MR. TIM RUSSERT: Our issues this Sunday: The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Army General David Petraeus, will testify before Congress tomorrow after the Independent Commission on the Security Forces of Iraq reports that Iraq’s army will not be able to secure their own country for at least a year and that the Iraq national police force is dysfunctional, corrupt and should be disbanded. With us, an exclusive interview with two of the men who wrote the report, the chairman, retired Marine General James Jones, and the former police commissioner of Washington D.C., Charles Ramsey.
Then, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was in Iraq this week. Democratic Senator Joe Biden shares his finding this morning on MEET THE PRESS.
And former Senator Fred Thompson finally enters the presidential race.
(Videotape, September 5, 2007)
FMR. SEN. FRED THOMPSON (R-TN) I’m running for president of the United States.
MR. JAY LENO: All right!
MR. RUSSERT: As the other Republican candidates exchange fire in a New Hampshire debate.
(Videotape, September 5, 2007)
MR. MITT ROMNEY: The surge is apparently working.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: No, not apparently. It’s working.
MR. RUSSERT: Senator Larry Craig says again he’ll retire. Is this time for real? Bill campaigns for Hillary; Oprah for Barack. And the Democrats gather in Miami tonight for another debate. Insights and analysis from David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network and John Harwood of The Wall Street Journal and CNBC.
But first, the war in Iraq. An independent commission has now reported to Congress and the president about the state of readiness of the Iraqi army and the national police force. Here to share those findings are retired Marine General James Jones, former D.C. police commissioner Charles Ramsey.
Gentlemen, welcome both.
GEN. JAMES JONES, (Ret.): Thank you, sir.
CHIEF CHARLES RAMSEY: Thank you.
MR. RUSSERT: For the last 90 days you have studied this issue, including three weeks on the ground in Iraq. Here is what you came up with in terms of Iraqi security forces: the military, army, special forces, navy, air force--152,000 members under the authority of the Iraqi Ministry of Defense; the Iraqi police—that’s both local Iraqi police service and the national police--194,000 members administered by the Iraqi minister of the interior. And the conclusion that you reached is as follows: “The Iraqi Security Forces will be unable to fulfill their essential security responsibilities independently over the next 12 to 18 months.”
General, explain that.
GEN. JONES: Well, we had, really, four taskings to our, to our commission. One is to evaluate that particular, that particular mission set, but also the ability that they would be able to bring—to deny safe haven to terrorists on an increasing basis, the ability to bring an end to sectarian violence, to achieve national reconciliation, and their ability to assume responsibility for maintaining the territorial integrity.
We, we found that on, on two of those, they probably could do more than they’re doing now, and they’re on the right track. We think that, that over the next year, year and a half, they will be able to increasingly bring greater security internally against the terrorists. But we, we view the growth of the Iraqi army as a, as a two-step process. The first is to take care of what’s going on in Iraq—the insurgents, the terrorists, the crime—and then gradually do what most armies do and, and take over responsibility for defense of the nation, while the police forces take over the, the internal security. That second piece is going to take longer, and that’s the point.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me stay on the army for a second. The bottom line is that, in 12 to 18 months, you say that they will be capable of taking on more security responsibilities. But how long before the Iraqi army will be capable to secure the country without US troops?
GEN. JONES: That’s a function of three—a couple of things. One is the ability of a government to achieve genuine national reconciliation, which will solve a lot of the internal problems. When that happens, the army will be able to take care of the borders and turn their, turn their attention to the borders, which is critically needed, in our view. And the police, hopefully, will, will be able to take care of the internal sector, the peace and stability. Our guess, our assessment was that, while they won’t be able to do the territorial defense in the next 12 to 16 months, or 18 months, that it’s probably a three to four year project for them.
MR. RUSSERT: So there will be a need, in your mind, for US troops on the ground in Iraq for at least three to four years?
GEN. JONES: Well, it depends on what the external threats are. We’re, we’re very concerned about the increasing role of Iran, that Iran is playing, particularly in the south of the country. We’re—we’ve always been concerned about Syria as a gateway for foreign fighters. And—but the, the good news, to the extent that there is good news, is that the Iraqi army is going to be increasingly able to, with the police force, to bring about internal security. We believe that, that more attention should be put on the borders and that that might be a way to take the coalition and bring our technological means to bear, and re-mission, re-task the force as this improved army capability comes on line.
MR. RUSSERT: But the debate we’re having in this country and in Congress now is the president has said repeatedly when the Iraqis stand up, the Americans stand down. Your best judgment is it’s going to take at least three to four years for the Iraqi army to stand up in a way that all the American troops can stand down.
GEN. JONES: I think that’s, I think that’s probably reasonable. It’s—there’s no magic formula here. It depends on the, the rate of progress, it depends on the international ability to convince Iran and Syria to help rather than hinder the, the recovery in Iraq, and that’s not happening right now.
MR. RUSSERT: You know, General Petraeus, back in September of ‘04, wrote an op-ed piece for The Washington Post, and he said this: “I see tangible progress. There are reasons for optimism. Today approximately 164,000 Iraqi police and soldiers and an additional 74,000 facility protection forces are performing a wide variety of” “missions. Equipment’s being delivered. Training” “on track,” “increasing” “capacity. Infrastructure’s being repaired. Command and control structures and institutions” “being re-established.” That was three years ago. It sounds as if very little has improved since he wrote that three years ago.
