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Long-term damage to intelligence

December 29, 20053:28 p.m. ET

Long-term damage to intelligence
(Roger Cressey, NBC News Terrorism Analyst)

As the uproar continues over revelations that the National Security Agency conducted electronic surveillance against domestic targets, there are many questions that still need answers. What were the procedures involving authorization and oversight? For example, did NSA make the decision in-house on targets, or was there direction from other elements of the intelligence community, the Justice Department or the White House? What were the procedures on data captured as part of the broader surveillance effort? Was data that was not found to be relevant to the terrorism-related nature of the surveillance deleted immediately or stored on NSA's databases? What was the extent of the effort made by the White House to brief Congress and were there any serious discussions about changes to the existing FISA authority to cover the new realities of a post-9/11 world? Are there some members of Congress who were briefed but choose now to have a selective memory as to the extent of the briefings and their own views at the time?

In dealing with the threat to the United States by al-Qaida and the movement it spawned, we are in a daily struggle between security and privacy. One need only look back at polls taken in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 to see that most Americans are willing to accept a very high level of intrusiveness into their daily lives by the Government IF it prevents another terrorist attack inside the United States. Using NSA's unique capability to exploit address books discovered on captured terrorist cell phones and computers is entirely appropriate. What the nation won't accept is a broadening of intelligence action in a manner that is not focused, not limited in scope and not directly tied to disrupting terrorist operations. Right now, the public has the impression that the White House went far beyond what was necessary in war against al-Qaida.

The sad conclusion I draw is that much of this episode could have been avoided if the Administration had taken the time and effort to engage Congress in seeking changes to the existing FISA authorities. The argument that there was no way of doing so without compromising operational security is pure garbage. There are always language workarounds between the Executive and Legislative branches that make clear to the parties involved what is being authorized, but would be too vague to the casual observer. I fear that by choosing not to invest the time and effort to find a solution with Congress, the White House has done far-reaching damage to the intelligence community. Congress will surely take action once their hearings are concluded. This action is bound to have long term, unintentional consequences for NSA and it's ability to support the policy community. At a time when the threat by al-Qaida and the movement it spawned remains, that is not the outcome anyone should hope for.

Roger Cressey is a former deputy National Security Council director and analyst for NBC News.

Comments?  Email Hardblogger@msnbc.comDecember 28, 2005 |  4:33 p.m. ET

Wiretaps damaging, worrisome (Evan Kohlmann)

NBC Jordan Kohlman

In the many troubling months that followed the heartbreak of 9/11, Americans were forced to grapple with a tricky balance between tightening our faltering homeland security and yet, simultaneously, safeguarding the essential civil liberties that define our very national identity. 

When President Bush took the unprecedented step of holding deadly al-Qaida operatives as "enemy combatants" at an extraterritorial facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (and elsewhere), there were precious few complaints -- after all, it was a basic matter of survival and common sense.  Likewise, when the USA Patriot Act was initially presented for consideration by Congress in 2001, politicians from both sides of the aisle clambered over each other to endorse the new legislation.  As someone who monitors raw terrorist communications and propaganda on a daily basis, I count myself among those who strongly endorsed these measures and I continue to vigorously support them.

However, despite all this, I am nonetheless quite uneasy at the revelation that the President has authorized a significant number of NSA wiretaps on suspected terrorists and others without the approval of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court.  The President has justified these warrantless wiretaps by suggesting that--for reasons of expediency--they were absolutely necessary to track imminent threats.  Unfortunately, that logic is not sufficiently specific enough to justify such a major expansion of executive power.  Indeed, the principle purpose behind the establishment of a special FISA court in 1978 was to remedy the stunning abuse of intelligence agencies by the office of the President.  The secret court was conceived in order to help better negotiate that very same "tricky balance" -- ensuring that both national security and individual rights were being protected. 

To secure a FISA-approved wiretap, the government must only show "probable cause" exists that the sought-after target is working on behalf of a foreign power and has engaged in activities that "may" abrogate U.S. law.  Over the space of 26 years, the FISA court has approved close to 20,000 government applications and has rejected or deferred a mere six.  FISA applications can be submitted and approved in a matter of only hours (or minutes) so that foreign agents and terrorists are prevented from slipping through gaping legal loopholes.  In extraordinary circumstances, court approval can be obtained even days after the wiretap has already been put in place.  This is precisely why so many eyebrows were raised when Attorney General Alberto Gonzales attempted to justify warrantless wiretaps by suggesting that FISA lacks the "speed and agility" to deal with "this new kind of threat."  Former Secretary of State Colin Powell--who has himself publicly defended the NSA wiretaps--admits being mystified as to why the President did not seek prior FISA approval, suggesting "my own judgment is that it didn't seem to me, anyway, that it would have been that hard... even in the case of an emergency, you go and do it... the law provides for that."

Of course, this is not to say that the FISA court system is perfect -- far from it.  In serving as a consultant and expert witness on behalf of the U.S. Justice Department in terrorism cases, I have personally witnessed the bitter frustration of federal prosecutors caught in the seemingly endless red tape of FISA declassification.  But these problems primarily relate to subsequent criminal prosecutions -- not intelligence gathering and certainly not the interdiction of potential "ticking bombs."  The Bush administration has complained of a prickly relationship with the FISA court in recent years, but this close scrutiny is exactly what is expected from FISA, even in times of national emergency.  We have courts and judges in America for a reason -- to protect against unreasonable searches and seizures -- and the notion that the Bush administration can simply sidestep the authority of the courts whenever it sees fit is extremely questionable.  If there are such fundamental problems with the FISA system, one wonders why the White House has waited until now to voice these concerns.  If there are such fundamental problems with the FISA system, it is the primary responsibility of said White House to aggressively push for immediate legislative reforms, rather than simply adopting unilateral executive authority. 

The most unfortunate aspect of the NSA wiretap controversy is how significantly it has damaged congressional efforts to extend critically important provisions contained in the 2001 Patriot Act.  This damage is most clearly documented in recent comments by Senator Chuck Schumer who quipped to his colleagues, "I went to bed undecided, but [the] revelation that the government has listened in on thousands of phone conversations is shocking and has greatly influenced my vote."  No doubt, Senator Schumer and other politicians who profess to support the war on terrorism--yet still refuse to endorse the Patriot Act extension--have grievously let down their own constituents and the American public by confusing these two distinct issues.  Ironically, by allowing the Patriot Act to potentially lapse, such partisan pundits only further undermine the usefulness and efficiency of the FISA court.  But such irrational recalcitrance can almost seem justified to an uninformed observer, especially in the context of an executive who has demonstrated scant personal regard for judicial authority in the war on terror.

