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MTP Transcript for Jan. 7, 2007

Joe Biden, Lindsey Graham, Michael Gordon, John Harwood, Judy Woodruff

MR. TIM RUSSERT:  Our issues this Sunday:  Is the president on the verge of sending tens of thousands of more American troops to Iraq?  How would this so-called surge change the situation on the ground?  With us, for the Democrats, Senator Joe Biden of Delaware; for the Republicans, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.  Biden and Graham square off on Iraq.

Then a new Congress begins with Democrats now in control.

(From videotape)

REP. NANCY PELOSI:  Nowhere were the American more—people more clear about the need for a new direction than in the war in Iraq.

(End videotape)


Taking control, Democrats in Congress

plan to prod Bush to bring U.S.

troops home from Iraq

MR. RUSSERT:  How will this affect the conduct of the war?  And how will presidential politics influence the debate over the war.  Insights and analysis from Michael Gordon of The New York Times, John Harwood of The Wall Street Journal and CNBC, and Judy Woodruff of PBS.

But first, all indications are that President Bush will address the nation this week and call for escalating number of U.S.  troops in Iraq.  The idea’s already sparked controversy all across the country.  Here to talk about that and more, Democratic Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, South Carolina.  Welcome, both.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC):  Thank you, sir.

SEN. JOE BIDEN (D-DE):  Thank you.

MR. RUSSERT:  Senator Biden, let me start with you.  If President Bush calls for more American troops to Iraq, the so-called surge, Joe Biden will say...

SEN. BIDEN:  No.  But there’s not much I can do about it.  Not much anybody can do about it.  He’s commander in chief.  If he surges another 20, 30, or whatever number he’s going to, into Baghdad, it’ll be a tragic mistake, in my view, but, as a practical matter, there’s no way to say, “Mr.  President, stop.”

MR. RUSSERT:  Why not try it?

SEN. BIDEN:  I’m going to try it after the hearings.  Here—there’s three things I’m going to try to do, Tim.  Speak out as loudly as I can as to why I think repeating this mistake—we’ve tried it twice before—why it will not work, and why we need a political solution first, not a military solution.  Secondly, I’m going to be holding extensive hearings as chairman, incoming chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee for the next four weeks, bringing in experts from every, every perspective to talk about what options are remaining in Iraq.  And thirdly, I have, I’ve, I’ve drafted a resolution of disapproval that is just hortatory, it’s a—to send to the Senate to try to convince the president that there are significant numbers and members of the United States Senate who think this proposal is a mistake, and hopefully force him to reconsider it.  Because every two months he’s going to have to reconsider this, every two months.  It’s not just surging once and that’s it.  He’s not surging for a year.  Every two months he’s going to have to decide, “Do I continue to extend the tours of duties of those who are there?  Do I bring more people in?” And hopefully make the case to him that this is a mistake.

MR. RUSSERT:  Senator Graham, Robert Novak, the conservative columnist, who’s a pretty good head counter when it comes to the Republicans, he wrote this on Monday.  “President Bush ...  will have trouble finding support from more than 12 out of 49 Republican senators.  ‘It’s Alice in Wonderland,’ Sen.  Chuck Hagel, second-ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, told me in describing the proposed surge.  ‘I’m absolutely opposed to sending more troops to Iraq.  It is folly.’” How politically uphill is this for the president?

SEN. GRAHAM:  Well, all I ask of my Republican colleagues, Democratic colleagues, and the nation is just to hear the president out.  I think there’ll be a lot of support by Republican members.  And I hope some Democrats will understand the following:  Where do we agree as a nation that a failed stay in Iraq is a disaster for this country?  If Iraq fails and you have open civil war and it creates a regional conflict that would follow us for decades, that’s something every American should hope never happens and work together to prevent.  I hope we can agree with this, that the current strategy is not working, hasn’t been working for quite a while.  I think the president has looked at it from that point of view, “I cannot let Iraq fail because our national security interests are very tied to what happens in Iraq.” And when you talk about withdrawal, somebody needs to answer the question, what happens when we leave?  And he’s also very much focused on the idea that we’ve got to give the Iraqi people the ability to find a political solution.  A surge of troops is a result of the current strategy not working, and it, by itself, will not lead to a successful outcome.  But a precondition to political stability and economic recovery is security.  So I will support the idea of putting more American troops on the ground in Iraq with a purpose, to join up with Iraqi forces to bring about security in Baghdad that is missing, try to stop the sectarian fighting in Baghdad to give the political leadership in Iraq a chance to do the things they need to do to bring about a stable government.  To me, it is a strategy that is based on the needs of the moment.  Even though it may not be politically popular for the moment, I think it is in our best interests long term.

MR. RUSSERT:  What’s wrong with that, Senator Biden?

SEN. BIDEN:  Tim...

MR. RUSSERT:  Secure the country to allow a political reconciliation?

SEN. BIDEN:  Tim, look, this is a good guy, smart guy.  We’ve been to Iraq together.  I’ve been there seven times, he’s been there six.

SEN. GRAHAM:  Don’t oversell.  I’m, I’m a good guy.

SEN. BIDEN:  No, no.  No, but, but the truth of the matter is we, we agree on two basis premises:  A failed state would be a disaster to the United States of America, and two, the current strategy isn’t working.  But nobody’s calling, that I’m aware of, for pulling all of our troops out.  That’s a red herring, number one.  The question is do we continue with a policy that is failing?  We’ve tried this policy twice in the last 12 months, surging troops into Baghdad.  Unfortunately, my friends have got this backwards.  We need a political solution before you can get a military solution.  What has changed from three years ago when I sat on this program with you and said we need to surge 60,000 troops then is we now have a civil war.  All the king’s horses and all the king’s men will not put Iraq together again absent Maliki making some very hard decisions about what he’s going to do.