GEN. JONES: There were three things that impressed us, Tim. One is that the surge, as a tactic in, in the, in the Baghdad region has had some, has had some positive effect. It has shown that the Iraqi army can, in fact, engage and, and is willing to fight and, and do what needs to be done. The Iraqi army is going to grow by a third by next year. That’s their ambition. I think they can do that. The ministry of defense is functioning pretty much as you would like to see a ministry. But the, the missing piece is the, the reconciliation that the government has not been able to achieve. And, as Chief Ramsey will point out, the police force, particularly the national police, needs, needs, as we said, reform and reorganization, and the police, in general in the country, need to have better equipment, better training and better assets.
MR. RUSSERT: I want to talk about the police with Police Chief Ramsey because he’s a specialist on that area. This is how The Washington Post reported how an American commander on the ground responded to your recommendation that the national police force—about 25,000 members—be disbanded: “Senior US military commanders in Iraq rejected an independent” commission “recommendation to disband the 25,000-strong Iraqi national police force, saying that despite sectarian influences the force is improving and that removing it would create dangerous security vacuums in key regions of the country.
“‘We are way past the point where we just fire everyone and start over,’ said Major General Rick Lynch, who commands US military forces in a large swath of central Iraq, where he seeks to have five more police battalions assigned.”
The Iraqi government also said, “We don’t need the commission dictating to us.” What say you?
MR. RAMSEY: Well, I don’t know if he read the entire report or not, but certainly with the national police—and I think we need to put this in context—you have the Iraqi police service, which has about 230,000 members, as we could tell, and the national police that have 25,000. It’s the national police that we’re focusing on in our report in terms of, of disbanding and then reorganizing with a totally different mission. They’re highly sectarian, about 85 percent Shia, 13 percent Sui—Sunni. They’re disliked throughout the country. Just last year, last October, an entire brigade was disbanded after they were accused of participating in the kidnapping of 26 Sunnis and the killing of seven of those individuals. They have a lot of very, very serious issues within the national police. And when you talk to people on the ground, when you get below the level of general and talk to the people that are actually out there working with these folks on a regular basis, it is very striking just how much they’re distrusted by not only by the military people, but the civilians that are in charge of their training, I mean, just across the board.
MR. RUSSERT: Is this national police force--25,000 strong, 85 percent Shia, as you said—are they being used, in effect, as a hit squad, as a, as a goon squad, as a, as a state militia to, to enforce sectarian rigidity?
MR. RAMSEY: Well, that certainly have been some of the allegations made against the national police. Whether or not that’s true, whether or not it’s perception, it could be somewhere in the middle. We really don’t know that. But, to give you an example, they want to create a new brigade of national police in the area of Samarra. The national police leadership recommended that the force be comprised of 55 percent Shia, 45 percent Sunni. It went down to the ministry of interior, which we found to be highly dysfunctional and sectarian, and the recommendation coming from the office of the commander in chief was that it be 99 percent Shia and 1 percent Sunni. So the sectarian nature of the national police is what’s holding them back, and it’s a, it’s a huge problem. It’s not going to go away.
MR. RUSSERT: But the national government, Prime Minister Maliki’s in charge of this. He’s in charge of the ministry. Why, why is he doing this, unless this is what he wants?
MR. RAMSEY: Ultimately, it’s going to be the Iraqi government and, and coalition force leaders that will make a final decision around this. We put together a group to look at this made up of five police chiefs, 150 years of experience, 40 of which served as police chiefs. We know what we’re looking at, and we were appalled at what we saw. And it’s not to say there isn’t good training and the Iraqi police service isn’t, isn’t moving along at a, at a fairly decent rate. But the national police is very problematic, and they can’t deploy much outside of Baghdad in the southern provinces of Iraq.
MR. RUSSERT: General Jones, you talk about the American footprint, about being perceived as an occupier. And, as I read your report, you seem to be suggesting a, a downsizing, a, a reconfiguration, a redeployment. Is that what you’re asking for?
GEN. JONES: In, in general, we think that the, the notion that we’re not going to be there forever is—flies in the face of what we see on the ground. It is a massive footprint. We, we do—we have occupied Saddam Hussein’s former palaces. That in itself sends a, a mixed message to, to the Iraqis. We believe that the, the idea of transition should be captured more centrally and focused with greater focus to, to give the, the direction and the progress on a measured rate about how we’re going to hand things over to Iraqis and on what time frame. And, and we think that we are arriving at a strategic point where, with the ability of the Iraqi army and the—hopefully the police force to take over the internal problems of Iraq, that we can—the commanders can take another look at how we use our forces, what their mission set is, what they do, and that will, that will contribute to a force reshaping and rebalancing.
MR. RUSSERT: And perhaps the...
GEN. JONES: Which could be a reduction of forces.
MR. RUSSERT: ...of American troops.
GEN. JONES: Of course, yeah. MR. RUSSERT: I think the central issue that I took from your commission report, other than disbanding of the national police force, was this idea of what is causing the violence. And number two, can you have security without political reconciliation? And I’m going to quote from The Washington Post, because I think they summarize it quite well: “Although the administration has said repeatedly that security improvements will create ‘breathing space’ for Iraqi sectarian and political forces to move” towards “national reconciliation, the commission turns that equation on its head, saying that long-term security advances are impossible without political progress. Despite all that remains to be done on the military front, the commission says, ‘the single most important event that could immediately and favorably affect Iraq’s direction and security is political reconciliation. Sustained progress within the Iraqi Security Forces depends on such a political agreement.’”
