Guests: Richard Wolffe, Jonathan Turley, Paul Reickhoff, Howard Fineman
KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST: Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?
Twenty-one or 22,000 more American troops to Iraq. Another $6.8 billion. The situation there declared unacceptable.
The president speaks an hour hence. He may want to surge troops in Iraq, but for now, the latest surge seems to be against him. Today alone, two more Republican senators officially jumped ship, Mr. Brownback of Kansas, Mr. Coleman of Minnesota.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. NORMAN COLEMAN ®, MINNESOTA: I oppose the proposal for a troop surge in Baghdad.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: And a moderate Democrat, Max Baucus of Montana, also joins the chorus, while the less-moderate Democrats get a briefing and keep on fuming.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), SPEAKER: This is the third time we are going down this path. Two times it has not worked. And we wanted to know why there was any prospect it could be successful now. Why are they doing this now? That question remains.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: The Dems don‘t know if constitutionally, they can stop the surge. They may put it to a vote anyway. The president may ignore them anyway.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TONY SNOW, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Congress has the power of the purse. The president has the ability to exercise his own authority if he thinks Congress has voted wrong way.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: What authority do the Iraqi people have if they think the president has chosen the wrong way? And what do the troops do, the ones for whom this means a second tour in the cauldron, or a third, or a fourth?
Tonight, David Gregory at the White House, Richard Wolffe on the Democratic reaction, Jonathan Turley on the constitutional clash, Howard Fineman on the seeming clash between the president and his generals, Ned Colt on the Iraqi reaction, Paul Reichoff (ph) on the grunts‘ reaction, and Chris Matthews on what might be this president‘s last chance.
All that and more, now on our COUNTDOWN to Mr. Bush‘s address.
Good evening again.
At a time when an unquestionable majority of Americans believe that invading Iraq was a mistake, that the war itself is going very badly, that President Bush does not have a clear plan for handling that conflict, only about an hour from now, Mr. Bush set both to escalate our involvement, and to extend it indefinitely, a move meant to reassure a war-weary nation that he has everything under control.
Ahead, a full hour of special coverage on what‘s at stake, and what might be done to stop the president.
But we begin with the specifics of the day. Mr. Bush set to utter the M-word, mistake, acknowledging that the current course in Iraq is not working. Whether or not he admits to making that mistake, quite another matter, yet the plan he‘s come up with for fixing that looking remarkably like the components of the old plan, only more so, increasing the U.S. troop presence in Iraq, the president ordering another 21,000 to 22,000 troops to be sent to Iraq, most to Baghdad, about 4,000 to the west in Anbar Province, a Sunni militant stronghold.
They will or would not all go at once, the U.S. increasing the force size by roughly one brigade combat team per month, some 4,000 to 5,000 over a period of five months, the so-called surge, it seems, more like a Stairmaster, one that never, ever stops.
As for how much this would cost, some $6.8 billion more, most of it for military expenses, the rest for reconstruction and economic aid.
Tonight‘s address to take place in the White House library, not from the Oval Office. It is the same location as President Jimmy Carter‘s first fireside chat 30 years ago, directly across the hall President Clinton‘s first Lewinsky chat from the Map Room, August 1998, FDR‘s fireside chats mostly delivered down the hall in the Diplomatic Reception Room, the speech putting the White House on a collision course with both the new Democratic Congress and an ever-growing portion of the Republican minority, Senators Brownback, Voinovich, and Coleman becoming the latest to jump ship just today.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)
COLEMAN: It will put more American soldiers in the crosshairs of sectarian violence, create more targets. I just don‘t believe this makes sense, Mr. President. Again, I oppose the troop surge in Baghdad, because I don‘t believe it is path to victory, a strategy for victory in Iraq.
SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: I think this conversation that we had with the president just now would have been much better a week ago, a month ago, six months ago. The president‘s practicing his speech right now. We have a conversation today that has no impact on what he‘s going to say.
PELOSI: We will give his proposal a fair hearing. And in our hearings, we will establish the ground truth of what is happening in Iraq. And then we will vote on the president‘s proposal.
(END VIDEO CLIPS)
OLBERMANN: Let‘s go now to the North Lawn of the White House, and our chief White House correspondent, David Gregory.
David, thanks for your time tonight.
DAVID GREGORY, NBC CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: My pleasure, Keith.
OLBERMANN: Before we get to the speech details, is there any sense there that Senators Brownback and Coleman and Voinovich cut the legs out from under the impact of this speech, if not from under the president, to some degree, himself?
DAVID GREGORY, NBC CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It‘s a very difficult position that the White House is in, Republican senators starting to voice that opposition even before the president lays out the plan.
There are other Republicans who are skeptical, and that‘s why Democrats want to put this to a vote, even if it has no impact, to voice their opposition to a troop increase, but to also put it on the record that there are Republicans who are beginning to peel away from the White House as well.
This is something you watch closely, because if more and more Reagan (INAUDIBLE) Republicans, key Republicans in the area of military affairs, start to approach the president and say, All is lost, it makes it much more difficult for the president to proceed.
