updated 1/4/2005 1:50:53 PM ET 2005-01-04T18:50:53

Guest: George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Frank Wolf

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST:  Today President George Bush picked his father and the man who defeated his father to lead the American relief campaign for the Asian tsunami. 

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  We‘ve come together to express our country‘s sympathy for the victims of a great tragedy.  We‘re here to ask our fellow citizens to join in a broad humanitarian relief effort. 

MATTHEWS:  We‘ll talk to “NBC NIGHTLY NEWS” anchor Brian Williams who is in Banda Aceh, Indonesia and America now faces a two-front war.  One of mercy as more than 15,000 U.S. service members are dispatched to the tsunami relief effort.  The other of might as thousands of U.S. soldiers fight insurgents in Iraq.  We‘ll talk to Generals Barry McCaffrey, Wayne Downing, and Monty Miggs (ph).  Let‘s play HARDBALL. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEWS:  Good evening.  I‘m Chris Matthews.  I‘ve been gone for two weeks.  While it is good to be back, the news could not be tougher.  The death toll from the Asian tsunami is nearly 140,000 people.  And in a moment, we‘ll get a live report from NBC‘s Brian William in one of the hardest hit areas.  Today President Bush tapped two former presidents, his father and the man who beat him, Bill Clinton to lead to private fundraising drive for victims of the Asian tsunami.  NBC‘s David Gregory is at the White House where he interviewed former presidents Clinton and Bush, both of the gentlemen.  David, who put this together?  Who was the matchmaker? 

DAVID GREGORY, NBC NEWS WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT:  They‘re reticent to say who fingered both of them to do it.  Certainly the president was actively involved.  I‘m told it was senior staff starting to kick around the idea late last week.  The president got involved and thought it was the right thing to do.  Don‘t forget, it was at the same time when this administration was under some heat, under some pressure for, in the view of some, reacting too slowly once the news of what had happened became clear and they ratcheted up the pledges of financial support and now they‘ve gone one step further.  The president saying, look, these are two distinguished Americans who can really focus the attention for Americans.  They‘ve already been doing that.  To give of themselves, give of their own money and really funnel that money, Chris, to those organizations that can do the most good. 

MATTHEWS:  Clinton was speaking out about the need for leadership.  Is this a case of where the squeaky wheel, Bill Clinton got grease? 

GREGORY:  I think his point about leadership was that the United States had to play a leading role.  And at least publicly today, he thinks the criticism that was leveled by some within the United Nations, that this administration did not act quickly enough, was unfair.  He thinks that the administration, as well as previous administrations have a very good record of responding appropriately.  But the point that he did make is that it is very important for nations in the international community to really determine who will take the lead here and by now, the United States clearly has both financially and militarily, and then the American people will add to that as they‘ve already done, spearheaded by the former presidents now. 

MATTHEWS:  David Gregory will be staying with us.  And we‘ll hear his interview with both former presidents Bill Clinton and George Herbert Walker Bush.  Right now we‘re joined by “NBC NIGHTLY NEWS” anchor Brian Williams who is in Banda Aceh, Indonesia.  Brian, what does the tragedy feel like close up? 

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS ANCHOR:  Oh, Chris, where to begin?  The areas that were devastated by the tsunami and I should differentiate what you‘re seeing over my shoulder.  This is earthquake damage.  Really, it‘s a two-pronged problem here.  We‘re on the far northwestern tip of the island of Sumatra, part of the chain of islands.  And that also means that it is tough to get relief all the way out here.  So you have a third of the population gone.  They are dead.  They are wiped off the face of the earth here.  You have an area from the Indian Ocean, several miles inland, that is impassable.  Cars tossed around.  You have seen the pictures.  Double whatever image you‘ve seen on television.  The incalculable part until you land here, the eyes of the children.  In every way, otherwise like kids, you and I have raised, only these children have seen just unspeakable horror.  Some of them have lost all the adults in their lives that they have come to love and trust.  Their lives will never be the same and the question is, where do you start in a place like this?  I‘m glad to hear that you‘re having Barry and Monty and Wayne on later in the broadcast.  In a way, this is something the U.S. military does.  Kind of a triage operation, moving in en masse.  I‘ve watched them do it before.  They do it better than anyone.  It‘s almost that scope, that large a problem. 

MATTHEWS:  Emotionally, and in terms of human beings there, do they sense that they‘re part of the world?  That the world will help them now? 

WILLIAMS:  Well, I think once the planes start landing, once those aircraft start coming in at the airport, the first thing you see at the airport before the front wheels are down, Chris, are people, brightly colored clothing along the fence line with their faces glued to the fence.  These are refugees.  They‘re living out there in what used to be the V.I.P.  terminal at the airport just under the control tower.  They‘ve turned it into a tent city.  They‘re looking for a ride out.  They‘re looking for incoming food.  All the talk of relief, it is coming.  We realize that.  But it is not here.  There‘s sporadic food, water being handed out just behind us.  With the break of day, we‘ll see the people come by to get their ration of water.  But it‘s so sad in that way.  That‘s what strikes you.  They don‘t have it yet.  They‘re waiting still.  It is eight days. 

MATTHEWS:  What is their reaction to you, an American there.  Do they have any sort of personal reaction to us?  I know that the Islamic world has been very concerned, very disturbed by our behavior in the world lately.  Is there any personal reaction to westerners like yourself? 