Now, bluntly, the president has been saying we need to have security on the ground before we can have political reconciliation. And you’re saying, your commission, “No, no, no. You need to have political reconciliation. You need to have the Shiites and the Sunnis to put their guns down, put their arms down and come together as a country before we could ever possibly secure the nation.” Fair?
GEN. JONES: Fair. Our, our report started out with that assertion, and it closed with that assertion, that that is, that is the most important thing. Obviously both—you want both. But if, if we were to pick one or the other, which one is more critical, we think the reconciliation is absolutely the key to measurable and rapid progress. I think once you have that the, the, what’s likely to happen in Iraq is very encouraging.
MR. RUSSERT: But if you have someone, Chief, who says, “No, the national police force shouldn’t be 55-45 Shia-Sunni, it should be 99-to-1 Shia,” what message is that telling you about political reconciliation?
MR. RAMSEY: It’s telling you that it’s a long way to go, is what it’s telling you. And that’s one of the reasons why we made the recommendation. The Iraqi police service is doing fairly well. They’re underequipped. There are not enough trainers in Iraq in order to be able to bring them up to speed, to be able to fill that vacuum once the military starts to step back a bit. That’s where the focus ought to be. With the national police we not only recommended they be disbanded, but we also said they ought to be remissioned, to reform with a different function that will be less sectarian in nature, take some of those people after they’re properly vetted, put them in the army, the others into the Iraqi police service. But they need to be refocused, because currently they are not performing at an effective level. And if what you want is a police force rooted in democratic principles, the national police missed the mark.
MR. RUSSERT: What’s the most surprising thing you found when you were in Iraq for the last three weeks?
MR. RAMSEY: Well, there were two things. One was the widespread dislike of the national police. But the most encouraging thing was the level of training. When we visited training centers for the Iraqi police service, I was very impressed. And the quality of the people that we have brought to train and the Iraqi instructors was really, really good. So there’s a lot of potential there.
MR. RUSSERT: General Jones, you’re known as a straight shooter. Just separate all the garbage away for the American people. What should they be thinking about Iraq? That we’re going to need to be there for three, four, five years in order to secure the country?
GEN. JONES: Well, I—it may be that it’ll take that long a period of time in, in order to do that. But that doesn’t mean that, that, that there’ll be—the level of fighting will be, will be the same.
MR. RUSSERT: Or the level of troops.
GEN. JONES: Or the level of troops. We are still in the Balkans, for example. The Balkans are relatively peaceful. So we’ll get to that point. Our point is that you can, you can accelerate that with political reconciliation. But the strategic interests of the United States in the region are very, very high. And I’m not talking about just oil, I’m talking about being perceived to have been successful here against this, this fundamental battle against terrorism. If we are perceived to fail, I think you’re going to see terrorism expand, and I think that the stability of the Gulf region is going to be brought into question. I think the long-term strategic interests really argue for that kind of dialogue and not so much being focused the—day-to-day on the tactics of the situation.
MR. RUSSERT: And yet, if the Iraqis are incapable of reconciling politically, there’s nothing we can really do for them.
GEN. JONES: That’s correct. But, but our sense, in Iraq, is that most of the Iraqis that we talked to, both in the civilian sector, military sector, seem to want to achieve that and want a, a—an independent and whole Iraq that is capable of functioning up to its potential. This is an enormously wealthy nation. It can—if it can, if it can move past this point in time—logic would indicate that it could, that it can and that it will—then it will come together pretty, pretty quickly. And strategically, especially against the, the rise of, of Iran, which is very concerning—and Iran is a major player in attempting to destabilize and split Iraq right now—these are the strategic goals that we have to keep our eye on.
MR. RUSSERT: General James Jones, former Police Chief Charles Ramsey, thank you for joining us and sharing your views.
GEN. JONES: Thank you very much.
MR. RAMSEY: Thank you, sir.
MR. RUSSERT: Coming next, Senator Joe Biden just back from Iraq. What did he see? What did he learn? And can the Democrats change the course of the war in Congress? We’ll ask him. Then the very latest on Senator Fred Thompson. He’s in the race. Senator Larry Craig, is he out of the Senate? Bill and Hillary, Oprah and Barack, the campaign for the White House in full throttle. Our political roundtable coming up right here on MEET THE PRESS.
MR. RUSSERT: Senator Joe Biden went to Iraq this week. We’ll get his report. Then our political roundtable after this brief station break.
MR. RUSSERT: And we’re back.
Joe Biden, welcome back. Welcome back from Iraq. What did you see, hear, learn?
SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D-DE): Well, what I saw, heard, learned is a little bit what you heard from a general just a moment ago. There was a big disconnect between the truth of the matter and the reality. I mean, the truth of the matter is that, that the—America’s—this administration’s policy and the surge are a failure, and that the surge, which was supposed to stop sectarian violence and—long enough to give political reconciliation, there’s been no political reconciliation. The reality is that we’re supposed to, as you said, stand up American—or stand up the Iraqis so the Americans could stand down. We’ve been hearing that for five years. We’re nowhere near being able to do that.
The reality is that, although there has been some mild progress on the security front, there is, in fact, no, no real security in Baghdad and/or in Anbar province, where I was, dealing with the most serious problem, sectarian violence. Sectarian violence is as strong and as solid and as serious a problem as it was before the surge started.