OLBERMANN: And something else that really does not pertain to the speech, except in terms of juxtaposition, this report out of the British newspaper “The Daily Telegraph” that British troop levels will go from 7,200 to about 4,000 or 4,200 by May. The timing of this could not, I mean, presuming that report has some validity to it, the timing of that could not be worse for the White House, could it?
GREGORY: Well, presumably these withdrawals were on a timetable that the White House was aware of. But I think there‘s little doubt that this is a U.S. problem, and this is a U.S. responsibility in terms of securing Baghdad. And while there are other coalition partners, this is a U.S. operation. I don‘t think many people doubt that.
OLBERMANN: David, to the speech itself. It sounds, from what we‘ve seen of it so far, as if the White House wants us to believe the president will be announcing a major shift in strategy tonight. He says those very words. Yet an increase in troops, a promise of greater cooperation from the Iraqi prime minister, more money for reconstruction, Americans there until the Iraqi government is able to do those things on their own, such familiar components. How is the White House explaining this as something other than another tactical shift back to where they were before?
GREGORY: Well, it‘s going to be a real challenge for the president and his top aides to do that. I think it‘s one of the reasons why they have leaked so much of the speech out, to get this debate going and try to put that different stamp on it. I think what they would say is that strategically, there‘s a change here, away from training up Iraqi security forces to the United States leading the way in securing the country.
Think of it kind of like a retroactive strategy back to 2003, what many people felt the U.S. should have done initially, which is, go in, secure Baghdad, secure the rest of Iraq before an insurgency would be allowed to develop. I think that‘s the primary strategic shift they would talk about.
And then there is something that‘s just tactical, which is putting more pressure on the Maliki government, in effect, to say, This is your last shot to put up or fade away. You‘ve got to do what you‘ve been unwilling to do before, which is to show up and fight, fight all the bad guys, not just the ones who you oppose politically and tribally and otherwise, and doing so in a way that the president puts the Maliki government on notice that you‘ve basically lost the American people. You‘re going to lose me before long here and my ability to actually execute the kind of policy we‘re talking about.
OLBERMANN: And lastly, David, it may seem like trivia, but is there any word as to why the president is going to address the nation from the library instead of his traditional position in the Oval Office?
GREGORY: Well, they‘ve been looking at different locations, one of which was the Map Room that you mentioned, harkening back to some of the speeches that FDR gave during some of the dark days of World War II.
You know, it‘s not exactly clear why. But they have certainly said that this is a president who‘s addressed the nation from the Oval Office. They wanted some difference here, to match what will be a different tone, being described as something that will be a little bit more detailed, the president trying to educate the country about why a strategy change is needed, and try to be persuasive as to why this could actually work.
OLBERMANN: Any port in a storm, I guess.
Our chief White House correspondent, David Gregory. Always good to talk to you, David. Great thanks.
GREGORY: Thank you, Keith.
OLBERMANN: The Democrats are putting forward Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois to give the party response after the president‘s speech. One wonders if Norm Coleman or Sam Brownback, having today said before the speech all that the Democrats could dream of saying after it.
But what practical impact any politicians, or their employers, the American people, might have on what the president contends is ultimately and unilaterally a presidential decision about Iraq is doubtful at best.
For the closer look at the congressional response that we anticipate, let‘s turn to “Newsweek”‘s chief White House correspondent, our own Richard Wolffe.
Thanks for joining us, Richard.
RICHARD WOLFFE, SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, “NEWSWEEK” MAGAZINE:
Good evening, Keith.
OLBERMANN: Democrats already planning to hold votes in the House and the Senate on these nine—nonbinding resolutions that David Gregory mentioned against the troop increase. Is that it, or will we see something concrete from them, perhaps a decision on the extra funding for the extra troops?
WOLFFE: Well, it‘s a token gesture right now, of course, these nonbinding resolutions. They‘ve been there before. The only plan that‘s really different is what Senator Kennedy was talking about. And I think what you‘re seeing now with these Republican senators breaking ranks, and a lot of people sitting on the fence here, is going to be a very different environment for Democrats very soon.
So I wouldn‘t expect them to vote on funding, say, within the first few months of this plan being rolled out. But if the results don‘t come through as the president is proposing and suggesting, I think the Democrats are going to be emboldened to return to this very shortly, probably by the middle of the year.
OLBERMANN: Apart from some of the ironies that we‘ve seen in some of the released excerpts, the references against—to benchmarks and to there being no surrender ceremony on the deck of a battleship, unlike victories in the past, when victory comes in Iraq, according to the president, these odd evocations that we‘re going to see, a week ago, the president said he hoped that Republicans and Democrats could find common ground.
Apparently, some of the Republicans, like Senators Brownback and Coleman and Voinovich, have. They‘ve now echoed the Democratic consensus against the troop increases, as we‘ve been discussing, is that kind of bipartisanship enough to influence the White House in any way? Or is the president literally prepared to go ahead with a troop increase even if it really is, as his joke went, just Laura and Barney the dog by his side?
