Those forces are now coming into their own.  Yes, they have determined enemies.  Yes, we are seeing a clarifying moment between extremism and moderation.  That is bound to be difficult. 

But if we do our work well, the opportunity to have a Middle East that is very different, with a Palestinian state that can live side-by-said with the Israelis, with an Iraq, a democratic Iraq in which Iraq can be a stabilizing force in this region, a Lebanon that can be a democratic and stabilizing force. 

I know that at this particular moment in time, it appears to be a period of great challenge.  But it‘s always out of periods of great challenge that opportunity comes.  And that‘s how this president sees it. 

And I‘ll tell you something, Brian, I‘ve just sat Abu Mazen, just sat with Ehud Olmert, just sat with Nouri al Maliki.  That‘s how they see it, too.  And we, as the United States, have to support those moderate forces in making that Middle East come true. 

WILLIAMS:  Secretary, thank you very much. 

RICE:  Thank you very much.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SHUSTER:  For more of Brian Williams‘ reports from Jordan, be sure to tune into “NBC Nightly News” on your local NBC station, or online at nightly.MSNBC.com.

Up next, we will talk with retired general Wayne Downing about the military options for Iraq.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  I‘m joined now by retired general Wayne Downing who is now an MSNBC military analyst.  And General Downing, first of all, thanks for being with us. 

GEN. WAYNE DOWNING (RET.), MSNBC MILITARY ANALYST:  Thanks, David, good to be here.

SHUSTER:  Prime Minister Maliki told an interviewer today that he believes that Iraqi security forces will be ready to take command by June of 2007. 

As Richard Engel pointed out, Maliki has said this before.  But perhaps now with the stakes as high as they are now.  Does this sort of self-imposed pressure that Maliki is putting on himself and his government, is that helpful to U.S. military commanders?

DOWNING:  Well, I‘m not so sure it‘s helpful to the military commanders as much as it‘s helpful to our political leaders.  It kind of relieves some pressure there and tells the Democratic Congress that there is going to be some movement, there will be some forces withdrawn. 

Of course, you know the question David that you ask yourself is what does that mean, they are going to take command?  I‘ve been very impressed with the progress of the Iraqi army.  I think we have done that very well.  I see some very strong leaders emerging in the Iraqi army.

The Iraqi police, which are the other very, very important part of this security force question, they have really failed and failed badly.  I think we all know that they are corrupt, they‘re basically inept and they are basically part of the problem, David.

So I think one of the things that has been recognized over in Iraq for probably the last year, and they‘ve started on it now in the last four months, is they‘re going to have to revamp the Iraqi policy if they Iraqis are going to go anywhere with taking control of their own security.

SHUSTER:  But even if the Iraqis are getting help from us now with artillery or armored vehicles or helicopters as Richard Engel pointed out, can they still be able to take command within seven months?

DOWNING:  Well I think they can do a lot within seven months, David, and I think the Iraqi army can do a lot.

But let‘s not fool ourselves.  There are other dimensions to this.  Certainly the advisory effort, the American advisory effort is going to be absolutely critical.  We‘re going to have to keep first-rate advisers over there, top of the line.

The other thing that has not really been addressed and that is the formation of the ministry of defense and the ministry of interior.  These are both very, very important projects and they are basically unfinished.  We‘re going to have an Iraqi security force that not only has problems with the police, but they also have problems with the infrastructure that props up these forces that provides them with pay, with equipment, with food, with all the kinds of things that they take for granted now because we are doing much of that.  That is all going to have to be assumed by the Iraqis and that‘s going to be stuff that‘s going to have to be done behind the scenes, probably by us, David.

SHUSTER:  The Pentagon has already said that to address some of those very problems, we‘re going to be sending another 3,500 troops into Baghdad, presumably taking them from other parts of the country, but possibly calling up more reserves from the United States -- 3,500, does that really make any difference?

DOWNING:  No.  I think it‘s a drop in the bucket.  I do not think that American forces are the key to that problem over there.  I think the Iraqis are.  Quite frankly, David, I‘d rather see 3,500 more top quality advisers go into the Iraqi armed forces and into their special police units.

I think we‘d get much more mileage out of that.  I think we‘ll get some kind of a short-term fix, but David, I‘ve said this for a long time.  The entire United States armed forces, every one of them going over there right now could not secure that country and solve these problems.  It‘s an Iraqi problem, we‘ve got to help them, but we cannot do it for them.  They have to do it themselves.