MR. RUSSERT: But Anbar’s province seems to be secure because the Sunnis have aligned themselves with the U.S. against al-Qaeda.
SEN. BIDEN: That’s true. That relates to dealing with al-Qaeda, but not with the real problem, the civil war. Look, I, I went to this big conference and tell you what I saw. I went to this big conference in Ramadi, middle of Anbar province, with the central government figures, two vice presidents, Sunni and Shia, and the deputy prime minister. Met with the tribal leaders, big, the big, big deal. Our helicopters couldn’t take off because of a, because of a sandstorm. They didn’t dare try to drive us from Ramadi in. We could not go outside the city. The idea there’s any security—when I left from the Green Zone to get the airport, which is about nine miles, couldn’t take a helicopter. We went 90 to 100 miles an hour in an evasive pattern along what they call Irish Way. The idea there’s any greater security there? And their definition of security, they say they’re down from 1600 sectarian attacks to 950. That’s success?
MR. RUSSERT: Let me show you what you said in Iowa last week. “If we do not change course in Iraq soon, you’re going to see, two years from now, helicopters hovering over our embassy in the Green Zone in Baghdad with people hanging” onto “the ladders just like Vietnam. Mark my words.”
SEN. BIDEN: Absolutely, positively, unequivocally, I believe that. Look, let me tell you, Tim, there is no possibility—no possibility—of a central government governing Iraq in any near term. What I did see, the only place that anything has worked, is when you’ve had local control, local police in local neighborhoods, local security, the ability of the local population to have control over the fabric of their daily lives giving them breathing room so they can, in fact, have a central government that has two functions. One, deal with the borders. Two, distribute revenue. Other than that, if you don’t move to a decentralized federal system, there is no possibility, in my view, of success.
MR. RUSSERT: General Petraeus said in a letter to his troops that we have not had the political reconciliation we thought we would have at this time. It’s been much slower, but there is some hope. And then he added this: “My sense is that we have achieved tactical momentum and wrested the initiative from our enemies in a number areas of Iraq. We are, in short, a long way from the goal line, but we do have the ball and we are driving down the field.” Is that what you expect him to say tomorrow?
SEN. BIDEN: I expect him to say that. And I really respect him. And I think he’s dead flat wrong. The fact of the matter is that there is—that this idea of these security gains we’ve made have had no impact on the underlying sectarian dynamic. None. None whatsoever. And when I met in—I’ll tell you what I saw. I met with the two vice presidents—one Shia, one Sunni. Both agreed that the only way this is going to work is to give more local control. The only way it’s going to happen. The only way there’s any possibility of dealing with the sectarian violence is you’ve got to separate the parties, give them some breathing room, give them local control. If you don’t do that, Tim, you think we’re going to get there in any way with this present government? And can anybody envision a central government made up of Sunni, Shia and Kurds that’s going to gain the trust and respect of 27 million Iraqis? It’s not going to happen.
MR. RUSSERT: This hearing tomorrow with General Petraeus is very highly charged politically. Moveon.org, a liberal Democratic group, is taking an ad in The New York Times, and this is what it’s going to be: “General Petraeus or General Betray Us? Cooking the Books for the White House.” What’s your reaction to that?
SEN. BIDEN: I don’t buy into that. This is an honorable guy. He’s telling the truth. I have his letter here like you just quoted from. He acknowledges—look, by its own measure, the surge has failed. What was the reason for the surge? To provide breathing room. For what purpose? To allow the sectarian warring factions to work out a political compromise. He acknowledges that’s not there. He’s telling the truth. There’ve been some tactical gains, but they have no ultimate bearing, at this point, on the prospect of there being a political settlement in Iraq that would allow American troops to come home without leaving chaos behind. So I, I just—I think that’s pretty hard-edged. He’s an honorable guy. I disagree with what his recommendation is likely to be, but I don’t think he is cooking the books. He’s stating the part that he believes is true. There’s been some limited tactical success, but quite frankly, it’s irrelevant to this central problem. The central problem is a sectarian war. If every jihadist in Iraq was killed tomorrow, we’d still have a major civil war killing thousands—wounding thousands of Americans and killing hundreds of Americans just since the surge began.
MR. RUSSERT: Your presidential campaign is on the air with a political ad about Iraq. Let’s watch it for a second.
NARRATOR: (From Biden political ad) In a world this dangerous, with a crisis as tough as Iraq, hard truths need to be told. Joe Biden says this war must end now.
MR. RUSSERT: This war must end now. In, in ‘05, this is what Joe Biden was saying: “We can call it quits and withdraw from Iraq. I think that would be a gigantic mistake. Or we can set a deadline for pulling out, which I fear will only encourage our enemies to wait us out—equally a mistake.” You’ve changed your mind.
SEN. BIDEN: Well, I have changed my mind, but I haven’t changed my mind in any fundamental way. If you go back and look at those other quotes I have at the same time, I say you need a political solution here. And there’s time, I thought back then, if the administration had been wiser, to generate a political solution allowing us to pull out. Now the situation we’re in, if the president continues to insist on this strategically-flawed notion of being able to establish a central government that can control Iraq before we leave, I ain’t buying into that. I am not going to support American forces staying there. It’s like pushing a rope; that’s never going to happen. The only way this is going to happen is to do what general—you just heard from the commission. One, begin to draw down—which was the Biden-Levin language—begin to draw down on our combat troops. That’s over a year ago. Begin to do that with an end date of getting them all out. In the meantime, work out a political solution. We need a diplomatic offensive. We should be calling an international conference with the major powers to bring Iran, Turkey, Syria and Saudi Arabia in and say, “Here’s the deal. Here’s the political solution. Sign onto it.” That’s the only way out.
