updated 1/24/2007 11:37:00 AM ET 2007-01-24T16:37:00

Guest: Barack Obama

KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC ANCHOR:  Good evening again, with Chris Matthews in Washington, I‘m Keith Olbermann at MSNBC headquarters.  Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me.  What the President Bush will say a little more than a minute from now from a speech in which he must merely convince the American people, the Democrats, the three Republican senators who have already rejected it just today, the service men and women, some of the generals, the Iraqis, other allies, maybe some other enemies that he is right and they are wrong and more Americans need to go to Iraq and not less.  And to do that, Chris, this will have to be one of the greatest speeches since Cisero.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC ANCHOR:  The reason he will get a good audience tonight and the reason the American people are hopeful of this president delivering a victory of some kind is because right now they feel stuck.  They know the war was a mistake.  That‘s in all the polling.  They also know that to walk out of Iraq right now will yield a catastrophe of some degree.  So they feel like they‘ve been trapped in a box canyon, in and old cowboy movie.  They‘re trapped in there. 

The people are attacking—the Indians, if you will, are attacking from outside.  They don‘t see a way out and their leader is saying, here‘s some fresh recruits coming in here, we‘re going to be able to fight off this attack with a few more soldiers.  They don‘t know that.  They‘re hoping that might be true.  But history tells them that a few more soldiers in a losing campaign will not turn it around.  And that‘s the president‘s problem tonight. 

How does he convince the American people that going from 130,000 troops in Iraq back up to the 150,000 we had last year is a solution, is a prescription for victory?  But here he is, the only commander-in-chief we have, the president of the United States, George W. Bush.

(PRESIDENT BUSH‘S SPEECH TO THE NATION)

MATTHEWS:  That‘s President Bush speaking to the country from the library of the White House that Jimmy Carter used to address the country from that spot.

I guess Keith, who‘s joining me right now, Keith Olbermann, the main headline will be, “mistakes have been made, responsibility rests with me, we thought we could accomplish our mission with fewer American troops.  I‘m committing more than 20,000 additional American forces to Iraq.”

OLBERMANN:  And the sub headlines I would think, Chris, would involve the fact that of all the other potential participants in this process, that the one named American politician in the entire speech was Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.  I‘m not sure in my first impressions here if that was an attempt at Bayh, since the senator from Connecticut is winning as an independent, multi-partisanship.  But it was extraordinary to hear him mentioned and it was extraordinary certainly to, as we await the Democratic response from Senator Durbin of Illinois, it was extraordinary to hear that word sacrifice mentioned in the wrap-up at the conclusion of the president‘s speech.

MATTHEWS:  Well, the administration and its people have been accused of cherry picking, the intel to get us into the war.  Here they are cherry picking the one hawkish Democrat in the U.S. Senate they can claim as a bipartisan partner in this working group they‘re putting together.  I wonder who will the second senator be to join that group.  I can‘t think of any obvious candidate.

OLBERMANN:  And also you mentioned cherry picking.  There was going to be obviously great wonder whether or not the Iraqi Study Group would be mentioned and how since so much of what the president seemed to be considering in advance of this speech was to be at considerable contrast to what the Baker-Hamilton Commission had suggested. 

And here they were invoked and most of their recommendations were ignored, especially on the subject of Iran and Syria.  The Baker-Hamilton Committee said, engage Iran and Syria and the president spoke specifically about protecting his interests in Iraq and Iraq‘s interest in Iraq from Iran, if not Syria.

MATTHEWS:  Well, instead of engaging Iran in a diplomatic effort, it looks like the president wants to engage them at sea.  Here he is announcing the deployment of a carrier group to the Persian Gulf to interrupt or intersect any effort by the Iranians to get involved in the Iraqi civil war. 

So we have potentially another war front here.  The president of the United States not only will not talk to Iran, it‘s sending our carrier group into that part of the world to make sure they don‘t get involved, which is, of course, going to challenge the Iranians on the high seas.  This could be very interesting, a small part of the rhetoric here, but why is the president bringing this point in here at this point?

OLBERMANN:  Now, we will disrupt the attacks on our forces, we will interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria and we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advance weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.  And saying as you said specifically, positing the possibility of interference with Iran. 