Evan Kohlmann is an MSNBC terrorism analyst and author of 'Al-Qaida's Jihad in Europe: the Afghan-Bosnian Network' (Berg, 2004).

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December 27, 2005 | 3:43 p.m. ET

The "Jack Bauer" President (Craig Crawford)

I have been watching dozens of back episodes of Fox Broadcasting's "24" over the holidays, and so far I haven't seen rogue U.S. anti-terrorism agent Jack Bauer stop once for a court warrant -- not even when he sawed off the head of an informant he was interrogating. Come to think of it, I haven't heard the Constitution mentioned a single time as Bauer, played by Kiefer Sutherland, repeatedly breaks the rules to thwart terrorist plots.

This is how the President wants us to see the real world. Indeed, George Bush is the Jack Bauer of presidential power. There are no rules in Bush's world when it comes to the War on Terror -- only wimps like the whining bureaucrats on "24" balk at torture, spying, propaganda, whatever it takes.

I guess I am one of those constitutional wimps. Even the reality cop shows get me riled, as we watch the police routinely trample the individual rights of hapless suspects. Maybe we do live in a Jack Bauer world where constitutional liberties take a back seat to stopping killers. But I'd rather live in Patrick Henry's world: Give me liberty or give me death.

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U.S. Army in Iraq let down by media & politicians: by Colonel Ken Allard

The Army that I saw last week in Iraq is a superbly competent, disciplined and overwhelmingly lethal force. While undergoing undeniable strains from four years of combat, it is far from the breaking point: but it is being badly let down by both the media and politicians back home.

First the media: The most frequent complaint I heard from the troops is that the war they are fighting in Iraq is not the one they see being reported on TV - and yes, those extensive base-camps are as fully "wired" as most American cities. The only casualties usually reported by the media are our own - but never the extensive destruction being visited upon the insurgent infrastructure. The only real question - are we winning? - is the only one not being analyzed.

The Politicians: Sometimes it's hard to know who's on your side. The Bush administration is belatedly engaging the war of ideas yet is also to blame for the chronic manpower shortages (active and reserve) that have bedeviled the ground forces ever since 9/11. Meanwhile, both Ted Kennedy and Jack Murtha seem oddly intent on doing what Zarkawi and Bin Laden have thus far been unable to do - breaking the will of the American people to sustain this fight.

Our forces may be stretched thin but if you really want to break them, just try bringing them home short of accomplishing their mission. We could get away with thinly disguised retreats in places like Vietnam and Somalia, which were strategic backwaters. But if we manage to rescue defeat from the jaws of victory in Iraq - the Schwerpunkt of the fight with radical Islam - then our grandchildren will arise and curse our memories.

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December 20, 2005 | 5:01 p.m. ET

Bush leans on old arguments (Bob Shrum)

Forty years ago Wednesday - Dec. 21, 1965 -- on CBS's "Town Meeting of the World," a live satellite link up between New York and London featured a debate between Harvard and Oxford on the Vietnam War. It was relatively early in the escalation of that conflict; hardly anyone in this country was against the war yet, including Eugene McCarthy or Robert Kennedy, and virtually no one was in favor of immediate withdraw. So contrary to the received stereotypes about the sixties, the Harvard team was defending American military intervention in Vietnam it was lively, sometimes biting even bitter exchange. The Harvard debaters -- then modestly known professor named Henry Kissinger the two students, Larry Tribe and Bob Shrum -- evoked the cause of freedom and the threat of encouraging aggression elsewhere if the United States failed to stay the course.

Professor Kissinger went on to become Secretary of State and the architect of a protracted war in Vietnam, while Larry and I moved by 1967 -- into the anti-war opposition. In fact, neither of us has talked much about that Harvard-Oxford debate since then. But I thought of it again Sunday night as I listened to President Bush defend the Iraq war with the recycled, post-Cold War versions of arguments that were as wrong forty years ago as they are today.

The first is that an election is the political elixir that will extricate us from a military quagmire (though this time, maybe it would have if Kerry had won in 2004; allies who have become bystanders or adversaries might have agreed to help in Iraq, so we could draw down the U.S. troop presence which our military leaders now say fuels rather than suppresses the insurgency). We saw election after election in Vietnam and, as is now the case in Iraq, they were all successfully hailed as "turning points," so many in fact that we just found ourselves trapped in a circle of self-delusion.

Now the preliminary results of the Iraqi election appear to confound the Presidents assurance that while he -- belatedly -- recognizes where we went wrong in this war, we're finally on the right track. We've turned the corner: just look at all those happy voters with purple ink of their fingers. Well, it actually looks like they voted in not the secular but the religious Shiites, who have fundamental differences with the once dominant Sunni minority about regional power and oil revenues (the Sunni's maybe left with almost none). The Pentagon's pet candidate, the secular Shiite Ahmad Chalabi, got less than one half of one percent of the in Baghdad.

At the same time, the Sunni Party that is leading represents the extremists who support violence against our forces that demand U.S. withdraw. The administration celebrated the Sunni's for not boycotting the election this time. But it turns out that the extremist maybe the Sunni mainstream. They voted, but it was tactical voting, aimed not at ending the insurgency but at advancing its objectives. The US favored among the secular Sunni's, former Prime Minister Allawi, the man we virtually installed in that office, is running so far behind, even where he was favored to do well, that his party is crying electoral fraud and asking the United States to intervene. Unfortunately, Jeb Bush isn't available to rig the results. Maybe the Bush Administration should have run General Thieu. But Allawi, like Chalabi -- and Thieu, was a bad bet precisely because he was seen as the American choice.

Not long from now, the memory although not the consequences of this month's election will have faded. What will matter is the level of violence next month and next year. In fact, the suicide bombings resume the next day, a continuation of the rising violence of the past eighteen months, which is likely to be intensified by the election results. So the Administration recycles another argument from the Vietnam era: despite what the media are reporting, despite the explosions you see on the evening news with your own lying eyes, we really are making progress on the ground. To drive home the point, the Administration excused Dick Cheney from seclusion and flew him to Baghdad for a photo-op Q & A with the troops. This time, the misuse of the military agitprop visual flopped. One of the soldiers told Cheney what Bush's advisors apparently never tell the President: things aren't getting better in Iraq. The Vice President promptly scampered off to Afghanistan -- the war we should have fought, where the Taliban are regaining ground while we're bogged down in Iraq -- to applaud the installation of the new Parliament there. Thus the pattern repeats itself in Iraq as in Vietnam: administration officials offer selective "facts" about an improving situation and the belatedly alert news media then reports the omissions and errors.

