MR. TIM RUSSERT: Our issues this Sunday: The House says no to the Bush plan for more troops in Iraq. And the president sends a message to Iran.
PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH: We do know that they’re there and I intend to do something about it.
MR. RUSSERT: What now? With us, the president’s official spokesman, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow. Then, two senators who strongly disagree with the president’s Iraq policy, Republican Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Democrat Jack Reed of Rhode Island. And what is it really like to live in Baghdad? With us, NBC News war correspondent Richard Engel, who has been in Iraq for the last four years.
But first, the man you see practically every day articulating, sometimes defending the president’s policies, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow is here. Welcome.
MR. TONY SNOW: Thanks, Tim.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me show you and our viewers the exact resolution that was before the House of Representatives on Friday, and here it is:
“Disapproving of the decision of the president announced on January 10, 2007, to deploy more than 20,000 additional United States combat troops to Iraq. Resolved by the House of Representatives ... That -
“(1) Congress and the American people will continue to support and protect the members of the United States armed forces who are serving or who have served bravely and honorably in Iraq; and
“(2) Congress disapproves of the decision of President George W. Bush announced on January 10, 2007, to deploy more than 20,000 additional United States combat troops to Iraq.”
Two hundred and forty-six members of Congress voted for that. Led to headlines like this: “House rebukes Bush on Iraq.” What message does that send to the world?
MR. SNOW: It’s hard to say, Tim. I think—one of the things people see is democracy in action. As you know yesterday, there was an attempt to get an identical resolution up for a vote on the Senate floor, and on a procedural basis, it failed. I think now what’s going to happen is, you know and I know, is that there’s going to be a turn in the debate to, if you support the troops, are you, in fact, going to provide the reinforcements they need and our commanders think that they need in order to get the job done in Iraq? So there has been an expression of sentiment on the parts of members of Congress. And the president’s made it clear, he doesn’t doubt anybody’s patriotism, but on the other hand, he thinks it’s absolutely vital to bring in 21,000 reinforcements into Iraq, not to do the same old mission but in support of an entirely different kind of a mission and one that offers the hope of securing Baghdad, creating conditions where the Iraqis themselves can do very important political and economic work, and at the same time, build confidence, not only in the United States, but also the government of Iraq itself.
MR. RUSSERT: But if you have a majority of the House, and in the Senate on Saturday, there were 56 senators expressing support for a resolution against the president, isn’t that saying to the world, we oppose our commander in chief on his Iraq policy?
MR. SNOW: Well, I think—yeah, I think there’s—well, it’s going to be interesting, because again, you heard Jack Murtha the other day, for instance, say, “Well, this is just a trial vote, this is not the real vote.” And I think what the world needs to understand is that this was a nonbinding vote and there is going to be a binding vote, not merely on the Congress and president, but on the people who are in the field right now, those who are expecting reinforcements to come to help them with a new security plan in Baghdad and in Anbar province and Diyala and other places in Iraq where there is violence. And so this is a time now for the United States also to send a message, yeah, we can have disagreements, but when it comes time to show determination against an enemy and show determination in support of our forces as they try to pursue success in Iraq, we can also stand behind them and provide the funding and flexibility the president thinks is essential.
MR. RUSSERT: But when both houses of Congress disagree with the president sending more troops, that doesn’t trouble the president?
MR. SNOW: Well, the president also understands that—look, the way the president’s put it is pretty simple. If you ask the American people, do you like the way things are in Iraq right now, the answer is no, we don’t. We think they ought to be better. We would like to see more success. We want the Iraqi government standing up in terms of taking a higher profile on security, taking a higher profile on reconstruction, being more serious about political reconciliation and reaching out to its neighbors, doing the hard work of becoming a democracy that can stand on its own. So we understand that sentiment. Interestingly, if you also take a look at polls, Tim, and they ask people, well, do you support continued funding for the forces, 67 percent say yes. They say, do you, do you oppose efforts to take away funding for the additional 21,000, 60 percent say, no, we don’t support that. So it’s an interesting debate in the country. I—look, the president understands that war’s tough, they’re unpopular. He doesn’t like having to be at war and would love to be able to return the forces home. But the cost of leaving before we’ve succeeded is too high for this president or any president to risk.
MR. RUSSERT: You mentioned Congressman John Murtha. Let me show you what he is proposing. John Murtha, Democrat of Pennsylvania, said he would “attach language to a war funding bill that would prohibit the redeployment of units that have been at home for less than a year, stop the extension of tours beyond 12 months, and prohibit units from shipping out if they do not train with all of their equipment. His aim, he made clear, is ... to ‘stop the surge.’”
Does the president support the Murtha language?
MR. SNOW: No. But, I mean, look, the notion, I think it’s been referred to by some as a slow bleed. That’s not—the president believes that what you need to do if you support the troops, is to provide the reinforcement for the people who are already on the ground to get the job done and finish the job. But he also—look, we’re not in the business of trying to pick personal fights with members of Congress. We think it’s important to do two things: Number one, to have a sensible and full debate about this because the nation deserves it, and also to realize that on a lot of the basics, people agree. I mean, people do agree that the Iraqis need to step up.