Let‘s pick up that point after we hear the official Democratic response from the senior senator from Illinois, Richard Durbin.  Here‘s Senator Durbin.

SEN. DICK DURBIN (D-IL), MAJORITY WHIP:  Good evening.

At the end of October, President Bush told the American people:

Absolutely, we‘re winning the war in Iraq.  He spoke those words near the end of the bloodiest month of 2006 for U.S. troops.

Tonight, President Bush acknowledged what most Americans know:

We are not winning in Iraq, despite the courage and immense sacrifice of our military.

Indeed, the situation is grave and deteriorating.

The president‘s response to the challenge of Iraq is to send more American soldiers into the crossfire of the civil war that has engulfed that nation.

Escalation of this war is not the change the American people called for in the last election.  Instead of a new direction, the president‘s plan moves the American commitment in Iraq in the wrong direction. 

In ordering more troops to Iraq, the president is ignoring the

strong advice of most of his own top generals.  General John Abizaid

until recently, the commanding general in Iraq and Afghanistan— said, and I quote, “More American forces prevent the Iraqis from doing more, from taking more responsibility for their own future,” end of quote.

Twenty thousand American soldiers are too few to end this civil war in Iraq and too many American lives to risk on top of those we‘ve already lost.

It‘s time for President Bush to face the reality of Iraq.  And the reality is this:  America has paid a heavy price.  We have paid with the lives of more than 3,000 of our soldiers.  We have paid with the sacrifice of our men and women in uniform.  And we‘ve paid with the hard-earned tax dollars of the families of America.

And we have given the Iraqis so much.  We have deposed their dictator.  We dug him out of a hole in the ground and forced him to face the courts of his own people.  We‘ve given the Iraqi people a chance to draft their own constitution, hold their own free elections and establish their own government.

We Americans, and a few allies, have protected Iraq when no one else would. 

Now, in the fourth year of this war, it is time for the Iraqis to stand and defend their own nation.  The government of Iraq must now prove that it will make the hard political decisions which will bring an end to this bloody civil war, disband the militias and death squads, create an environment of safety and opportunity for every Iraqi, and begin to restore the basics of electricity and water and health care that define the quality of life.

The Iraqis must understand that they alone can lead their nation to freedom.  They alone must meet the challenges that lie ahead.  And they must know that, every time they call 911, we are not going to send 20,000 more American soldiers. 

As Congress considers our future course in Iraq, we remain committed, on a bipartisan basis, to providing our soldiers every resource they need to fight effectively and come home safely.

But it‘s time to begin the orderly redeployment of our troops so that they can begin coming home soon.

When the Iraqis understand that America is not giving an open-ended commitment of support, when they understand that our troops indeed are coming home, then they will understand the day has come to face their own responsibility to protect and defend their nation.

Thank you.

QUESTION:  Senator Durbin, when you were at White House yesterday talking to the president, did you actually use the term “civil war” with him?  And, if so, did he react to you using that term?

DURBIN:  I used the term.  I talked to him about—I said exactly what I said here.  I think 20,000 troops are not enough to end this civil war in Iraq, and they‘re too many lives to put at risk.  He didn‘t address that particular issue.

I don‘t think very many people dispute the fact that this is a civil war; one that finds its roots in 14 centuries of sectarian strife.

QUESTION:  (OFF-MIKE) this idea?  Do you think that the White House might actually change its position on it or scale it back?

DURBIN:  I don‘t know.  But I‘ll tell you this:  I think that it‘s important that we finally have a voice. 

It‘s been four years since we voted on the use-of-force resolution.  If you look at the purpose of our invasion of Iraq, frankly every single element is unnecessary today.  There is no Saddam Hussein.  There are no weapons of mass destruction. 

What we‘re talking about now is to really bring Congress into the debate, the American debate, about what‘s going to happen next in Iraq.

And we believe that if we can bring forward a resolution that really brings the president‘s policy before Congress, ask for bipartisan support, that‘s a debate that‘s long overdue.

OLBERMANN:  Well there it is, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois with the official Democratic response. And we‘ll hear from his colleague from Illinois in the Democratic Party, Barack Obama, in a little bit here. 