To overcome this, Bush, once more repeating Vietnam pattern, adopts the tactic of bypassing the media with a series of speeches direct to the American people that has supposedly raised his approval rating to about... 40 percent. Watching the Bush partisan spin it, you would think this was astronomically high. In plain truth, it is no basis for sustaining a war. The frequency of Bush's speeches is a sign of weakness, not strength. When John Kennedy was urged to go directly to the country far more often, he responded that "FDR's Fireside Chats" were relatively rare; but if a President went to the country more and more, the effect would be less and less. That's what's happening to Bush. Reality is a stubborn thing and eventually rhetoric fails.

So the real General in the Iraq war may now be Karl Rove -- his strategy to withdraw some U.S. forces, just enough to get by the next election where the Administration really does seem headed for defeat, the 2006 mid-terms here at home. But that won't redeem a conflict of choice that was fought on false pretenses; it may not even reduce American causalities if a somewhat smaller U.S. force faces escalating attacks. John Murtha, John Kerry, Russ Feingold and Joe Biden --not to mention Ted Kennedy, who was right on Iraq from the beginning -- have proposed alternative policies. Whatever their differences, they all begin with the truth that an indefinite U.S. military presences, with no benchmarks to measure progress or no target date for withdraw, will bring the final failure of a failed policy by prolonging not preventing the insurgency. As in Vietnam, the present U.S. policy in Iraq is a triumph of hope over experience.

There are some Democrats, a dimensioning number, who believe it is dangerous to dissent; last week Al From of the triangulating Democratic Leadership Council and Clinton pollster Mark Penn wrote a memo arguing that the party had to be cautious about "reinforcing" an image that Democrats are weak on defense. How can you justify loosing more American and Iraqi lives to sure up a party's image? And Democrats would have been stronger in 2002, for example, if they had forthrightly opposed what was wrong with the Bush policy instead of crouching down in political fear and coming across as a pale carbon copy of the Republicans. I don't think Mark Penn, who is the new CEO of Burson-Marsteller, could sell the Iraq war to Democratic primary voters. Instead there is a powerful case to be made that perpetuating this mistake and war actually weakens our national security.

Forty years ago today, I argued the wrong side of the Vietnam War. Now I hear the same flawed arguments trotted out to justify what's happening in Iraq. We are even hearing that old Nixonian standby: the disaster should be blamed on those who criticized the conflict, not those who created and continue it. In our hearts, we all know how this story ends; we just don't yet know when.

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December 20, 200512:35 p.m. ET

Presidential subway series? (Chris Matthews)

So, what is the possibility that 2008 could see a new kind of subway series?  Chris Matthews vlogs about a possible presidential subway series pitting Rudy Giuliani against Hillary Clinton.

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December 19, 2005 | 3:18 p.m. ET

NSA - Spying on Americans? (Lt. Col. Rick Francona)

A Dec. 16 New York Times article, "Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers Without Courts" has caused an uproar around the country.  Perhaps some background is in order.

The National Security Agency (NSA) is the largest agency in the U.S. intelligence community. Although nominally part of the Department of Defense, its operations are closely supervised by the Director of National Intelligence and support the entire executive branch.  From its headquarters at Fort Meade, Md., it oversees a worldwide network of intercept stations operated by "the Fort" (as it is known in the business) and the military services, using the latest technologies to access communications of all types.  You name it -- telephone, radio, fax, email -- NSA intercepts it.

NSA's primary focus is on the collection of foreign communications in response to intelligence requirements, be they for military commanders deployed to combat zones, diplomats negotiating on behalf of the United States, etc.  Generally, the communications intercepted by NSA take place outside the United States.  And generally, NSA is prohibited from the intercept of communications between "U.S. persons, entities, corporations or organizations."

That is not to say that internal communications, or communications originating or terminating in the United States involving a U.S. person or entity cannot be collected by NSA.  Collection of these communications, or those foreign communications involving U.S. persons (a much broader category than a U.S. citizen), entities, corporations or organizations abroad requires either a federal warrant or authorization from the Attorney General.

The governing document for this situation is United States Signals Intelligence Directive (USSID) 18. I worked in the U.S. SIGINT System for many years -- this directive is taken seriously.  From what I have observed, violation of USSID 18 is a career-ending event.  NSA requires that its officers and military personnel assigned there to complete annual USSID 18 training.

The long-established mechanism to authorize the intercept of internal or U.S.-entity communications is via a federal warrant issued under the provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), most often referred to as "a FISA warrant."  It is the FISA court that provides oversight to ensure that NSA's actions are in fact necessary and in keeping with U.S. law.  USSID 18 also permits collection of these U.S. communications when authorized by the Attorney General in exceptional circumstances (emergencies, imminent danger, threat to life, etc.).

According to the New York Times article, the President issued an executive order after September 11, 2001, authorizing NSA to monitor without warrants certain international phone calls and e-mail messages to or from persons in the United States.  (Note that intercept of internal U.S. communications still requires a federal warrant.)  Many of the communications targeted under this executive order were discovered from exploitation of captured al-Qaida and Taliban fighters and their computers and documents.  According to government officials, the information collected has resulted in the disruption of terrorist operations.

Is all this against this law? I'm not a lawyer, but I doubt it.  Having spent considerable time doing this for a living, I cannot contemplate NSA (or the parent Defense Department) undertaking this "special collection program" without concurrence of the NSA's General Counsel.  I would be surprised if the Justice Department was not consulted as well.

Was Congress notified?  According to the New York Times article, the chairmen and ranking members of the Senate and House intelligence committees were briefed by then-director of NSA Air Force Lt. Gen. Mike Hayden and then Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet.  This almost certainly happened.  This activity, clandestine rather than covert, would be considered a "significant intelligence activity," this requiring Congressional notification.

My question: Was an Executive Order needed?  Were the existing provisions of FISA not sufficient to authorize NSA collection of these communications?  Since very few FISA requests are turned down, what special situations arose that were not covered by the FISA?

Lt Col Rick Francona, USAF (Retired) is an MSNBC Military Analyst.  He served for over 15 years in the U.S. Signals Intelligence System, including tours at the National Security Agency.