SHUSTER:  And for that reason, the Baker/Hamilton Commission, which is expected to come back with their report next week, apparently according to leaks, they‘re going to suggest that 75,000 U.S. troops start a withdrawal sometime next year.  What sort of impact would that have?  Would that provoke the kind of chaos that the Bush administration fears with that proposal?

DOWNING:  Well, we‘ll have to see.  In many respects, David, that dove tails very nicely with what you hear Maliki saying.  You know, Maliki is a smart guy.  You know, there‘s a lot of question, is he the right guy, is he not the right guy.  I‘ve raised that question, I don‘t know.

But he and these other Iraqis, these are not bumbling clowns.  They know what‘s going on.  They know what is going on in the United States.  Certainly a draw-down of 75,000 by say the end of next year, 12 months from now, they may be able to absorb that.

But at some point, David, I think we all recognize the United States is going to have to come home.  What we want to do is not leave precipitously, and leave the Iraqis with the ability to win and be successful in this struggle. 

And of course, you know that it‘s much more than security forces, it‘s much more than the military.  I mean the political dimension, they have to solve these very, very difficult political problems.  The different factions, they have economic problems, economy, infrastructure, all these have to be solved, David.

SHUSTER:  We‘ll see how everything goes and in fact we‘ll be talking about it, at least the domestic politics here after our next break.  But General Downing, thanks for being with us.

DOWNING:  OK, David, thank you.

SHUSTER:  And up next, HotSoup.com‘s Mike Feldman and MSNBC‘s Pat Buchanan will be here.  And later, Republican Senator-elect Bob Corker.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(MARKET REPORT)

SHUSTER:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.

Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki said today that Iraqi forces would be ready to assume security by June 2007.  He also urged Shiite lawmakers and cabinet minister to end the boycott of the government they launched to protest his summit with President Bush. 

NBC‘s Jane Arraf is in Baghdad.

JANE ARRAF, NBC NEWS:  David, in the end, it was only a one-hour breakfast meeting, but has created a full-blown political crisis here in Baghdad.  Thirty members of Parliament and six cabinet ministers are boycotted Parliament and their ministries in protest against that meeting. 

Now, Prime Minister Maliki has appealed to them to come back and do their jobs.  And one of those M.P.s, the members of Parliament, says that tomorrow morning, they will hold telephone conversations, conference call, with the prime minister and reassess whether, indeed, they will come back. 

One of their demands is greater security.  They are blaming the Americans for that series of horrific car bombs in Sadr City last week that killed more than 200 people.  There‘s no word yet on the prime minister‘s statement—reported statement that Iraqi forces could be ready by June 2007, allowing U.S. troops to begin to withdraw. 

Now, he has mentioned that timeframe generically before, but no indication as to whether there was anything in the talks that would prompt that level of detail.  But President Bush did say that they had agreed to speed up the process that will bring Iraqi forces up to speed and allow U.S. forces to eventually withdraw, although not, he says, anytime in the very near future—David. 

SHUSTER:  Thank you, Jane Arraf.

So which way is the political fight over Iraq headed?  The “New York Times” reports that the Iraq Study Group will recommend pulling back U.S.  troops in Iraq. 

Here to dig into it all, Mike Feldman is a Democratic strategist and founder of HotSoup.com, MSNBC‘s online community partner.  And Pat Buchanan is an MSNBC political analyst. 

Pat, I want to start with you.  The president got stood up for his first date with Maliki.  Today they met.  The White House suggests it was good that they met, but now we hear that there‘s a crisis in Baghdad.  Did the United States get anything out of this?

PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  No, we didn‘t.  We got less than anything.  I think the president of the United States was snubbed, frankly and deliberately so, after that leak, which I think was scripted, was dropped on the “New York Times” which suggested Maliki was either ignorant or incompetent. 

And I understand why he did what he did to the president.  That probably helped him a bit back in Baghdad.  The key question is, are Sadr‘s people in the Parliament and in the cabinet going to come back? 

My guess is that they will.  What Maliki‘s tried to do is thread the needle between U.S. support which he wants to maintain, military support, and Sadr, who‘s political support he‘s got to maintain because that‘s his base and, frankly, that‘s his future. 

SHUSTER:  Michael Feldman, do you believe when Maliki says that Iraqi security forces will be ready in six months?  Do you believe him?