And I think there’s also increasing understanding, Tim, of the fact that if you have failure in Iraq, what does it mean? It means that you have the possibility of al-Qaeda setting up shop in Anbar province, having its own place for spreading and training terror all over the world, and also having access to billions of dollars in revenue that will enable it to buy weapons systems it can’t have. It creates a vacuum in the south that will allow Iran—would permit Iran to be adventurous, and to put pressure on other neighbors. It means that you could have problems in the north with the Turks and the Kurds. And finally, if you’re a gulf state, and you see the United States leave without success, are you going to rely on the United States for security? No. So what it does is it weakens us economically and strategically. We can’t afford that, and that’s why the president’s committed to succeeding in Iraq.
MR. RUSSERT: So he welcomes the debate on funding?
MR. SNOW: Yeah. I mean, look, it’s going to happen, and I think it’s also important for people to realize that we’re having a debate right now about failing to fund a program that is just now beginning to be implemented. You had the Senate, by an 81 to nothing vote, vote for General David Petraeus. And David Petraeus says, “I need these forces.” And as the president pointed out the other day, it would mark the first time in American history that the United States Senate voted for somebody, and then didn’t give him precisely the forces that he thought were necessarily to complete the mission.
MR. RUSSERT: Congressman Murtha will say, “I want to limit tours in Iraq to 12 months, and I want to make sure anyone who goes there is fully trained and has the equipment necessary to do the job.” What’s wrong with that?
MR. SNOW: Yeah. No, the commanders say the same thing. As a matter of fact, they will be fully trained and fully equipped. If you take a look at, for instance, at the schedule for getting equipment into the field, it’s going to be there. When it comes to trying to find ways to make sure that people have more time at home, what has the president done? He’s said, “You know what? We need 65,000 new members of the Army, we need another 27,000 Marines.” That’s another one of the things that’s provided in that budget that he wants Congress to approve soon.
MR. RUSSERT: The other day you were asked about pre-war planning, and how it had been overly optimistic, and then you said this. “I’m not sure anything went wrong.”
MR. SNOW: Yeah.
MR. RUSSERT: Is that your view of the war in Iraq?
MR. SNOW: Well, no. I’m putting it this way. When you say not sure anything went wrong, what I was referring to is the notion that somehow somebody’s going to have perfect foresight of what’s going to happen in a time of war. The old cliche is that battle plans never survive first contact with the enemy. So what happened is people came together and put together what they thought was their best estimate was of what was likely to happen. Interestingly, I mean, you, on your own network, in 2004, talked about the fact that the war itself was not an issue because it’s been seen as a big success to that junction. It’s very difficult for people to—for anybody to anticipate anything that’s going to happen on a battlefield. What is important in a time of war is to realize that you have to have the capability, the flexibility and determination to meet the challenge as the enemy responds. The idea that we would be down to 5,000 now, boy, don’t we all wish it was true, but it’s not.
MR. RUSSERT: But it was weapons of mass destruction, the cost of the war, the size of the military force necessary, the level of sectarian violence. All those assumptions were just wrong.
MR. SNOW: Well, let’s—the size of the Army, if you take a look at it, you had a three-and-a-half-week march to, march to Baghdad that was unprecedented in the annals of military history, and I’ll let other people litigate the issue of whether they think there should have been a larger standing force at the time. The fact is, we now have a challenge in the year 2007...
MR. RUSSERT: But things did go wrong.
MR. SNOW: Yeah. Of course. It’s a war, things always go wrong. As a matter of fact, it happens in every war. But I’ll tell you, you want something to go wrong? Have the United States leave before the job’s done in Iraq, and invite al-Qaeda—give al-Qaeda the biggest recruiting tool of all, which is to say we made the Americans leave. Osama bin Laden cited the American departure from Somalia as the way to recruit and train people for September 11th. We know as a point of fact that, that they see this as a place where they’re going to make their stand. It’s our determination that it will be their last stand.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me ask a question about Iran, because it’s very much on people’s mind. Last week there was a briefing by defense analysts about the EFPs, explosively formed penetrators...
MR. SNOW: Right.
MR. RUSSERT: ...roadside bombs. And here’s how it was reported: “The [defense] analyst said [that] meant direction for the operation was ‘coming from the highest levels of the Iranian government.’”
MR. SNOW: Yep.
MR. RUSSERT: The very next day, Peter Pace, the ranking military man in America, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said, “We know that the explosively formed projectiles are manufactured in Iran. What I would not say is that the Iranian government, per se, knows about this. It is clear that Iranians are involved, and it’s clear that materials from Iran are involved, but I would not say by what I know that the Iranian government clearly knows or is complicit.”
Overruling the defense analysts. The next day, you went to the podium and seemed to overrule Peter—General Pace. You said:
“Do we have a signed piece of paper from Mr. Khomeini or from President Ahmadinejad signing off on this? No. But are the Quds forces part of the government? The answer is yes. I think this ends up being a semantic dispute about senior levels of the government. And the fact is, the government knows about it.”
MR. SNOW: Yeah.
MR. RUSSERT: Again, Pace. Here he is:
“That does not translate that the Iranian government, per se, for sure, is directly in doing this.”
Who’s right, you or General Pace?
MR. SNOW: We’re actually both right, because General Pace then held a press conference with Secretary Gates subsequently. And what did he say? He said, “We know the government’s involved, we know the Quds force is a part of the government,” and he explained as I did at the press conference. I didn’t want to put words in his mouth, but I sort of thought this was what he meant, that he didn’t know if one of the top two or three members of the government was directly involved for writing orders. But the Quds forces are part of the Revolutionary Guard, which answers to senior levels of government. So it turns out that I was correct. It was a semantic dispute...(unintelligible).
MR. RUSSERT: So General Pace is wrong?
