updated 4/9/2008 10:38:08 AM ET 2008-04-09T14:38:08

Guests: Jack Jacobs, Jim Moore, Jay Carney, Eugene Robinson

DAVID GREGORY, MSNBC ANCHOR:  I‘m David Gregory in New York.  RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE will return tomorrow night.  Instead, tonight, we‘ve been bringing you the hearing from Capitol Hill, General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker briefing Congress, two separate committees in the Senate, on the status of the surge in Iraq.  It has been both a substantive briefing about the status of troops in Iraq.  It has also been something that‘s been overtaken by the politics of campaign 2008.  All three candidates, McCain, Obama and Clinton firing questions at General Petraeus about the status of the surge, the status of U.S. troops, as this debate about Iraq continues. 

Reminder, “HARDBALL” with Chris Matthews at the top of the hour will wraps up the entire day.  It‘s political context and military analysis as well.  We are joined by Colonel Jack Jacobs, MSNBC analyst and Medal of Honor recipient.  Jack, let me bring you in.  For everything you have heard the entire day, militarily, what is your major take away? 

COL. JACK JACOBS, MEDAL OF HONOR WINNER:  Well, there wasn‘t a lot of examination of exactly what size force was really needed and what the phasing would be.  Nobody bothered to press the issue on whether or not there were actually plans to draw down.  You can bet your bottom dollar that the administration and the Pentagon is already worked out plans to phase a withdrawal.  And there was no interest and maybe there shouldn‘t have been in exposing those plans in front of the Congress.

There was also not, from my standpoint, a sufficient discussion of the capabilities of the Iraqi Army were.  There are a lot of platitudes on both sides, a lot of discussion about what some of the capabilities were.  There was no real deep discussion, and there should have been, on what the Iraqis can do and where, and what they can‘t do and what their weaknesses were.  Those two things were vitally important and weren‘t examined in tremendous depth. 

GREGORY:  There‘s been a lead up to this.  General Petraeus has essentially said he would like to pause the withdrawal.  Some 30,000 troops are going to be rotated out by the end of the summer, after the initial run up, the surge of forces.  But his recommendation is that should not continue, that the draw down should not continue.  He said the security situation is fragile.  It‘s reversible.  In other words, let‘s pause where we are. 

JACOBS:  Related to that is the fact that if you need forces there now, why draw them down at all?  The interesting thing is that somebody mentioned that—he was asked whether or not the commanders had all that they needed and Petraeus said yes.  I don‘t know any commander who wouldn‘t take all the forces he could possibly have.  There wasn‘t a lot—I know we‘re talking about Iraq, but there was no great discussion about Afghanistan, where other forces are required.

Short fall on forces and nobody pressed anybody on what they are doing with them and why they shouldn‘t be drawn down. 

GREGORY:  All right, Richard Engel is here, our Mideast bureau chief, and been covering the war in Iraq since it began.  Richard, a full day of testimony, what do you take away from it at the end of the day? 

RICHARD ENGEL, MSNBC MIDDLE EAST BUREAU CHIEF:  It seemed more extending the goal post.  For years, we‘ve been listening to military commanders say that as soon as conditions on the ground are set and there are improvements on the ground, then U.S. forces can start drawing down.  Today, we heard this fundamental contradiction, General Petraeus saying, you know what, look at all these charts, violence has plummeted because of the surge.  But there‘s a catch.  They can‘t leave.  If they do leave, the violence will come right back. 

I think that was the message that‘s saying we‘ve done a lot, but it‘s fragile.  How many times did he say fragile?  Over and over and over again.  I think that is changing the rules of the game again.  And you felt that if it‘s conditions based and conditions on the ground—now, the conditions have improved, according to the general. 

GREGORY:  Even the president has said in recent months that he thinks, in his words, it‘s understandable Iraq will be heavily dependent on an American military presence to keep it all together, to keep the security conditions together, sufficient for some government to stabilize it.  That‘s the reality that General Petraeus was laying out today. 

ENGEL:  And also General Petraeus described the end state.  He said there will be a conventional force, Marines, soldiers on bases there for some period of time, in order to support special operating forces, the black ops guys who hunt al Qaeda, and the advisory team.  The way he described it, it sounded like a permanent mission.  They will be there for a long time.  It‘s just, how long does it take to get to that end state, which also envisions troops in Iraq supporting special operations, supporting advisory capacity? 

GREGORY:  Let me bring in the panel.  A lot of attention today, as we pointed out, because of the politics involved.  We are in an election year, as you well know.  With Senator McCain, Senator Clinton and Senator Obama all asking questions of General Petraeus today and Ambassador Crocker, there was quite a build up. 

Joining me now, MSNBC chief Washington correspondent Norah O‘Donnell, MSNBC political analyst and “Washington Post” columnist Eugene Robinson, and “Time Magazine‘s” Washington bureau chief Jay Carney. 

Jay, let me start with you.  The commander in chief test today, did anybody pass it; did anybody fail it? 