MICHAEL FELDMAN, HOTSOUP.COM:  Well, I think we have no choice but to follow now his timetable.  In fact, he‘s the one setting a timetable for action and for some sort of mechanism to start withdrawing our troops from Iraq, or at least pulling them back. 

I think what Pat says is interesting.  You know, both of these leaders, President Bush and Prime Minister Maliki, are in difficult situations.  They‘re both under extraordinary pressure at home.  Neither one of them has control over the situation on the ground in Iraq, which is consuming their administrations.

But they need each other right now, and so to some extent, I think, the meeting was constructive.  You get the two of them in the same room.  When you get passed all the theatrics of the leaked memos and the meetings that they don‘t happen, at the end of the day, those two need each other as long as they can hang on. 

SHUSTER:  But if we are on the timetable of Iraq, why don‘t the Democrats then say, OK, June.  It either gets better by June or Democrats are going to push to have all the troops out of there? 

FELDMAN:  Well, first of all, you have Democrats and Republicans and Iraqis all saying different things about how we do it, but we‘re all generally moving in the same direction now.  And if you believe the reports about the Iraqi Study Group, they are also calling for the withdrawal of American troops. 

They‘re also sensibly, apparently, going to call for engaging our neighbors there, and Syria and Iran, which, I think, is desperately needed in order to try to reach some sort of political solution in the region. 

BUCHANAN:  I think all—I think that‘s right that all the forces are moving in the same direction toward a pullback and a withdrawal, but I don‘t think the Democrats who you ask about really have the nerve to really pull the string on funding, which is the key. 

Look, they can pass all the resolutions they want.  They are ineffectual and the president can ignore them, as he‘s been ignoring them, but will they come out and say, look, if you don‘t start withdrawing the troops, we‘re going to start cutting off funds.  I don‘t see them doing that.

SHUSTER:  Now, on the Republican side, how difficult do the politics get for President Bush when the Iraq Study Group comes back next week with a recommendation saying we need to engage with Syria and Iran?  You have Bob Gates—Robert Gates, the incoming defense secretary—saying we need to talk to Iran, and the only person who says no, we can‘t talk with Iran right now President Bush.

BUCHANAN:  Well, I think they‘ve got to find some forum to talk to Iran and to Syria.  I agree with that.  But in terms of pressure on the president, there isn‘t any real pressure.  He sees this not only as his legacy, but if he pulls prematurely and this goes down, that is a strategic disaster and that‘s the legacy of George W. Bush.  And if he sees that coming, I think he will dig in his heels.  I don‘t care who the opponents are.

SHUSTER:  Let‘s talk about president politics now.  How is this cutting as far as the Democrats are concerned?  Does somebody like Hillary Rodham Clinton, presumably a frontrunner, does she need to come out at a certain point in the next couple of months and my her vote for the war was a mistake? 

FELDMAN:  Well, I think what you hear from Senator Clinton and a lot of Democrats who voted for the use of force—and, again, maybe based on information that wasn‘t fully forthcoming and wasn‘t correct at the time, but she voted for that use of force.  I think what you are hearing from Democrats is it‘s the execution, the conduct of the war that‘s the problem.

And Senator Clinton has been, I think, very persuasive on that point.  I think you‘re hearing that from a lot of Democrats.  Those that voted against the resolution can draw a sharper contrast with the president, but I think what you see now is Democrats and Republicans coalescing around the idea and, frankly, the American people with the election results in November, that we need a change of course in Iraq. 

BUCHANAN:  I think this is rights.  I think, for example, we talked about Al Gore earlier.  Gore came out against the war.  He‘s got a strong position.  If he gets in there, he could say I was against this misconceived war from the beginning. 

I think Hillary‘s position is pretty good.  She says, look, I was for the war, taking out this tug, but they‘ve managed it incompetently.  This is what Nixon said on Vietnam and it didn‘t hurt him that he‘d supported the war for five years. 

I think the people who have got a problem are the ones like Kerry, who said, in effect, I was brainwashed, or I didn‘t this information, therefore, I made a mistake.  You made a mistake in the greatest vote of your career, which may result in the greatest strategic disaster of your lifetime and you didn‘t get it right because you didn‘t ask the questions.  I think very vulnerable by this attitude of, well, I just made a mistake, let‘s forget that and let‘s move on.