MR. RUSSERT: Will you insist on a firm withdrawal date?
SEN. BIDEN: I will insist on a firm withdrawal—beginning to withdraw the troops, and I will insist on a date, a target date to get American combat forces out, all but those who are necessary to protect our civilians that are remaining there, and all but those who are needed in order to deal with providing for al-Qaeda not being able to reclaim large swaths of territory. And—but look, none of that will matter. I won’t even support that if we don’t move toward a rational political solution, which is to decentralize the government according to the Iraqi constitution to give this country a chance to stay together. If you insist on it being a strong central government, it’s not going to happen. We can’t maintain our troops there. We shouldn’t. And this country’s going to split apart.
MR. RUSSERT: If, in fact, the president does not accept a firm withdrawal date, will you vote to cut off funding?
SEN. BIDEN: Look, I went to Iraq for two reasons. One, to see what was going on with these mine-resistant vehicles I’ve been pushing, and we funded in the last vote we had. I went into Ramadi. These kids—they’re kids, young soldiers, who were driving these up-armored humvees, gleefully took me over and showed me a new what they call Cougar, these mine-resistant vehicles. They showed me a photograph, Tim. I wish I’d brought it with me. And it showed one of these vehicles being exploded with 250 pounds of TNT in a roadside bomb. It took this vehicle that weighs tons all the way up higher than the telephone pole, knocked down the wires. Guess what happened? Every one of those kids survived. Every one of them inside that vehicle. They’d all be dead if they were in that mine—in, in that up-armored humvee. I will vote, as long as there’s a single troop in there that we are taking out or maintaining, either way I will vote for the money necessary to protect them, period.
MR. RUSSERT: John Edwards, one of your opponents, says, “It’s time for Congress to stand its ground. If there’s no timetable, there’s no funding.”
SEN. BIDEN: Look, this my eighth trip to Iraq. I wish John were with me. I wish John and the rest of them had got inside that new Cougar and seen the looks on these kids faces and seen how they realized their lives are increased—lifespans increased by 80 percent if we continue to fund building these vehicles which cost billions of dollars to build. I am not going to fail to protect these kids as long as we have a single, solitary troop in Iraq.
MR. RUSSERT: Many Democrats who will vote in the primary, Senator, will say “The only way to stop this war, Senator Biden, is to cut off funding. Everything else is small talk, and unless you’re willing to do that, you will not be the Democratic nominee.”
SEN. BIDEN: First of all, let’s speak truth to power here. You need 67 votes to cut that off. All 51 votes will do is delay building these vehicles. And, look, Tim, if you tell me I’ve got to take away this protection for these kids in order to win the election, some things aren’t worth it. Some things are worth losing over. That would be worth losing over. Hundreds of lives are being saved and will be saved by us sending these vehicles over which we are funding with this supplemental legislation. And I want to ask any of my other colleagues, would they, in fact, vote to cut off the money for those troops to protect them? That’s the right question. This isn’t cutting off the war. This is cutting off support that will save the lives of thousands of American troops.
MR. RUSSERT: Josh Bolten, the White House chief of staff, told USA Today there will be a sizeable presence of US troops in Iraq when George Bush leaves his—leaves office. His new book, Robert Draper has said that, in “Dead Certain,” that the president told him he was playing for October/November so that there’d be enough people in the Republican Party and in the Democratic Party who would say, “Well, you know, maybe the surge is working. We ought to stay there with a sizeable force.”
SEN. BIDEN: Tim, I think it was on your program about a year ago I said, when you asked me about Rumsfeld and Cheney, I said they’re smart. You said, how can they think things are working, and I said, “They’re smart guys. I’ll tell you what their plan is. Their plan is to keep this stitched together for the next 20 months in order to hand this problem off to the next president because they don’t know what to do. They’re unwilling to make the kind of changes necessary in strategy to be able to bring our troops home without leaving chaos behind.” I would argue Draper’s reference there. Reinforce is the point I’ve been making. This president has no plan how to win and/or how to leave. All he’s doing is putting American forces in the middle of a civil war to maintain the status quo. That is unconscionable, and he’s wrong.
MR. RUSSERT: If the Democrats vote to continue to fund it, however, are they not compliant?
SEN. BIDEN: No, they’re not. Look, the funding of the war isn’t the—the, the president has enough funds available to him if we cut off another $90 million he may want—a billion dollars to continue to keep this going. Look, everybody says, Tim, how we cut off the funds in the war in Vietnam. I was there. I was a 29-year-old kid. It wasn’t until 1975 we cut off funds, and that was only after we brought the majority of the troops home. This is the president’s war. Unless we get 67 votes to override his veto, there’s nothing we can do to stop this war. But we must, we must, we must protect these troops. They’re dying, Tim. We’re up to 3,760, 26,000 wounded. And these are the bravest—and I know this sounds corny, but these kids are brave. Every day they get in these vehicles and ride down these roads, and some of them have already been blown up a couple of times. We owe it to them, man. It’s simple.