MR. SNOW: No, General Pace, General Pace agrees with what I said.
MR. RUSSERT: So you were right and he was wrong?
MR. SNOW: No, we were both right. What you’re trying to do—here, let me, if you don’t mind, I brought my research and I’ll go ahead and bring in the General Pace comments.
MR. RUSSERT: No—all right, but let me, let me, let me—this is what Senator Chris Dodd, a Democrat who’s running for president, the way he framed it:
“I’m deeply troubled by this administration’s escalating rhetoric against Iran, especially intelligence from unnamed officials that is not fully documented. It is frighteningly reminiscent of the pattern we saw in the drumbeat that led to the war with Iraq.”
MR. SNOW: Well, I—again, I understand that Senator Dodd’s running for higher office, but if you go back and you look what General Pace—here’s what he said: “What I tried to say is that I’m talking about the top two or three people in the government.” He said, “We do not have proof that those people are directly doing it.” He said, “We know that those Iranians are Quds force members. Those are facts.”
So you end up having the fact that, the General Pace agrees that the Iranian government is involved in the sense that they...
MR. RUSSERT: At the highest levels?
MR. SNOW: In that—well, he—what he said is that he didn’t know if the top two or three people were involved. And the president said it and I’ve said it. You have a—what you have is an operational structure. It either goes to the highest levels, in which case they know about it, or they’re operating as a random force independently of the government. That’s pretty worrisome, too, and those are the ways we’ve laid it out. So I think, on this one, it’s really much less than meets the eye.
But let me also address what Senator Dodd was saying. When they had this briefing, they were showing pictures of these EFPs, these new kinds of IEDs. They were showing pictures of 81 millimeter mortars. They were showing pictures of weaponry that clearly came from Iraq—I mean, from Iran into Iraq and are being used to kill Americans. And what the president has said is, “No, we’re not going to invade Iran.” A lot of people keep trying to whip this up. But what he has said is that we’re going to do everything we can to intercept weapons that are making their way into the country. We’re going to intercept them on the roads, we’re going to try to intercept them in Baghdad. We’re going to try—we will do everything we can to defend our people.
MR. RUSSERT: Will we go into Iran to intercept them?
MR. SNOW: No.
MR. RUSSERT: Here’s the question people...
MR. SNOW: But let me also...
MR. RUSSERT: But let me ask this, because it...
MR. SNOW: Yeah.
MR. RUSSERT: It’s the emphasis. People were aware of these weapons as early as 2003, that’s documented.
MR. SNOW: Right.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me show you something from The Boston Globe and get your response.
MR. SNOW: Yeah.
MR. RUSSERT: “Another reason that analysts are skeptical about the new U.S. emphasis on Iran as a key enemy of U.S. troops in Iraq is that the vast majority of U.S. casualties have taken place in areas controlled by the Sunni insurgency, not by the Shiite militias who are closely linked to Iran.
“According to data compiled by the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, a nonprofit group that tracks U.S. deaths, a staggering 60 percent or more of U.S. deaths have occurred in areas where Sunni insurgents are active. Those insurgents are believed to receive much of their funding and weapons from private donors in Sunni Arab countries, including Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, not Iran.
“Only 4 percent of U.S. casualties have taken place in Shiite controlled areas ... while about a quarter ... have taken place in Baghdad, where both Shiite and Sunni fighters operate.
“That data goes against the assertion by a U.S. official that ‘Iran is a significant contributor to attacks on coalition forces.’
“‘It seems to be a relatively small segment of anti-U.S. activity,’ said Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East analyst with the Congressional Research Service. ... ‘Even if this activity were to completely stop, that would not materially affect the threat to U.S. troops.’”
MR. SNOW: Yeah.
MR. RUSSERT: Why doesn’t the president say to Saudi Arabia and to Jordan, our allies, “Stop allowing anyone in your country from sending these kinds of, the similar devices to hurt American troops”?
MR. SNOW: OK, couple of things, and I’m going to, if you—if you—I’ll beg your indulgence to knit up a couple of things, because first, going back to my Iran answer before, we’re not planning on going across the border. But the president also is not going to rule out any alternatives. But for those who think we’re beating the war drums, no.
Secondly, you looked at the presumption of that, I think, The Boston Globe editorial, it says that we’ve said that this is a “major factor.” No, but it is a significant factor. What has happened is that in recent months, these EFPs have become an increasing source of deaths of U.S. forces, 170 in recent months. On the other hand, we’re deeply aware of the problem of foreign fighters. It’s one of the reason he’s asked for 4,000 Marines going into Anbar province, which is where al-Qaeda’s trying to make its stand. And the president is very honest with people with whom he does diplomacy; but on the other hand, while it might make for sort of good PR, you don’t always call your allies out in public. Sometimes, you’re much more effective dealing privately with them. And the Saudis and the Jordanians and others have a—have been and continue to be and we assume will continue to be, very helpful in trying to fight against these forces of terror.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to North Korea. Here’s how USA Today chronicled the latest agreement. “U.S. officials defend nuke accord with North Korea. The Bush administration defended a new agreement with North Korea against criticism it rewards nuclear brinkmanship and offers an incentive to other nations to seek nuclear weapons...
“The deal does not set a deadline for dismantling weapons or disposing of its plutonium stockpile. Nor does it address missiles that can deliver nuclear warheads. KCNA, North Korea’s state news agency, referred only to a ‘temporary suspension’ of nuclear facilities in return for one million tons of oil and other aid.”