OLBERMANN:  Senator Durbin, Chris, echoing, if not repeating, what Senator Kennedy suggested yesterday about the bid for essentially a reauthorization of Iraq.  Whether or not that‘s practical is one thing. 

But really, right now, it could not be more stark and more extreme, as we were just talking about before Senator Durbin spoke.  Here is the president, while talking about why we need to send another 21,500-some-odd troops to Iraq, also broaching the subject of broadening things out to involve interruptions, of what he perceives as events taking place in Iran and possibly Syria, while the Democrats are saying we need to go back to the beginning and vote again and have a do-over on whether or not we should have started this thing in the first place. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, I think the key group, as you suggest, to watch right now are the Republicans, whether Senator Warner, the former chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and the others who have been speaking out are going to say, “We‘ll join with the Democrats in a resolution in two weeks” -- that‘s when it‘s scheduled—“where they vote a nonbinding resolution saying they‘re against this surge.” 

I thought Durbin was pretty shrewd right then, not to make the case that he‘s a liberal or is an antiwar dove of some kind, some flower child.  He said, look, we‘re nationalist Americans, we Democrats.  We Americans have done a damn good job over there.  We gave them everything they wanted, those people over there, and they‘ve got no right to ask us to do any more.  And, by the way, we won.  Let‘s come home.  That was the message of Durbin on behalf of the Democratic Party tonight. 

OLBERMANN:  Can you recall a more extreme diversity of opinions on the conduct of a war—to use that civil war term—of a conduct of a war between the two parties than that, than the idea that it needs, at least for the moment, escalation on the part of the president, and again dragging Syria and Iran into this potentially, at least, whereas the Democratic response was, “Iraq, when you have troubles, you can‘t just call 911 and expect another 20,000 American troops”?

MATTHEWS:  I was amazed, back in the fall of 2001, after the horror of 9/11, not that we went to Afghanistan—that was terribly vital and critical and essential—but when I heard there was talk of going after Iraq, that had nothing to do with 9/11, I was baffled by that.  I wasn‘t baffled.  I was stunned that someone on the right would have the chutzpah to say, “Oh, let‘s go attack Iraq.” 

Now I‘m amazed, after a month of the national sort of consensus evolving, that it‘s time to redeploy to reduce our commitment in that country, for the president to say, not only are we going to put an extra 20,000 GIs in the streets of Baghdad and Anbar Province, but we‘re going to start pushing the Iranians towards some sort of military confrontation. 

He‘s widening the war; he‘s challenging the American people.  And I think, for the first time, who knows?  We may have an actual debate, which we didn‘t have going in this war, about how to get out of it.  And I think that would be a very healthy thing. 

I‘m so impressed that people like Senator Lugar, Voinovich, Smith, Brownback, Hagel, Coleman and Susan Collins, who was on HARDBALL tonight, are openly questioning the president‘s thinking here, not just his push for more troops, but his thinking.  Is there a rationale for more troops?  Or is he simply trying to show strength where we‘re clearly in a point of weakness here?

OLBERMANN:  Let‘s see about the consistency of that rationale and bring in Joe Scarborough of MSNBC‘s SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY. 

Joe, we heard in the same speech the idea that these 21,500 troops would be going to Iraq to provide, as the president put it, breathing space for the Iraqi government, which is really—I don‘t think it says a lot about the assessment of what those troops are worth as individual human lives that they would be there to provide “breathing space” for another government. 

But in the same speech, the president brings in Iran and Syria as potential targets, in some amorphous kind of way.  Can you balance those two things?  Are they consistent elements of a consistent policy? 

JOE SCARBOROUGH, MSNBC HOST:  Well, you know, it is very difficult to figure out exactly what the president‘s policy is militarily when you start talking about Iraq, bringing Iraq and Iran into the equation. 

Certainly, many Americans would agree with the president that Iran really is the axis of evil that poses the greatest threat to this country.  But you talk to military generals, if you talk to the Joint Chiefs, if you talk to the man who ran the Iraq war over the past three years, if you talk to the last man who ran an Iraq war, Colin Powell, they will all tell what Dick Durbin told you, that 20,000 troops is not enough for Iraq, that we don‘t have enough troops to go into Iran.  It‘s a very difficult situation. 