Think of this, we’re going to surge 20-, 30-, whatever the president says, thousand troops into Baghdad again, a city of six million people, six million people where civil war is raging.  We’re going to have our troops go door to door in 23 neighborhoods.  We’re going to keep them out of Sadr City where, in fact, we are not—we’re told hands off because Maliki is dependent upon Sadr, the Mahdi army.  This is a prescription for another tragedy.  If we want to make sure we don’t lose Iraq, don’t use the last bullet in our gun here, prove ourselves to be impotent, and embolden every sector of the Iraqi population to conclude we are incapable of affecting outcomes there.  That’s my worry about doing the same thing again.

MR. RUSSERT:  I think Senator Graham has confused a lot of people.  Is the opinion of military generals—John Abizaid, general, US Central Command, came before you, your committee in November, and this is what he said:  “I’ve met with every divisional commander, General Casey, the core commander, General Dempsey.  We all talked together.  And I said, in your professional opinion, if we were to bring in more American troops now, does it add considerably to our ability to achieve success in Iraq?  And they all said no.  And the reason is, because we want the Iraqis to do more.  It’s easy for the Iraqis to rely upon us to do this work.  I believe that more American forces prevent Iraqis from doing more, from taking more responsibility for their own future.” And remember the president, repeatedly during the midterm elections, said over and over again, “I listen to the generals.” Here he is, President Bush.

(Videotape, July 7, 2006):

PRES. GEORGE W.  BUSH:  General Casey will make the decisions as to how, as to, as to how many troops we have there.  He’ll decide how best to achieve victory and the troop levels necessary to do so.  I spent a lot of time talking to him about troop levels, and I told him this, I said, “You decide, general.”

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  So General Casey said, as recently as Friday, “We don’t need more American troops.” So General Abizaid and General Casey are removed.  So if you give advice to the president and he doesn’t like it, rather than listen to the generals on troop levels, you remove the generals?

SEN. GRAHAM:  Well, I hope we will hold the generals accountable for their work product.  I respect General Casey and Abizaid, but the strategy they’ve come up with for the last two years has not worked.  Iraq is not more stable than it was when they took over two years ago.  Sectarian violence in Baghdad has gotten worse.  I’ve been there five times.  The first time I went there we went rug shopping.  The last time I went we were in a tank.  It is clear to me, I think Joe Biden and every other American including the president, now is a time for change.  If we don’t change now, we’re going to lose Iraq.  And if you come up with a new policy, do you let the same people who implemented the old policy come up with a new idea?  I don’t think so.  Petraeus, to me, I hope is Bush’s Grant.  It is now time for a change.  The old strategy is...

MR. RUSSERT:  General David Petraeus, who will now be in charge.

SEN. GRAHAM:  Absolutely.  He did a great job in Mosul, counterinsurgency doctrine worked in Mosul.  We’ve had a clear hold-and-build strategy.  We could clear but we could never hold.  We never had enough troops to begin with.  For two years I’ve asked these generals, “Do we have enough troops?” “Yeah, we’re fine.” “Is the Army OK?” “The Army is fine.” A month or two ago, we found out the Army is broken, and they agreed that General Shinseki was right.

Now’s the time to start over.  If we don’t start over and do what we should’ve done in the beginning—have enough people to win this war, have the Powell Doctrine implemented—we will pay a heavy price.  So I support a surge in troops with a purpose, co-joining with the Iraqi military and political leadership to control this country.  You can not have a democracy where you got militias stronger than the central government.  You can not, not have a democracy where the people don’t have faith in their central government to take care of them.  American forces going into Baghdad co-joined with Iraqi forces and a new political model is our best chance for victory.  It may not work.

But this idea that nobody has called for withdrawal is folly on the Democratic side.  John Edwards says pull out 40,000 troops now.  Reid and Pelosi sent a letter to the president:  “End this war, start redeploying in four to six months.” These Democratic proposals are, to me, a formula for defeat.  They’re nothing more than just a political way to get out of Iraq, and it will come back to haunt us for years, and they never talked one minute in that letter what happens to Iraq when we leave.  Is our national interest—security interest compromised with a failed state in Iraq, and does withdrawing lead to a failed state?  Somebody needs to talk about that.

SEN. BIDEN:  I’ll talk about that.

MR. RUSSERT:  In all honesty—in all honesty, are we losing, though?

SEN. GRAHAM:  In all honesty, we are not winning.  And if you’re not winning, you’re losing.  And now’s the time to come up with a strategy to win.  The reason President Bush is going to do this, because he understands that we have to win in Iraq.  The reason Senator McCain and Lindsey Graham and a few others are supporting this when 14 percent of the public supports us and 80-something percent is against us is we’re thinking about the consequences of a failed state in Iraq.  That’s more important than 2008.  We cannot let this country go into the abyss.  Now is the last chance and the only chance we have left to get this right.

MR. RUSSERT:  Senator Biden, I’m going to talk about the Democrats and give you a chance to respond to that.  There was a national poll done asking a simple question:  Did the Democrats have a clear plan for Iraq?  And this is what people all across the country said.  Yes was 8 percent, no was 82 percent.  The Washington Times, the editorial page, opined this way:  “The real goal behind [January’s] dog and pony show”—that’s your hearings—“is to raise enough of a ruckus to force the president to agree to some sort of phony compromise ‘surge’ of a small number of American troops for a few months—just enough time to assure that little is accomplished militarily, while [Biden] and his political allies can claim that the plan has been tried and has ‘failed,’ and that the only alternative is to cut a deal with Tehran, Damascus and the Iraqi jihadists.”