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December 16, 20053:14 p.m. ET

A 'startlingly positive' development in Iraq (Ret. Col. Jack Jacobs)

Iraqi elections seem to arrive with a stultifying regularity. So what's special about this last one?  Two things: 1) its lack of violence and 2) the large Sunni turnout.

There have been quiescent periods before, and it's difficult to predict future levels of insurgent violence against civilians. Rapid improvement of the Iraqi forces is essential to the successful future of the Iraqi experiment in democracy, and both Americans and Iraqis need to capitalize on the tactical initiative that has been achieved in the past few weeks.

But Sunni participation in the process is a startlingly positive development. Realizing that boycotting previous elections was counter-productive to the Sunni future, they turned out in very large numbers.

Both Sunni and Shi'a leaders are preparing for the next stage. There will be more trouble if Sunnis see no gains accruing from political participation. But perhaps the biggest threat to the fragile regime is the rise of ambitious, powerful and intransigent Shi'a like Moqtada al-Sadr.

It ain't over yet.

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December 16, 200511:08 a.m. ET

Propaganda folly (Craig Crawford)

I don't know what's worse: the Pentagon paying up to $300 million to private companies for "psychological operations" in Iraq, or the top military brass and the White House claiming they knew nothing about it.

Let's be clear: We're talking about covert propaganda. Now, there's nothing wrong with properly labeled propaganda. The government has every right to get its message out, so long as the source is identified. But secretly paying the Iraqi press to run favorable stories? This is a lousy way to teach people about democracy, which depends on a free press to thrive.

Sadly, we've seen the same disrespect for an independent press right here at home: Pundits paid by the government to tout its policies and fake video reports run by local TV stations without any mention they were created by the government.

But as bad as all of that is, just as worrisome is how everyone at the top in the Pentagon and the White House says this Iraq propaganda machine was news to them. Are they really so out of touch that they were clueless about $300 million in taxpayer dollars being spent for this? The Iraq War is costing $6 billion a month. The least we can ask is that the people in charge make it their business to know what it is being spent for.

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'Doomsday' torture scenario distracts (Ron Reagan)

The U.S. Army has updated it's field manual with an addendum specifying what interrogators may and may not do while putting the screws to captured terror suspects. Final approval awaits the signature of Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence policy Stephen "Torture Lite" Cambone. Insiders believe the new guidelines -- details unavailable for reasons of national security and general squeamishness -- will likely displease Sen. John McCain and could derail negotiations over his legislation banning "cruel, inhumane and degrading" treatment of detainees.

That we are even entertaining talk of torture by American personnel is itself a degradation -- a thought seemingly beyond the scope of those who advocate tactical atrocity. But there are always those "extreme circumstances". Chief among these is a circumstance floated by conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer among others, the dreaded "doomsday scenario".

It goes something like this: what if we capture an individual who has planted a thermonuclear device in the heart of Manhattan, set to detonate in one hour? Wouldn't we feel justified in doing anything -- and I mean anything -- to forestall such a catastrophe? Well, practically speaking, yes. But the scenario deserves closer examination.

First of all, we do not have, never have had and likely never will have such a fiend in our grasp. This scenario envisions us capturing a person we know to be in possession of information about an act which we know will result in the imminent deaths of many thousands of fellow citizens. But the people we have been subjecting to various forms of abuse -- and which Dick Cheney would like C.I.A. operatives, at least, to continue abusing with impunity -- do not, strictly speaking, fall into that category. Yes, some of them are very bad folks who wish us the worst sorts of harm. Some may even have information which might be useful in preventing acts of terror somewhere down the line. But many of the abusees have been foot soldiers who will simply tell their interrogators anything they want to hear in order to make the pain go away. Some have been innocent cab drivers and the like with no connection whatsoever to terrorists. In short, we have applied some pretty horrendous techniques, at Gitmo, Abu Graib and beyond, in the service of a fishing expedition -- let's hang this guy up by his short hairs and see what he has to tell us.

But let's say we do nab the mad bomber -- nuke somewhere in the big apple, one hour till oblivion. Would torture do us any good? Unlikely.  Remember, he (or she) knows he only has to hang on for an hour to accomplish the mission. And even if we employ methods so vicious that even the most hardened, well-trained terrorist can't withstand them, do you really think he wouldn't buy the necessary time with a cover story?  ("O.k., i give. The bomb is in a gray van with New Jersey plates Circling somewhere in Midtown.")

Considered in this light, the doomsday scenario is revealed for what it is, a scary but absurd red herring designed to deflect our attention from serious thought about the use of torture, violations of international agreements and the harm these do to our standing in the world, including our vital need to win hearts and minds in places that already hold us in less than high esteem. 

Mr. Krauthammer says that while he admires principled pacifists, he wouldn't want them in charge of our national security (I'm paraphrasing). Perhaps not. But his doomsday mirage demonstrates the folly of putting cerebral pundits in charge where the rubber meets the road. Give me instead someone with real world experience. In this instance, give me John McCain.

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December 15, 200510:48 a.m. ET

Bush's problems national for GOP? (Chris Matthews)

In Chris Matthews' latest vlog, the 'Hardball' host discusses how the president's problems are impacting the 2006 Pennsylvania Senate race and whether Bush's problems may affect the Republicans nationwide next year.

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December 15, 20059:53 a.m. ET

Analyzing the latest numbers
(Elizabeth Wilner, NBC News Political Director)

Insert your favorite diagnostic analogy here: The hemorrhage has stopped, the bleeding has been stanched, etc.  The new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll is the latest in a series of national polls to depict an Administration whose health has ceased to deteriorate and, indeed, may be slowly recovering.  How slowly?  Bush's job approval in our survey is 39 percent, one point above his November rating.  By other measures, however, his outlook is improving more dramatically, if perhaps temporarily -- starting with the war.

Conducted between Dec.9-12, by which point Bush had given three of his four big speeches on the war, the poll of 1,006 adults (MOE +/-3.1%) suggests the Administration's full-court press of their case for staying the course may be working.  Bush's job approval rating on Iraq is up four points since November, and confidence that the war will come to a successful conclusion has increased by seven points in that time.  While the country appears to have found a middle ground on US troop status, wanting them home eventually, a strong majority of 68 percent flat-out opposes an immediate withdrawal, which Bush has been arguing against.  Fifty percent also oppose reducing the number of troops inside Iraq and moving many of them to US allied countries in the region. 

