Guests: Richard Wolffe, Lawrence Korb, Joe Biden, Thomas Ricks
KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC HOST: Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow—the president finishes the farce. The recommendations he wanted he‘ll present as new ideas, the token troop withdrawal, mandated by the terms of original surge, legally necessitated by the limits on duty tours, he‘ll take credit for and claim as a sign of success in Iraq.
The president‘s speech, which he had begun to rehearse even before his consultation with Congress, as previewed by Richard Wolffe.
The withdrawal of forces that had to be withdrawn, and analyzed by Lawrence Korb.
The real impact of the surge in Iraq from Thomas Ricks.
The point, if any, of this futile exercise with Chris Matthews.
And what the Democrats do now, with our special guest Senator Joe Biden.
Because the Republicans are ready to declare progress and stay there and get another thousand Americans killed in the next year.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOHN BOEHNER, ®, HOUSE REPUBLICAN LEADER: Long term, investments we‘re making today will be a small price if we‘re able to stop al Qaeda here.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: Of course, that‘s palpable nonsense. Even General Petraeus says he doesn‘t know of any events in Iraq are making us safer at home.
And General Petraeus‘ boss, Admiral Fallon, reportedly doesn‘t know if General Petraeus knows what he‘s doing.
But somebody on the web knows what they‘re doing about the general.
Petraeus meets Spears. Remember this?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Leave Britney alone.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: Well then, enjoy this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Leave General Petraeus alone. He just did what we told him to do.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: All that and more now on “Countdown.”
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I‘m the decider.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN (on camera): Good evening. It used to be that only sportscasters and carnival barkers had catch phrases. Now presidents have them for war, for matters of life and death and by themselves, they can mean the life or death of a presidency. Consider mission accomplished or, in our fifth story on the “Countdown” tonight, our “Countdown” to Mr. Bush‘s Iraq speech in about an hour.
Consider return on success. That‘s the new one that‘s going to be broken out tonight. Some troops rotating out of Iraq because they were scheduled to depart anyway. Other troops leaving by next summer because of a U.S. military that has been stretched to the breaking point. Their departures wrapped up and to be repackaged by the president as a drawdown of U.S. forces, due entirely to the so-called success of the surge, followed by a process of evaluation in which Mr. Bush was judge and jury and wrote the testimony.
The president‘s address to the nation, perhaps the most creative fictional offering on TV‘s fall prime time schedule this year. And perhaps a repeat.
Events changing it—that speech, that is. That Sunni tribal leader Mr. Bush met with last week in al Anbar Province assassinated today in a car bombing. So much for the relative security of al Anbar Province.
And so much for the draft legislation that would have had Iraq‘s various political factions sharing that country‘s oil revenue. The deal said to be falling apart in Iraq government, apparently because the Kurdish regional government had signed its own deal with Dallas-based Hunt Oil, which would make it seem the Kurds are not onboard with the whole revenue sharing concept. Hunt oil, it should be noted, owned by Ray L. Hunt, a friend of the president.
And Mr. Bush making no mention of the collapsing oil legislation in tonight‘s speech according to the excerpts. On the contrary, praising lawmakers for a compromise. Quote, “Iraq‘s national leaders are getting some things done. For example, they have passed a budget. They are sharing oil revenues with the provinces.”
Then in explaining his shocking revelations of the man he hand-picked to make those recommendations, General Petraeus, here comes that catch phrase. Quoting from the excerpts released from the White House. “The principle guiding my decisions on troop levels in Iraq is ‘return on success.‘ The more successful we are, the more American troops can return home.”
Time now to call in our own Richard Wolffe, senior White House correspondent for “Newsweek” magazine.
Richard, good evening.
RICHARD WOLFFE, SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, “NEWSWEEK”: Good evening, Keith.
OLBERMANN: The theme of the speech, return on success, given how much criticism Mr. Bush has come under from those who believe the U.S. is in Iraq for the oil, is justifying it again, the conflict, by referring to it as if it were an investment and with another catch phrase, the best two moves the White House could make tonight?
WOLFFE: Yeah, I think it‘s unfortunate and especially when you put it in the context of the GOP leader in the House, who said that it was a small price to pay seeing all those troops die in Iraq if that meant al Qaeda was defeated.