When the president came into office, North Korea had the capacity to either have or build one or two nuclear weapons. They now have the capacity for at least six.
MR. SNOW: Right.
MR. RUSSERT: And under this agreement, they’ll be able to retain that capacity. Why?
MR. SNOW: Wrong. Wrong. Actually, if you take a look at the agreement, what it says is first thing they’re going to have to do is to shut down, to seal the Yongbyon nuclear facility, and also anything that’s used for enrichment. That is a very first step in a long series that include the complete renunciation of nuclear weaponry and facilities within North Korea. The difference between this...
MR. RUSSERT: But, but they get the oil and the food now before...
MR. SNOW: No.
MR. RUSSERT: ...before they turn...
MR. SNOW: No.
MR. RUSSERT: ...before they give up their new current capacity.
MR. SNOW: No. What they do is, over the next 60 days, they have to shut down Yongbyon and within the next 60 days they get access to 5 percent of the oil. That’s it. See, the president understands that what you have to do is you have to put together a series of agreements that not only build trust between the North Koreans and everybody else, but they got to perform. So if they are going to get the benefits down the road, including ultimately as much as a million tons in heavy oil, they’ve got to perform. They, they—they’ve got to do things on human rights, they have bilateral negotiations with the United States and the Japanese. They have got to work on regional security. There are energy and economic cooperation measures. There are five different working groups that are up...
MR. RUSSERT: They will have to give up their entire nuclear capability?
MR. SNOW: Yeah, they got to give—that’s the whole point of it.
MR. RUSSERT: It seems as if the conservative community has reacted in a very hostile way to this agreement. Here’s the National Review. It says, “If this sounds eerily familiar, there’s good reason. In 1994, Bill Clinton ... struck a bargain with North Korea known as the Agreed Framework. The terms back then were largely the same. ...
“When exactly did Kim Jong Il” [the leader of North Korea] become trustworthy?”
The Wall Street Journal: “Faith-Based Nonproliferation. We’ll believe it when Kim Jong Il hands over his plutonium.”
And John Bolton, the former ambassador to the U.N. for President Bush: “I’m afraid North Korea has won. Once again, they’ve made a hollow promise, and they’re going to get tangible economic benefits as a consequence of it.” Bolton went on, “It is really regrettable that we have reverted to a policy that has failed in the past. This sends such a message of weakness to countries like Iran that so long as you hold out, this is the sort of reward you can expect.”
Many conservatives, Tony Snow, saying the president just wanted a deal and he accepted something that wasn’t even what Bill Clinton was demanding.
MR. SNOW: Well, actually, he’s demanding—he’s asking for a lot more. There’s very little resemblance when it comes down to performance standards between what Bill Clinton offered and what George W. Bush has insisted upon.
John Bolton ought to know that the president he served is the same guy who’s been doing these negotiations. And our conservative brethren, we’ve been walking them through, and a lot of them say, “OK, we get it.”
Here’s the deal: When you’re, when you’re doing a negotiation with somebody like North Korea, you have to make sure that they’re going to perform. In the old days, it was just us vs. the North Koreans and they could pit us against the rest of the global community. Now, what happens? We’re not giving oil to them, the South Koreans are. They’ve got to perform for the South Koreans. The Chinese have an important role when it comes to energy and economics. They got to perform for the Chinese. They’ve got to deal with the Japanese. They’ve got to deal with the Russians. All of a sudden they have multiple layers of accountability, and they don’t get the benefits until they have taken the steps. I think there were—there were assumptions that they were getting something for nothing. Not true. This time, the North Koreans, it’s trust but verify time.
MR. RUSSERT: And they will give up their entire nuclear capability?
MR. SNOW: Yeah, that’s where this is to lead.
MR. RUSSERT: For seven years you were host of “Fox News Sunday.” Do you like being on that side of the table or this side?
MR. SNOW: You know what, this is the best job I’ve ever had. I love doing what you did although I’m glad I’m not getting thumped by you in the ratings anymore. But I really love this job.
MR. RUSSERT: Well, we thank you for coming in and sharing your views.
MR. SNOW: Thanks, Tim.
MR. RUSSERT: Coming next, two senators who disagree with the president on Iraq. From his own Republican Party, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. And former Army Ranger and paratrooper, Democrat Jack Reed of Rhode Island. Hagel and Reed, they’re both here next on MEET THE PRESS.
MR. RUSSERT: Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, Democratic Senator Jack Reed on Iraq after this station break.
MR. RUSSERT: And we are back. Senator Hagel, Senator Reed, welcome both.
SEN. CHUCK HAGEL (R-NE): Thank you.
SEN. JACK REED (D-RI): Thank you.
MR. RUSSERT: The House over—the majority, solid majority, said no to president’s troop surge in Iraq, 56 Senators on record, including you, Senator Hagel, one of seven Republicans, saying the president should not do this. What message does that send to the world? What message does that send to the troops?
SEN. HAGEL: Well, first, this is a democracy, and the Congress not only has a constitutional responsibility to engage in matters of war, but also a moral responsibility. We’ve been at war for four years. It has taken a heavy toll on this country in both American lives and treasure. I think we have a situation in Iraq that is far worse today than it was a year ago, four years ago. I think the Middle East today is the most combustible it’s ever been. It is time for the Congress to be part of the decision making process. The American people want it that way, that’s why you have a Congress. We’re Article I of the, of the Constitution. We tried a monarchy once, it didn’t work very well. So we have an obligation to those, first of all, servicemen and their families, the ones we ask to make the sacrifice. They deserve a policy worthy of their sacrifices. And I don’t believe that policy is now in existence. So the Congress must be part of this debate now.
