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Bush continues to defend War in Iraq

Does the situation on the ground in Iraq reflect what the President has been saying about the war?  Chris Matthews talks with two journalists who have recently been to Iraq - Washington Post Columnist David Ignatius and New Yorker writer George Packer, author of "The Assassin's Gate: America in Iraq."
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This week, President Bush has made many acknowledgements regarding the growing public concern over the war in Iraq.  But many are questioning if the president's P.R. marketing offensive is going to sway the skeptical American public and if the actual situation in Iraq reflect what he has been saying.

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, who visited Iraq just last week, and George Packer of “The New Yorker” magazine and author of  “The Assassin's Gate: America in Iraq,” joined ‘Hardball' to discuss the President and the public's responses.

To read an excerpt from their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, ‘HARDBALL':  What is it like to walk around over there, David? 

DAVID IGNATIUS, WASHINGTON POST COLUMNIST:  I have to be honest, I walked around with U.S. military escorts.  I was outside of Baghdad in two different places, but the experience of our correspondents every day walking around on their own, I didn't have. 

MATTHEWS:  Does anyone go out on their own and sneak around. 

IGNATIUS:  No, we have armed guards with our people basically all the time. 

MATTHEWS:  So you can't go door to door like our political reporter asking people how they feel? 

IGNATIUS:  Typically now we're asking our Iraqi staff to do that.  They are very brave, they are going out every day and asking those questions.  Our reporters do it whenever they can, but it's awfully dangerous. 

MATTHEWS:  So you're embedded? 

IGNATIUS:  We're embedded or in our house or going back and forth. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you, George, your experience when you've been over there, what's it like, because there's a lot of dispute about whether journalists—I am so impressed by the guts of journalists, we've lost 80 people over there so far, journalists around the world who have been killed there so far.  What's it like for you in your experience, your ability to get and connect with people over there? 

GEORGE PACKER, THE NEW YORKER:  It's very difficult.  In the first year of the war, I could talk to anyone and go pretty much anywhere.  This past January when I was in Baghdad, I had to sneak around in an inconspicuous car with another inconspicuous car behind me.  They would check the street when we stopped.  I would go in to the interview, my driver would stay outside and make sure no one had cased us. 

You're the target, you feel hunted.  It's a pretty frightening experience.  Journalists still go out every day to try to get stories and they are doing it at really unreasonable risk to themselves.  More journalists have died in Iraq than in the entire Vietnam war.  It's an unprecedented situation for the press.

MATTHEWS:  It's always said by men who have been in combat that it's very hard for a captain, even, to know what's going on in the war, that you only see your piece of it.  You're in the Battle of the Bulge, you may know where the hot spot is because you're right where it's at, but most of the time, you're doing your outfit's duty.  You can't tell how the war is raging. 

Is there anybody over in Iraq right now who can tell us whether we're winning, meaning stabilizing the situation so that a new government with its new army can run the place? 

IGNATIUS:  You know, I think the word winning is the wrong word.  I found on this trip and, again, I had several snapshots, I was escorted the whole time, I cannot vouch for this as objective reality—but I saw improvement in a couple of areas from the last time I was there. 

This was the 12th trip I've made to Iraq since the war began.  Politically, I thought Iraqis were beginning to come together more towards some kind of a unity government.  I don't know if they'll make it but they're trying. 

MATTHEWS:  And these were in the villages you saw? 

IGNATIUS:  No.  No, well, I'm talking now in Baghdad among the senior leadership.  I found and Shiites and Sunnis were I'd go into see Ahmad Chalabi, Shiite leaders have been playing around with Muqtada al-Sadr and Jaafari and sitting with him was the leader—one of the leaders of Tuafaq, which is the biggest Sunni group. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, what good is happening?  Explain it in your words.

IGNATIUS:  Well, what's happening is that, you know, Iraqis really did look into the abyss after this Samarra mosque was blown up.  They all felt in their gut we're about to head into civil war, and in that moment, I think they began to come together a little more. 

Khalilzad has done a wonderful job of trying to push these guys toward agreement.  So you do find Sunnis and Shias now beginning to say, OK, we'll accept a very broad unity government. 

I'm sure George will want to talk about this too, but militarily, I did see some differences.  The Iraqi army, which has been in many ways kind of a joke, is finally beginning to come together. 

MATTHEWS:  Will they stand and fight? 

IGNATIUS:  They did stand.  More important than fighting, they stood and calmed the situation down after February 22nd, the Samarra mosque blowing up.

MATTHEWS:  Do they look like soldiers? 

IGNATIUS:  They do finally look like soldiers, they train like them, they march like them.  They just look different to me than they have before. 

MATTHEWS:  George, your review, just a sense, because the words like progress are used, and Americans sitting at home with their TV sets trying to figure out a war with their newspaper and their TV—that's all they've really got.  What do you see having been over there in terms of this coming together of a political reality that the majority Sunni, who outnumber the Shia—or the majority Shia who outnumber the Sunni three to one, actually forming a government? 