WILLIAMS:  They are very friendly people beginning with our initial arrival at the airport.  Remember, one important thing, they haven‘t seen a lot of westerners here since the early part of 2003.  You couldn‘t get a blue card or a press card to work here because they‘ve been having a civil war between the government of Indonesia and rebels.  This is a high population Muslim area.  You hear the call to prayer, as do you in the Middle East several times a day.  But a lot of smiles, a lot of people greeting us warmly.  No hint of animosity because we are westerners coming in and with all this equipment.  Obviously, you have to walk with a great deal of sympathy and dignity in this part of the world.  They have suffered so much.  But, no, a very friendly welcoming people.  And I think to your previous question, they now will start seeing themselves as a part of the world community, Chris, if they haven‘t until now.  Especially if they can see the secretary of state from the United States.  When you tell them you‘re from America, their faces and eyes still light up. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.  On that note, thank you very much, Brian Williams in Indonesia.  And when we come back, David Gregory‘s interview with former presidents Bill Clinton and George Herbert Walker Bush who are leading together the drive to raise funds for tsunami victims.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back right now with NBC White House correspondent David Gregory, who interviewed former President Clinton and former President Bush today—David. 

GREGORY:  Chris, thanks.  Rare to see these two former political adversaries together, but as one said, they were united in a mission here to help these tsunami victims. 

I began by asking President Clinton about some of the criticism leveled against this administration and this president, that the administration was slow to respond to the disaster.  He disagreed with that criticism. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT:  This country has a very good record in emergencies, disasters like this.  And every year I was president, America gave between 25 and 33 percent of the world‘s aid to disasters.  The same thing was true when President Bush was in office. 

Look what happened.  You had the American military helicopters dropping supplies into the remote areas of Aceh in Indonesia.  People desperate to get them.  And President Bush has already committed, what, $350 million and says there is going to be more. 

So—but I don‘t think we should even waste time talking about that.  Look at this.  We‘ve got what, 150,000 people dead?  Potentially, maybe even more.  Tens of billions of dollars of immediate needs. 

And America has got a good record.  And the president is doing a good job.  And he asked us to help.  And we‘re just trying to help.  But I don‘t think we should waste any time doing it.  American people are dying to do something, and we‘re going to help them. 

GREGORY:  President Bush, do you think there will be a need for even more U.S. money from the government in excess of $350 million? 

GEORGE HERBERT WALKER BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT:  I don‘t know the full requirements, and I think we wait until Secretary Powell and the governor of Florida, incidentally, come back, see what they have to say.  But I‘m sure nothing is enough, and we‘ll see.  But this argument, I thought really grateful to President Clinton for putting it in perspective. 

I‘ve only heard it once, the stingy argument.  And it was picked up by the press a little bit.  But you don‘t hear it anymore, because they see a lot going on, not only in this (UNINTELLIGIBLE) way, the private philanthropies, but you see the government responding with helicopters and a lot of other ways, too.  So I think that was a passing thing.  And I think we‘re on the right track.  And if you go to these four embassies like we did, I‘ll tell you, they expressed eternal gratitude for what the United States is doing. 

GREGORY:  President Bush, let me pick up on another point.  Indonesia, as you know well, is the most populous Muslim nation in the world.  Particularly after the tension that is associated with the Iraq war, is it important for the United States to show in a very large way, that it can use its might for humanitarian purposes and not just its military might? 

BUSH:  You put it better than I could.  But yes.  Absolutely.  And I think we‘re doing that.  And I think—I‘m—perhaps I‘m native, I know I‘m old, but maybe a disaster like this can bring people together.  Whether it‘s in Sri Lanka or whether it‘s in Indonesia.  And I‘m very optimistic that out of these terrible, terrible disasters, we‘re going to find maybe some people in Indonesia, some of the extremists might say, we want to help. 

There was one woman at one of the embassies today, was it Thailand? 

Who was there.  She‘d lost her mother and father...

CLINTON:  And sister. 

BUSH:  And sister.  And then under one tree is a little rubber duck and a little fish, you know.  And all this symbolizes the children are hurting.  And so out of these tragedies, I‘m optimistic enough to believe that these countries can come together.  Sri Lanka helping India, vice versa.  And that‘s very important. 

GREGORY:  But do you think there‘s a particular need in this part of the world for the U.S. to change some hearts and change some minds? 

BUSH:  Well, I think so.  Because in some areas in the Muslim world, we are not fondly looked upon today.  But I think that—I think that for the most part, this will elevate the standing of the United States.  But that‘s not why we‘re doing it.  It‘s certainly not why President Clinton and I are involved in it. 

CLINTON:  This is one of those things where you just follow the do right rule and hope it works out.  And keep in mind that, my fondest hope here is that this will enable countries to resolve some of their internal problems. 

Aceh, the hardest hit remote area in Indonesia, is the site of a big separatist movement.  I hope that there will be some reconciliation coming out of the effort to rebuild.  Sri Lanka has had a lot of trouble over the last several years.  Peace process was a little stalled.  You have got Buddhist temples now in America wanting to send goods to Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka, but they want it given out to the Hindus, and the Muslims and the Christians, as well as the Buddhists.  So maybe we can get some reconciliation. 