And I must agree with both of you:  I‘ve never seen such a divergence of opinion on a war like this.  And you do have to give the Democrats and Dick Durbin a lot of credit for not sounding like Democrats of old. 

In fact, Dick Durbin sounded a familiar theme that Republicans said time and again during the Clinton administration when he said, in effect, we will not be the world‘s 911.  We will not be Iran‘s 911.  Every time they need more American troops, they can‘t just dial up 20,000 troops. 

That is an American-first argument the Republicans have deployed in the past that Dick Durbin and the Democrats are going to deploy in the future. 

So the question is:  Are Americans in this debate going to agree with Dick Durbin and the Democrats, that we‘ve already given enough, we‘ve given and now it‘s time to bring our troops home?  Or are they going to continue to believe, as George Bush has said since 2003, that we must win in Iraq to keep Americans safe at home?

The only thing I would warn Democrats about is just how difficult it is to confront a commander-in-chief, even an unpopular commander-in-chief, in a time of war.  And that is the $64,000 question as we move forward, even as the commander-in-chief certainly provided a very sober assessment about where this war is going, saying, even if his plan is implemented and even if we succeed, it‘s going to be a bloody year ahead.  And even if we succeed in the year ahead, we will not achieve a victory like our fathers and grandfathers achieved in war. 

That‘s the type of talk, Keith, that I think would have served the president and Donald Rumsfeld very well in 2003.  The question is whether anybody is still listening in 2007.  We‘ll find out in the next few weeks. 

OLBERMANN:  And to that point about who‘s still listening, the other quote that was reached for before the speech began and afterwards, “Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me,” was that sufficient, Joe, to bring back some of the wandering members of the herd?  Will that play to the base?  Will there be some sense that the president, either directly or indirectly, is assuming responsibility for what has gone so poorly in Iraq? 

SCARBOROUGH:  That will not—I don‘t believe that will bring back a lot of members of the base, the Republican base, suggesting he made mistakes.  Who will it bring back?  You will hear immediately, Keith—and you will see press releases coming out of the offices of members like John Warner, George Voinovich, Sam Brownback, other Republicans, Susan Collins, that have been on the fence, they will say the president stepped up, and he‘s admitted he‘s made mistakes.  And they will be the first ones that come back and say, “OK, we‘re going to give this president one more chance.” 

I suspect, in the end, you will probably see Senator Hagel and maybe one other Republican crossing their commander-in-chief.  But I‘ve got to tell you, again, in a time of war, it is almost impossible for a senator or a congressman to cross a president of their own party. 

So that‘s what was achieved tonight.  The president providing what some Republican senators will suggest is a clear and sober assessment of the way forward.  And that will be enough to buy him Republican votes in the United States Senate. 

I don‘t know, though, whether that‘s going to get the base back on his side. 

OLBERMANN:  Joe Scarborough, stand by a second.  We‘re joined now from the Capitol by the Democratic senator, Barack Obama of Illinois. 

Senator, good evening.  Thank you for your time.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), ILLINOIS:  Thank you.

OLBERMANN:  Were you convinced at all by that speech?  And if not, what are you going to do about it? 

OBAMA:  Well, the one thing I share with the president‘s assessment is the belief that the American people and American troops have done everything imaginable that has been asked of them.  And they‘ve done a great job in difficult circumstances. 

I am not persuaded that 20,000 additional troops in Iraq is going to solve the sectarian violence there.  In fact, I think it will do the reverse:  I think it takes pressure off the Iraqis to arrive at the sort of political accommodation that every observer believes is the ultimate solution to the problems we face there. 

So I am going to actively oppose the president‘s proposal.  I don‘t doubt his sincerity when he says that he thinks this is the best approach, but I think he is wrong.  And I think the American people believe he‘s wrong.

And we are looking at a variety of options here in Congress to place some sort of conditions, some sort of meaningful consequences to the failure of the Iraqi government to meet the benchmarks that the president mentioned in his own speech. 

OLBERMANN:  I want to ask you more about that in a moment, Senator, but we had a new—I guess a wild card thrown into this equation here tonight, and I‘m wondering about your response to the part of the speech in which the president said that as, in fact, the Baker-Hamilton commission suggested, there needed to be an addressing of a dialogue with Iran and Syria. 

