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‘Meet the Press’ transcript for Aug. 5, 2007

Robert Gates, Carl Bernstein, David Brody, Doris Kearns Goodwin and David Mendell

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MR. TIM RUSSERT:  Our issues this Sunday:  In Iraq, the national government in crisis, weakened by political bickering and deadly bombings.  And here at home, the strain of the war takes its toll.  With us the Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

Then, do the leading candidates for the White House have the qualities and attributes necessary to be an effective president?  With us, Carl Bernstein, author of “A Woman in Charge:  The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton”; David Brody, senior national correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network; Doris Kearns Goodwin, presidential historian; and David Mendell, author of “Obama:  From Promise to Power.”

But first, the war in Iraq.  What now, after four and a half years; 3,645 U.S. troops killed; 27,104 wounded; an estimated 70,000 Iraqis dead?  Just back from the region is the Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and he joins us this morning.

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MR. RUSSERT:  Let me show you some headlines that were read here and around the world about what is happening in Iraq.  “Iraq’s largest Sunni political faction resigned from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Cabinet on Wednesday, severely weakening the government’s credentials as a national unity coalition and setting back hopes of reconciliation.  The Sunni Arab bloc’s withdrawal, announced” “the beginning of a monthlong break by” the “Parliament, is another serious blow to hopes that Iraq’s feuding political parties could pass legislation sought by” the U.S. “Congress as evidence of progress by” September 15th.  That sounds pretty dismal.

SEC’Y GATES:  Well, there’s no question that it’s disappointing that the Sunnis have, have left the government.  Some of the ministers, such as the minister of defense, who’s a Sunni, have remained in place.  But their inability to reconcile among themselves at this national level, and, and to get some of this legislation passed clearly is, is disappointing and, and, therefore, makes some of the positive developments outside of Baghdad or outside of the national political arena more interesting.

MR. RUSSERT:  But we can’t have any success in Iraq unless there’s reconciliation.

SEC’Y GATES:  At some point there has to be reconciliation at the national level.  I think, I think we, perhaps, all underestimated the depth of the misunderstanding and mistrust among these sections, among these factions in Baghdad over time.  But I think what we have been unprepared for is the, is the turn in places like al-Anbar and some other places where the locals have, at the local level, have flipped and come over to our side and provided assistance and, and created an environment in which the security in places that were considered lost six months ago now is pretty good, and where the—where local political life is beginning to come back to—the local political councils are beginning to meet again and so on.  So there’s—it’s, it’s a disappointing picture for the central government right now, but there are some positive things happening at the local level and, obviously, in the security arena.

MR. RUSSERT:  You mentioned some of those local tribal leaders and so forth, and, yet, the Shiite national government is quite concerned about the United States cooperating with former Sunni insurgents.  And, in fact, U.S. military quoted yesterday in the paper saying that we are cutting deals with leaders of the Sunnis who very well may have American blood on their hands.  We just don’t know.

SEC’Y GATES:  I guess by the time this whole thing is over we’ll have had to make arrangements with a variety of people that at one time or another were opposed to us.  That’s the way the political process is going to evolve in Iraq, of people who have been fighting deciding they don’t want to fight anymore and want to be a part of the political process.  And that’s what we’re seeing in Anbar with the tribal leaders and, and others.  We see it in some circles on the part of the Shia.  So that’s, that’s the process we’re hoping will evolve over time.

MR. RUSSERT:  You mentioned that we misunderestimated some of the divisions between the factions of the government, the Shiites and the Sunnis.  Mr. Secretary, for Americans watching today, many are saying to themselves, “The administration was wrong about weapons of mass destruction, wrong about the size of the force necessary to occupy Iraq, wrong about the costs of the war, wrong about Shiite and Sunni division.  Why should we have any confidence in anything they say about the future of Iraq?”

SEC’Y GATES:  Well, I think that what we should have confidence in is the evaluation that Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus are going to make in early September.  These men have been on the ground for quite some time now. They are the best of our professionals.  They will look at this.  Their report—certainly General Petraeus’ part of it—will be examined by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sent to me and then to the president.  So it, it won’t be entirely General Petraeus; it’ll be mostly General Petraeus.  But what we’re trying to do is get an honest an evaluation of this situation as we possibly can so that the president and the Congress can decide how to move forward.

MR. RUSSERT:  But there have been some very serious misjudgments made?

SEC’Y GATES:  Oh, I think that’s, you know, that’s, that’s clearly been true. I referred to several of them in my confirmation hearings, and, and I—but I think, in this case, what we were really looking at was how difficult it would be—I mean, he—these are people now who have worked together for, for over a year.  They have had a @government.  They have voted a budget.  They have passed some 60 pieces of legislation.  Not the key ones that we’d like to see. But, but, at the same time, there is still this deep mistrust from, from the Shia, who have been oppressed by the Baathists, the Sunni Baathists for so long.  The Baathists wanting to get back into power and make sure that they have a stake in the country, and the Kurds, basically, being the, the peacemaker, if you will, among them.  So I think that this, this internal cultural and historical clash has made it harder for them to exercise the basic trust required to pass some of these laws.