If the United States is seen as being on the side of building that kind of world, a world where our common humanity matters more than our differences, then that will be good.  But that shouldn‘t be why we do it.  We ought to do it because they need help, and we‘re doing it because it‘s the right thing to do. 

GREGORY:  President Clinton, you‘ve said in recent days that even when the international community mobilizes, there can really be coordination problems, getting the aid to where it needs to go.  Given the fact that there‘s still some tension between the United States and other large countries in the world, given the size and the scope of the U.S.  assistance, do you think it is time for an American to lead the United Nations, and would you like that job? 

CLINTON:  Well, we‘re here to talk about this aid relief.  Let me give

·         make two serious comments about the problem you raised.  First of all, President Bush got together a group of nations to work together to eliminate a lot of this overlap. 

Secondly, the United States is now working with the U.N. on this, and the U.N. humanitarian effort is one of the charities cited on the White House Freedom Corps Web site.  So they‘re trying to get coordination.  The FEMA director is with Colin Powell and Jeb Bush in the area today. 

So I think we‘re going to avoid that.  And I‘m going to avoid your question, because I don‘t—I don‘t even think it‘s realistic.  I can‘t imagine anything like that would ever happen. 

GREGORY:  But would you like it? 

CLINTON:  What I would like to do is to see the United States and the U.N. reconciled.  I would like to see strong support in the United States for the U.N., and I would like to see the U.N. universally recognized as having no serious operational problems.  We need a strong and effective U.N.  I think President Bush feels the same way.  And that‘s what I want. 

GREGORY:  Final point in our remaining seconds.  I think this is the first time we‘ve seen you two gentlemen, two former political combatants coming together for this kind of joint effort.  A little strange to be working together? 

BUSH:  I learned a lot from him.  I learned how to lose gracefully and go away.  And I haven‘t done an interview with you, because my son is president of the United States. 

But the fact that he‘s here, and I‘m here, we‘re here as friends and we‘re here with, I think, mutual respect.  Certainly I respect what he‘s doing and has been doing when he was president and with his life.  So I think it‘s good.  And I hope it sends a signal around the world that we‘ve come out of a divisive political period, and we‘re together, and we‘re Americans.  And we‘re proud.  And the fact that—you put your finger on something.  The fact that we are supporting vigorously aid to countries that are predominantly Muslim, that will send a very important message, I think. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GREGORY:  The two presidents, Clinton and Bush in the Roosevelt Room of the White House earlier today.  A united front, Chris, and now they will hit the road.  They‘ll do a lot of other interviews and really try to focus the attention on the need for individuals in this country, for corporations, businesses, to send the relief to agencies, primarily cash, to those agencies which can really direct it appropriately in the hardest hit areas. 

MATTHEWS:  David, is this going to have the power punch of a book tour, for example?  Are the two presidents going to go around the country from the big media markets, to the big corporate centers of the country on both coasts and really stick it to these guys with the power to distribute this kind of money from the corporate end? 

GREGORY:  It appears to be what they‘re going to do.  I think part of this will be to what extent this is a lead story, to what extent people are talking about it and reading about it and seeing it on their television screens.  There‘s certainly going to be a major effort that‘s already under way.  And it will continue. 

And of course, they have the ability to keep the focus there independently, and to tap into the resources and to their friends with great resources and other political contacts, international contacts.  So I think it is an effort to recognize that even after the spotlight of the media goes away, that they can keep it up and going. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, the president, President Clinton was out there criticizing the U.N. the other day for not having enough unity in its efforts.  Clearly, he didn‘t like your three questions about whether he might like to head that organization. 

GREGORY:  Well, he certainly didn‘t want to address it straight away.  And he said he can‘t even imagine that it would happen, but he didn‘t say he wouldn‘t want the job. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, I think—David, think I‘m allowed to editorialize at this—I think he wants the job, I think he‘s been tooling for it.  He has got a great delegation in South Asia.  He‘s going to be working on over there with regard to this relief effort.  Strong support in the African community.  He has got Nelson Mandela helping him out.  I think he really wants Kofi Annan‘s job, and maybe he‘d be great at it.

But anyway, David, you tried three times, three times he declined the crown.  Anyway, thank you for a great report.  David Gregory, who interviewed both President Clinton and of course former President Bush at the White House today. 

Up next, how many lives could have been saved had people in South Asia been warned of the coming tsunami, and why weren‘t they?  Republican Congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia will join us with that.  A very interesting question.  You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  The big question on the disaster in Southern Asia is, could lives have been saved if the people were warned of the coming tsunami?   Republican Congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia is urging the Bush administration to take the lead in developing an early warning system for the U.S. and for the world. 

Let me ask you, is there any warning system for countries, like modern countries, like us?  If anything hit us?

REP. FRANK WOLF ®, VIRGINIA:  There is a warning system in the Pacific for us.  There‘s also Japan that has a large warning system also. 

MATTHEWS:  So if a big wave were coming across the Atlantic, or the Pacific toward California, and Oregon and Washington, what would happen? 

WOLF:  It would be notified.  The center is in Hawaii.  They would notify people.  There would be several hours to whereby they could evacuate.  We‘re asking that NOAA do the same thing, provide the leadership on the East Coast. 

MATTHEWS:  How many hours lead was there in fact in real-time to save these people, had they been notified? 