But if an uptick in public opinion about Iraq is the result of four major speeches by the President and other efforts by Administration officials, a marked decrease in the public's pessimism about the economy seems due in large part -- perhaps even larger than previously thought -- to a drop in energy prices.

Feelings about Bush's handling of the economy over the past few months have tracked in our polls with the bite energy prices have taken out of American wallets.  Bush's job rating on the economy dropped from 40 percent in September to 34 percent in November as a string of hurricanes kept fuel costs high.  With gas prices currently down and home heating costs only beginning to kick in after a warm start to winter, Bush's approval on the economy has risen to 38 percent.  Asked how they expect the economy to do over the next 12 months, 26 percent now say it will get better, up 10 points from September.  Thirty-four percent say it will get worse, down 15 points from September. 

Asked which measures they use to evaluate the strength of the economy, 41 percent of those polled say they judge it by the amount they spend on food, gas, and other necessities, and 33 percent say the cost of education and health care.  When asked if the economy is improving "right now" or not, a majority of 53 percent say it isn't.  But among the 42 percent who say it is, 24 percent say it's improving "for all economic levels," not just for the highest economic level (18 percent).  "The old populist notions don't apply so much here," says NBC pollster Peter Hart (D).

Of course, the risk for Bush in the public's linking his handling of the economy so closely to energy costs is that costs could rise.  Indeed, home heating bills are expected to.  The other risk factor is that those polled list the costs of education and health care as their second most-used measure of how the economy is doing, per the survey, and the Administration has done very little to address the costs of health care, apart from pushing tort reform.  On another question, when asked which issues should be the top priority for the federal government to address, health care ranked second at 33%, behind the Iraq war but ahead of job creation and economic growth.  The cost and supply of energy, on the other hand, was rated as a top priority by 16 percent of those polled, down five points since November.  "Health care costs are a huge deal," says NBC/Journal pollster Bill McInturff (R).  "It's pretty clear what people are telling you about what they think the filters are for how they view the economy."

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Looking at poll numbers (Chris Matthews)

In his latest Vlog, MSNBC's Chris Matthews looks at President Bush's latest approval ratings along with a poll gauging the attitudes of Iraqis toward the United States. Watch the video below:

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Table for one, Mr. President?  Or Eight? (Hilary Rosen)

It is lonely being the President.  It is especially lonely when you can look back just one year and remember feeling like the biggest man on campus.  With new conservative allies in the Senate like John Thune and Tom Coburn and the continued dominance of the Right wingers in the House, no wonder the President thought he was invincible. 

Right out of the box though he should have realized that something was wrong.  Two things told us so: Social Security and the Filibuster debacle in the Senate.  Both of those instances proved that despite the new conservative additions to the Senate and House, the Republican moderates were still a force to be courted, reckoned with and most especially, listened to.  And this time they were led by someone who is not a moderate.  John McCain is a maverick and, he would say, a true conservative who doesn’t particularly like being told that his job is to do James Dobson’s and the rest of the right wing radicals’ bidding.

Social security proved the Democrats could stay on message, And their effort was powerful and effective. But it went nowhere in the Congress because the moderate republicans didn’t want it to.   They were the extra votes the majority didn’t have in the Finance Committee and the Ways and Means Committee to get the President’s priority off the ground.

Just recently again, We saw Olympia Snowe of Maine lie in front of social spending cuts and prevent the majority from moving that money into more tax cuts for the wealthy.  And the President’s Iraq agenda won’t get much more support in the Senate until he accommodates John McCain on prison torture.

In a dramatic moment several years ago, Jim Jeffords, tired of being ignored and dismissed by the Republican majority and the White House, switched parties in a fashion that put the Democrats back in the majority.

It is critical in the next few months for the Democrats in the Congress to unveil their programs showing how America will do better with change and stick with a good message.  It might be even more critical for them to work harder to make alliances with the people who truly hold the power in the Congress today, the Republican moderates and John McCain.

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More bad news for Tom DeLay (Chris Matthews)

So just how bad are things for Tom DeLay.  Chris lays out the challenge for DeLay's re-election bid.  Click below to see Chris's Vlog.

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American withdrawal and the insurgency (Rick Francona)

As the debate over the war in Iraq continues to heat up, several Congressmen, Senators and even former military officers are calling for an American troop withdrawal, claiming that the presence of U.S. forces in the country that fuels the insurgency; withdraw the troops and the insurgency will end or significantly decrease.  After all, without foreign forces in the country, there is no need for an insurgency.

That might make sense if we were dealing with a united Iraqi nationalist or resistance movement.  The reality on the ground on Iraq is quite different -- the insurgency in Iraq is not a monolithic or even unified group.  Many are trying to draw parallels between Iraq and Vietnam, but the two situations are markedly different.  In Vietnam, you had the Viet Cong backed by the North Vietnamese army.  They were allied and united in the same cause -- their goal was the same.  They had a common vision for the country after the exit of the Americans.  This is not the case in Iraq.

The insurgency in Iraq comprises disparate elements, each with its own goals and tactics.  These elements may have a temporary alliance with each other -- the Middle Eastern adage "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" comes to mind - but in the end, their goals are incompatible.  Do they all want the Americans/coalition forces to leave?  Absolutely.  Once they are gone, will the elements of the insurgency then together work out the future of Iraq?  Doubtful.  If they are successful and cause the Americans to leave, then they will have to deal with each other's opposing positions.  However, their joint immediate goal is to cause an American withdrawal.

The calls for American withdrawal vary from just leaving, to a timetable, to redeployment of the forces to neighboring countries, or a combination thereof.  In any case, the result will be the same - handing a victory to the insurgents.  All of these options involve ceding territory to the enemy.  That will be regarded not only as a victory for the insurgency, but an affirmation of their belief that Americans will not continue on the face of continuing casualties.  That perception will last a long time and may impact future U.S. operations in the region and around the world.

After the withdrawal, the real power struggle in Iraq will begin.  The two major elements of the insurgency are the former regime elements and the foreign fighters of Al-Qa'idah Ar-Rafidayn, the Al-Qa'idah affiliated group led by Abu Mus'ab Az-Zarqawi.  Both want the Americans (and coalition) out of Iraq, but for different reasons.  The former regime elements, the Sunnis who were driven from power by the American-led invasion of 2003, want to reassert their control over the country, to regain what they believe their rightful position.  Withdrawal of American troops will not lessen their attacks.  They will refocus their efforts on the new Iraqi government, a government they regard as illegitimate and composed of Shi'a and Kurds that mean to keep them from exercising the power they once did.  The level of violence will likely increase with the removal of American forces, not decrease.