MR. RUSSERT:  The president has--(clears throat) excuse me—nominated Admiral Michael Mullen to be the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the ranking military man in our country.  And USA Today covered that testimony with this:  “The Iraqi government has made little progress” towards “political reconciliation, and U.S. policy in Iraq would require a ‘strategic reassessment’ if that does not happen by mid-September,” Admiral Michael Mullen, the president’s nominee, said.  Do you agree with that?

SEC’Y GATES:  I think that that’s the—I think what Admiral Mullen is saying there is essentially what is what the president has said, that we are going to have a, a fundamental look at where we are in, in Iraq in September.

MR. RUSSERT:  But if the government does not reconcile itself in the next five weeks and pass legislation that helps unify that country, we would have a strategic reassessment?

SEC’Y GATES:  Oh, I think you would have to, yes.

MR. RUSSERT:  You...

SEC’Y GATES:  But that’s, that’s basically the whole point of, of the Crocker-Petraeus effort.

MR. RUSSERT:  You served originally with the Iraq Study Group of Jim Baker and Lee Hamilton and then had to leave to take your current position.  The Iraq Study Group wrote this:  “If the Iraqi government does not make substantial progress toward the achievement of milestones on national reconciliation, security and governance, the United States should reduce its political, military or economic support for the Iraqi government.” Do you agree with that?

SEC’Y GATES:  Well, I left the group before they started putting together their, their recommendations.  I would say that, that I probably would have signed up to that at that point.  But I think what we have not anticipated—what we had not anticipated, either on that group or in our government six months ago, was that you would begin to have the turn at the local level in places like al Anbar and Diyala provinces and some of the others where, where you do have the locals beginning to cooperate with us, sign their sons up for the police and so on.  So I think circumstances have actually changed in a different way, and the question is whether the local positive developments can somehow be brought in sync and, and paralleled with some positive directions at the center.

MR. RUSSERT:  In terms of unifying our country, unifying the Congress in fighting this war in Iraq, would it have been helpful if the president had adopted the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group?

SEC’Y GATES:  Well, I think that if you would go back—I think there’s something like 79 recommendations—I think that the president has, has adopted a very substantial number of the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton group in part or in whole.  The, the group itself recommended that, that a surge might be necessary.  It recommended talking to the Iranians.  We’re doing that.  I, I think that in a number of the cases—I think what people are saying, the president ought to have just said, “OK, Baker-Hamilton is my policy.” And the truth is, even while I was on the group, it seemed to me that it was probably not likely the president was basically going to outsource his foreign policy or national security policy to a group of, of outsiders.  But the opportunity to pick and choose from the suggestions that they’ve made I think has, has enriched the policy.

MR. RUSSERT:  In March you said we would know by the summer whether or not the surge was successful.  Do you—have you reached a conclusion?

SEC’Y GATES:  I think that the military side of the surge we’ve still got a little ways to go, but I think that the military side of the surge has been successful.  I think that the, that the ability to go in—the problem when we would go after al-Qaeda and insurgents before is that when we would hit them in one place, they’d squirt to another place.  For the first time the commander has enough forces that he can attack all of their basic locations at the same time, so it’s much more difficult for them to squirt out and escape, and we’re capturing and, and killing quite a lot of these people and, and beginning to re-establish order in neighborhoods.

There’s one major town—I’m not going to name it because I don’t want it to be a target—but there’s one major town in Anbar that has not had a—an IED explosion since February.  So, so there, there has been progress, I think, in the military side of the surge.

MR. RUSSERT:  But there—a victory in Iraq is not a military solution.

SEC’Y GATES:  No.  All the commanders and I, and I think everyone agrees that a successful outcome in Iraq requires political reconciliation.  There’s no question about that.

MR. RUSSERT:  Should the Iraqi parliament have stayed in session?

SEC’Y GATES:  Yes.  In fact, when I was in Iraq two months ago, I urged—I strongly urged the presidency council and the, and the prime minister that council of representatives not go out.

MR. RUSSERT:  Because the signal it sends, sends to the U.S., whose sons and daughters are over there in 130-degree heat carrying their extraordinarily heavy packs, fighting every day, and the Iraqis adjourn without reconciling.

SEC’Y GATES:  Well, I was—I was actually even more blunt than that to them. I said, “We have—for every day that we buy you, we’re buying it with American blood, and the idea of you going on vacation is unacceptable.”

MR. RUSSERT:  Back in February you were before the Senate Armed Services Committee and Robert Byrd asked you this question:  “How much longer do you think we’re going to be in Iraq before we begin to bring our people home?”

And Secretary Gates said, “It seems to me that if the plan to quiet Baghdad is successful and the Iraqis step up, accept their responsibilities, and successfully assume the leadership in trying to establish order and then carry out their political reconciliation process, I would hope that” we’d “be able to begin drawing down our troops later this year.” That would be the end of ‘07.  Do you stand by that timetable?

SEC’Y GATES:  Well, I think what we have to wait for now is the report from General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker and for the president to make that judgment.

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