WOLF:  I really can‘t say.  I‘ve read in the paper...

MATTHEWS:  A couple of hours? 

WOLF:  A couple of hours, two hours, three hours. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  So they could have cleared the beach back a quarter mile if they had to, or a mile? 

WOLF:  Some of these countries are very rural.  There is not a system in place.  There is no mechanism, no notification that you could even give. 

MATTHEWS:  Yeah, but all the rich tourists who were sitting out there in the nice five-star hotels, they would have gotten the word.  Everybody else would have said, we better get out of here, too. 

WOLF:  Probably.  There was a vote to do this in the Indian Ocean. 

And India wanted to move ahead, some of the other countries have not. 

MATTHEWS:  With this kind of a system?

WOLF:  Yes.

MATTHEWS:  Why would a country oppose it? 

WOLF:  Because I don‘t think they expected this to happen.  The International Oceanographic Administration, which is part of the U.N. and UNESCO wanted to do this, and were asking the Bush administration to take the lead to provide the technology to help the nations in that region. 

MATTHEWS:  Do people even know—because I didn‘t know it—in that part of the world, where they might be more sensitive to this happening, or more vulnerable—that when you see the ocean recede way out, it is going to come back in like gangbusters? 

WOLF:  I doubt it.  I don‘t think I would know. 

MATTHEWS:  They were all looking at it.

WOLF:  Yeah, I don‘t think I would now.

MATTHEWS:  Yeah.  Do you know it now?  I mean, do we know now that that‘s the pattern? 

WOLF:  Well, if you watch the film, yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Yeah.  Let me ask you about what we can do for these kind of people again, this part of the world that seems to be prone to this kind of (UNINTELLIGIBLE). 

WOLF:  We‘ve asked NOAA, which is our representative on the IOC, to take the lead to make sure there‘s a system in place on the East Coast, to make sure also, because...

MATTHEWS:  For us.

WOLF:  For us, also down through South America, Brazil and those countries.  All the islands.  Secondly...

MATTHEWS:  So we don‘t have that on the East Coast. 

WOLF:  No, we do not.  No.  And it could happen on the East Coast. 

MATTHEWS:  Where would the seismic disturbance come from? 

WOLF:  Throughout the ocean.  It could be a rock slide underneath the ocean.  There are mountains underneath the ocean that are larger than the mountains what we have above the ocean.  You could have a rock slide anywhere, could take place.  It is possible to take place on the East Coast, and we‘re asking NOAA—the likelihood of it taking place where it took place last week is not very, very high, and yet it did take place.  So to put the system in place on the East Coast, all the way down to Latin and South America, and then to take the lead to help these nations to do the same thing in the Indian Ocean.  And frankly, it probably ought to be done around the entire world. 

MATTHEWS:  Is President Bush with you on this? 

WOLF:  I‘m sure he will be. 

MATTHEWS:  In getting it done?

WOLF:  I‘m sure...

MATTHEWS:  What are the odds of something even worse happening?  A subsidence, a case of subsidence, where California drops into the sea, San Francisco is lost?  These are like...

WOLF:  You ought to talk to Admiral Lautenbacher with NOAA.  I‘m not the expert on the likelihood of that. 

MATTHEWS:  Because we think the terrible, the worst case can‘t happen, and we get right up close to it.  You figure...

WOLF:  It just happened last week. 

MATTHEWS:  Do you think that—that this could happen again? 

WOLF:  I think I would let that up to the technical people.  If it happened once, sure it could happen again.

MATTHEWS:  I mean, if we don‘t put in...

WOLF:  Well, I think whether it does or not, we should put the system in.  Because it could happen.  It has happened in previous times. 

MATTHEWS:  Why couldn‘t somebody in Indonesia make a phone call to somebody in Sri Lanka and say, look out, get off the beach? 

WOLF:  Well, but in some of those nations, they‘re so rural, there are people in small villages where there‘s no telephone communication.  I mean, how do you do that?  I mean, this tsunami went 3,000 miles.  How do you do that?

MATTHEWS:  Might call the tourist board...

WOLF:  And it happened early in the morning.

MATTHEWS:  The tourist board would move fast. 

WOLF:  No, no...

MATTHEWS:  They wouldn‘t? 

WOLF:  It happened early in the morning. 

MATTHEWS:  Yeah.  It is still amazing that it happened. 

Thank you, Congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia.  Coming up, will military aid in the tsunami hit region stretch America‘s efforts to keep the peace in Iraq?  We ask the HARDBALL war council, Generals Wayne Downing, Barry McCaffrey and Montgomery Meigs.  You‘re watching HARDBALL only on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL. 

Tonight, the U.S. military faces a two-front war, saving lives in Asia, winning the peace in Iraq.  The U.S. military is for ramrodding a massive relief effort in the countries hit hardest by the tsunamis.  Meanwhile, in Iraq, U.S. forces approaching 150,000 soldiers confront an election-eve surge of insurgent violence.  How far will the relief effort in Asia go in winning friends in the Muslim world and how do the next 27 days threaten the American mission in Iraq? 