The Az-Zarqawi group, however, is not interested in the reinstatement of the secular, socialist Ba'th regime.  They have been vocal in their calls for the establishment of a fundamentalist Islamic state, a caliphate somewhat akin to the former Taliban state in Afghanistan.  Should American forces withdraw, the Az-Zarqawi group will increase their attacks on the new Iraqi government, and likely continue their attacks on the Shi'a as well.  Az-Zarqawi has sstaetd he will attack American forces elsewhere in the region.  Moving them to Kuwait, as suggested by at least one retired general, is not a solution.  Hunting down and killing the insurgents is.

It is the presence of American forces that prevents the insurgency from turning into an outright civil war.  The departure of those forces will trigger a bloodbath.

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Marching to a different tune (Chip Reid)

Congress was supposed to be long gone by now -- home, getting ready for the Holidays, taking overseas jaunts to places like Iraq, Sudan, and yes, the Caribbean.  But they didn't get their work done on time, so here they are.  The House came back this week, the Senate next week, to finish up their work -- or at least give it one more try.

The big items include billions in budget cuts and even more billions in tax cuts.  Democrats are united in opposing the cuts, arguing that Republicans are cutting programs for the poor and the middle class (Medicaid, food stamps, student loans) to pay for tax cuts for the rich (capital gains and dividends.) 

Once upon a time -- in fact earlier this year -- Republicans could have rammed the whole package through. They would have relied on the discipline imposed by Tom DeLay, and if they needed help, they'd call the White House to apply pressure to wavering Republicans.

But now it's a different ball game.  DeLay still helps out, but since he's not Majority Leader (and many Republicans up here say he never again will be) he doesn't have anything like the coercive power he used to have. His replacement Roy Blunt doesn't appear to have the Hammer's persuasive powers.  And the White House has been so weakened by the war, by Scooter-gate, etc. etc. etc., that Republicans who used to fall in line are now marching to a different drummer -- their constituencies.  Many members are deeply worried about losing their jobs next year, and they're no longer afraid to buck the weakened White House if they think it improves their chances of re-election.

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December 8, 2005 |

Where's George Bush's head at?: by: Howard Fineman

There's a Big Question floating around Washington right now. In the terminology of the 60's Woodstock Days, it is this: Where's George Bush's head at?

Is he in some mental/political/spiritual bunker, divorced from the reality of American and global life? Does he really believe we're on the verge of victory in Iraq? Is he planning to stay the course indefinitely with 150,000 American troops there? Does he really not care whether he loses the Congress next year? Does he think that is possible? Or are he and Karl Rove actually fully aware of just-- and worried by -- how deeply skeptical the American people have become of the war? Does Bush-Rove plan to acknowledge that skepticism -- however obliquely -- and draw the Democrats into running once again, in 2006, as the anti-war party?

When presidents lose popularity they are depicted in the press as flawed, Queen-like figures: Richard Nixon muttering to the oil paintings; Ronald Reagan lapsing into senility while napping on the Oval Office couch; Bill Clinton in red-faced rages against Monica Madness.

Now the question is whether Bush is burrowed into a bunker of his own devising, unable to imagine let alone craft an Exit Strategy -- indeed, not even thinking that he NEEDS an exit strategy. He appears to think that he made the right decision to go to war in Iraq (even if he vastly exaggerated the immediate threat posed by Saddam Hussein to America). He appears to believe his own rhetoric that the result in Iraq will be worth in the long run what it has cost America in the short run: the admiration of most of the rest of the world.

For a reporter, I think I know George Bush pretty well, though I admit that I knew him better as a candidate than I know him as a president -- I had more chances to interview him and spend time with him in the old days.

Here's the short version of what I think he is up to now. He is going to talk Big -- West Texas Big -- until what he hopes will be successful national elections in Iraq on Dec. 15 and until the installation of a new permanent government.

Then he is going to declare victory on what he will tell himself is his own and America's terms, and begin to draw down the troops. By next fall there will be 40,000 or so fewer troops in Iraq  -- and Bush-Rove will dare the Democrats to run on a platform of immediately withdrawing the rest.

Bush-Rove will run one last election with him as war president.

Will it work? Depends on what happens in Iraq.

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December 7, 2005 |

The Bush project is over: By Bob Shrum

By the calendar, the Bush Presidency has three long years to go, but the Bush project is over.  Amid the twilight, panicked Congressional Republicans are abandoning Administration policies and separating themselves from Bush; midterm elections are local, they’re suddenly telling us; and in 2006, Bush is likely to be seen and heard only in the safest Republican districts.  (And even that may not work; Bush’s last minute appearance in Virginia may have pushed the Republican candidate for Governor over the brink--of defeat.)  At the same time, newly hopeful Democrats, who had been unaccountably frightened by a close defeat in 2004, are finding their voices again.  Even the cautious are beginning to call for a beginning of the end of the Iraq War.  Then Monday morning, one of the clearest flares signaling the faltering Bush project lit up the Beltway sky: White House Chief of Staff Andy Card reportedly wants to pull a Baker, abandoning his West Wing post as Jim Baker did in the Reagan years to take over the Treasury Department.

But that’s where the comparison with Reagan ends.  Whatever else you thought of him; Reagan's was not a failed Presidency.  And when failure threatened, he changed course: raising taxes in 1982; cleaning house-the White House-after the Iran-Contra scandal; overflowing his own ideological aversion to negotiating with the Russians and to the horror of the neo-cons, deciding that he could deal with Gorbachev.  It’s not easy for a President to admit a mistake or change course, but it is a precondition of greatness in a President that he (or she) can.  Bush won't, apparently can't, and it may be too late anyway.  (Remember the one "miscalculation" he grudgingly conceded in Iraq-that we “won” too fast; he said it a little over a year ago, but how far away that now seems.)

The result is that Bush, as President, now presides over the bare ruined choirs of his own policies-and Americans are paying the price in blood, treasure, declining standard of life, and the erosion of our own democracy.