As far as supporting our troops, our troops understand this. I was in Vietnam in 1968, I would have welcomed, in 1968, the Congress that held hearings, that looked at what was going on in 1968 in Vietnam. They understand what this is about. And I, I think it’s really scurrilous for those to try to divide this country and say we don’t support our troops, or we’re less than enthusiastic, that’s just not true. I, I get e-mails, I get conversations through phone calls, personal relationships from people who were there, their parents, their spouses. This is not a matter of either you just continue to stay the course, which some want to do, or take another look at it. These troops deserve better, and I think the American people expect better and will demand better.
MR. RUSSERT: Senator Reed, let me bring up a point that was raised by Tony Snow, and by John McCain in the Armed Services Committee hearing with General Petraeus. You voted to confirm General Petraeus to head the unit—oversee our troops in Iraq, along with Senator Hagel. Senator McCain asked this question: “Suppose we send you over to your new job ... only we tell you that you can’t have any additional troops. Can you get your job done?” Lieutenant General Petraeus: ‘No, sir.’” Why would you vote to confirm him and then oppose giving him the troops he says he needs to get the job done?
SEN. REED: Well, this issue is about the president’s plan, not General Petraeus’ plan. General Petraeus is a competent officer. And frankly, he was confirmed because of his competence, his experience, his ability. But this issue, this debate is about the president’s plan. I think the president’s plan is wrong, I think it’s been wrong since the beginning. I voted against the operation in October of 2002. I think we have to get the president to change course, to adopt a strategy that’s consistent with long-term goals and values of the United States. So to raise the issue, I think it’s just absolutely illogical that well, you can’t send a competent military officer over there, it misses the point. The point is the president has to change course. We have to have a strategy involving diplomacy, involving more than just the military.
The president’s talked from—for years now about standing up the Iraqi security forces, getting the economy of Iraq going, making the Iraqi government make hard, political decisions. One component of that is military. He fails miserably on many other components: the reconstruction, the political decision making of the Iraqi government.
MR. RUSSERT: What does the Senate do now? The filibuster has worked, preventing this vote of a nonbinding resolution. Congressman John Murtha of the House side said this:
“His plans for placing conditions on how President George W. Bush can spend $93.4 billion in new combat funds would effectively stop an American troop buildup. ‘They won’t be able to continue. They won’t be able to do the deployment. They won’t have the equipment, they don’t have the training and they won’t be able to do the work.’ ...
“As the chairman of a House of Representatives panel that oversees military spending, Murtha plans to advance legislation next month attaching strings to the additional war funds Bush requested on February 5.”
Senator Hagel, will you support Congressman Murtha’s approach that say no one can spend more than a year in Iraq, and they’re not going there without the proper training and equipment, which in effect—in Murtha’s words—would stop the surge?
SEN. HAGEL: Well, first, I think Congressman Murtha makes some very valid points. Many of the points that he makes in what I assume, as you note, he is going to propose, were the result of questions that some of us asked four years ago. For example, the tempo of troops. How can you continue to have that kind of rotation schedule? Not many people listen. Now, when the House passes whatever they’re going to pass, it will come over to the Senate, as you note; we’ll take a look at it, and we’ll have that debate. That debate will be forced on us. We need to have that debate.
This debate, partly, is not about supporting the troops there. Now, of course we’re going to support the troops. There isn’t anybody in the House or Senate that would vote otherwise. What this debate is about right now is a continuation and an escalation of American military involvement in Iraq, putting young men and women in the middle of a sectarian, an intra-sectarian civil war. That’s what this debate is really about. So, yes, I’m going to look very carefully at Congressman Murtha’s points. And again, when you...
MR. RUSSERT: And you may be open to them?
SEN. HAGEL: And I’d be open to it. Just one other thing on this. When the outgoing chief of staff of the United States Army testified before Senator Reed’s Armed Services Committee this week, and he, in his words, said that this is just the tip of the iceberg. The damage that we’re doing to our force structure because of these third and fourth rotations in Iraq, we’re decimating our National Guard here in this country. What we’re doing to the equipment of the Marines and the Army. Somebody better get a hold of this, and Murtha’s right, I think, in a lot of the points he makes.
MR. RUSSERT: Senator Reed, would you be open to Congressman Murtha’s taking funding down unless the troops met certain requirements of training?
SEN. REED: Well, I, I noticed Tony Snow agreed with that, saying that the president’s not going to send troops in without training, without equipment, etc.
MR. RUSSERT: But the president’s going to oppose Congressman Murtha’s attempt to limit funding. Would you support limiting funding for the troops involved in the surge?
SEN. REED: Well, I think the critical issue here is getting the mission right and to fund those, those missions appropriately. The missions that we should concentrate on are going after al-Qaeda, security, building up the Iraqi security forces, maintaining the territorial integrity of Iraq. But conducting an operation in the midst of a civil war in Baghdad is one I don’t think is going to help us in the long run. I think we have to look, as Senator Hagel suggested, about funding. But I think we have to focus most critically on the missions, and guaranteeing to our troops that those missions with—that are in the interest to the United States will be funded.
MR. RUSSERT: But the point is, the president seems to welcome this debate on funding because he believes, as Mr. Snow repeatedly said, overwhelmingly, the American people do not want to withhold funding for the troops on the ground. Would the Democrats be willing to use the purse strings, the power you have, to stop funding the new surge of troops in Iraq?