SEN. BIDEN:  I don’t know if I can respond to The Washington Times.  I’m not going to now.  I don’t understand what the devil they just said.  There’s been no one on your program in the last four years who’ve been more supportive of the president attempting to try to get it right in Iraq, number one.  Number two, no party out of power ever has a congressional voice that is a unified voice on a particular policy.  That’s, that, that’s a red herring.  Number three, if you take a look at what Lindsey just said about where the Democrats are, the Democrats are consistently in the place where we said we’d follow what was recommended by the vast majority of the experts.  Think about this.  Nobody, nobody has recommended what the president’s about to do.  They all say a need for a changed plan.  The Baker Commission, opposed to the position suggested.  The generals oppose the position suggested.  Even those who think we should surge troops, like the American Enterprise Institute, talk about it and they’re honest about it.  They say if we surge troops, then, he said, we have to go from one—we have to bring Sadr City under control.  He talks about—my friend talks about letting the Iraqi political establishment have some time to do something.  What’s the Iraqi political establishment here?  You have a guy who is heading up that government who is tethered to a guy who is one of the worst guys in the whole region, the new Hezbollah, the Mahdi army, a guy named Sadr.  You have the prime minister of the country unwilling to take a political chance to deal with what my friend talks about, the militia.

MR. RUSSERT:  So what do you do?

SEN. BIDEN:  What you do is you tell him what—exactly what everyone’s recommended.  “Look, Maliki, and look, government, we are, over the next year, going to begin to draw down.  You step up to the ball and make some hard decisions about getting the Sunnis in the deal through oil.  You make some hard decisions about implementing the constitution, which says we’re a loosely federated republic.  You let local areas have control over their local police forces.  You make the political compromise necessary in any emerging democracy.  But do not continue the process where your only objective is to hold together the Sunni—or the Shia coalition, wipe out the Sunnis and expect you’re going to have anything remotely approaching democracy.”

MR. RUSSERT:  And if that doesn’t happen, what happens?

SEN. BIDEN:  If that doesn’t happen we have full-blown chaos, you need plan B.  Then you disengage and you contain.  Then the question is, what do you do?  The reason why we should be talking to the neighbors, Tim, is not just the degree to which they may be able to positively impact, which is marginal.  What happens if this is a bad bet?  Nobody you’ll find, including my friend, will tell you there’s any good option left.  There’s options, but no good options.

MR. RUSSERT:  You said the other day that this is President Bush’s war, and there’s...

SEN. BIDEN:  It is.

MR. RUSSERT:  ...there’s really little Democrats can do.  Why not cut off funding for the war?

SEN. BIDEN:  I’ve been there, Tim.  You can’t do it.


SEN. BIDEN:  You can’t do it.  It’s—what—because it made sense in the Constitution when you said you could cut off funding when you had no standing army.  We have a standing army with a budget of hundreds of billions of dollars.  You can’t go in and, like a tinker toy, and play around and say, “You can’t spend the money on this piece and this piece and”—he—able—he’ll be able to keep those troops there forever constitutionally if he wants to.

MR. RUSSERT:  Why not have legislation then that would cap the number of troops in Iraq?

SEN. BIDEN:  Because it’s very difficult to—it’s constitutionally questionable whether or not you can do that.  I think it is unconstitutional to say, “We’re going to tell you you can go, but we’re going to micromanage the war.” When we wrote the Constitution, the intention was to give the commander in chief the authority how to use the forces, when you authorize them, to be able to use the forces.  And so, look, what we have to be doing here is the president—the only way this is going to change, Tim, and I’ve been saying—I’m a broken record on this—is when a majority of Lindsey’s colleagues, Republicans, say to the president, “Mr.  President, enough.  We are not going to support you any more,” that’s when the president will begin to change his policy.  That’s when we begin to listen to bipartisan groups.  That’s when we bebin—begin to listen to the majority of the expert opinion in this country.

MR. RUSSERT:  If the surge doesn’t work, will Republicans senators then go to the president and say, “Enough”?

SEN. GRAHAM:  Well let’s talk a little bit about the—why he’s doing the surge.  Again, he’s trying to come up with a strategy for victory, and our Democratic friends have written the president a letter days before he makes a speech explaining what he’s going to do and why.  Every Democratic proposal that I’ve been privy to has one common denominator to it:  withdrawal.  He received a letter from the speaker of the House, from the majority leader of the Senate saying, “Bring this war to an end.  Redeploy in four to six months.” We...

MR. RUSSERT:  No, but my question, Senator—Senator, my question was, if the surge does not work...

SEN. GRAHAM:  Right.

MR. RUSSERT:  ...will Republicans then say, “We tried everything.  We gave it our last best hope.  Mr.  President, the war has been lost”?

SEN. GRAHAM:  I don’ think any Republican or Democrat should do anything right now to say the war is lost.  We should try to win this war.  And the day you say we’re going to withdraw—three months, six months, a year from now—the effect will be that the militants will be emboldened, the moderates will be frozen, and we will have sent the message to the wrong people.  Who started this...

MR. RUSSERT:  So we’re stuck there forever.

SEN. GRAHAM:  Well, you stay there with a purpose to win.  If we never had enough troops in the beginning, when did we start having enough troops?  We have paid a heavy price for the mistakes we’ve made in the past.  The biggest mistake we could make as a nation is to listen to Pelosi and Reid doctrine of withdrawing without wondering what happens when we leave.  My biggest fear, as a United States senator, as an American, is that we will make a political decision to leave Iraq without thinking about what’s left when we leave.  Nobody wants to talk about what happens when we leave.  I understand it’s not popular, but this war is not about the moment, it’s about the next decade and the decade to follow.  It’s about our national security interests.  It’s about the war on terror.  Moderates vs.  extremists.  If we leave the moderates and leave it to the extremists, if we tell the extremists through our behavior and our actions, “We’re leaving Iraq in a year.  It’s yours,” we will never know peace.  I hope we can rally around the president’s idea of putting enough troops in to make a difference.  I hope we can do what Joe says, push the Iraqi people to come up with the political model that will work.  But no politician in Iraq can possibly reconcile that nation with this level of violence.  A pre-condition—a pre-condition to political solution is security.  Security is absent.  We got to regain the capital.