WOLFFE: Well, you‘re right, this is not the kind of common ground they expected people to find. And the evocations that you‘re mentioning, he said all this stuff before, about the stakes, about the way that this wasn‘t going to be a clean victory, this was a long war.
We‘ve heard it all before, and it hasn‘t been convincing for many people, especially Democrats and independent voters.
Look, this president, I‘ve covered him for a long time, I honestly think he‘s invested too much of his own political capital, in terms of blood and treasure, for him to pull out any time in his presidency.
Now, if Republicans abandon him en masse, that‘s different. But right now, the polls show that the majority of Republicans voters are still with him. Question is, will a majority of Republicans in Congress stay with him?
OLBERMANN: Exactly. You mentioned three words, politics, investment,
and capital. You have Republican senators who might as well announce
tonight that their campaigns for reelection for 2008 have begun. Could
this speech turn out to be the point at which, as we saw Mr. Coleman, as we
saw Mr. Brownback, Mr. Coleman on the Senate chamber floor today, are they
is this the cue for those who plan to peel away from the president to peel away from him?
WOLFFE: Yes, absolutely. We‘ve discussed this before on this show. But the key sort of focus group here, the key polling group, is the 2008 field. And really, the president, the senior White House officials I talk to, nobody thinks this is going to be over in their administration. They‘ve got to show something to hand over to the next people.
If the next people, the next group of candidates, are really the bulk of them saying, We‘re not going to stand with them, then it really does put this administration‘s policy in a different light.
OLBERMANN: And, to say nothing of the Republican challengers for 2008. Richard Wolffe of MSNBC and, of course, of “Newsweek.” As always, great thanks for your time tonight, Richard.
WOLFFE: Any time, Keith.
OLBERMANN: Join us tomorrow on COUNTDOWN, when we‘ll ask one of the men now in charge of funding for the war, the chairman of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, Congressman Jack Murtha, exactly what Congress plans to do about the president‘s planning, given the fact that they will shortly be fact. That‘ll be at 8:00 Eastern, 9:00 Pacific, right here tomorrow night.
Meanwhile, still to come this evening, as Congress weighs its options, the White House has already said the president has the power to do what he wants. Is the civil war in Iraq going to trigger something like a constitutional crisis here? Professor Jonathan Turley joins us.
And the credibility of the commander in chief. From the various rationales to war, to the various slogans, to his actual record in Iraq, if he listens to the generals on the ground, why didn‘t he listen to them this time?
You are watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.
OLBERMANN: If, upon hearing the president‘s plans, you find yourself saying, Wait, can he really do that by himself? don‘t beat yourself up. The question, Can he really do that, lies at the heart of whatever Democratic response or lack thereof we will see tonight and in the coming days.
And it‘s our number four story in tonight‘s COUNTDOWN. Senator Joe Biden has said that the president, constitutionally empowered as commander in chief, certainly can send more troops to Iraq, with or without congressional approval. Senator Ted Kennedy disagrees. The U.S. Constitution says, “Congress shall have power to provide for the common defense, to declare war, to raise and support armies, to make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces.”
The White House says...
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)
TONY SNOW, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Well, you know, Congress has the power of the purse. The president has the ability to exercise his own authority if he thinks Congress has voted the wrong way.
(END VIDEO CLIPS)
OLBERMANN: So who wins in this war? Our go-to referee on matters constitutional is Jonathan Turley, law professor at George Washington University.
Thanks again for your time tonight, sir.
JONATHAN TURLEY, CONSTITUTIONAL LAW PROFESSOR, GEORGE WASHINGTON
UNIVERSITY: Hi, Keith.
OLBERMANN: Putting aside for a moment political reasons not to oppose the president, does the Constitution, in fact, give the commander in chief the power to keep waging this war even if Congress votes the wrong way, to cut off funds?
TURLEY: No. It‘s as simple as that. The president can only spend funds that are given to him by Congress. Congress can put conditions on those funds. And indeed, Congress has often put conditions on funds going to the military, including war or national security operations.
OLBERMANN: Walk us through the most relevant historical parallels. I think we all know there are some from the late stages of Vietnam. But what else is, what else is there in that pile, and what do they tell us about the Constitution and situations just like this?
TURLEY: Oh, you can go back to the Mexican War to see Congress starting to put conditions on these types of funds. The Civil War had many conditions passed by Congress. Congress prohibited the United States from going into Angola by conditioning funds. They required the United States to leave Somalia. They put restrictions on Bosnia. They put limitations on contra funding.
All—if you go back through history, there are many, many such circumstances. This is part of the intended tension that the framers wanted in the Constitution. They intentionally gave this war authority to two different branches, the executive and legislative branch. They wanted tension. They wanted these people to have to compromise. And they wanted to make sure that neither Congress nor the president could go at it alone.