The president‘s version of it appears to be summarized by this: 

“These two regimes are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq.  Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops.  We will disrupt the attacks on our forces.” 

Did the government of this country tonight threaten the governments of Iran and Syria? 

OBAMA:  Well, look, I think there‘s nothing wrong with us, as part of a broader military strategy, making sure that Iran and Syria aren‘t engaging in mischief in Iraq. 

I think it is a mistake for us not to be in a dialogue with Iran and Syria, no matter how odious those regimes are, in terms of thinking, are there some mutual interests in stabilizing conditions there?

But the problem is, is that we have no leverage in the region right now.  Essentially what the president said is the same thing he said six months ago and the same thing he said a year ago, and that is, “Be patient.  We are going to do whatever it takes.” 

And the problem is the Iraqis, I think, take that message to mean that, no matter how little they are compromising with each other, Americans are still going to be present.  As long as we are not willing to provide any consequences to failure for them to arrive at a political compromise, we‘re going to continue to see the sort of sectarian bloodshed that‘s been evident over the last several months. 

OLBERMANN:  A variation on my first question, sir.  What do you do about it?  You‘re in the Foreign Relations Committee.  Those hearings about Iraq began today and were somewhat necessarily overshadowed by the president‘s speech tonight. 

Are nonbinding resolutions enough?  Or do you have to go after, as was suggested last week, appropriations line by line in supplementary appropriations bills?  Or do you have to stall the budget?  What do you have to do to try to intervene or interfere with this plan, if you think it‘s an inappropriate plan for this country? 

OBAMA:  Well, I know that Harry Reid and the Democratic leadership, their first step is to present this nonbinding resolution.  I don‘t think that will be insignificant. 

I was hearing Joe Scarborough talk prior to me coming on about people like Sam Brownback.  Sam Brownback issued a press release today from Baghdad, saying, based on having met with the Iraqi government leadership, he does not have confidence that additional troops would make a difference, and he‘s going to oppose it. 

Norm Coleman, prior to the president‘s speech, Republican from Minnesota, said the same thing.  I think we may get 51 votes saying, “This is a bad policy,” which means that there are going to be a number of members of the president‘s own party who have a problem with it. 

But I believe that we have to go beyond that.  I think that we have to look at a variety of options where Congress can exercise its responsibilities. 

I know nobody in Congress—Republican or Democrat—who is going to, in any way, strand troops who are presently in Iraq.  We‘ve got to make sure that they have all the resources necessary to come home safely and to execute the missions that have been laid out for them. 

But I think that we should, in whatever legislative form it‘s going to take, say to the president:  There have to be consequences for the failure to meet benchmarks.  If we don‘t do that, then we‘re simply looking at an open-ended commitment in which the various factions in Iraq have no incentive to change their behavior. 

OLBERMANN:  Constitutionally, are you convinced you and the House of Representatives can do that, as Senator Kennedy suggested?  Can you have, in essence, a reauthorization vote?  Or has the president, as Senator Biden suggested, really got a blank check, at least in terms of keeping troops there? 

OBAMA:  You know, that‘s the kind of issue that I think is being investigated right now.  My suspicion is, is that it‘s not going to end up being a constitutional issue, in the sense that I think Congress can legislate how monies are used.  That‘s part of its powers. 

But I think that there are going to be some significant institutional issues, in terms of, how do we constrain a president who is pursuing what the vast majority of, not only the American people, but also experts and military observers consider to be a wrong-headed policy?

We have a responsibility to do something about that, but we‘ve got to do it in a way that does not put any of our troops in danger.  And that is a difficult line that we‘re going to have to cross, but I think that it‘s something that we can arrive at. 

And my hope is—I had a long conversation with Secretary Rice today prior to the speech at her office—and what I indicated to her is I don‘t consider this to be a Republican or Democratic problem. 

I am happy to take responsibility to be crafting part of the solution of how we arrive at the best possible outcome in Iraq, but that requires a certain openness on the part of the president.  And it requires an acknowledgment that, after $400 billion, over 3,000 lives, that the burden of proof, in terms of devoting more resources to this process, is on the president.  And up until this point, he has not met that burden of proof. 