MR. RUSSERT:  Senator Biden, you said on Friday that you’ve made a—you’ve reached a tentative conclusion that people in the administration believe that the war is lost, perhaps even including the vice president, and that they simply want to go along and try to keep the war at a point where they can pass it off to the next president.  Do you really believe that?

SEN. BIDEN:  Here’s what I believe.  I was referring to—I was being asked about the vice president and the former secretary of defense, Rumsfeld, and I said they’re two of the smartest people I’ve ever known in my years here in Washington, and they could not have believed what they’d been saying for the last three years that we’re winning.  They could not believe that.  So what is the explanation?  Why would they continue to say we’re winning when, as bright as they are, they know that was pure malarkey?  And the only conclusion I can—and I said I’ve tentatively concluded among—about those two people, that they concluded that the required change in, in, in, in approach to Iraq would be so radical that they don’t think it could work.  Therefore, keep it stitched together, pray for a Hail Mary pass and/or pass it off to the next guy.  Because, look, do you believe—rhetorical question, I acknowledge—do you believe Rumsfeld and Cheney believed what they’ve been saying for the last three years?  We’d come back, both of us, on this show, both of us together, and say, “Look, this is what we saw on the ground here.” How could they not know we were losing so badly?  So that’s why I was referring to those two men.

But I want to make a point about—that Lindsey just made.  My view is we have one chance to not lose Iraq, and it rests in not repeating the mistakes we’ve made.  It made sense to surge 60,000, 70,000, 100,000 troops before there was a civil war.  There is now a civil war.  You need a political solution before you can get a physical solution.  Unless Maliki is willing to deal the Sunnis in so they abandon the insurgency, unless the Sunnis are willing to allow, under the constitution, the Shia to control their local districts like the Kurds do, there is no possibility, none, with 500,000 American forces there.

MR. RUSSERT:  What did the hanging of Saddam Hussein and the circumstances of insults being hurled at him and he throwing insults back—it took on the form of a sectarian lynching.

SEN. BIDEN:  It, it was, it was Abu Ghraib again.  It had the same kind of just poisonous impact.  And that’s why, if I were Maliki’s adviser, I’d say, “Now is the time you have to make a dramatic move to hold accountable the Sunnis who engaged in that.” You, as the leader of a united country, have to stand up and publicly condemn it.  I don’t think he has it in him.

MR. RUSSERT:  Condemn the Shiites and all.

SEN. BIDEN:  Condemn the Shiites.

MR. RUSSERT:  What did the Saddam hanging do to the potential for reconciliation in Iraq?

SEN. GRAHAM:  It gave people the idea that Saddam Hussein will never come

back, and I can’t tell you how many people lived in fear of this man

re-emerging as a political leader in Iraq.  That fear is lost.  The way the

hanging occurred was a setback, but whatever taunt he received on the day of his death pales in comparison to the way he treated his own people.  This will pass.  We have a chance to start over.  Gates has replaced Rumsfeld; it was long overdue.  Petraeus is replacing Casey, long overdue.  We’ve got a new team on the ground.  We’re going to come up with a new strategy.  The strategy is going to be designed to win.  The current strategy is not working.  Withdrawal as a strategy, I think, is a disaster for this country.  It sends the wrong signal to the insurgents.  It, it, it hurts the moderate effort, and no one talks about what happens when we leave from the idea of withdrawing.  So we’re going to...

MR. RUSSERT:  If a year from now the situation on the ground is similar to what it is today in terms of violence, in sectarian violence, what will you—what do you say then?

SEN. GRAHAM:  What I say is, a year from now or five years from now, what would be the consequences to an Iraq in open civil war with sectarian killing where Iran tries to take over the southern part of Iraq, the north—northern, northern part the Kurds break away and Turkey gets involved, what would we do if we left a year from now and there’s open civil war and Iran tries to occupy, through a puppet government, the south of Iraq.  What will we do if Turkey threatens to go to war with the Kurds?  We got to think about these things now, and we need to adjust now.  We’ve made mighty mistakes.  We’ve never had enough troops in the past.  Let’s don’t repeat the mistakes of the past, I agree with Senator Biden.  The biggest mistake we’ve made is we’ve never put enough troops on the ground to secure this country.  We’ve never had a strategy for economic political power to be successful because security was never there to make it successful.  The biggest mistake we could make is to repeat the mistakes of the past and not have enough people on the ground to make a difference.  The Iraqi people have to step up.  Listen to the president Wednesday.  He is not blind to the fact that eventually the Iraqi people have to solve their political problems.  But until we put the right combat power in place with the Iraqis, we will never have a political solution.  And I ask my friend Joe Biden, the letter from Pelosi and Reid of leaving in four to six months, do you agree with that?

SEN. BIDEN:  I do not.  This is a red herring.  Here’s the deal:  20,000 30,000, 40,000 troops is not enough.  Let’s get real here.  And I’d like to ask my friend, tell—name me the moderate Iraqis.  Name me the moderate Iraqis who are out there...

SEN. GRAHAM:  Can...

SEN. BIDEN:  ...prepared to make the kind of compromises democracy requires.  We came back after the election when we were over there in—when, when, when, when they voted, the Iraqis.  And the president said, “Great democratic move.” And I sat in the White House, and I said, “Mr.  President, it was a sectarian election.  There was no democratic movement there.” You’ve got to compromise.  We keep looking for Thomas Jefferson hiding behind Iraq somewhere.

SEN. GRAHAM:  You’re right there.

MR. RUSSERT:  How much time do we have, realistically?