For both answers, we turn to the HARDBALL four-star war council.  Retired General Wayne Downing commanded the Special Operations Task Force during the first Gulf War.  He also served as deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism under Condoleezza Rice.  Retired General Barry McCaffrey commanded the 24th Infantry Division during Desert Storm.  And retired General Montgomery Meigs served as commander of the Iron Brigade during the first Gulf War.  He was also commander of the NATO peacekeeping force in Bosnia during the Kosovo campaign.

General, I want to ask you about this two-front war, General McCaffrey first. 

What good can the U.S. military do for the world in terms of this relief effort? 

RET. GEN. BARRY MCCAFFREY, NBC MILITARY ANALYST:  Well, a lot.

We have deployed a couple carrier battle groups.  The Marines are actively engaged, including helicopters.  There is a tough challenge facing us, though.  The assets that are most valuable, transportation, hospital logistics, water purification, helicopter lift, Black Hawk, Chinooks, are all fully committed, supporting two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  So it‘s a very tough challenge for the Air Force in particular, as well as the Army. 

MATTHEWS:  Are we taking from Peter to pay Paul? 

MCCAFFREY:  Well, I don‘t think so.  I think we‘re going to have make sure General John Abizaid gets what he requires to sustain 150,000 troops in combat throughout the CENTCOM region. 

And so what‘s left over will be used for this very important humanitarian mission.

MATTHEWS:  But is there a surplus of U.S. capability at this moment that can be deployed to Asia?  Or is there not?  Are we shifting resources from one front to another? 

MCCAFFREY:  Oh, no.  We‘re going to do as much as we can.  But we are clearly stretched to the elastic limit breaking point right now.  The assets that are available, the Navy carrier battle groups, some Marine...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

MCCAFFREY:  But, basically...

MATTHEWS:  So we‘re one tsunami short of a bankruptcy in terms of our resources. 

MCCAFFREY:  Well, look, if Cuba goes down, if North Korea is a problem, if Taiwan is a problem, except for naval and airpower, we are at the breaking point, in my judgment. 

MATTHEWS:  So we can fight one war and one tsunami. 

MCCAFFREY:  Well, I think the tsunami, we‘ll do as much as we can with dollars, with goodwill, with some selected assets. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to General Downing.

Your assessment of our ability to meet both these needs at the same time. 

RET. GEN. WAYNE DOWNING, NBC MILITARY ANALYST:  Well, Chris, the tsunami, the humanitarian relief operations really don‘t take that many forces. 

This is—where in addition to the forces that Barry mentioned, this is where the Army civil affairs and special operations forces come into play, because much of what you want to do in these kinds of situations is coordinate and work the relief effort.  There‘s a tremendous number of international relief organizations in the world to surge to do these kinds of things. 

And there‘s also, Chris, surprisingly enough, a lot of contract airlift out there to lift these supplies around.  One of the biggest challenges is going to be in countries like Indonesia, which has had their coastal infrastructure areas totally ripped up.  So, how do you get in there?  How do you find air fields?  How do you find roads so that you can get these supplies in?

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  General Downing, is there any danger that we‘ll get into a shooting situation?  I remember when we went into Mogadishu with all the humanitarian impulses in the world, just like now.

DOWNING:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  A smaller incident, you could argue, but we went in there to help people who were starving to death.  We ended up in a shooting war.  We ended up having guys dragged through the streets. 

Is there any—why do we bring live ammo and a military into this kind of situation?  Or is it not going to be that dangerous?

DOWNING:  Well, Chris, Soldiers, Marines, wherever they go, are always going to take their ammunition.  Now, they may not go in there with a full basic load, as they‘re doing things on the ground, but, no, I think it is very unlikely we‘re going to get involved a situation like that. 

We‘ll turn this over as quickly as we can to the armed forces.  And in every one of those countries, Chris, they have very, very robust armed forces.  So I don‘t think that‘s a problem.

MATTHEWS:  Have you seen those people fighting over the food—have you seen those people fighting over the food packages? 

DOWNING:  Yes.  Oh, yes. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Is there any danger U.S. soldiers will be shooting people away from those food shipments to keep them in line? 

DOWNING:  Chris, listen, I‘ve been involved in these operations.  I‘ve seen this frenzy.  This is one of the reasons that, in almost every case, we‘re not landing helicopters right into the middle of these sites.  We‘re kicking the supplies out to them.

And, quite frankly, Chris, those are very small numbers of supplies.  Very little you can carry on these helos.  What really is the big stuff is what the international relief organizations will bring with them and what we bring in on our strategic airlift. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me go to General Meigs.  Do you see any problem in this in terms of stretching U.S. resources, fighting this two-front campaign of feeding and fighting people at the same time in the Far East and also in Iraq at the same time, and do you see any problem of developing Mogadishu type situation, where U.S. firepower somehow gets drawn into a fight? 

RET. GEN. MONTGOMERY MEIGS, NBC MILITARY ANALYST:  Chris, I think that‘s not a problem, really. 

Remember, we‘re going in there to prime the pump.  Once you get, as General Downing, the port open, once you get the airfields cleaned up, establish some supplies out to the really deprived areas in the hinterland, all these nongovernmental organizations, like Red Cross, World Vision, Oxfam or U.N. are going to come flowing in there and they‘re going to allow us to get out. 

So, really, the forces from the Pacific Command that are operating are only door openers and pump primers. 

MATTHEWS:  OK.

MEIGS:  And I think you‘re going to see them coming out very quickly. 