SHUSTER:  On the other side of this break, we‘re going to be talking about somebody else who‘s creating some buzz.  And that is Al Gore.

Pat Buchanan and Michael Feldman are staying with us.

And later, I‘ll be joined by the only new Republican taking a seat in the U.S. January, Senator-elect Bob Corker of Tennessee.

This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

We‘re back with HOTSOUP.com‘s Mike Feldman and MSNBC‘s Pat Buchanan. 

And Al Gore is creating a little bit of a buzz. 

Let‘s watch his latest venture.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAY LENO, HOST, “THE TONIGHT SHOW”:  “GQ Magazine”, this issue right here, has you listed as the—well, show that picture.  Show that picture.  Look at the mood—look at that, with the—kind of the hands on the hips and the—kind of got the all black, kind of Palatin (ph), Bono thing going there.  What‘s that?  Was that a fashion choice?

AL GORE, FMR. VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  That was—that‘s from my portfolio that was made for the 10 Sexiest Men on CSPAN. 

LENO:  Wow.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUSTER:  That was a pretty good line—Michael. 

FELDMAN:  It was, indeed. 

SHUSTER:  Is he running?  I mean, he‘s getting all this attention.  Jimmy Carter wants him to run.  Joe Trippi wants to create an Internet phenomenon again like he did for Howard Dean, for Al Gore.  He‘s got everything there waiting for him. 

FELDMAN:  Apparently Pat Buchanan wants him to run too, which is interesting. 

BUCHANAN:  Well, I think he‘s—look,  I ran—worked for Richard

Milhouse Nixon, who was beaten twice and—out of the vice presidency for

eight years, he came back and won that thing.  Look, I think Al Gore—I

think he could beat Hillary.  As I‘ve mentioned, he‘s got two aces.  He was

anti-war from the beginning, and he‘s got the environmental issue.  He‘s

got all those folks.  His endorsement of Howard Dean looks better now that

when he was an anti-war candidate.  All those folks would be enthusiastic. 

SHUSTER:  Make some news.  Is he running?  You worked for the guy for eight years. 

FELDMAN:  I wouldn‘t hold your breath. 

What Al Gore has said, and I take him on his word, everything he‘s told me and everything I‘ve heard him say publicly is the same.  He‘s not planning to run for president.  He likes what he‘s doing right now.  He‘s talking about an issue that he really cares about.  And in fact, people are listening to him.  “An Inconvenient Truth”, that documentary, is the third highest grossing documentary in the history of theatrical releases.

So people are listening to him about an issue he cares about.  He‘ effectively communicating on that.  And think he‘s...

BUCHANAN:  Maybe if he shows up in the gym on the treadmill.  I mean, he‘s as big as the Pillsbury Doughboy, isn‘t he right now?

SHUSTER:  You said that, not me, Patrick Buchanan. 

BUCHANAN:  No but I mean—but that‘s one of the things.  If he starts losing weight and looks svelte as he used to be when he was at St.  Alban‘s or something, he‘d be in the race, wouldn‘t he?

FELDMAN:  I think he‘s a guy who looks like he‘s enjoying himself...

(CROSSTALK)

SHUSTER:  ... enjoying himself.  The question is, what‘s the activity that he‘s enjoying himself with.

But anyway, let‘s move on to the Republican side.  Bill Frist announced this week he‘s not running.  He had been raising a lot of money.  A lot of conservatives had sort of liked him, but then are others who suggest, well, he was only going to get two percent of the Republican vote anyway.

What‘s the impact of Frist getting out on the Republicans? 

BUCHANAN:  I think it‘s meaningless.  I do think this: there‘s a vacuum on the conservative side for a real conservative candidate.  I don‘t think Frist could fill that.  He was wrong on the immigration issue.  People feel he sold out, at least from my standpoint.

I‘ll tell who‘s looking at that and who sees that vacuum, is Newt.  Because Brownback—I don‘t know that Brownback‘s got the charisma or strength or money-raising ability there.  Romney is trying to become that but it‘s tough to convert from a governor of Massachusetts into the Barry Goldwater of the Republican Party.

SHUSTER:  But Newt Gingrich said something the other night that Keith Olbermann is going to be talking about tonight, and that is taking away your freedom of speech in order to provide security.  That doesn‘t sound like a great way to get into the national focus, does it, Pat? 