OLBERMANN:  Not to overwhelm the importance of the lives of American troops in harm‘s way in Iraq, by any stretch of the imagination, Senator, but the politics of this—it seems as if, to some degree today, the gravity got turned off in that building in which you stand. 

The president quoted and cited only one other American politician by name in his speech, and that was Senator Lieberman, who is ostensibly still a member of your party, certainly caucusing with you.  Mr. Brownback, Mr.  Coleman may have said more today than any Democratic response could have.  And you just mentioned that you don‘t see this as a Republican-Democrat thing anymore, which would be new for almost any issue in this country for the last four years.

And yet, on the other hand, your colleague, Senator Durbin of Illinois, just basically said the Iraqis should not be using us as the 911 service every time there‘s a problem and expecting 20,000 more troops, while the president is potentially expanding, not only sending those 20,000 troops to Iraq, but potentially bringing in issues regarding Iran and Syria, essentially expanding the whole playing field, not just the playing field in Iraq. 

Where are the politics on this now? 

OBAMA:  Well, look, I think the politics are pretty clear that the American people spoke in November, and they said that we have shown our resolve, we have shown our commitment, we have devoted our most precious resource, not just our money, but more importantly the lives of young Americans.  And at this point, we want to see some sort of exit strategy. 

I don‘t think the American people think that it has to be immediate.  I think we recognize that there are responsibilities that we have to the Iraqi people, having launched this invasion. 

I, for one, don‘t think that re-litigating the original decision to go in is particularly fruitful, despite my objections to it back in 2002.  But what I do believe is that we have to set clear benchmarks, in terms of the direction we‘re going. 

It has to be premised on the idea that there‘s a political strategy to get Shia and Sunni working together, and that we have to exercise the leverage that we have—our troop presence, as well as economic aid there -- and exert that leverage so that we can arrive at some sort of political accommodation. 

My point is that that shouldn‘t be a Republican and Democratic issue; that should be a realist versus ideological perspective.  And I think the realists are winning out.  And I think you‘ll see that in the president‘s own party. 

You‘re going to see a lot of folks who are asking very tough questions from his party, and I think that‘s a useful thing. 

OLBERMANN:  As we saw today.  The junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama.  Great thanks for your time.  Good night.

OBAMA:  Thanks so much, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Back to Chris in Washington—Chris?

MATTHEWS:  That quick thinking on his feet, in that eloquence, you just saw why Barack Obama is a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination for the presidency.

We‘re joined right now by NBC‘s Brian Williams and NBC News Washington bureau chief and moderator of “Meet the Press,” Tim Russert. 

Gentlemen, you both had a private meeting with President Bush today. 

Brian, do you want to start with giving us that background information? 

BRIAN WILLIAMS, HOST, “NBC NIGHTLY NEWS”:  Well, it started out, Chris

it was billed as a national security briefing, in advance here of the speech, with the president‘s national security staff.  And about—well, a few minutes into it, I guess eight to ten people in the Roosevelt Room, in walks the president of the United States. 

And, Chris, the ground rules were this—and people have already been asking questions about this, this is the mother‘s milk of Washington at political briefings.  You know, I‘ve been to them under Democrats and Republicans.  Not for quotation, for background, we can express the president‘s views, but cannot quote him directly.  So we can express the notions and ideas he expressed. 

I have a notebook I‘m sitting here going through, full of quotations on what was a tour of the world, letting us know kind of where his head is going into tonight, and that I‘ll leave up to my colleague in Washington, Tim Russert. 

TIM RUSSERT, HOST, “MEET THE PRESS”:  Thank you, Brian.

It was actually quite revealing, Chris, because it was, for me, to watch a president who‘s willing to acknowledge now, I think for the first time, profound misjudgment in strategy. 

We had heard a year ago or two years ago that the primary rationale for the war, the weapons of mass destruction, in fact, didn‘t exist, but, tonight, an acknowledgment that the troop levels and the overall strategy just hasn‘t worked. 

Secondly, I think there was an acknowledgment that his neck is on the line, that it‘s no more are we going to hear, “We‘re going to stay until victory,” or, “We‘re going to achieve this mission.  We‘re not going to leave until we‘ve achieved that result.”  It‘s, “This is not an open-ended commitment.  The Iraqis have to do their bit.  They have to be willing to take on the Shia death squads.” 