MATTHEWS:  But what about the question of capability?  Does this draw U.S. resources, assets, in terms of the military, right up to the breaking point?  Do you share General McCaffrey‘s sense that this is close to our capability limit? 

MEIGS:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Two fronts.

MEIGS:  What happens—what happens,Chris, is the Pacific Command is going to have to flow his readily available forces at sea to that location.  And I suspect what you‘re seeing now, if you went back to the West Coast, is that the units that were there refitting are going to be at a somewhat higher readiness level in case they had to surge to do something else. 

MATTHEWS:  General Downing, I want to ask you, do you think this—do you agree with General McCaffrey that this is right up to the limits of our abilities in terms of the military, these two operations simultaneously, Iraq and the Far East? 

DOWNING:  No.  I mean, I respectfully disagree with Barry on the manpower side of this thing.  I think we probably do have enough out there to handle this.  I think the strain that we had, if anything...

MATTHEWS:  No, he said you have enough, but no more, is what he said, just to correct. 

DOWNING:  Yes.  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  He said you‘re reaching the breaking point.  Do you agree or not? 

DOWNING:  No.  I don‘t think we are. 

I think we have got a little bit more flexibility.  And, Chris, by the way, I‘m on the record with you and a lot other people saying that I think we need another 100,000 forces in the Army and probably another 20,000 in the Marine Corps.  I‘m not backing off of that.  But I don‘t think this is necessarily the crisis. 

I do worry, Chris, about strategic airlift.  I think that‘s very, very critical.  And, you know, the first priority of our fighting forces is to fight.  And should something happen that would even suggest that they might have to do something outside of this area in another area, then that strategic airlift will go back over to the kind of missions that...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re going to come right back and talk to the generals about what is the hottest issue of our time right now still, the war in Iraq, the forces facing us, the insurgents, we call them, trying to stop this election and we‘re trying to let it go through with Generals Barry McCaffrey, Wayne Downing, and Montgomery Meigs.  We‘re talking about a really hot election coming up.

And don‘t forget, sign up for HARDBALL‘s daily e-mail briefing.  Just log on to our Web site, HARDBALL.MSNBC.com.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Coming up, as violence in Iraq increases before the election, will Iraq erupt into civil war?  We‘ll be back with the generals when HARDBALL returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  Welcome back to HARDBALL.  We‘re back with the HARDBALL war council, General Wayne Downing, General Barry McCaffrey and General Montgomery Meigs.

Let me ask you, General McCaffrey, are we facing the potential of a civil war in Iraq in which we‘ll have to take sides on the Shia majority side against the minority Sunnis and the Kurds?  It will be like the worst part of Vietnam again. 

MCCAFFREY:  Well, I don‘t think there‘s a potential for civil war. 

We‘re in the initial stages of one. 

The Sunni-Muslim majority is going to try to take over Iraq again.  I give them a reasonable shot to do it.  If we leave in the next 24 to 36 months, they will overwhelm the Shia and again control the country.

MATTHEWS:  Well, why do the Sunnis, who are smaller in number, have a greater potential to rule that country militarily? 

MCCAFFREY:  They have the generals, the intelligence agents, the entrepreneurs.  They‘re educated.  They were the ruling class for the last 100 years and they intend to do it again. 

MATTHEWS:  So we leave, they win?

MCCAFFREY:  Probably.

MATTHEWS:  We stay, who wins? 

MCCAFFREY:  Hopefully, we produce some way in which neither faction will savage the other.  The Kurds will be OK.  If we keep a brigade up there, they‘re going to do just fine.  The question is, can we level the playing field so this giant mass of Shia Muslims can create some state where they can survive and indeed largely govern the unified Iraq. 

MATTHEWS:  General Downing, where in the Arab world do you find this peaceful coexistence between Shia and Sunni, the very people we‘re trying to keep apart from each other in Iraq?  What country has a happy relationship between Shia and Sunni? 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  We had King Abdullah on the other day.  He‘s worried as hell.  We sit in this country worried about the red states and the blue states.  Well, in the Arab world, the red states and the blue states are much more viciously at each other, at each other‘s throats, I should say.  And they‘re called Shia and they‘re called Sunni. 

DOWNING:  Yes. 

Chris, it‘s almost like they‘re two religions.  There are some very, very deep divisions between the Shias and the Sunnis.  I would just echo what Barry just said.  You‘re also going to have a lot of nations around this area, a lot of Islamic nations, Arab nations that would support these Sunnis.

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

DOWNING:  And are very, very suspect of the Iraqi Shias and the Arabs. 

(CROSSTALK)

DOWNING:  ... civil war?  I hope not.

MATTHEWS:  Well, General, let‘s go down the list.  A lot of our friends—a lot of our friends are Sunni, the Egyptians, the Jordanians, the Saudis. 

DOWNING:  That‘s right. 

MATTHEWS:  They could all feel—we heard King Abdullah on this program a couple of before Christmas saying his biggest fear was that the Shia would form some new crescent of power, he called it, using a very obvious icon, the crescent. 

DOWNING:  Yes.  Yes.  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Why should the United States‘ parents and fighting families die or face death and obviously mutilation even in these wars for the Shia against the Sunni?  Why are we getting involved in that kind of a fight? 