SEN. BIDEN:  Well, I think, realistically, we have the remainder of this year.  And at the end of that time, I think this is, this is ball game.  And my friend is right.  That’s why smart guys are doing what Senator—what Secretary Baker and a lot of other people are saying.  We’ve got to think about the totality of the region.  That’s why you should be talking to these other countries.  That’s why you should be putting a plan B in place.  That’s why you should be forcing a political solution.  And remember, this administration said just as little as several months ago, a month ago, “We can’t tell the Iraqis what to do.” Give me a break.  Give me a break.

SEN. GRAHAM:  If I, if I may.

MR. RUSSERT:  Go ahead, real fast.

SEN. GRAHAM:  If I may, the Iraqi judge who allowed his face to be on worldwide television presiding over the trial of Saddam Hussein, to me, represents the best of the country.  There are plenty of Kurds...

SEN. BIDEN:  I agree.  He has no power.

SEN. GRAHAM:  ...Sunnis and Shias who are dying for their freedom.  To be a policeman or a politician or a judge in Iraq, you risk everything.  There’re plenty of people there that want their freedom, and power of the moderates to stand up against extremists win this war.

SEN. BIDEN:  Who are the moderate leaders?

SEN. GRAHAM:  Win this war.

MR. RUSSERT:  The debate on Iraq will continue.

Senator Biden, presidential politics.  You said last year that you would make a decision January of ‘07.


MR. RUSSERT:  Are you running for president?

SEN. BIDEN:  I am running for president.

MR. RUSSERT:  Are you filing exploratory committee?

SEN. BIDEN:  I am.  I’m filing exploratory committee before the month is out.

MR. RUSSERT:  This month.

SEN. BIDEN:  This month.

MR. RUSSERT:  And you’re going to take on Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and all other comers.

SEN. BIDEN:  I’m going to be Joe Biden, and I’m going to try to be the best Biden I can be.  If I can, I got a shot.  If I can’t, I lose.

MR. RUSSERT:  Joe Biden, Lindsey Graham, thanks very...

SEN. GRAHAM:  He plays well in South Carolina.

MR. RUSSERT:  Is that an endorsement?

SEN. GRAHAM:  I don’t want to hurt his chances.

MR. RUSSERT:  Coming next, will congressional hearings and presidential politics limit the president’s options on Iraq?  Our political roundtable:

Michael Gordon of The New York Times, John Harwood of The Wall Street Journal and CNBC, and Judy Woodruff of PBS are next, coming up on MEET THE PRESS.


MR. RUSSERT:  Our MEET THE PRESS roundtable:  Iraq, the new Democratic Congress, and 2008, after this station break.


MR. RUSSERT:  And we are back.  Welcome all.

Michael Gordon, let me start with you.  Here are pictures of Lieutenant General David Petraeus, he’ll be replacing General Casey in Iraq; Admiral William Fallon, who’ll be replacing General John Abizaid.  In your book, “Cobra II,” you write a lot about America’s military generals.  Tell us about Petraeus, tell us about Fallon and why are they going in?

MR. MICHAEL GORDON:  Well, I think they’re going in because they believe in the president’s new strategy.  I mean, a lot of people think that the military’s a monolith, but really there’s been a number of opinions within the United States military about how to proceed in Iraq.  General Casey had one view that emphasized transferring responsibility to the Iraqis, but I think General Petraeus, he’s presided over the drafting of the new counterinsurgency manual that the military just put out last month.  It’s an approach that is essentially troop intensive.  It requires clear hold and build.  And I think he’s going in to supervise and really energize and drive this new strategy in Baghdad.

MR. RUSSERT:  Of a surge.

MR. GORDON:  Of a surge.  He’s, he’s very much committed to it, and including a substantial surge of about five brigades.

MR. RUSSERT:  On Wed—Tuesday, excuse me, you wrote in The New York Times the following, and I’ll read it for you and our viewers, “Chaos Overran Iraq Plan in ‘06, Bush Team Says.  President Bush began 2006 assuring the country that he had a ‘strategy for victory in Iraq.’ He ended the year closeted with his war cabinet on his ranch trying to devise a new strategy, because the existing one had collapsed.” And he went on to say this, this year, “Decisions on a new strategy were clearly slowed by political calculations.  Many of Mr.  Bush’s advisers say their timetable for completing an Iraq review had been based in part on a judgment that for Mr.  Bush to have voiced doubts about his strategy before the midterm elections in November would have been politically catastrophic.” That’s an extraordinary admission.  Bush policy advisers saying politics played a central role in policy towards Iraq.

MR. GORDON:  Well, I don’t really think there’s anything surprising about it.  I mean, when did Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld leave his office?  It was after the election.  When was the decision made that he should leave?  It was before the election.  I mean, an unfortunate fact is that the review that the administration has done should have been carried out six months earlier, perhaps a year earlier.  They didn’t adequately resource the mission in Baghdad economically, they didn’t do enough politically, and, in my judgment, they never really sent enough troops.  Now they’re getting around to it, but they’ve lost a lot of time.

MR. RUSSERT:  John and Judy, we have Bush advisers saying to Michael Gordon in The New York Times, “Yeah, if we had gone forward with a review during the midterm elections, it could have been a political liability.  So we didn’t do it publicly.” What does that say?

MR. JOHN HARWOOD:  Well, it says that they were trying to hold onto the Congress, because they know that they’re, they’re now walking in with this new Democratic Congress into a very rough patch.  Joe Biden’s going to have hearings, as he told you, after the president makes his speech.  And the president’s position has only eroded, but he thought he had a chance to hold the Congress.

MR. RUSSERT:  You said in The Wall Street Journal on Friday, John, that John McCain said these words to you:  “There are still people around [Bush] who think things aren’t that bad.” Well, give us the context.  What was McCain trying to point out?