SEN. REED: I think we’ve begun a process with this, these series of votes. First, clearly, on a bipartisan basis, a majority of the House and the Senate opposes the president’s strategy. That’s a clarion call, I think, for him to change the strategy. Second, we’re sitting down already with Senator Reid and Senator Biden, Senator Dodd, many others, and trying to work out a new approach. I think it begins with refocusing the mission and then resourcing that mission. Down the road, will we consider issues with respect to funding? I think so. But we’ll never compromise the ability of American soldiers to protect themselves. That’s something that I won’t do; that’s something that I believe Chuck won’t do.
What the president is doing is inviting a debate. I think it’s a false debate. The debate is about taking away resources that will protect troops. We won’t do that. But we have to change the strategy for the long term interests of this country, and for, I think, success. Success not measured in the president’s terms, but success in terms of much more stable region in the Middle East.
MR. RUSSERT: Is there a concern that the funding of the troops is a political radioactive issue that could backfire on the Democrats?
SEN. REED: Well, I don’t think it’s a concern that it’s a radioactive issue, but the president is inviting a debate and citing polls. There’s no American, and I don’t think there’s any senator, that’s consciously going to take away equipment, training dollars for American personnel. And again, this is the administration that went into this operation without a good plan for an occupation, went in without sufficient armored humvees, without body armor for troops, without training in counterinsurgency operations, despite the conventional success of that march into Baghdad. This is an administration that has persistently overstressed the Army. Chuck and I, in 2003, made the first proposal to increase the size of the Army. It’s only within several months that the president has embraced the idea of a larger Army. So their attention to the needs of the military, I think could be faulted significantly. And now they want to use the Army and the funding as a sort of political crutch.
MR. RUSSERT: On the issue of the funding, a fellow Vietnam veteran, Sam Johnson of Texas, POW, went to the House floor and said this. Let’s watch:
(Videotape, February 16, 2007):
REP. SAM JOHNSON (R-TX): We POWs were still in Vietnam when Washington cut the funding for Vietnam. I know what it does to morale and mission success.
MR. RUSSERT: That would be very much the debate you would hear if you tampered with the funding for this war, no?
SEN. HAGEL: Well, that’s what a debate is about. The president himself has welcomed this debate. The president himself, in his words, has said if there are alternatives, if there are suggestions, if we should be doing something better, I want to hear about it. Tony Snow talked about some of those things. So that’s what a debate’s about, and there’ll be various points of view. But we must have the debate, we can’t run from it and defer it. Because again, I think when we look at not just the most immediate component of this, and that being Iraq, but when you look at the larger context of the Middle East, where’s our new diplomatic initiatives? Where are, are the new efforts that are being made economically? Where are our allies and our friends in the Middle East? What’s their position on, for example, a regional security conference? We’re just focused on the military. The military is not going to decide the outcome in Iraq. I think that is complete folly. It will be the Iraqi people, it will be the neighbors of Iraq that will make that decision. We can help, but we can’t impose our will, our government, our standards, never have been able to, on anyone. So we have got to have, just as the Baker-Hamilton Commission report noted in its 79 recommendations, a new comprehensive package. That will be part of the debate, and certainly everybody will have their opportunity to register their thoughts on this.
MR. RUSSERT: Senator Reed, Iran—what is your reaction to the emphasis this administration has had on Iran and the roadside explosives this past week?
SEN. REED: Well, I was in Iraq a year ago, and military leaders showed me some of these projectiles, so the administration has known of this for many, many months. Bringing it out today I think is an attempt really to try to change some of the issues here in Washington more than the issues here in Iraq and Iran, get attention away from the, from the issues of strategy within Iraq. And I think we have to protect our forces, we have to interdict these supplies. But I’m nervous, as many others are, about this as a prelude to more comprehensive action against the Iranians in the military. And I think the military, from my—who I talked to, are very concerned, because they know, given our involvement in Iraq, we are not as strategically well placed to deal with the Iranians today. This is one of the consequences of this failed strategy the president has. Of a concentration of 140,000 Americans in a very difficult civil war in Iraq, we don’t have the strategic and military flexibility to deal with Iran. So the president, I think, is making a—making noise, but I, I think it’s more to divert us away from the issues within Iraq.
MR. RUSSERT: Do you agree with that?
SEN. HAGEL: Well, I would approach it this way. And I had an opportunity to speak with the president’s national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, yesterday morning, and we spent a good amount of time talking about Iran. I can’t obviously share with you all that conversation. But I’m somewhat encouraged with what I heard from Mr. Hadley yesterday morning, that the administration not only accept—accepts the understanding of a larger context in dealing with Iran, the Middle East—which includes Iraq, obviously the Israeli-Palestinian issue the secretary of state is dealing with today in the Middle East.
But Iran is complicated. The fact is, Iran is probably the most powerful nation in the Middle East, probably has the most influence in Iraq of any nation, is not going away. It’s a reality, we’re going to have to engage them. Baker-Hamilton report suggested that, as others. Some of us have been saying that from some time. How are we—how are we enhancing our relationship? How are things getting better? Are they getting better? No, they’re getting worse. I would just remind all—all of us that Ronald Reagan used the evil empire definition of the Soviet Union, speech after speech, but yet he sat down with Gorbachev. They almost came to an agreement on abolishing nuclear weapons. But he engaged, he understood the need for diplomacy. And that’s the missing component, in my opinion.