OLBERMANN: Every time we talk about this, I feel like I missed one day in one of my constitutional study classes at Cornell that I really, really needed. But one thing vaguely echoes from those times. The president is supposed to sign anything from Congress for it to become law, right? I mean, in other words, how does this not apply? Assuming Democrats could not muster the votes to override a veto, of whatever it is they pass, what can they actually do without a presidential signature?
TURLEY: Well, they can do these nonbinding resolutions that are, frankly, insulting and ridiculous. The Democrats and the Republicans love to do that and pretend they‘re doing something. But they‘re doing nothing at all, except voicing some views.
What they can do is, the president needs about $7 billion. And he‘s got to go to Congress to get it. They can refuse that appropriation. They can, when they pass the appropriations bill for the funding of Iraq, say that none of it could be used for a surge of troops, or that none of it can be used for a surge beyond this number of troops.
The president would then have to veto the entire appropriations for Iraq if that‘s the bill we‘re talking about, and he would be the one cutting off funds. There‘s a great number of options that Congress can do. The question is not whether they have the constitutional authority, the question is whether they have the intestinal fortitude to do it.
OLBERMANN: And there‘s one more question, something that is new, certainly outside the Constitution, new to our history. We‘ve talked about it many times. Is there some way that, having used it in so many different other areas, that President Bush, seeing a budget or a specific appropriation for the war that he does not like, rather than vetoing it, would sign it and then present one of these signing statements saying that, Yes, I agree with everything you sent me, except for the fact that I‘m sending this $7 billion to Iraq anyway?
TURLEY: He‘s going to have a hard time doing that with an appropriations bill, because that comes pretty close to theft. It‘s like taking something out of the transportation budget. You are required to use funds given to you for the purposes for which they are given.
He‘s more likely to rush troops to Iraq and do what Teddy Roosevelt did with the Great White Fleet. Congress didn‘t want to send the fleet around the world. So Teddy Roosevelt sent it halfway around the world and said, They‘re going to run out of gas. I suggest you send the rest.
OLBERMANN: Which would explain why, according to one report, there are already 90 advance troops from the 82nd Airborne already in Iraq tonight.
TURLEY: That‘s precisely why.
OLBERMANN: Constitutional law expert Jonathan Turley. As always, Jon, great thanks for your insights.
TURLEY: Thanks, Keith.
OLBERMANN: And the insight from Baghdad. Do the Iraqis think more Americans is a good idea or a bad idea? Or don‘t they have any say in this? Why many wonder if the message to insurgents will be what the president thinks it will be, or the exact opposite.
And what about our fighting men and women? We‘ll talk to an Iraq war veteran about how this will play among those who have been there, those who are there, and those who will now have to go back there.
COUNTDOWN‘s countdown to the presidential address continues.
OLBERMANN: The American people have made their opinion of President Bush‘s troop escalation plan abundantly clear. Only 17 percent say they want more troops to go to Iraq, according to a recent “Washington Post” poll. What do the Iraqi people think about this latest plan to interject more Americans into what is, after all, their civil war?
Our correspondent Ned Colt went to Baghdad to try to find out.
NED COLT, NBC CORRESPONDENT: Well, Keith, this speech tonight by President Bush is getting a lot more play stateside than it is here in Iraq, not just because it‘s going to be taking place at 5:00 a.m. local time, but Iraqis have a lot more going on, and just trying to get by day to day is what life here is all about.
But ask them what they think about a boost in troop strength, and they‘ll tell you that they‘re ready for just about anything, if it brings one essential and so far elusive outcome.
COLT (voice-over): When Shalan Ubud (ph) climbs into his car for his job as a driver in Iraq‘s dangerous streets, he says he thinks about only one thing. Ask his wife, Fatya (ph). “Aman” (ph) is Arabic for security. And in a country where there‘s so much violence, and so little else, everyone here yearns for that one goal.
The Ubud family says they‘ve found ways to cope without electricity and clean water, even the shrinking allowance of meat for lunch. But whenever any of their five children goes to school, or Shalan gets on the road, fear takes over.
Are more troops the answer? Shalan believes training Iraqis should be the priority. “There are already 135,000 Americans here,” Shalan points out, “and bringing in more simply tells the terrorists that you‘re weak. And it will cost the Americans more in lives and money. Now it‘s up to Washington.” Amid all the challenges of expanding the U.S. presence here, timing looms largest.
CHARLES PENA, MSNBC MILITARY ANALYST: How quickly the goals and objectives of imposing security and stability, at least a stable enough situation in Baghdad and in and around the Sunni triangle, can be achieved.
COLT (on camera): Well, there‘s certainly a lot at stake here. With shifting public opinion here and in America, resources stretched, and a deeply rooted insurgency here, there‘s a growing demand for results now, Keith.
OLBERMANN: Ned Colt in Baghdad for us tonight. Great thanks, Ned.
A little over half an hour from now before the president reveals his plans to send more U.S. troops into Iraq, perhaps 22,000. We‘ll take a look at the strategies, the slogans, the rationales of the last three years of war, and ask if the president has any credibility left when it comes to announcing a new way forward.