MR. HARWOOD:  Well, John McCain has been an advocate for a troop surge for some time, and his concern right now is that Bush is going to rhetorically adopt his policy but not do it all the way, not commit enough troops.  McCain says if Bush sends 20,000, you know, we might need 30,000, 35,000 or 40,000.  And John McCain, as he gets ready to run for president 2008, knows that the longer this debate about a surge goes on, the more controversy there is, the more the president sticks with it.  And if it doesn’t work, it’s going to be hung around John McCain’s neck.

MR. RUSSERT:  We have a new Democratic leadership in Congress, Judy Woodruff.  Here’s an interesting national poll, what new—what the new Congress should concentrate on.  Look at these numbers, the war in Iraq 45 percent, economy/jobs 7, health care 7, immigration 6.  Focus on the war by the American people.  And Harry Reid, the leader of the, the Democrats in the Senate, joined with Nancy Pelosi, as was discussed in this last segment, urging the president not to go forward with a surge.  His hometown paper in Nevada, the Las Vegas Review Journal, wrote this, that “Two days after saying on national television last month that he would be open to sending more U.S.  troops to Iraq, Sen.  Harry Reid posted a message on a ...  blog changing his comments.  On Dec.  17, Reid [said] ...  ‘If it is for a surge - that is, for two or three months - and it’s part of a program to get us out of there as indicated by this time next year, then sure I’ll go along with it.  ...  If the commanders on the ground said this was just for a short period of time, we’ll go along with that.’ Two days later, on Dec.  19, Reid posted a message to the contrary on his blog, ‘Give ‘Em Hell, Harry.’ ...  ‘Frankly, I don’t believe that more troops is the answer for Iraq,’ Reid told bloggers.  ‘I do not support an escalation of the conflict.’” And now sending a letter to the president, saying “Start withdrawing troops.” What’s going on?

MS. WOODRUFF:  Well, for the Democrats, Tim, if, if this is a big problem for the president, it clearly is, and we see that because the administration is taking its time to make a decision.  It is also a huge problem for the Democrats.  their base wants the United States out of Iraq yesterday.  That’s politically impossible.  So they’re going to—and they’re going to be breathing down their necks, breathing down their backs every day for the next weeks, months, as long as this war goes on.  But, you know, there are two potential upsides for the Democrats.  Number one, those Democrats who were against the war—for the war in the first place now have an opportunity to say, “Hey, I was for it, but this is wrong and I’m changing my position.” Top of the list, Hillary Clinton, running for president in ‘08.

The other thing the Democrats can do, Tim, is they can take some very—a very hard look at the spending that the administration is going to be asking for as they up the number of troops in Iraq.  They’re going to want more money for infrastructure, more money for jobs.  This is a chance, and the Democrats say, “We’re going to use this chance to ask hard questions.  Where’s the money gone that’s been spent?  We’ve spent hundreds of billions of dollars.  You’re asking us for a lot more money.  Where is it going to go?” Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, says he’s going to talk about parity, he’s going to say when the administration doesn’t have the money to spend on education, schools in the United States, health care in the United States, law enforcement in the United States, he’s going to say, “Well, how come we’re spending money on those things in Iraq?”

MR. HARWOOD:  And, Tim, one of the interesting things within the Democratic primary field of 2008 is even though Democratic leaders say, “We’re against a surge,” they say, “We’re not going to cut off money.” But as Democrats compete for primary votes, are—is one of the Democratic senators in this race going to stand up and propose a funding cutoff?  Hillary Clinton, because she voted for the war, Barack Obama, we’ll see how, how hot that pressure gets.

MR. RUSSERT:  Every major candidate for president—Obama said he would oppose the war from the beginning, but Edwards and Kerry and Biden, all who had voted for it, said they were sorry.  Senator Clinton hasn’t gone that far.

MR. HARWOOD:  She’s been very cautious.  If you’re the first woman with a real shot at becoming president, you’ve got to watch your national security bona fides very carefully, and I think she’s going to be loathe to appear to be flip-flopping on this issue.

MR. RUSSERT:  Michael Gordon, you said that the Pentagon, military people, are not monolithic.  What’s the sense in that building about the surge?  Do they believe that it has a reasonable chance of success or failure?

MR. GORDON:  I think there’s divided views on this.  I think General Petraeus is for it, I think General Ordierno, who we haven’t mentioned, but who’s the number two commander now in Iraq, is very much for it.  I think the chiefs are willing to go along with it, but they’re obviously concerned about the effect on their services.  And I think there are some people on the ground in Baghdad, at least when I was there in October, at the battalion level and below who see some merit on—in it.  So I think the military’s divided.  But remember, President Bush did listen to his generals over the past year and a half, and he did as—implement the strategy that General Casey advocated, and it didn’t work.  So I think that there’s a sense that, you know, a new approach might be needed.  And at least when they put forward this strategy, they’re going to have a commander who’s actually believes in this strategy.

MR. RUSSERT:  Is there a sense that 20,000 or 30,000 more troops could, in fact, stabilize Baghdad?

MR. GORDON:  Well, I think it—I think, first of all, troops can only be part of a solution.  And I think when President Bush lays out his plan, it’s going to have an economic component for job creation.  It’s going to have a political component.  But, you know, we only have 15,000 troops now in this city of six million who are involved in this operation to try to stabilize Baghdad.  So 20,000 is doubling that force.  It’s not inconsequential.  But I think a lot, ultimately, will depend on the Iraqi government, whether it—whether it’s prepared to rise above its sectarian kind of caste, and its Shiite caste, and I think that really remains to be seen.  That’s hard to predict.

MR. RUSSERT:  When does the Pentagon say, “Mr.  President, this is just not going to happen.  The Iraqis are not stepping up and taking responsibility”?

MR. GORDON:  That’s not a call for the Pentagon to make, that’s a call for the White House and the president to make based on, you know, really, I think the next—well, I think one way to look at it is the next six months or eight months, we’re going to put this counterinsurgency doctrine to the test, probably for the first time in Baghdad, and we’re going to put the Maliki government to the test.  Remains to be seen whether it’ll pass this test.