BUCHANAN:  Well, I mean, Newt said that.  Well, look, there‘s a conservative—there‘s a libertarian-conservative movement which is very much against the Patriot Act and which really does feel that the ultimate threat to our liberties is not Saddam Hussein or successor, it‘s the government of the U.S. and the power of the state.  So I think there‘s an argument there he can make.  And it‘s—frankly, it‘s only one step outside.  But I don‘t think that‘s a problem. 

SHUSTER:  Are Democratic strategists enjoying what‘s happened to John McCain?  I mean, every day that Iraq festers, that Iraq gets worse, John McCain seems to take another cut.  Is that helpful, given the presumption that he is the Republican front runner?

FELDMAN:  Well, I don‘t know if they‘re enjoying it.  We‘re certainly watching the process unfold.  And I think it‘s a very interesting one.  Pat points out the fact that there is a real gap in terms the far right of the Republican Party in the ‘08 field right now.  So you have Romney auditioning for that part and you have Senator McCain moving as quickly as he can to the right and losing, really, his core brand, which is a maverick, a straight shooter, a guy who says what he means and means what he says.  The more he moves to the right, the harder it is for him to really capture that center again. 

BUCHANAN:  As Nixon said, you‘ve to move to the right for the Republican nomination, and then you get back to the center.  If you try to stay in that center, the center left or the center near right, you‘re in real danger of someone coming down that sideline, because that—the conservative part of the Republican Party is as powerful as the liberal wing of the Democrats. 

You saw what Howard Dean did before he fell apart in Iowa.  He was the presumptive nominee almost, coming out Vermont with one percent. 

SHUSTER:  Finally, the next guest we have coming on, Bob Corker, Republican from Tennessee.  He‘s coming into an environment that‘s very different, presumably, just because you have so many senators who are running for president.

How is that going to affect the relationship between the Democratic Congress and the White House, Mike?

FELDMAN:  Well, look, the Senate is an institution that‘s very unique.  I used to work there and I can tell you that there is no governing party in the Senate.  I‘m glad the Democrats have the majority and I think that will help.  I think the committee chairmanships help.  But the Senate is increasingly becoming a body that is governed by from the center.  And Democrats and Republicans are going to need to work together to get anything done.  And I think that‘s the environment that the Senator-elect is walking into.

BUCHANAN:  Corker is president, vice president and secretary treasurer of the incoming freshman class of the Republican senators.  He‘s the only one.

SHUSTER:  Pat Buchanan and Mike Feldman.  Thank you both very much for coming, and always a pleasure.

When we come back, the man who will replace Bill Frist in the Senate, Republican Bob Corker.

You‘re watching HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SHUSTER:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  There will be just one new Republican in the Senate in 2007, Tennessee‘s Bob Corker.  He joins us tonight from Chattanooga, Tennessee and Bob, thanks for being with us.

SENATOR-ELECT BOB CORKER ®, TENNESSEE:  Well, I‘m glad to be with you, I feel very fortunate to be here.

SHUSTER:  So as you heard Pat Buchanan said in the last segment, you‘re going to be the president, vice president, and treasurer of the Republican freshman class.  But on a serious note, what do you think you can accomplish as a freshman Republican senator given that you‘re joining the minority, you‘re new to Washington, you‘re going to be low on the pecking order?

CORKER:  Look, I think all 10 of us are going to be doing a lot of listening, a lot of learning.  The Senate, obviously, is a very unusual place.  There‘s no place like it in the world.

And so I‘m going to be doing a lot of listening.  I‘m going to work really, really hard and looking forward to getting committee assignments hopefully very, very soon and focusing on those.

But look, you have to have 60 votes in the Senate to make anything happen of consequence.  And whether it‘s 49 votes or 51 votes, people have to work together to make things happen.

I‘ve actually never served in a position where there was a majority of people who were on my side of the aisle, and have been able to make good things in that regard.  And I look forward to doing the same in the United States Senate.

SHUSTER:  One of the biggest issues, of course, may be a resolution on what to do with the U.S. troops in Iraq.  The president says that we are not going to leave Iraq until the job is done.  What does that mean to you?  And at what point do you think that U.S. troops ought to start coming out of Iraq? 

CORKER:  You know, to me, what that means is that there‘s a government there that‘s accountable, that the country that can secure itself.  And it actually looks like, to me, that there‘s a lot of converging discussion that‘s taking place.  Just the preliminary information we‘ve gotten from the Baker-Hamilton study group, what we heard the prime minister of Iraq say recently, what President Bush is saying.