But first, it would not be COUNTDOWN without the top three newsmakers of this day, politically stylized for your protection.
Number three, blogger Michelle Malkin, startling both sides of the political spectrum by apologizing. She was one of many who wrote that this photograph showed Senator John Kennedy—Kerry, rather, being spurned at mess by troops in Iraq. In fact, it showed him deliberately sitting down at an empty table for an off-the-record interview with two reporters. Kerry was not spurned by the troops,” Malkin now writes. “I stand corrected and apologize for the error.” Great start. Now if she repeats the apology as often as she repeated the original mistake.
Number two, “Borat.” Sascha Baron Cohen‘s (ph) movie mentioned at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. Former congressman Bob Barr of Georgia, testifying on privacy when Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter asked Barr why he appeared in the movie. Barr explained it wasn‘t explained to him correctly. Specter said, “It was a most extraordinary movie, and that the interview with you was about the only part of the movie worth seeing.” Pamela Anderson may have something to say about that, sir.
And number one, my old colleague from Channel 5 in Boston, Martha Raddatz, chief White House correspondent of ABC News. The White House press briefing interrupted when a cell phone went off and started playing “Ridin‘,” a hip-hop number by Chamillionaire, featuring Crazy Bone. Martha later revealed that the ring tone had been downloaded by one of her kids. Press Secretary Snow identified the phone as Miss Raddatz‘ and said, play that funky music white girl.
OLBERMANN: President Bush makes no secret of his distaste for looking backward, for assessing past results. But in our third story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, and his speech coming up at the top of the hour, that will not be possible. Any meaningful assessment of the president‘s next step in Iraq must consider his steps and missteps so far.
So, let‘s look at the record. Before Mr. Bush was elected he said he was no nation builder. Nation building was wrong for America. Now he says it is vital for America. He said he would never have put U.S. troops under foreign control. Today U.S. troops observe Iraqi restrictions.
He told us about WMDs, mobile labs, secret sources, aluminum tubing, yellow cake. He has told us the war is necessary because Saddam was a threat, because of 9/11, because of Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda, because of terrorism in general, to liberate Iraq, to spread freedom, to spread democracy, to keep the oil out of the hands of potentially terrorist controlled states, because this was a guy who tried to kill his dad.
In pushing for and prosecuting this war, he passed on chances to get Abu Musab al Zarqawi, Moqtada al Sadr, Osama bin Laden. He sent in fewer troops than recommended. He disbanded the Iraqi army and deBaathified the government. He short changed Iraqi training. He did not plan for widespread looting, nor the explosion of sectarian violence. He sent in troops without life saving equipment, gave job to foreign contractors and not the Iraqis, staffed U.S. positions in Iraq based on partisanship, not professional experience.
We learned that America had prevailed, mission accomplished, the resistance was in its last throws. He has said that more troops were not necessary and more troops are necessary, and that it‘s up to the generals, and then removed some of the generals who said more troops would be necessary.
He told us of turning points, the fall of Baghdad, the death of Uday and Qusay, the capture of Saddam, a provisional government, the trial of Saddam, a charter, a constitution, an Iraqi government, elections, purple fingers, a new government, the death of Saddam. We would be greeted as liberators with flowers, as they stood up, we would stand down. We would stay the course. We would never stay the course. The enemy was al Qaeda, was foreigners, was terrorist, was Baathists.
The war would pay for itself. It was cost 1.7 billion dollars, 100 billion, 400 billion, half a trillion dollars. And after all of that, today it is his credibility versus that of generals, diplomats, allies, Republicans, Democrats, the Iraq Study Group, past presidents, voters last November, and the majority of the American people.
Let‘s turn to MSNBC political analyst Howard Fineman, “Newsweek‘s” senior Washington correspondent. Howard, good evening.
HOWARD FINEMAN, “NEWSWEEK”: Wow, hi Keith.
OLBERMANN: Unfortunately I didn‘t make any of that up. What credibility does Mr. Bush bring with him into this address tonight?
FINEMAN: Well, I think you‘d be pretty reasonable to conclude from that summary, and from what the polling data shows, and conversations I‘ve had around town and around the county, the president doesn‘t have much credibility at all on this topic especially. And this was a guy who began his presidency and ran as a candidate, you know, who most people thought if he wasn‘t necessarily the shrewdest and most experienced guy in the world, was at least pretty honest.
He doesn‘t have that anymore. So if he‘s going to sell that plan tonight, he‘s going to have to do so based on the plan, verifiable reasonable parts of the plan, that somehow make sense to the American people, not based on his own credibility, because he doesn‘t have it. It‘s got to be in the plan, not in his own persona.
OLBERMANN: The White House likes to argue that the president‘s credibility should not suffer anymore than any other national leader who suffered reverses in battle? Is that a fair argument?