MS. WOODRUFF:  Tim, I was going to say, you know, I think a lot of us, all of us, and the administration, talking about this have gotten hung up on this term “surge.” What we’re really looking at here are two difficult choices, and that’s why it’s taken the administration so long.  Number one, it’s either a major escalation along the lines of what we saw back in Vietnam 40 years ago, where you send in—the numbers are different, but a major escalation, 30,000, 50,000 troops like what John McCain wants, open-ended commitment, two to five years.  Or you do something much smaller, 10,000, 15,000, maybe 20,000, but they’re only there for six months or a year.  Very few people think that’s going to work.  So the challenge for the administration is to prove how—somebody said to me, it’s like putting a fist in a sink full of water, leaving it there for a few minutes and taking it out.  How do you, how do you guarantee that things are going to be different when you take your fist out of the water?

MR. RUSSERT:  John Harwood, I want to share David Broder’s thinking, The Washington Post column the other day.  He writes this:  “In reality, Bush’s ability to act on his own is severely limited.  ...  At most, he can suggest what he would like to do, but he is dependent on others to actually do it.  ...” Here, at home, the limitations on his freedom of action are tight.

“The new Congress ...  is not the same passive body that approved his decision to go to war and allowed him a free hand in managing or mismanaging the aftermath.

“When the White House speculates about increasing the number of U.S.  troops in Iraq for some indefinite period, it goes directly against the expressed policy wishes of the new Democratic majority and its most influential members.  ...  As commander in chief, the president can order more troops into the war zone, but such a step would undoubtedly provoke the most angry domestic debate of his term.”

This is the first time we’re going to have true oversight, robust congressional hearings chaired by Joe Biden, who just announced for president, saying he’s filing his exploratory committee this very month.  What does that portend for the president?

MR. HARWOOD:  Well, I think the president’s going to have tremendous PR flack to face, but not a funding cutoff.  I think Democrats, in the—at the end of the day, even if some of the presidential candidates—I raised that possibility before—end up endorsing that step, the Democratic Congress does not want to do that.  And unless something dramatically deteriorates even from where it is now, they’re not going to be compelled to do it.  So you’re going to have a very unfavorable environment, not just for President Bush but for all the Republican senators up in 2008.  Republicans across the board are very, very worried that things are only getting worse for them politically.  When you talk to Republican members of the House, they say, “George Bush bet his presidency on Iraq and we lost.” And they’re worried that their losses are going to increase in 2008.

MR. RUSSERT:  Another political adviser, Judy, Charlie Cook of the National Journal, wrote this about the, the Democrats, and he’s very straightforward, “Obviously, the situation is bad for Bush.  But it is also awkward for Democrats.  Voters expressed displeasure with the war, yet haven’t amended the Constitution.  The president remains commander-in-chief.

“Congressional Democrats and party strategists generally agree among themselves that they should avoid anything that smacks of being unsupportive of U.S.  troops, such as cutting off funding for the war.

“An alternative approach would to pass legislation putting a ceiling on the number of U.S.  troops in Iraq, eliminating Bush’s surge option.  The White House would inevitably get the Pentagon brass to defend the surge strategy, and Democrats are loath to take on the military.

“So Democrats must find some way to be responsive to voters while not taking ownership of Bush’s war.  That’s no easy assignment.”

You heard Joe Biden saying, “Well, we can’t cut off funding, we can’t limit troops...


MR. RUSSERT:  ...we’re going to have hearings.”

MS. WOODRUFF:  And that’s why I think what Senator Biden does is significant.  That’s why I think what goes on in the House, if they do what they say they’re going to do, which is hold the administration accountable, ask tough questions in some of these hearings, whether it’s Henry Waxman or some other—domestic committees and international oversight committees can ask tough questions about where this money has gone.  And, you know, there were the stories in The Washington Post, Tim, just over the last few weeks about the administration deciding to, to choose people to go to Iraq based on their political views.  They were asked, for example, “Do you believe that Roe v.  Wade should be overturned?” That was one of the questions they asked as they determined who was going to fill important slots in Iraq.  I think much more of that is going to come out, and I think that is going to be part of how the Democrats are judged.

MR. RUSSERT:  Michael Gordon, when John Murtha was here with us several months ago, outspoken against the war, he made a comment that when he broke with the president, he received a lot of calls from the Pentagon saying—inside the Pentagon, “Go for it, Senator—Congressman Murtha, you are articulating our view.” How much division is there within the Pentagon about the war in Iraq?  Do some people express to you that they’re concerned about what this is doing to our Army, Marine Corps, Navy?

MR. GORDON:  The Bush administration made a big mistake a couple of years ago when it didn’t act in 2004 to enlarge the size of the military, and we’re paying the price now.  And there are those concerns.  But I have to tell you, when I was in Iraq in, in July and when I was there in October, on the ground, you know, at that level, I heard a lot of people say, “We don’t have enough troops.  We’re putting too much stress on, on the Iraqis being able to, to shoulder the burden for the security.  We need to do more.” So there is a body of opinion within the American military that more assets are needed and that some positive outcome can still be salvaged from the Iraq operation.

MR. RUSSERT:  If that was the recommendation of the generals on the ground, it had to be—it was signed off on by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and the president.

MR. GORDON:  Well, I didn’t say this was the recommendation of the generals on the ground, I said this is the view from the soldiers on the ground.  And there’s—I’ve noticed over the past year a difference between some of the statements made by General Abizaid and General Casey and some of the perspective of the troops on the ground.  What you generally hear, and I think we saw it when Secretary Gates went to Baghdad, he sat down with a soldier in a mess hall and asked him what that soldier thought was needed, and that soldier at that level said, “More troops.” So there, there is that element.  There is that opinion within the American military.