MR. RUSSERT: You mentioned Ronald Reagan. Vice President Cheney invoked Ronald Reagan about you in Newsweek magazine. “I believe firmly in Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment: Thou shall not speak ill of a fellow Republican. But it’s very hard sometimes to adhere to that where Chuck Hagel is involved.”
SEN. HAGEL: Well, I can’t answer for the vice president’s comments, but I do find that a bit puzzling, because I noted two weeks ago, Congressional Quarterly rated the 100 United States senators on their support of the Bush administration’s policies in the Senate last year, 30 votes. The senior senator from Nebraska was the number one supporter of George Bush’s policies in the Senate last year. Now, my friend Jack Reed will move further away from me hearing that. But I can’t answer to the vice president. I certainly never said anything about him or anyone else, I don’t get personal and that’s the way I leave it.
MR. RUSSERT: You said last month you would decide this month whether you were going to run for president in 2008. Will you?
SEN. HAGEL: I’ll make a decision within a couple of weeks, and make that public.
MR. RUSSERT: Is there room for an anti-war candidate in the Republican primary field?
SEN. HAGEL: Well, I don’t, and wouldn’t, consider myself an anti-war candidate if I sought the nomination for president in the Republican Party. It’s bigger than just the war. We’ve got entitlement issues, we’ve got tax issues, we’ve got environmental issues, health care issues.
MR. RUSSERT: But it is the number one issue.
SEN. HAGEL: It is the number one issue. And if I ran for the president, I would put forth a plan as to how do we get out of Iraq, what do we do about the Middle East. I don’t think you can talk about Iraq without talking about the composite dynamic of the Middle East. But I’ll, I’ll you know and that decision and announcement will come within a couple of weeks.
MR. RUSSERT: Will it take Republicans going to George W. Bush rather than Democrats to have a significant alteration in the course in the war in Iraq?
SEN. REED: I think Republican influence on the president might be more decisive than the Democratic voices, because frankly, he probably assumes that Republicans will support him—they have for so many years now—and when they begin to question seriously, as many are, his policies, I think that’ll have an effect. I hope it has an effect. I think the biggest development this weekend is this emerging bipartisan opposition to the president’s policies. I think if it was just strictly Democrat he would dismiss it as partisan. In fact, many Americans would dismiss it as just partisanship. But when you see a majority of Senate—majority in the Senate...
MR. RUSSERT: Well, it’s seven Republicans in the Senate and 17 in the House.
SEN. REED: Well, that’s—that’s progress. The last cloture vote we didn’t have seven Republicans.
SEN. HAGEL: You know, Tim, war does not discriminate as to casualties. Republicans, Independents, agnostics, Bolsheviks, Democrats, all die in war. And that’s what the polls show very clearly across America today, about position on where we are in Iraq.
MR. RUSSERT: Senator Chuck Hagel and Senator Jack Reed, thanks for your views.
SEN. REED: Thank you.
SEN. HAGEL: Thanks, Tim.
MR. RUSSERT: Coming next, he has covered this war for four years, sometimes with some very close calls. War correspondent for NBC News, Richard Engel, on what it’s like to live and work in Iraq. He is next only on MEET THE PRESS.
MR. RUSSERT: And we’re back. Richard Engel, nice to have you home for a few weeks here.
MR. RICHARD ENGEL: Thanks very much. Good to be here.
MR. RUSSERT: The Americans are going to have a surge, more troops. We hear a lot of conflicting reports. They’re going to go after the Shiite militias, the Sunni militias, but that there’s the sense that some of these may go underground, play possum, and just wait for this operation to end, and hopefully for—in their minds—for the American troops to leave and then re-emerge and start all over again. What’s your...
MR. ENGEL: That’s exactly what’s happening. The Shiite movement, in particular, has gone underground. There’ve been very specific orders by Sadr, who himself has gone into hiding. There’s conflicting reports about his own location. The U.S. military says he’s in Iran or apparently out of the country. His organization says that, “No, he’s still in Iraq, but is in hiding.” And there’s a very specific reason that he’s doing this. They’re—part of this new security plan, which is already under way, is to eliminate some of the rogue elements from Sadr’s militia. And he doesn’t want to be around while this is happening. So he’s trying to lay low while his allies in the Shiite government, with U.S. forces, take away some of the more extremist elements in Sadr’s own militia. That way, he doesn’t have to get blamed for a purging of his own organization.
MR. RUSSERT: Based on your experience, and you’ve lived there for four years, a year from now, what will we see going on in Iraq?
MR. ENGEL: A year from now? I think you’ll have the Shiites in control of Baghdad. There’s a major power struggle with Shiites coming across from the east, moving into the west. I think they will consolidate that control. And the U.S. forces will have declared victory, and will have been moved out to the Anbar province, and will end up fighting al-Qaeda in Anbar. So you’ll have a situation where there will be a more stable, but very Shiite partisan government in control of Baghdad, and the U.S. fighting al-Qaeda in, in western Iraq. So both sides get to declare victory. The government says there is more stability and a representative of a democratically elected government, and the U.S. administration gets to say, “We’re still fighting the war on terrorism; we’re still fighting al-Qaeda.”
MR. RUSSERT: What happens to the Sunnis?
MR. ENGEL: The Sunnis, I think, are in a very difficult situation. They are fundamentally—have a failed state on their hands. And I think, no matter how much success there is in Iraq in the south and in the north, if you have even a small failed state in the center of the country, it will be a serious, serious problem for decades, that will plague this entire region.