MR. RUSSERT: Senator Joe Biden, we thank you for your views. SEN. BIDEN: Thanks.
MR. RUSSERT: Coming next, will the Fred Thompson presidential rocket soar or fizzle? Will Larry Craig really retire? And what impact will Oprah’s support for Obama have on this presidential race? Our roundtable is next right here on MEET THE PRESS.
MR. RUSSERT: And we’re back.
David Brody, John Harwood, welcome back.
MR. JOHN HARWOOD: Yeah.
MR. RUSSERT: “Jay Leno.” He said, “I’m running for president of the United States.” Earlier that night, all the Republicans were in New Hampshire debating, and this was the way they welcomed Fred Thompson to the race. Let’s watch.
MR. MIKE HUCKABEE: I was scheduled to be on “Jay Leno” tonight, but I gave up my slot for somebody else because I’d rather be in New Hampshire with these fine people.
MR. ROMNEY: You know, the only, the only question I have for Senator Thompson is why the hurry? Why not take some more time off?
MR. RUDY GIULIANI: I like Fred a lot. I, I think Fred is a really, really good man. I think he’s done a pretty good job of playing my part on “Law & Order.”
I think this is a, this is a nomination you have to earn, though. Nobody’s going to give it to you, nobody’s going to grant it to, nobody’s going to crown you.
MR. RUSSERT: A lot of attempts at humor there, but one comment from the chairman of the Republican Party in New Hampshire, I think, certainly resonated with me when I read it, and here it is: “There is a genuine interest in Senator” Fred “Thompson here, a real curiosity about him. But that curiosity is giving way to skepticism and maybe even cynicism about him in part because of how he’s handling his grand entrance. For him to then go on Jay Leno the same night and be trading jokes while other candidates are having a substantive discussion on issues is not going to be missed by New Hampshire voters.” John Harwood:
MR. HARWOOD: Well, look, I think that reflects a little bit of the parochial New Hampshire interest in “Don’t dis our state; we’re the first primary state.” I think Fred Thompson did quite well that night by being on “Leno,” getting a very nice ride, in a publicity sense, having all the other candidates talk about him in the debate, which the substance of the debate didn’t get all that much attention, much less than, than about Fred Thompson.
But look, Thompson does not have a lot of time. He’s got to get out of the gates pretty quickly. At his opening event in Des Moines, that David and I both attended, it was a little flat, the crowd wasn’t all that big. He had some better events in the western part of the state afterwards, but it just underscored the fact that, you know, Fred Thompson said spring training is over, now it’s time to start the game. The other candidates are in the stretch run of the pennant race, and Fred Thompson hasn’t been through spring training yet. He’s got to get up to speed very quickly.
MR. DAVID BRODY: Yeah, and I, and I would also say that substance is very important here. Right out of the gate, I mean, you have Mitt Romney and you have Rudy Giuliani, who’ve already come out with specific policy proposals. Fred Thompson technically behind in the game here. He’s got to come to the table strong. Already on the stump, and we saw, John, he’s asking—he’s being asked specific questions about policies, and he’s going back to generalities. So he needs to come strong fast.
MR. RUSSERT: You traveled on his bus, David Brody, and sat down and asked him how he was going to distinguish himself from the other candidates. Let’s watch a little bit of that tape.
MR. BRODY: You talked about in your speech about how you’ve been a conservative in ‘94, you’re a conservative today...
FMR. SEN. THOMPSON: Mm-hmm.
MR. BRODY: ...well, your whole life. A lot of people took that, as you probably saw in some of the articles, to mean that was a swipe at Mitt Romney, to a certain extent maybe Rudy Giuliani. I know you don’t want to browbeat the guy, you said that out there...
FMR. SEN. THOMPSON: Yeah.
MR. BRODY: ...but, at the same time, is there a difference between those candidates and yourself? At some point there needs to be a differentiation.
FMR. SEN. THOMPSON: Oh, sure. Oh, sure. There’s no question. I mean, just the fact that we’re different people with different histories and backgrounds means that we have different perspectives on some things, and we have different records on some things. And we’ll have a chance to discuss that.
And I will not be hesitant to draw distinctions between my record and some of these other people.
MR. RUSSERT: All in good time.
MR. BRODY: Yeah, I mean, it’s all about the timing. And believe me, those distinctions will come. Already on the campaign trail we have seen that. He’s saying he’s a conservative in ‘94, and he’s a conservative today. Clearly that’s a, that’s a dig at Romney to a certain extent. But listen, I mean, he can hurt Giuliani and Romney in two different ways. I mean, with Giuliani, Fred Thompson comes across as this “Law & Order”-type district attorney, tough guy, serious, gruff, prosecutor, former prosecutor. I mean, that could take into Giuliani a little bit. And on Romney, of course, with social conservatives, the Southern, folksy charm. I mean, he’s, he’s got issues there. So both—there are—there’s an opportunity real quick here for Thompson to affect them both.
MR. HARWOOD: But we saw in that debate in New Hampshire on Wednesday night, how Giuliani’s going to come back as the national front-runner. He’s going to say it’s too risky in a dangerous world to take a chance on someone with no executive experience. That’s something that—an argument that Giuliani and Romney can both make against Thompson. What’s he ever run? Giuliani’s been making that about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. They’ve never run anything of substance, either a business or a government. Fred Thompson hasn’t either.