The president hears the clock ticking.  He knows the American people have lost patience with the war and with him. 

You know, Chris, four years ago, I said that the president had bet his presidency on the war in Iraq.  Well, I think it‘s pretty clear tonight that he just went double or nothing.  But this is it; this is the last chance, as you heard Senator Obama suggest.

And talking to the president and his advisers, my takeaway is they get it this time, that, unless there is significant progress in a relatively short period of time, you‘ll see significant Republicans cross over, join the Democrats, and challenge the president‘s Iraq policy.

You saw some erosion today.  Watch these 2008 Republicans who are up for reelection in the Senate.  Watch Sam Brownback, who is running for president in 2008.  This is a period where, if the president gets it right, people will take credit and say, “This is the advice I gave him.”  But if it doesn‘t get right and it does go wrong, look out. 

MATTHEWS:  Tim, I just want to check on something in this speech tonight that Keith mentioned.  “If the Iraqi government does not follow through with its promises, it will lose the support of the American people.”

Can you inform us a little further than that?  Is that saying that this is the last chance saloon, that if they don‘t put those brigades into Iraq, into Baghdad, the ones that may be in safer territory up in Kurdistan, if he‘s not going to bring those troops down in and put them into active fighting at the front of this battle, then we will know early on whether we have a partner or we don‘t? 

RUSSERT:  And I‘d love to hear Brian‘s sense of this, as well.  But my takeaway, Chris, in talking to people this morning, was that the president has made it clear to Prime Minister Maliki of Iraq that he risks losing the chief benefactor of Iraq in terms of the war, that they could, quote, “lose Bush.” 

In fact, Carl Levin, Democratic senator from Michigan, went to Iraq and told Prime Minister Maliki, unless you do this and do this quickly, get security and stability in your country, we are going to start withdrawing troops.  And people in the Bush administration were pleased that that message was delivered. 

That stands in stark contrast to what we had heard for the last four years about, “We will leave when the job is done.  We will stay there as long as it takes.”  The clock is ticking, and it is being heard, not only by politicians in Washington and by the American people, but I believe now by the president of the United States. 

OLBERMANN:  Brian, within the realm of the rules set down in your briefing with the president today, did the subject of Iran and Syria, which sort of sprung out of the middle of that speech, in a speech that was ostensibly about what to do about the situation in Iraq and whether or not less or more was the better option, was that a surprise to you, or did you hear about that earlier today? 

WILLIAMS:  No, it came up, and on more than one occasion.  And, again, this tour of the world was centered mostly in this one region. 

Perhaps the most chilling thing the president said—he indicated that those who are asking for a kind of wholesale withdrawal from Iraq would, when we all got to our eighties or nineties, look back and say, “Well, that President Bush, you know, he was right.”  And the president‘s indication, his inference was this, that an entire region would blow up from the inside, the core being Iraq, from the inside out.

And this was a kind of rare reassessment of his position.  Every indication was given to us that there‘s no insulation, there‘s no delusional thinking going on—again, I‘m repeating their position—that the president went into tonight‘s speech clearly aware that, when he looks around for friends and allies, he sees very few individuals. 

He expressed to us at one point his frustration that those expressing no position on the conflict in Iraq don‘t get called out for it.  He expressed his frustration that others are free to say whatever they wish and repeated the constraints he‘s under as head of the free world. 

So, yes, that part of the world came up in several different times and in different contexts. 

OLBERMANN:  Tim, let me follow up with you about Iran. 

RUSSERT:  Yes, Keith, can I add something on that? 

OLBERMANN:  Please, yes. 

RUSSERT:  Might be helpful, yes.  In the discussion with his senior advisers, with the president, again, something I took away, that it‘s the president‘s thinking that he will not sit down with people that he refers to as tyrants until he has, quote, “leverage”...

WILLIAMS:  Right.

RUSSERT:  ... suggesting that he has to win the war in Iraq or secure Iraq, and then he doesn‘t have to go to Syria and Iran and, quote, “ask for anything.”  That‘s the way he looks at this. 

Secondly, there‘s a strong sense in the upper echelon of the White House that Iran is going to surface relatively quickly as a major issue in the country and the world in a very acute way.  And a prediction that, in 2008, candidates of both parties will have, as a fundamental campaign promise or premise, a policy to deal with Iran and not let it go nuclear.  That‘s how significant Iran was today. 