FINEMAN: I don‘t really think it is in this case, because I think presidents and other leaders who succeed in wartime, who rally their people to the cause, do it by maintaining a connection of trust with the people they‘re leading, with their country. Now, they may make wrong decisions. God knows, everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Winston Churchill to Franklin Roosevelt, to name some successful war leaders, make colossal mistakes, but they kept a bond of trust somehow, by being forthright and admitting mistakes.
And that‘s another thing George Bush is going to have to do tonight. I think he‘s going to do it in a sort of sideways way. But Richard Nixon didn‘t succeed as a war leader in Vietnam. And Lyndon Johnson didn‘t succeed as a war leader in Vietnam and both of those men lost catastrophically credibility with the American people.
OLBERMANN: Let me continue. You mentioned F.D.R. He was overwhelmed by isolationists and there was a sizable percentage of the country that would not have gone to war had it not been for Pearl Harbor. Woodrow Wilson ran for reelection on the motto, he kept us out of war. Lincoln would have been voted out. I mean, these are all things we don‘t like to address in American history, but the public almost made the wrong choice. The three most significant wars in our history to this point, Lincoln would have been voted out in 1864, if Sherman had not taken Atlanta. Is a president entitled not to make his decision based on what even a majority of the American people think?
FINEMAN: Well, I think he is. I think he‘s commander in chief. George Bush was re-elected, was elected in 2004, with most people knowing what his policy was, what his world view was. And he did win that election. You can argue that there‘s all kinds of reasons why he won, why Kerry didn‘t win, but Bush won. So the American people sort of knew what they were doing. But they had a residual willingness to believe in George Bush‘s theory of success in—I almost said Vietnam—in Iraq.
I don‘t think most of the American people believe that anymore, which is why the details of his speech are what matter, if he‘s going to buy any time here, whatsoever, and I‘m not sure he‘s going to be able to buy very much.
OLBERMANN: Howard Fineman of “Newsweek,” and of course of MSNBC, as always Howard, great thanks for your time tonight.
FINEMAN: Thank you Keith.
OLBERMANN: Would the members of our U.S. military like to hear from their commander in chief tonight, as he announces that more American men and women are headed to Baghdad. Iraqi war veteran and advocate Paul Reickhoff joins us here.
And the stakes for the president, Chris Matthews will be back to take us up to Mr. Bush‘s address. COUNTDOWN‘s countdown continues.
OLBERMANN: In our number two story on the COUNTDOWN, now just under 18 minutes away from the president‘s speech, in which the president plans to add more than 20,000 troops to the 132,000 service members already in Iraq, says nothing about whether there really is a new plan or it‘s simply more of the same.
And to remind ourselves that 3,019 Americans have thus far perished in Iraq, or that 16 times that amount, nearly 48,000 men and women have been wounded. It fails utterly to grasp the collective loss, pain, and strain on our armed forces and their families. A reminder too that a recent “Military Times” poll, for the first time in the four years of its surveys, found that more active duty subscribers disapprove of the president‘s handling of the war than support it, perhaps even up to the highest echelon of military leadership. The Joint Chiefs of Staff has long opposed an increase in troops, according to numerous reports.
Joining me now Iraq war veteran Paul Reickhoff, who is the executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans of America, also the author of “Chasing Ghosts.” Thanks again for your time tonight Paul.
PAUL REICKHOFF, IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN VETERANS OF AMERICA: My pleasure Keith.
OLBERMANN: Senator Gordon Smith, the Oregon Republican, who memorably took to the floor of the Senate early in December to essentially withdraw his support of the war, today said the president‘s plan, quote, exalts hope over experience. What are your members and the active service personnel you‘re in touch with feeling about that?
REICKHOFF: They agree with the senator. It‘s clear that the president still doesn‘t understand the enemy we‘re fighting, and he doesn‘t understand what‘s going to work to fight them. This is not going to work. This plan to increase troops by 20,000 is really not going to make tangible difference on the security situation in Baghdad, or in the greater country of Iraq. It may work for a short time, but over time, this is really more just middling around the edges. It‘s too many troops for most Americans, and for the Democrats, clearly, it‘s too few to crush the insurgency.
If you want to increase troops, you‘ve got to do it by hundreds of thousands, and it‘s probably too late to do that anyway. So it really shows me that the president doesn‘t understand what our men and women are trying to do on the ground every day.
OLBERMANN: The “Military Times” poll, can you offer us some sense of what you are actually hear from rank and file military personnel right now, when so many of them are on second tours, third tours, now perhaps fourth tours? The suggestion that a majority now disapprove of the president‘s conduct of the war, is there an extra bit of information to that? Is there a conduct of the war they would prefer?
REICKHOFF: Well, they feel like this war‘s been done on the cheap throughout. And I think the president‘s new plan shows that that is not changing. This is another half cooked plan to try to middle around the edges and our people are frustrated. They don‘t see progress. And on the personnel side, divorce rates are up. The rate of suicide in theater has doubled over the previous year. Veterans coming home are facing post traumatic stress disorder and mental health issues. And there‘s a tremendous human strain to this war.