MR. RUSSERT: Let’s talk about the Democrats. Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, this is the scene in New Hampshire last Sunday, campaigning. There they are, the Clintons. The former president, two terms, now trying to help his wife win her first term. And this was the scene last night in Los Angeles. There—California. There’s Oprah Winfrey, Michelle and Barack Obama. And kind of a formal picture. Less formal there. Oprah saying to the world, “This is my guy.” David Brody, what’s your sense?
MR. BRODY: Well, I talked to a prominent Obama supporter who was at that event last night, got off the phone with him late last night. He indeed said that Oprah came out and said she wants to help the campaign. The question is, how will that transfer later on? I can tell you, besides burgers and corn on the cob that were served, Obama went and spoke for about 30 minutes to that crowd, Oprah spoke for about 15 minutes. What this prominent Obama supporter says is that there was an electric moment, that they talked about the belief in possibilities and in hope, and that there was Stevie Wonder, Obama and Oprah all onstage, and that there was this electric moment and that the crowd went wild. So, I mean, you know, at the end of the day, how much can Oprah cut in, so to speak, to Hillary Clinton’s women vote? And I think that’s going to be very interesting, and we’re going to need to watch that.
MR. RUSSERT: Do you expect Oprah to go to Iowa and New Hampshire and have town meetings and try to actually campaign for him?
MR. HARWOOD: I expect if she is—means to help Obama, she’ll do what the campaign wants her to do. And she’s an asset symbolically, financially. Symbolically, she’s the kind of transcendent figure in our culture that Barack Obama hopes to be. But remember that Barack Obama doesn’t—isn’t hurting for campaign money. I think he would gladly trade the $3 million he raised last night in return for a free endorsement from Jim Clyburn in South Carolina, where he’s trailing Hillary Clinton, needs to make up some ground.
MR. RUSSERT: It does underscore the differences in the campaign. Hillary Clinton emphasizing strength and experience, relying on the eight years of her husband’s presidency as an example of what she could possibly do. Barack Obama saying “I’m different. I’m turning the page. I am possibilities. I am hope. I’m inspiration.’ And Obama linking himself with Oprah does that, and you’re going to really have—people are going to have to make a choice.
MR. BRODY: Well, there’s going to be a push-back at some point with the Edwards and Obama campaign about whether or not Hillary Clinton’s qualifications are transferrable from Bill Clinton. I mean, she’s trying to kind of wedge the two together. But the reality is, at some point, they’re probably going to need to go public on that. I know the Republican rivals will already do that to her. But I think that’s very important as well.
MR. HARWOOD: And they’re beginning to do that to some extent. Bill Clinton’s a huge asset to her—great communicator, great brand with suburban voters, with African-American voters, constituencies that would be important to her. The downside of Bill Clinton is that, to some degree, that casts Hillary Clinton as a candidate looking backwards, looking to the past. Barack Obama’s trying to be the future-oriented candidate. And the problems with this donor, Norman Hsu, is another thing that evokes the issues that arose in the past about Bill Clinton, some of the campaign finance stuff.
MR. RUSSERT: So the message to Hillary Clinton from her fellow Democrats will be if you’re going to claim the successes of the Clinton administration, you’re also going to have to accept responsibility for the shortcomings?
MR. HARWOOD: No doubt. And you’re also going to claim responsibility for Washington, how Washington is now, how it was before George Bush got to town. And Barack Obama and John Edwards both beginning to sharpen that argument, that they’re the ones who are really going to come and turn Washington upside-down far more than Hillary Clinton would.
MR. BRODY: But let’s also remember that John Edwards and, and Barack Obama have the tougher hill to climb here, there’s no doubt about it. Because with change and experience, we keep hearing these words over again—I mean, Hillary Clinton pretty much at this point—perceptionwise, at least—has the experience thing down. It’s a matter of Edwards and Obama both trying to convince the American public that they have—that, that they’re the agent of change and they have the experience.
MR. HARWOOD: (Unintelligible)
MR. BRODY: It’s a tougher hill to climb.
MR. RUSSERT: You remember at the end of the 2004 presidential race, suddenly Osama bin Laden released a tape which many people thought brought him back into the public consciousness and may have helped President Bush. We hadn’t heard from Osama bin Laden for some three years. Here was a tape that was released on Friday. There he is, his beard a little bit darker and dyed than it was three years ago, but nonetheless, CIA analysts said that’s his presence, that’s his voice. John McCain responded to that tape this way: “Osama bin Laden and his henchmen must be hunted down, and as president, I will. My presidency will be al-Qaeda’s worst nightmare.”
Every debate, David Brody, the Republicans have, they make the point, “we understand Islamofascism. We understand the terrorist threat; the Democrats don’t.” That is going to be their issue in 2008, as it was in ‘04 and in 2000.
MR. BRODY: There’s no doubt about it. I mean, I think it’s somewhat of a, on the Republican side, a testosterone convention, in essence, is what it is. I mean, because, because you have John McCain following him to the gates of hell, and you have Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani and, and Mitt Romney now saying Osama bin Laden’s crazy and a little cooky. They’re going to push this all the time.
What’s interesting, though, I think the bigger issue is on national security. We notice that the Democrats, in all of these poll numbers we see, that they trump the Republicans in many areas. When it comes to national security, it’s roughly about even now. Well, of course, before it was more with the Republicans. Now it’s more even. But still, at the end of the day, the Republicans, this issue helps the Republicans more than the Democrats because they’re going to be able to enforce this idea that it’s—that the Democrats want to go with this with law enforcement, and, and the Republicans don’t. And I think that will be the key difference as we move ahead.