I think, actually, a lot of that is converging right now.  And I think a lot of us want to see how that‘s going to come together. 

SHUSTER:  But given that the Iraqi prime minister said that by June of ‘07, Iraqi security forces will be able to take command, would you be willing now to say that if, by June of ‘07, rMD+IT_rMDNM_Iraqi forces are not doing it, that‘s it and you and your other colleagues are going to start asking for the troops to come out immediately then?

CORKER:  No, I would not be willing to say that.  Again, I think we have to be there until the people of Iraq can secure themselves.  Until there is a government that‘s accountable, I think it would be, obviously, very destabilizing in the Middle East if that does not occur. 

And so no, I would not be willing to say that.  I think that, obviously, the president knows that there was a signal sent to him during this election.  I think everybody in Congress cares greatly about the men and women in uniform.

But I think, actually, there are a lot of things that are said over the course of a campaign.  I think both Democrats and Republicans are going to want to make sure that the country itself can be stable.  I really believe that. 

And I heard a little bit of the segment earlier on.  I know Pat Buchanan said he thinks that it would be very unlikely that the Senate would just pull funding if that did not occur.  I happen to agree with that. 

And, obviously, I‘ve only been there a short amount of time, but I just can‘t imagine us just pulling out unilaterally if it looks like it‘s going to leave the country in disarray. 

SHUSTER:  But do you think that Iraq is getting worse? 

CORKER:  It obviously looks like things are not good.  I mean, I see the same things that you see.  I‘ve been campaigning all across this...

SHUSTER:  But if it is getting worse, then, what is the point of just delaying another six months a decision that many people think should be made now? 

CORKER:  Well, I think to even be asking those questions right now may be premature.  Again, we‘ll have the Baker-Hamilton proposal be coming out in a few days.  There will be a lot of discussion around that.

My sense is that it may cause people here in our country to get more of a sense of what‘s going to be happening there.

And, I think, to ask questions about, you know, what may happen next summer today, I don‘t think that makes a lot of sense.  I think what makes most sense is for us to have a strategy that everybody feels good about as far as making progress.  And let‘s move on with that. 

I think the message of this campaign was:  The American people want to see a strategy in Iraq that they believe is going to work.  And, hopefully, that‘s what‘s forthcoming now. 

SHUSTER:  But one of the strategies that the Baker-Hamilton commission is apparently talking about is that the United States should begin a dialogue with Iran. 

Bob Gates, who‘s the incoming defense secretary, agrees.  Colin Powell, others who used to be in the Bush administration agree.  The only person who doesn‘t agree is President Bush. 

Is he wrong when he says, “We are not going to be talking with Iran”? 

CORKER:  Well, you know, I think it‘s very difficult, when you have an enemy, to not have conversations with those people regarding something that‘s very important to the world.

And so whether it‘s a president-to-prime minister, president-to-president kind of conversations in the whole region, those conversations, I think, have to take place.  That dialogue has to take place. 

Otherwise, forever they‘re going to be our enemy as it relates to what‘s going on there and other places. 

So I do believe that that dialogue needs to happen.  I don‘t know what level is most appropriate.  But it does need to happen, in my opinion.

SHUSTER:  Finally, Bob, you were in a tough campaign until a couple weeks ago.  Is there anything about that emotionally charged campaign that you regret? 

CORKER:  No.  You know, it‘s really interesting.  The people who watched the race—I‘ve seen one thing.  They were watching commercials and listening to radio and all that. 

And when you‘re out on the campaign trail, all you feel is the positive energy of the campaign.  I‘m really proud of the race that we ran. 

As you know, there were a lot of independent expenditure groups that got involved and, I think, changed the tone of the race.  And I will tell you this, as I move into the Senate, that‘s something I want to address.

And I think the candidate ought to have some ability to approve what those independent expenditure ads say.  And I think that was not positive.

But I‘m really proud of the race that I ran, our team ran, and all of our supporters were involved in.

SHUSTER:   Well thank you, Senator-Elect Corker.  Good luck here in Washington and we look forward to hearing from you again.

CORKER:  Thank you, I look forward to seeing you soon.

SHUSTER:  Play HARDBALL with us on Friday.  We will break down all the big news of the week ahead and look ahead at what‘s coming with the confirmation hearings of defense secretary nominee Bob Gates.  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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