MR. RUSSERT:  Is there a suggestion that the generals pulled their punches on troop levels because they wanted to give the right answer to Secretary Rumsfeld or the president?

MR. GORDON:  No.  I think General Casey and General Abizaid are honorable people who genuinely believed in the strategy they were pursuing.  I think they concluded the insurgency couldn’t be beaten in the short run, that the best proposition we’d had was to transfer our responsibilities to the Iraqis, let them fight the insurgency forever.  The problem is they put too much stock in this program to transfer responsibility to the Iraqis that quickly, and it just didn’t work.  And, and the result is, if you look at the Pentagon’s report to Congress, you see an increase in Iraqi forces and an increase in sectarian violence.  What it suggests to me is there has to be more of a U.S.  role.


MR. HARWOOD:  Two quick points on this.  One, John McCain told me the other day, however stressed the U.S.  Army is, there’s nothing worse for an army than to be a defeated army.  That’s part of his rationale for why we need more troops.  Second, the president’s speech on its own, his credibility with the American public is not very high right now, his number in the CBS News poll, his job approval was 30 percent.  But if this strategy actually works and he has the ability to see it through for some six to nine months, a year—if it actually works, that could affect public opinion and change the, the dynamic in the Congress for the Democrats as well.  Nobody’s very optimistic, but if it happens, we’ll see some change.

MR. RUSSERT:  Judy Woodruff, you have been working on a special project for PBS this Friday night at 9 p.m.  called “Generation Next,” young people 16 to 25.  I want to show a clip from that and come back and talk about it.  Let’s watch.

(Videotape, “Generation Next”):

MS. WOODRUFF:  Almost 900,000 members of Generation Next are currently in the military, including the National Guard and Reserves.  Some volunteered in the wake of 9/11; others joined for different reasons.  The war in Iraq was a key issue for young voters in the 2006 midterm election, nearly two thirds said it was very important or extremely important in deciding their vote.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  The young Generation Next making up the majority of the young people fighting in Iraq, also making up the majority of young people voting for or against candidates for or against the war, what did you find in talking to the Generation Next?

MS. WOODRUFF:  Well, for one thing, they are a generation that hasn’t been examined in any depth.  But, Tim, very quickly, they are the most diverse generation ever.  More of them were born outside the—one in every eight of them born outside of the United States, one in every five has a parent born outside the United States.  This is a generation that is taking a different approach.  You saw that in, in, in one—in part of one of those clips.  What they believe—what most of them believe is that the war in Iraq is wrong by a higher percentage than voters overall.  More of them believe that troops should get out of Iraq.  And the reason, I think, Americans will listen to them is that they are, as you say, making the greatest sacrifice.  They are tending, at this point in their lives, to vote more Democratic.  They are more willing to identify themselves as liberal than Americans overall.  The question is, is that going to stick or is that going to change as they grow older?

But they are fascinating, Tim, and they are—they are a generation who is defined by technology.  They’ve grown up with computers, MySpace, Facebook.  They’re on their cell phones all the time.  They’re, they’re using Yahoo!  and Google, and they—they know how to use technology.  They are closer to their parents than any generation.  There’s a lot about them that I think the rest of us don’t about...(unintelligible).

MR. RUSSERT:  All born after 1980.  After the death of President Ford, so many young people said to me, “Mr.  Russert”—which makes you feel old—“what is this about Watergate, presidential pardons, Richard Nixon?  Can you explain this to us?”

MS. WOODRUFF:  The Cold War is, is an ancient memory to them.  They don’t even...

MR. RUSSERT:  They—an anachronism, yeah.

MS. WOODRUFF:  ...know, you know, what it was.

MR. RUSSERT:  Michael Gordon, how much...

MR. HARWOOD:  Tim...(unintelligible).

MR. RUSSERT: much concern is there in the Pentagon about the voluntary Army and the strain on it and the recruitment and re-enlistment in the future?

MR. GORDON:  Well, you know, a good news story is, despite the stress of the war and how unpopular it is in the United States, that they are basically meeting their recruiting targets, albeit they’ve relaxed some standards.  And I think everybody’s committed to a volunteer, professional Army.  I don’t sense any support at all for a draft.

MR. RUSSERT:  John Harwood, final—finally, the presidential race of 2008, how do you see it playing out vis-a-vis the war in Iraq this year?

MR. HARWOOD:  Well, I think the most important dynamic is how John McCain is affected over the next few months.  He told me the other day that, “My presidential ambitions could be derailed by this surge if it doesn’t work.” And some of his advisers believe him.  Democrats, on the other hand, have got to manage the pressures that Judy was talking about within their base, and got to figure out whether or not, in the case of Barack Obama, he can answer the questions among the American people about his readiness to be commander in chief, and if Hillary Clinton, how she manages the fact that she supported the war initially, what does she do about it exactly now over the next few months.

MR. RUSSERT:  Someone like Joe Biden, who oversees these hearings, can clearly emerge in a leadership role.

MR. HARWOOD:  You and I are both old enough to remember when the Bork confirmation hearings were going to help the Biden presidential campaign in 1988.  It didn’t work out that way.  But this is a new chance for Joe Biden, and if he emerges as a leader who appears to be consequential making good arguments to the American people, it could help him.

MR. RUSSERT:  John Harwood, we’ll read your column in The Wall Street Journal; we’ll watch you on CNBC.  Friday night at 9 o’clock on PBS...

MS. WOODRUFF:  Thank you.

MR. RUSSERT:  ... “Generation Next.” And Michael Gordon, “Cobra II,” still one of the best books written on the Iraq war.  Thank you all.

And we’ll be right back.


MR. RUSSERT:  Start your day tomorrow on “Today” with Matt and Meredith and the “NBC Nightly News” with Brian Williams.  That’s all for today.  We’ll be back next week.  If it’s Sunday, it’s MEET THE PRESS.