Last week, his response to the quagmire in Iraq was, incredibly but inevitably, another photo op.  It looked like the White House hired the calligrapher who gave us “Mission Accomplished” to emblazon “A Plan for Victory” across the stage at the Naval Academy in front of another captive military audience.  But that slogan too was just more of the same.  Last year in the Presidential debates, Bush proclaimed that he had “a plan for peace;" the only change in this recycled spin was one word.  At the Naval Academy, Bush hailed the coming election in Iraq as the solution; in the Presidential debates, he did exactly the same thing, in almost the same words, but that was several elections ago.  The next one won’t matter unless the new government asks us to get out.

Advancement, spin, speeches and photo ops can’t redeem what undeniably has turned out to be the wrong war for the wrong reasons at the wrong time.  The day after Bush weighed anchor at Annapolis, ten Marines were being sent home from Iraq in coffins, the latest casualties in a spiraling cycle of attacks.  The Administration then announced a new tactic: "Raid and Dig In.”  Well, dig in sounds like a perfect description of what Bush is doing; the hole we’re in is getting deeper and Bush’s go it alone foreign policy is now discredited and disabled.  With our armed forces stretched to the breaking point-and by the admission of some of our own military leaders feeding the insurgency in Iraq, the Taliban are reasserting themselves in a chaotic Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden is still on the loose, Iran may be only months away from a nuclear weapon, and our capacity to respond or credibly deter anywhere in the world is far more limited than it was prior to the Bush presidency.  Potential allies are repelled by the Administration's defense of torture.  And the President's pledge in his Second Inaugural to spread democracy around the world now looks like Anatole France's description of "a munificent bequest in a pauper's will."  The Bush foreign policy legacy is set: He left America weaker.

It's no better on the home front.  Despite his attempt to spin mediocre job creation numbers as a reason "to be optimistic about our economic future," real income is down for American workers -- this year, last year, and the year before that.  Bush's headline economic policy -- tax cuts skewed to the wealthy -- has led to deficits so massive and intractable that even leading conservatives are now calling for tax increases (although in some cases in the form of wonderfully Republican ideas like a national sales tax that would burden the middle class and let the wealthy keep their windfall.)  Bush's tax cuts are not long for the post-2008 fiscal world.  His other headline domestic initiative, Social Security privatization, is already dead and buried, and as far as his fellow Republicans are concerned, best forgotten.  He has no health care plan and no environmental policy except to drill in wilderness areas, cut down national forests, and speed up global warming.

Bush's only domestic legacy, if you could call it that, may be a right wing coup on the Supreme Court along with a corrosion of trust in our own democracy.  If a Bush court does overturn Roe v. Wade  Republicans will be able to credit him with their subsequent electoral thrashing.  And Bush, whose manner of coming to the Presidency in a purloined election, will leave office with a record of inveterate hostility to civil rights, equal rights, and voting rights.  We now know that Justice Department lawyers determined that former House Majority Leader Tom De Lay's gerrymanding plan to steal Congressional seats in Texas for the Republicans unlawfully diluted the power of African-Americans and Hispanics; the Administration simply suppressed the report and De Lay, since indicted on unrelated charges, had his way.

After 9/11, George W. Bush stood atop the rubble at Ground Zero and rallied the nation.  He had an opportunity to lead on a scale given to few Presidents.  Instead he misled America-into war and on the home front; and while he’s pleased the far right, he’s Roved his way toward the bottom tier of Presidents.  That history is being written every day.  Bush may not read the books when they come out because he doesn't seem to have much interest in history or learning from it- and anyway by then, he’ll be back on the ranch, just not soon enough.

December 7, 2005 |

Bush Vs. Kerry:  ? (Chris Matthews)

Have the multitude of problems facing Bush's Republican administration shifted voter allegiance to the Democrats?  Click below to see Chris's Vlog.



Iraq's 'free media': By Andrea Mitchell

As part of the effort to broadly promote democracy in Iraq, the State Department has been training Iraqi journalists, teaching them how to create a vigorous, free and unhindered media.  Freedom of speech, a bedrock principle of democracy, was to be one of the hallmarks of the post-Saddam era.  In fact, only last week Don Rumsfeld bragged that Iraq “has a free media, and they can -- it's a relief valve. They could have hundred-plus papers. There are 72 radio stations. There are 44 television stations. And they're debating things and talking and arguing and discussing.” 

The problem, of course, is that we subsequently learned the “free” newspapers in Iraq are sometimes printing stories secretly written by American troops and planted by a Washington lobbying firm with solid gold Republican connections.  The firm, the Lincoln Group, is itself an interesting story. The principals include a thirty-year old former hedge fund manager named Christian Bailey who has no experience in the Middle East or foreign policy or journalism. He did, however, apparently distinguish himself as a founder of “LEAD21,” a group of affluent young Republicans supporting the Bush-Cheney ticket.  Bailey has had a series of ventures in the last few years in New York, San Francisco, but since coming to Washington, he has really caught the gold ring. Somehow, he and his partner have landed a 100 million dollar defense contract that includes shaping the news – covertly – in Iraq.

U.S. officials also tell NBC News that the CIA has been paying reporters – not exactly the greatest lesson in journalism for these fledgling news men and women.  As someone who has met with Iraqi journalists during their visits to the U.S. for training sessions, it’s pretty offensive to now learn of back channel U.S. government payments that subvert the whole process.

As if that weren’t enough, U.S. military officials tell us that the Pentagon secretly owns at least one Iraqi radio station and controls its editorial content, as well as owning an Iraqi newspaper.  Editors of some of the Baghdad papers who’ve been running the Pentagon’s stories – they say, unwittingly – have now been threatened for disseminating the Pentagon’s propaganda and are afraid to speak out. The entire contract of trust between the public and the press has been fractured, to the chagrin of many public affairs officers in the military who blame their own colleagues, in charge of psychological warfare operations.

The blowback from all this is obvious:  the Iraqi reporters are corrupted, the Iraqi people are mislead and further disillusioned about the truth or falsity of what they read in the media, and young lobbyists are becoming rich at the trough of government contracts.  So much for a “free” media in Iraq! State department officials say the sad result is that this will make their job of promoting democracy in Iraq a whole lot tougher.  


December 6, 2005 | 1:45 p.m. ET

Staring reality in the face: by Ron Reagan

Last week, President Bush once again stared reality in the face and decided he'd rather not go there. In a speech advertised by the White House as a detailed look at a comprehensive, dynamic strategy for "Victory in Iraq", we were treated once more to the same tired justifications, the same refusal to confront mistakes, the same Pollyanna recitation of progress being made. Call it "stay the course" with bells on.