And that‘s the side you don‘t see on the news every day, people going back for a third tour is really unprecedented. The third infantry division may be going back for their third year in this war, coming up this year, and that‘s really putting a stress on our people, and they‘re not seeing progress on the ground, and their leadership doesn‘t understand the enemy they‘re facing, or how to fight it.
OLBERMANN: Do they sense—do they feel that they‘re filling some sort of historical gap now, that they are time servers in a time serving war, like the troops who were stuck in Vietnam after the 27th of January, 1973, when Henry Kissinger said peace is at hand and everybody had to wait it out until they got home?
REICKHOFF: Yes, they feel like this is more of a political move than a military one. If the president was serious about upping the troop numbers, he should have done it three years ago. And now they‘re just frustrated. They‘re tired of these half moves that don‘t really understand the new enemy that we‘re fighting. These are tactics from decades ago, not the enemy we‘re fighting today.
Politically, this may be very risky. And I said last week, people are calling this a Hail Mary. If we‘re going to use a football analogy, we‘re down in the fourth quarter. This isn‘t a Hail Mary, this is a draw play. It‘s even more stupid than a Hail Mary.
OLBERMANN: Paul Reickhoff, executive director of the Iraqi and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Great thanks Paul.
REICKHOFF: Thank you Keith, any time.
OLBERMANN: Inside the White House, the final preparations underway for what could be, almost certainly is the most important speech of the presidency of George W. Bush. Chris Matthews joins me next.
But first it would not be COUNTDOWN without tonight‘s Worst Person in the World list. And again we stick entirely to politics. The bronze to commentator Glenn Beck, telling “Radar Magazine,” quote, my problem with Keith Olbermann is, just admit it, just admit that you‘re a liberal. I have not heard the man get on television and say look, I am as liberal as they come. I‘ll come on and say I‘m not a journalist, I‘m as conservative you can get. No, you would have to come on and say, I‘m a delusional bigot, who joked about killing Michael Moore, and called the victims of Hurricane Katrina scum bags.
The runner up, Senator John McCain, refusing to own up to his own pre-war quotes about how easy the American experience in Iraq would be, how few casualties there would be. Coming on this network today to say, quote, it was easy. It was easy. I said the military operation would be easy. It was easy. We were greeted as liberators. Look at the films of when we rolled into Baghdad. There‘s some other films you might want to look at, sir.
But the winner, Gretchen Carlson of Fox, interviewing White House communications director Dan Bartlett, and saying, you talked about the hostile enemy obviously being Iraq, but hostile enemies right here on the home front. Yesterday, Senator Ted Kennedy proposing that any kind of a troop surge should mean there should be congressional approval of that, implying Senator Kennedy was a hostile, right here on the home front was so bad, so egregious, so un-American that even Mr. Bartlett, of the White House, felt compelled to correct Miss Carlson on Fox News and say, we don‘t view Senator Kennedy as a hostile enemy. Gretchen Carlson of Fox News Channel, today‘s Worst Person in the World.
OLBERMANN: Another excerpt of the president‘s speech, scheduled for about nine minutes from this moment, has been released. An embargo broken, in fact, not by us. Mr Bush will say, where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me. That may be a finessed version of accepting responsibility.
To our number one story on the COUNTDOWN, and it is obvious and inescapable, at we are told 9:01 and 30 seconds Eastern Standard Time, the president will finally reveal his new intentions for Iraq. He is expected to speak for about 25 minutes, and as to the particulars, we have analyzed them to within an inch of any remaining meaningfulness, but the anticipated highlights again, up to 22,000 new troop assignments in Iraq, all about 4,000 of them to Baghdad, so that some measure of security can be established there.
With the president, to say the situation in Iraq is unacceptable to the American people and unacceptable to him, to acknowledge mistakes have been made, though maybe not by him. You heard the phrase, where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me. To insist the American presence in Iraq is not open-ended, to admit that more Americans in Iraq increases the chances of more violence in Iraq, to insist that the Iraqis must step forward, step up, step lively. He will mention the word benchmark again. To reveal military escalations and reconstruction that will cost anywhere from, depending on who‘s figure you believe, 5.6 to 6.8 billion dollars. The war is already costing you at least 286 million dollars a day.
All of this against the backdrop of two Republican senators, Brownback of Kansas and Coleman of Minnesota, stating outright today that they are opposed to sending more troops. Afterwards, Chris Matthews and I will be joined by Joe Scarborough of MSNBC, and by Tim Russert and Brian Williams and David Gregory of NBC News. We‘ll have the official Democratic response from Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois and I‘ll get the response from the other Illinois senator, Barack Obama.
So now let‘s count down to the speech with Chris Matthews. That quote that just came out, how do you read this, where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me. Is that enough of an acknowledgment that it‘s his doing or did he finesse this?
CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC ANCHOR: It‘s more than I expected. I thought he was going to say that there were lessons learned, which is a very oblique way of admitting mistakes, but he did use the word mistakes, and I think it will be in the headlines tomorrow morning across the country. It is a very significant word, because we haven‘t heard it yet in this war, which has gone so badly. The commander-in-chief has, until now, not admitted that it‘s been, to a large extent, a catastrophe, compared to what we thought it would be.
OLBERMANN: What would be, do you think, Chris, the practical difference between hearing that statement from the president, where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me, and something blunt, I have made mistakes in Iraq?
MATTHEWS: Well, I don‘t want to get on the side of the president. I‘m not his flak. But I‘ll tell you this, it‘s very close to what Jack Kennedy said after the Bay of Pigs. And Jack Kennedy was so popular at the time, that even though the Bay of Pigs was a disaster, a catastrophe, his numbers soared thereafter. I don‘t think this president enjoys the goodwill to rise in the polls after such an admission.
I think this admission will hurt him. I think that in the days ahead his people will say it was a mistake to admit it was a mistake, because once he‘s done that, then there‘s kind of a magical wall that‘s been broken between here, between his certitude and our doubt. But now that he shares our doubt, I think we may have a problem here that we hadn‘t had before.
OLBERMANN: And it may explain why we had that ship-jumping exercise today. Could those Republican senators who got off the bandwagon already this afternoon, in the persons of Mr. Coleman and Mr. Brownback, to some degree Mr. Voinovich, could they have known that phrase was actually coming?
MATTHEWS: I don‘t know, but they‘re not swimming towards the ship. I‘m looking at the list of names—everybody is probably in this game right now—of counting the Republicans as they issue statements, Lugar of Indiana, Voinovich of Ohio, Smith of Oregon, Brownback of Kansas, Hagel of Nebraska, Coleman of Minnesota, Collins of Maine. These are not from left-wing states, but these people are worried and they are saying things like, I don‘t believe in the surge. I‘m worried about this. People like Hillary Clinton are still aboard, certainly Lieberman is still aboard.
But the Republicans know that this war has their name on it. They have a lot more at risk than the Democrats. The Democrats didn‘t lose a single seat in the November elections because the people don‘t blame them. For better or worse, they were seen as irrelevant for the last four years. The Republicans are seen as extremely relevant and mistaken as we now have it officially admitted by the president tonight.
OLBERMANN: I know the content will not be the same, not even close. The reality is not the same. But politically, is, to some degree, is the administration‘s hope here that they will be conveying the same feel, the same gravitas here as the Lyndon Johnson landmark speech to the nation about Vietnam in 1968, when he basically threw in the towel and said we have to go back and start this all over again, and do it differently from here on in?
MATTHEWS: Well, there‘s grounds for the president to retire, based upon the mistakes made. He will not retire. We know he‘s much more steadfast than that politically and personally. But there are certainly grounds, if this were a parliamentary style government, where the parliamentary members, the ministers of the government, the foreign minister, the chancellor, the prime minister himself would say, like they did in the Suez campaign in Britain, this was a catastrophe.
We went into a battle thinking it would be quickly won. We would turn over authority to the Iraqi National Congress, or someone, and we would get out of there. That was the way it was sold to the American people. After the—I must say the dishonest selling of why we went in there, they told us how easily we would get out. The president, I don‘t think, is going to dwell too much tonight on leaving Iraq ever. I firmly believe he wants permanent bases there. I believe the ideologues behind this war are insistent that the United States lever leave in force from the Middle East. They want us there as a permanent constabulary, the big brother of the Middle East. They want us there. You‘re never going to hear them say we‘re coming home.
And I think that‘s the difference between this president and Lyndon Johnson. At some level Lyndon Johnson was humiliated by the war in Iraq. He was beaten by it. This president still has a star that leads him to kind of a messianic thinking that somehow he‘s the essential man right now to keep us in that war. I do not hear in this a victory plan. I hear in this a delay pattern, a fight it out, an Alamo, but the Alamo was not a victorious battle for Texas or for the country. It was a losing battle.
OLBERMANN: The Republicans, to the degree they already went out, the Democrats aren‘t sure they can constitutionally stop the president with what he wants to do. They may take a vote anyway. We‘re not sure what the Iraqi government really wants. The polls showing at least 61 percent of the American public opposing more troops. What on earth would be a win for the president tonight? What could he possibly, realistically be hoping for tonight?
MATTHEWS: Well, I don‘t think it‘s his last stand. I think it‘s the second to the last stand. I think asking for more troops suggests hope that if we try a little harder, it will work. I think the next go-around, six months from now, or a year from now, perhaps, you‘ll see the president come back to the American people and say, give me one last shot at this. I think he has one more chance after this. It‘s not the end of the game.
This is the second to the last battle, I believe, of this war politically. But I do believe his numbers will continue to go down. I think we‘ll see casualties in the streets of Iraq, Baghdad. It‘s going to be a bloody campaign and I don‘t think it‘s going to yield stability.
OLBERMANN: Let‘s pause for a second Chris, and we‘ll segue into the official MSNBC coverage of the president‘s speech to the nation.
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