OLBERMANN:  But, as you pointed out, there was a finiteness put to the

open-ended policy about Iraq that this government has propagated for the

last four or five years.  But did we, at the same time, see in the region -

it‘s no longer open-ended in Iran—or no longer open-ended in Iraq, but it is now open-ended, perhaps, in the region, in Iran.  We may be closing down this shop, but moving it next door?

RUSSERT:  Terrific question, because, in fact, if Maliki and Iraq is not able to secure and stabilize his country, and it erupts into wholesale civil war, and spills over into Turkey, and spills over into Iran, and becomes a regional conflict, what then is the United States‘ position?  And does that become a new front on the war on terror? 

That is something that the president will not discuss.  He said, “I‘m not going to Plan B, because if I go to Plan B, I‘ll have suggested that Plan A hasn‘t worked.”  But it is something that must be on the minds of everyone tonight listening carefully to the president. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you, gentlemen, starting with Brian, the president did make that allowance tonight that mistakes have been made, and I‘m sure it will be a headline in most of the newspapers, especially the unfriendly newspapers, tomorrow. 

But was that a tactical or an implementing mistake?  Did he admit or offer any kind of guidance about his thinking about the initial decision to go to Iraq, the forward-leaning, preemptive approach he‘s taken towards the Middle East generally, Brian? 

WILLIAMS:  The tone, Chris, of this talk, and two of the last times I‘ve been in private confines with this president, was this, and this calls for a bit of interpretation on my part.  Tim and I had the same conversation earlier today. 

If you knew what we knew, if you saw the intel that is our daily bread that we dealt with on a daily basis, dot, dot, dot, that would go on to explain so much of it.  And the president was clear on this. 

And when I asked him at the end about something that referenced a large mistake, we were all kind of wrapping it up, and it occurred to me to ask him, “Did you see the videotape of Saddam‘s hanging?”  He said, “Yes, I did.  A member of my staff showed it to me.” 

Before I could get out a follow-up, where does it rank in terms of the mistakes of this conflict, he said it ranks right below in importance Abu Ghraib, then went on to mention Haditha, which, in his view, was very damaging. 

So this was kind of an attempt at a realpolitik for this White House, warts and all, recitation of what has preceded tonight, as well as what the future holds, as they see it. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, gentlemen, thank you very much.

RUSSERT:  Chris, in terms of...

MATTHEWS:  Go ahead, Tim. 

RUSSERT:  Chris, in terms of Iraq and any doubts now looking back, as I was listening to the president and talking about the safe haven for terrorists and safe haven for Al Qaeda, similar to Afghanistan, my mind racing, saying, “Well, if we hadn‘t gone to war, that wouldn‘t be the case.  Saddam would be there that many think is a buffer to Iran.”

He suddenly said, And by the way, yes, I‘m glad Saddam is gone, because if he was still there, he and Iran would be in a race to acquire a nuclear bomb.  And if we didn‘t stop him, Iran would be going to Pakistan or to China and things would be much worse. 

That is the way he sees the world.  His rationale, he believes, for going into Iraq still was one that was sound. 

MATTHEWS:  And it could be the rationale for going into Iran at some point. 

RUSSERT:  It‘s going to be very interesting to watch that issue.  And we have to cover it very, very carefully and very exhaustively. 

MATTHEWS:  I expect so.  Thank you very much, Tim Russert, Washington bureau chief of NBC News and, of course, moderator of “Meet the Press.”  And Brian Williams, anchor of the “NBC Nightly News.” 

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

END   

Copy: Content and programming copyright 2007 MSNBC.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.  Transcription Copyright 2007 Voxant, Inc. (www.voxant.com) ALL RIGHTS  RESERVED. No license is granted to the user of this material other than for research. User may not reproduce or redistribute the material except for user‘s personal or internal use and, in such case, only one copy may be printed, nor shall user use any material for commercial purposes or in any fashion that may infringe upon MSNBC and Voxant, Inc.‘s copyright or other proprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal transcript for purposes of litigation.

transcript

Watch Hardball each weeknight at 5 & 7 p.m. ET

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,