DOWNING:  Chris, we‘re not involved...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Doesn‘t it come down to that? 

DOWNING:  No.  No.  No.

MATTHEWS:  That we‘re fighting for the Shia majority against the Sunni minority? 

DOWNING:  No.  No.  No.  Stop. 

No, listen, what we‘re trying to do is conduct an election.  In that country, Chris, there are 18 provinces; 12 of those 18 are probably going to have a fairly quiet election.  These are the three Kurdish provinces and the nine or—and the six Shia.  These other six provinces, which includes Baghdad, probably half of those are going to have a fairly decent election. 

So, what you‘re going to come up with for the first time is a representative government which, you know, we recognize that the Shias are 60 percent.  But we believe and they have—the Iraqis have espoused—that had they‘re going to put together a government that respects the rights of minorities for the first time.  So I think we have got to be positive.  Is this election going to be pretty?  No.  It is not going to be real pretty. 

But, probably, 80 percent of the population is going to have the opportunity to vote. 

MATTHEWS:  Could we find ourselves...

(CROSSTALK)

DOWNING:  When I say population, I mean voters. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

Remember, the American revolution, it started because Lincoln won the election.  And seeing the election of Lincoln, the South succeed. 

DOWNING:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Could we have a situation where the Sunnis, seeing the election of a Shia president or prime minister, whatever, a government, say, wait a minute, we‘re pulling out of this operation?  And the Kurds then jump out, too.  And American service people find themselves fighting to enforce the will of a federal government that two-thirds of the people of the country don‘t like. 

DOWNING:  Well, Chris, let‘s hope that doesn‘t happen. 

Is there going to be a civil war?  That‘s a possibility.  Let‘s hope that we have an election.  Let‘s also hope that, at the 11th hour, more of these Sunnis are going to come on board.  There are also indications now from the Kurds and the Shias that even if the Sunnis do not fully participate, they‘re going to so-called—quote—“reserve” some seats for them in this interim national assembly that is going to draft the Constitution later this year and then have the first real true general election probably this fall and seat this new government next winter, perhaps a year from now. 

MATTHEWS:  General mea, wars end because one side wins and the other side gives up and says—even—look at the Spanish Civil War in the ‘30s.  They said—the left said no more bloodshed.  We‘ll let the right win.  Franco wins.  We‘ll just have to live with it. 

Do you think the Sunnis are going to ever become that fatalistic and just say, well, I guess we‘re going to have to live under Shia rule?

MEIGS:  I don‘t I would put it that way.

Look, you have to do the same thing here we tried to do in Bosnia, which is create a safe ground so the majority of the Sunnis who aren‘t the Islamists, who the Salafi Islamists, who aren‘t the radicals, who aren‘t the former Republican Guard and the Special Republican Guard, see a reason for compromise and have a stake in a society in which the economy is working, in which there are jobs, in which there‘s connectivity with the rest of the world. 

That is the environment that you have to create.  And, remember, in 14 of the 18 provinces in Iraq, you have less than four incidents a week.  That is a good sign.  So—and the other thing is, Chris, we can‘t look just at this election.  We‘ve got a year of very tough events that we have got to follow through on. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  But a problem is that the president of the United States, who just got reelected, said, I may have only won by three million, but I‘m going to operate as if I won the election big time.  And he says, I‘m going to push through a Supreme Court that I like.  I‘m going to push through a Social Security system I like. 

Suppose the Shia majority take the same attitude?  We won the election with 50 or 60 percent, 60-some percent in the case we‘re probably going to see.  We‘re going to ramrod through a Shia, a Sharia-style government.  It is going to be Islamist.  It‘s going to have the ayatollahs running the place, the clerisy running the place.  And if the Sunni secular types don‘t like it, tough. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  What happens if the Shia majority operate the way the president of our country has said he is going to operate, which is my way or the highway? 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  What happens then, General Meigs? 

MEIGS:  I think we‘re not at that point, Chris. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Well, why wouldn‘t you predict that the Shia will be as tough-nosed or tough-assed, I guess you would say, as the president promises to be? 

MEIGS:  Because they get a lot more by having an integrated Iraq than they do by creating a mess, quite simply.  And I think they understand that.

MATTHEWS:  You tell that to Karl Rove in this country. 

Anyway, General Downing, do you see my parallel here?

DOWNING:  No.

MATTHEWS:  A lot of people when they win an election say, we won, you lost. 

DOWNING:  No, Chris, I do not see the parallel.  And, by the way, I don‘t agree with you on what President Bush is doing.  But, no, I...

(CROSSTALK)

MCCAFFREY:  And I join Wayne Downing in not seeing the parallel, I might add. 

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS:  Well, let‘s hope that...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘ll be right back with the four-star general war council here.

And don‘t forget to check out Hardblogger, our political blog Web site.  Just go to HARDBALL.MSNBC.com.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MATTHEWS:  We‘re back with General Wayne Downing, General Barry McCaffrey and General Montgomery Meigs. 

We have got one more question on the table, gentlemen, for this four-star review.  And it‘s a tough one.  Alberto Gonzales has been nominated by the president to be attorney general.  He is also the man that oversaw the treatment of prisoners in terms of U.S. legal policy throughout the campaign in Iraq.  And he‘s highly—I hate the word, but controversial is the right one here. 