JAY CARNEY, “TIME MAGAZINE”:  No one failed it, David.  Performance wise, presentationally, all three senators, who would be president, did a fine job.  I thought Senator Clinton was the most impressively senatorial, in terms of the role that a senator is supposed to play in these circumstances, an oversight role.  I thought her tone and demeanor were strong and her command of the facts. 

I thought Senator Obama, who probably has the highest hurdle to clear in this, because of his lack of experience, did a good job demonstrating that he knows some of the details of the differences between the Sunni and the Shia and the presence of al Qaeda in Iraq and the influence of Iran. 

Then John McCain, he‘s riding his support for the Iraq war and the surge all the way through November.  His success or failure will depend on this.  I think the fact that he was so positive towards David Petraeus and Ambassador was not a surprise. 

GREGORY:  Eugene Robinson, what was your conclusion?  What struck you at the end of the day? 

EUGENE ROBINSON, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  A couple of things struck me.  One was a question that Senator Clinton asked, which I thought was quite acute, about mission creep.  She asked, what‘s going on in Basra.  That used to be the British military‘s department.  They left and when they had the recent flair up—is this now our problem as well?  That question didn‘t really get answered in a straight forward way. 

The other thing that struck me was it seemed to me that Obama, in addition to displaying his knowledge of the situation, really seemed to be asking a fundamental question; are there conditions under which we would leave?  Are there conditions in which we could leave Iraq, such that U.S.  forces could withdrawal.  What does that look like?  Doesn‘t it look a little messy?  What about the way things are now, if you could do that without U.S. troops?  Would that be good enough?  Again, I don‘t think we got a very clear answer? 

GREGORY:  Norah, what struck you about the reality that General Petraeus was trying to lay out, which was that this was a fragile security situation that must be maintained with the presence of significant American troops.  You can‘t be in a phase of continual withdrawal, lest you lose any modicum of security that you‘ve got.  You see, with Basra for instance, that there‘s still real limitations to what Iraqi security forces can do. 

NORAH O‘DONNELL, MSNBC ANCHOR:  The huge headlines in the paper tomorrow will be that the commanding general in Iraq resisted a timetable for withdrawal and instead said that what we need to do is reduce troops to the pre-surge level through July, and then there will be a 45 day pause in order to get a sense of the situation on the ground.  He said, any hasty withdrawal could backtrack the country in terms of progress. 

So  that‘s different than what the Democratic candidates for the White House want to do.  They want to begin a phase withdrawal.  Again, what‘s remarkable today is that this general was questioned likely by the next commander in chief.  You couldn‘t hear two different things, which is John McCain saying it would be reckless and irresponsible to begin a phased withdrawal of troops.  Hillary Clinton saying, wait a minute here, it would be irresponsible to continue to stay this course.  And Barack Obama using the occasion to say, essentially, what is this parade of horribles that you‘re warning against if we withdrawal from Iraq.  Al Qaeda in Iraq, that was not there before we started the war.  The growing influence of Iran was not the case before we invaded Iraq. 

I think Obama, in that sense, was setting up this parade of horribles, that quote that he used, setting up the argument with McCain, if he is the nominee for the Democratic party, and to face McCain through the election. 

GREGORY:  Colonel Jacobs, how do you think General Petraeus handled the question of essentially is there a way to withdrawal that can avoid some of these nightmare scenarios you painted? 

JACOBS:  Very interesting you should ask that.  One of the first ordered questions that actually was not asked was what the objective was, to articulate specifically what the objective is.  From that is what you derive the end state and you can tell exactly how long it‘s going to take or what conditions have to exist for you to decide to leave. 

I thought he was kind of startled by Senator Obama‘s line of reasoning, and didn‘t quite understand his question.  It was unfortunate that Senator Obama had to leave, because that was one of the quintessential parts of this testimony that would have enlightened everybody, had it been discussed.

I‘d like to go back to something Jim said.  I don‘t think, necessarily, that Senator Clinton did a particularly good job.  I think that her substance was OK, but she sounded terribly tired, maybe coming down with something, was awfully laconic and difficult to follow.  I don‘t think she was at her best.  I think substantively she was good, but as a result of her not delivering it very well, she wasn‘t as impressive as she otherwise would have been. 

GREGORY:  Jay, to what extent do you think Senator Clinton was trying to thread a needle here?  She‘s talked about withdrawal of troops from Iraq, but at the same time, she voted for the war.  She wants to protect herself against the potential argument from John McCain, if she‘s the nominee, that she would beat a hasty retreat out of the country. 

CARNEY:  Well, I think you‘re absolutely correct, David, that she voted to authorize the use of force, which obviously Senator Obama did not, since he was not in the Senate and he opposed the war at the time.  But I think she‘s threading the same needle that Senator Obama is threading.  What we‘ve seen in the dust ups in the last several months about what exactly the Iraqi policy is for each of these candidates is that it‘s a complex picture, and neither Democrat can commit to a rapid withdrawal. 

GREGORY:  We‘ve got to go.  See you on RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE tomorrow.  “HARDBALL” with Chris Matthews now. 

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

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