Meanwhile, in Baghdad and beyond, the beat goes on, the bombs go off and brave young men and women sent into harm's way for reasons the administration cannot rationally explain end their tours in body-bags.

There is a reality, though - two of them actually - that Mr. Bush, political animal that he is, can't ignore. On December 15th, Iraqis will once again brave a trip to the polls, this time to elect an actual Iraqi government. Given what transpired at the Pan-Arab Conference in Cairo recently, where Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds who ordinarily can't agree on the time of day all coalesced around a desire to bid us adieu, that new government, whatever it's makeup, will almost certainly ask us to hasten our withdrawal from their suddenly sovereign nation. They'll want a real answer.

And in November of 2006, we will have our own midterm elections. Politicians of all stripes are well aware that their constituents want real answers too. The majority of Americans have long since recognized that this is an unnecessary war that, in fact, distracts us from the larger threat of global terrorism. Those running to gain or hold seats in congress know that "stay the course" is not a viable campaign pledge.

The clock ticks; the public grows restive; Osama bin Laden and his ilk sleep soundly in their lairs.



The gold standard of ineptitude: by Colonel Jack Jacobs

If his speech last week at the Naval Academy is any indication, George W. Bush has learned absolutely nothing about managing expectations.

During our involvement in Southwest Asia, at least part of the Administration’s public relations failure is the result of Bush’s penchant for personalizing the conflict. At the start of our operations in Afghanistan, the president made Osama bin Laden the sole face of the enemy by repeatedly promising to bring him to task for his misdeeds. After more than three years chasing around the Hindu Kush, there is no bin Laden to show for our efforts. Nor should there be: killing or capturing him has little military value. But making a big deal of needing to do so…and then failing…is demonstrably foolish.

On Wednesday, Bush delivered another disappointing performance by making a conscious effort to chastise al-Zarqawi by name, inadvertently participating in crowning him bin Laden’s successor. Unless we capture al-Zarqawi in the next week or two, this misguided focus on the man rather than the mission cheapens everything we do.

Whether our effort in Iraq succeeds or fails…judged by whatever criteria are meaningful…the Administration’s lack of skill at public relations has to represent the gold standard of ineptitude.



Growing shortage of American troops: by Colonel Ken Allard

President Bush made some extraordinarily strong stements recently about the need to protect American borders and to prevail in the war on terror. The line connecting those two dots is of course the soldier, whose dusty boots on the ground demonstrate where the nation really stands even as other priorities shift. But about the chronic and growing shortage of American troops - at home and abroad - the president was characteristically silent. Even in the midst of contradictory calls to deploy more troops (from where?) or to withdraw them entirely (unlikely), the current commitment to Iraq is badly straining the Army. Its active and reserve leadership is doing a superb job of holding things together: but questions about our manpower policies - even about draft resumption - will inescapably become part of the national dialogue in 2006.



The war in Iraq and Afghanistan: by General Barry R. McCaffrey, USA (Ret.)

The President’s speech at the Naval Academy captured the peril facing America in the coming year.  He said what needed to be said.  He outlined all that really can be hoped for in the difficult months ahead.

The two war theaters of Iraq and Afghanistan cost America each month $ 7 billion and more than a battalion of Marines and soldiers killed and wounded.  The American people have walked away from supporting the war in large numbers.  The credibility of the civilian Pentagon leadership has been fatally damaged by continuing denial of the evidence apparent to most Americans of the serious and growing lethality of the opposition we face from a large and intractable Sunni insurgency.  Our Allies have increasingly joined much of the international community in strong opposition to our actions in the War on terror.  The personnel strength of the Army and Marine Corps are increasingly placed in jeopardy by the grind of multiple, sequential combat tours that have generated 18,000 casualties in the undermanned active and reserve forces.

There are several options being debated in the public arena that are simply not going to happen.  We are not going to precipitously withdraw from Iraq in under twelve months and watch a violent civil war consume Iraq and possibly draw in her six neighboring states.  We are not going to heavily reinforce the US engaged troop presence-the inadequate strength of the overstretched ground combat units of our Army and Marine Corps will not support this option.  We will not be replaced by any international peacekeeping force-our circle of friends have drawn back to watch with great interest how we might extricate ourselves. 

The foreign fighters and Sunni insurrectionists will not be defeated by military force.  We are stuck with a very complex, vitally important, and enormously expensive and dangerous situation.  We must solve this challenge through political perseverance, heavy expenditure of human and material resources, and a dramatic change in our public diplomacy. Our Allies must see an actual sincere commitment to making international organizations work to support our objectives. In sum, we tried to fight a war on the cheap, we did not level with the American people, we acted unilaterally, and we were arrogant in our approach to other nation’s views.

The current strategy is simple.  We hope to create a loose Iraqi Federal government through the December elections that will have significant legitimacy in the Kurdish and Shia communities ---and have increased support in the Sunni areas.  We hope by next summer to have an Iraqi security force of 200,000 plus Army and Police that will have the training, courage, equipment, and the will to provide security and governance in at least the Shia and Kurdish areas.  We hope to withdraw a third of the US combat forces by next fall before the wheels come off the US Army and Marine Corps.  We hope this strategy will not result in a growing civil war with massive covert intervention by Iraq’s neighbors--- with the US elements trapped among the warring factions.

This will be a race against time.  It probably will succeed.  The Iraqis do not want to become a Balkans or Beirut example of a devastated and failed state.  Egregious bad judgment by senior Pentagon leadership got us in this fix.  The courage of our troops will have to get us out.


December 5, 2005 | 8:58 a.m. ET

Where does America stand? (Chris Matthews)

Every night on Hardball, we host a forum of news, analysis and opinion.  The focus is America: the kind of country we want to live in; the role we want America to play in the world.

To add to the debate, I will be offering a three-time-a-week blog on opinion out in the country.  With each edition, I'll look for a poll number that I believe conveys a strong reading on where the country stands on issues, policies and politics.

The first number I'm highlighting is the 32 percent of the country in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll who approve of President Bush's handling of the war in Iraq.   I want to watch in coming weeks to see if that number rises or falls.  It is a powerful indicator of how well the president is "selling" the war to the American people, how events in Iraq are influencing public opinion and, lastly, what impact critics are having on the country.

This is a chance to learn not more of what people in Washington think about the country's direction -- we do that on "Hardball" -- but what people in the country think of the way we are being led.


Watch Hardball each weeknight at 5 & 7 p.m. ET