MR. RUSSERT: How much influence does Iran have on Iraq, the Iraqi government?
MR. ENGEL: Tremendous amount of influence. I mean, most of the senior Iraqi politicians spent time in Iran, have close relations with Iran. Look at al-Hakim, the most empowerful political figure in Iraq, aside from the prime minister. He has a very close relations with Iran and wants to form a Shiite southern state that would have an economic alliance with Iran. So right now it is—it is by far the most influential nation across Iraq, outside of the U.S., and really wants to replace the United States as the main power broker in Iraq.
MR. RUSSERT: What is Iran building in southern Iraq?
MR. ENGEL: Iraq—the U.S. reconstruction project has effectively failed in, in—across most of Iraq, particularly in Baghdad. It just hasn’t taken place. Iran is proposing an alternate, to say Iran will provide all of the reconstruction that never happened under the very expensive but not very productive U.S. efforts. So wants to build an airport in Najaf to link Shiites from Iran so they can visit the Shiite holy sites in central Iraq. So not only airports but train stations and pipelines, and has an entire economic reform project and, and benefits project that it wants to bring to Iraq.
MR. RUSSERT: You tell me that if you want to reserve a hotel room in a southern Iraq hotel...
MR. ENGEL: Call in Farsi. Yeah. They will ask, when you make reservations in Najaf or Karbala, they’ll answer the phone in Farsi, they will quote you the price...
MR. RUSSERT: The Iranian language?
MR. ENGEL: The Iranian language. They’ll quote you the price in toman. They—it is very much an Iranian—part of the Iranian sphere of influence.
MR. RUSSERT: You are home to work on a one-hour documentary which will run on MSNBC on March 21st, the fourth anniversary of the war. In offering this proposal to NBC, you wrote something and I want to share it with our viewers and come back and talk about it. These are Richard Engel’s words.
“As Iraq has changed, I have changed. The war has cost me my marriage. I’ve had friends killed and kidnapped, survived bombings and attempts on my life. I have seen Iraqis freed from the numbing, terrifying fetters of totalitarianism, and had their lives destroyed by the religious bigotry, ignorance, greed and opportunism unleashed by this war. It has changed my outlook. Violence and cruelty now seem, to me, to come easily to mankind; a new belief that disturbs me. But I am also more appreciative of how quickly life can turn for the better, or for the worse.”
This war has had a profound impact on you, hasn’t it?
MR. ENGEL: It has been my life for the last four years, and I’ve had many friends who’ve had, you know, terrible things happen to them, Iraqis, and part of the, part of the purpose of this documentary is to show some of the stories that we’ve been living ourselves through, and to try and show—internalize a little bit what it, hat it has been like for me. And one of the stories I want to talk about is my Iraqi—one of my best friends there, whose father was kidnapped and he remains missing, and it’s just a very human story. He goes every day to what I think must be the worst place on the planet. It’s the main morgue in Baghdad and he sifts through the hundreds of bodies that are in terrible state of decay. These are only unidentified bodies that are brought to the morgue and he’s searching for his father, and he’s told me, “I don’t even know if I saw him I would be able to recognize him because the bodies are so badly decomposing.” And these kind of stories just, we’ve come across so many, and after four years they do have an impact. I think he, he—this young man is starting to lose his hair, I think he’s losing his mind. It’s an entire country suffering from post-traumatic stress. So our own experiences, I think, also reflect to a degree what the country has, has gone through.
MR. RUSSERT: Criticism that the American press corps ignore the good news and only covers the bad news.
MR. ENGEL: I’ve heard that criticism a lot and I think we’re going to hear it a lot more over the next year, because there’s tremendous incentive for both the U.S. administration and the Iraqi government to declare a lot of success. It’s clear that the Iraqis want the—this war to start winding down. The American people seem to want that as well, so the easiest way is to just declare success, “everything is going very well.” It makes everyone feel good and it seems like you’re having a lot of progress. The reality is that there have been moments of progress, but in general, I think over the last four years, it has not gone very well. The region is very unstable. People in Iraq are not being attracted to this new democracy; instead, they’re fleeing in the millions into—spilling over into other countries. And now it’s becoming a major refugee crisis as Jordan and Syria are starting to turn people away and don’t want the Iraqis any more. So I think in general we’re going to hear more of this criticism. But if you read and you look back at the record that the media has put forward of the war over the last four years, I think it’s been fairly accurate.
MR. RUSSERT: Have you yourself had some close calls?
MR. ENGEL: Yeah, no more than most people, but I’ve just been there for a long time, so two attempted kidnappings and our bureau’s been bombed twice, and I’ve had three hotel rooms destroyed, and had friends killed and other colleagues kidnapped and just over time, things start to add up. You know, if you are there for a very long time and you roll the dice everyday, sometime the—your number might come up. But I’ve been very lucky so far. Other colleagues at—at CBS and ABC...
MR. RUSSERT: ABC.
MR. ENGEL: ...have been seriously injured or, or killed.
MR. RUSSERT: Well, we thank you for being there, and we thank you for coming here today and sharing this and we hope and pray for your safety, now and forever, Richard Engel. Thanks very much. March 21st, the documentary, four years experience of your extraordinary reporting out of Iraq. Richard, thank you.
MR. ENGEL: Thank you for having me.
MR. RUSSERT: And say hello to your mom.
MR. ENGEL: I will do.
MR. RUSSERT: That’s all for today. We’ll be back next week. If it’s Sunday, it’s MEET THE PRESS.