Alberto Gonzales, General, is he the right man for attorney general? 

MCCAFFREY:  Well, he‘s probably a brilliant guy.  He is Hispanic, which is probably important, to finally end up with somebody from—a Mexican-American on...

MATTHEWS:  Because the president got 44 percent of that community. 

MCCAFFREY:  Yes, sure.  Well, it is an important...

(CROSSTALK)

MCCAFFREY:  ... part of the America. 

MATTHEWS:  Is he the right guy? 

MCCAFFREY:  The only thing that would concern me is, I think Secretary Rumsfeld‘s office had the better part of several directives that were in my judgment a violation of U.S. and international law. 

And so the extent to which the Department of Justice and the White House approved those memos, he ought to get sharp questioning.  That was not good for the U.S. armed forces. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, let‘s up that question a little bit to General Downing. 

Do you think the Geneva Conventions are a good ruling of thumb in treating of prisoners and was he wrong in saying they weren‘t? 

DOWNING:  Well, Chris, they are a good rule of thumb to treat prisoners. 

The question was is, though, what is the status of these terrorists?  Are they in fact entitled to prisoner of war status?  And, you know, the answer is that all the lawyers came back with is no.  They‘re a special case. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  What about the guys who we‘re fighting—let‘s narrow this down.  The people we‘re fighting in the field, the ones we call insurgents right now in Iraq, for example, who are siding with—they‘ve got guns.  We‘ve got guns.  We‘re fighting them.

They could say they‘re fighting for the country, right or wrong.  Are they—are they—do you think they qualify for Geneva Convention treatment? 

DOWNING:  No.  No, because...

MATTHEWS:  Why? 

DOWNING:  Because they don‘t meet the criteria.

Because, Chris, there are five criteria under the Geneva Convention for fighters to qualify.  You know, basically, they have to be part of an organized unit.  They have to be under control.  They have to have a recognizable uniform.  And so, the list—the list goes on. 

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  So, where do you disagree with the administration, General?  General, where do you disagree with the administration in its conduct of the war in Iraq? 

DOWNING:  Chris, that‘s a much broader topic than Alberto Gonzales.

MATTHEWS:  They don‘t have enough men in the field, enough troops in the field.  But let me ask you about the Gonzales thing.

(CROSSTALK)

DOWNING:  No.  No.   

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Do you think Gonzales is clean?  Do you think he‘s clean in terms of his handling of this matter of Abu Ghraib and the whole mess we got in over there in terms of... 

(CROSSTALK)

DOWNING:  Chris, listen, he‘s not the only lawyer involved in this.  This involves about eight different groups of lawyers.  This is a lawyer food fight. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

DOWNING:  They‘re going to have a ball with this because of all these issues.  But, Chris, you have got the White House...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Why have so many admirals and generals, interesting John Shalikashvili, spoken out against the nomination, certainly the confirmation of Alberto Gonzales as the next attorney general on these very grounds? 

DOWNING:  Well, certainly, Chris, I have not seen that yet.  I‘ve just heard about it. 

But every election now for about the past three, we‘ve had group of retired flag officers who have voiced their opinions about different issues. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

DOWNING:  And I don‘t necessarily agree with that, that they do that. 

But that‘s their right.  And that‘s...

(CROSSTALK)

DOWNING:  But it doesn‘t make them correct.

MATTHEWS:  Do you think they‘re just Rolodex rangers? 

DOWNING:  Pardon me, Rolodex rangers?

MATTHEWS:  I love that new phrase. 

DOWNING:  No.  I don‘t think they are.

MATTHEWS:  I heard it yesterday on Colin Powell. 

(CROSSTALK)

DOWNING:  No.  I respect many of them. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me go right to the next general, General Meigs.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS:  Are you up or down on Gonzales, General Meigs? 

MEIGS:  I‘m down on the policy that was implemented—the legal policy that was implemented that said that the president, under his war powers, under the doctrine of necessity, can abrogate any treaty if he believes there‘s a threat to his ability to keep the nation secure. 

MATTHEWS:  All right. 

(CROSSTALK)

MEIGS:  And I‘m against—I‘m down on the fact that they didn‘t interpret that and decide, who decides on that?

MATTHEWS:  I know.  Well, apparently, Alberto Gonzales did and he‘s going to have to answer for it. 

Anyway, thank you very much, Generals Wayne Downing, Barry McCaffrey and Montgomery Meigs.

Tonight, America mourns the loss of two groundbreaking U.S. lawmakers, Congressman Robert Matsui of California, a friend of mine, served 26 years in the House of Representatives and was the third ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee.  As a child, when he was 1-year-old, during World War II, he was held in an interment camp for Japanese Americans.  He spent their years in that camp and he came out a great guy, despite all that.

Robert Matsui, who suffered as an American for being a Japanese American, served wonderfully as a U.S. lawmaker. 

And former Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm passed away at the age of 80.  She was the first ever African-American woman to serve in the United States Congress.  She was an outspoken advocate for the poor people of Brooklyn, which she served for seven terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Shirley Chisholm and Robert Matsui, two unique Americans who will be deeply missed personally. 

Join us again tomorrow night at 7:00 Eastern for more HARDBALL.  Our guests will include Air America‘s Al Franken. 

Right now, it‘s time for the “COUNTDOWN” with Keith.

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