MR. RUSSERT: Can the Democrats say, “Excuse me, Republicans, you had your chance. You decided the Iraq war was the way to go after the war on terror, and that was wrong. We have a different way, a better way”?
MR. HARWOOD: There’s no question that Osama bin Laden and the war on terror is much more a double-edged sword now, the appearance of this tape. And first of all, I’m surprised bin Laden is that vain that he would feel the need to dye his beard. But he is—he, for Democrats, reinforces the argument that the Bush administration has been incompetent at finding bin Laden; reinforces for the Republicans the argument that it’s a dangerous world. And keep in mind, in our NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, we’ve shown recently that Americans now say we’re less safe as a result of the war in Iraq, less safe than we were before 9/11. So this is not a clear advantage for Republicans. And on that, on Iraq, even though the president appears to be winning, he’s going to be able to keep troops in substantial numbers in Iraq through the end of his presidency. That is not good news for Republican presidential candidates next year. They don’t want that overhang.
MR. RUSSERT: Hillary Clinton said that the Republicans will play the terrorism card and—even though they have not had a, “a good track record on it.” But she is the one Democrat that can deal with that because of her experience. Her opponents pounced on her saying, “Hey, wait a minute, you criticized Rove, you criticized President Bush for playing that card, why are you playing it now?”
MR. HARWOOD: Well, first of all, I think she’s right. She probably does have stronger bona fides than the other two candidates on that issue. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong pointing that out, nor did I think there’s anything wrong about the Bush administration trying to argue that they were superior on national security to the Democrats. That’s why we have elections, decide big issues. There’s nothing bigger than national security.
MR. BRODY: And I think what you’re going to see is that the Democrats are going going to say, “OK, well, wait a minute, Osama bin Laden and that tape, well, he’s still out there. Why aren’t we in Afghanistan, and we’re, we’re in Iraq?’ And I think you’re going to see that argument framed that way.
MR. RUSSERT: Rudy Giuliani, pro-abortion rights, pro-gay rights, pro-handgun control, pro-stem cell research, and yet he’s leading the national polls amongst Republicans because of security?
MR. BRODY: Because of security, also because of his straight-shooter perception or reality or whatever you want to call it. I mean, the bottom line is, is that you at least get a sense of where Giuliani stands on an issue. And with Mitt Romney—and he’s—and with Mitt Romney, you’re not quite sure, at least, you know, back in the past. So I mean, Giuliani’s been able to capitalize on that, and I think that’s helped him a lot.
MR. RUSSERT: Larry Craig, the senator from Idaho, had a news conference a week ago Saturday. Seems like an eternity now. And he used these carefully chosen words. Let’s listen.
SEN. LARRY CRAIG (R-ID): It is my intent to resign from the Senate effective September 30th.
MR. RUSSERT: “It is my intent.” There’s now a phone call that he made to a incorrect phone number, there was a voice mail on it, and recorded it, before he made his comments, and this is what he said.
SEN. CRAIG: We’ve re-shaped my statement a little bit to say, “It is my intent to resign on September 30.”
MR. RUSSERT: So he intentionally left some wiggle room, perhaps, to fight this and not actually resign by saying, “It’s my intent, but I didn’t say I would.” His staff is now saying, “Well, he probably is going to resign.”
David, John, what can you tell us?
MR. BRODY: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s the double flip-flop. I mean, you know, resign, and then “I’m not going to resign.” It just—it’s all over the place. But the reality is, what this does in the 2008 election—and I don’t think it goes all the way up to the presidential level—but from a congressional election standpoint, I mean, you have a real issue here because the Democrats can say, “Look, Vitter, Foley, Craig now,” and what they’re going to do is they’re going to say, “Listen, these values aren’t necessarily working for the Republicans, and instead, look at our values.” And I think as long as it’s kept on the table, it clearly helps the Democrats.
MR. HARWOOD: Tim, everybody’s wondered, when this scandal erupted, why no compassion for Larry Craig? Why did nobody step up and defend him? Good question. Because it is a tragedy for, for him as an individual. But the reason is Republicans are so scared about the 2008 elections. They’ve got so many Senate seats to depend—to defend. Chuck Hagel is leaving, John Warner’s leaving. This is making things much harder for them. And the nightmare is extended until Larry Craig walks out the door and says, “I’m really quitting.”
MR. RUSSERT: Will he resign?
MR. HARWOOD: I think he will in the end.
MR. RUSSERT: Do you think he’ll resign?
MR. BRODY: Yeah, I, I think so. I mean, I think he really has no choice at this point. He’ll probably say he has a choice, but I mean, the reality is—and to be a fly on the office of Mitch McConnell right about now, the Senate minority leader, I mean, my goodness, can—Craig can’t get out of town fast enough.
MR. HARWOOD: Except he’s saying that publicly, too.
MR. BRODY: Well, that’s true.
MR. RUSSERT: David Brody, John Harwood, thanks very much. And we’ll be right back.
MR. RUSSERT: Check out our MEET THE PRESS Web site. Sign up for our weekly newsletter each Friday. You can find out who’ll be meeting the press on Sunday, delivered via e-mail right to your computer. Subscribe at mtp.msnbc.com.
That’s all for today. We’ll be back next week. If it’s Sunday, it’s MEET THE PRESS.