PACKER:  You know, one of the really frustrating things is back here people want a sort of once and for all is it working or is it not working.  But when you're there, you're just surrounded by a kaleidoscopic picture. 

I could go to Tal Afar and see exactly what David Ignatius just described, Iraqi soldiers looking very much like soldiers and working incredibly closely with American soldiers who had gotten to know that city through very patient, long, incremental work.

But then I would go elsewhere and I would feel that the Americans were stuck out on these mega bases, weren't getting out very much, had no idea what was going on in the cities around them, and essentially were leaving it to the Iraqi forces who were really no match for what was going on in the insurgency. 

Politically, in the Green Zone, you do feel that the senior leaders are willing to talk to each other and all understand that it's all on their shoulders and they have to be willing to compromise, but outside the Green Zone, in the streets, I'm not sure those leaders themselves is understand how violent it is. 

There is so much sectarian fear and violence in the neighborhoods and cities around Baghdad where there's mixed populations.  There's ethnic cleansing going on with populations leaving areas for fear of their lives.

And that's a long-term trend that is extremely difficult to stop and reverse once it gets started, and that is something that journalists and Iraqi politicians alike have a very hard time getting very close to because it's too dangerous. 

MATTHEWS:  George, try if you can to get into George Bush's head right now in terms of the decisions he has to make between now and when he leaves office.  He says that he has to decide whether this is going to turn into a civil war over there and we have to basically get out of the way.

As John Warner said—the chairman of the Armed Services Committee in the Senate said yesterday—“get out of the war” in terms of the internecine or the sectarian fighting over there between Shia and Sunni.  What is in the president's head in terms of—or is he just stuck over there and he's going to fight it to the end no matter what happens? 

PACKER:  I think he's stuck.  I don't know if he knows he's stuck.  I think Lyndon Johnson knew he was stuck during Vietnam.  I don't know if George W. Bush knows he's stuck in Iraq.

I don't know how much information is really reaching him and how carefully he's analyzing it and how coldly and realistically he's appraising it.  I think that the word belief comes up over and over in his speeches these days. 

I believe we can win.  I believe we will have victory and I think what he's going on now is that absolute conviction that people want freedom, and that therefore Iraqis will be free.  But we're a long, long way from that and, in many ways, we seem to be heading in the wrong direction with the prospect of civil war. 

MATTHEWS:  But that's messianic thinking, isn't it?  Isn't that messianic?  I mean, that's believing that your—that your religious commitment has a truth in itself?  I mean, a person can have a wonderful religious belief, they can be completely wrong.

And we all know that because religion is basically a faith judgment. 

It's not a scientific or a military—if he has a faith belief in what he's doing over there, that's a religious belief and the question then is, will that—does that have any objective relevance to the rest of us? 

PACKER:  Well, my fear is that he's surrounded by people who are not giving him the really hard truth.  I mean, he has a secretary of defense who is still in office after five years, who really, I think, doesn't want to be in Iraq and who is doing everything he can to sort of pull back and lower our profile, and really prepare the way for withdrawal. 

I there's a giant gap right now between the administration's rhetoric of staying the course and what you sort of see in the details, which is a gradual pulling away from this project. 

MATTHEWS:  George just used the very language the president uses, and I'm trying to be very sympathetic to the president.  I'm trying to understand his thinking here.  The president of the United States said the other day “the men I've surrounded myself with.” 

That's a scary notion.  If you think about—he surrounded himself with people who were advising him, meaning he's in an envelope of people whose opinions he listens to, but there's no penetration from outside.

IGNATIUS:  Well, you know, I think that's scary.  The reality is that he's constrained by his own military.  The military is not going to just sit there, you know, for another three years, you know, carrying out the president's belief that, you know, he's bringing democracy and etc., etc.  They're not going to do it.  The military is determined to reduce the level of troops

MATTHEWS:  How do they win the argument? 

IGNATIUS:  They win the argument by pushing and pushing and pushing. 

I think the truth is, Chris, the president is, I think in a very foolish way, covering a process of drawing down our troops, getting it in line with what it should be, with what the public wants, reducing our footprint, just reducing the chips on the table and covering it with this rhetoric that always sounds the same. 

So even as things are changing on the ground, and I did see that on this trip, the rhetoric sounds exactly the same to people, and I think the president has become a completely ineffective communicator of his policy.  I don't know who is going to speak up for it, whether the military will have to address the country directly, which they would hate to do.  He sort of discredited the enterprise he cares so much about. 

MATTHEWS:  The language has lost its value.  Words like “them,” “the evil ones,” “terrorists.” 

IGNATIUS:  Repetition of terrorist terrorist terrorist. 

MATTHEWS:  They don't tell us what's really happening. 

Watch each night at 5 and 7 p.m. ET on MSNBC.