Look, the president uses these business images. And I think he feels like perhaps some sort of relevance like his political capital that he had after that 2004 election. But it does seem a bit cold. And it does suggest that you can measure what‘s been going on in Iraq in any reliable way like some kind of investment. And as even White House officials say, this is a very dynamic picture, which means anything can change.
OLBERMANN: And how dynamic it is. I mentioned the events. How does Mr. Bush back up claims tonight that al Anbar is more secure, cite that as security there as a sign of progress that‘s justifying this whole charade when the sheikh he met there last week was assassinated today?
WOLFFE: Yes, they say that‘s sad. But this is more than one man, it‘s a movement, they say. Look, they‘re trying to put their best face on it. But they do concede that this sheikh was a pivotal figure, one of the founding fathers, they say. But they say it will continue without him.
OLBERMANN: When Senator Warner of Virginia, now retiring, proposed last month that 5,000 troops be brought home by Christmas, he was not only derided by the White House, the White House also reached out to Warner‘s staff and asked him—and that‘s a quote—to back away from that position, something the Senator would not do. How is what president Bush is proposing tonight suddenly more palatable to the White House than what Senator Warner floated only weeks ago?
WOLFFE: Well, two points here. First of all, this is a White House that is markedly more confident than it was a couple months ago when Warner‘s statements, even a month ago, suggested that there would be this sort of mass defections from Republicans. They were really worried about Warner—sort of leading to a big, big flood of Republicans moving to the other side of the aisle. That‘s one point.
The other point is that their imagery, their analysis is a little confusing. At one point they say it‘s about continuity and at another time they say it‘s about change. They are trying to have their cake and eat it here and Warner was the messenger, but they want this message for themselves.
OLBERMANN: Turning to the other side of the equation here, Speaker Pelosi was said to have dressed down the president privately for trying to sell this as a drawdown when, in fact, it would just be bringing the troops back to pre-surge levels or 12,000 troops higher than before the surge, according to the Pentagon media office today.
I think people who were critical of this war would say it‘s great that the Speaker of the House is calling the president on the sham privately, but when do we expect Congress to start doing that publicly and loudly?
WOLFFE: Well, they‘re already doing it. Obviously, Pelosi is doing it, but this is a concerted effort by this White House to take back the notion of bringing troops home and claim it as their own. The president is going to say—there used to be a choice between success and bringing the troops home. Now you can have it all with me. It does sound like triangulation without making a compromise and that‘s where they‘re at. They want to have this phrase, bring the troops home, and say it‘s their own.
OLBERMANN: Richard Wolffe of MSNBC and “Newsweek” on the eve of the return on success speech, which we can already hear the satirical versions of that title coming across.
As always, Richard, thanks for your time tonight.
WOLFFE: Anytime, Keith.
OLBERMANN: Despite the rosy picture painted tonight by Mr. Bush, at the Pentagon, there is sharp disagreement about how to proceed from here. Remarkably, the loudest protests coming from the man who is, at least for the moment, General Petraeus‘ superior, Admiral William Fallon. Admiral William Fallon, chief of Central Command, of CENTCOM, having reportedly derided General Petraeus as a sycophant during their first meeting in Baghdad last March.
The admiral telling the general, reportedly, again, saying he was a blank-kissing little chicken blank. That comment, Petraeus‘ reward for making remarks Fallon interpreted as Petraeus trying to ingratiate himself with a superior. The admirable apparently hates that.
Beyond the social tensions, there also exist fundamental policy differences. Admiral Fallon commissioning his own report on where things stand on the ground, one that “Newsweek” magazine says will differ substantially from General Petraeus‘ recommendation, including calling for a, quote, “very rapid deduction—reduction, rather, in American forces, as much as two-thirds of the existing force quickly while keeping the remainder there. There being, of course, Iraq.
Let‘s turn now to a Pentagon veteran from the administration of Ronald Reagan, former assistant secretary of defense, Lawrence Korb, now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
Thanks again for some of your time tonight, sir.
LAWRENCE KORB, FORMER ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Nice to be with you gain.
OLBERMANN: Whether it‘s 2,200 now, another 3,500 by Christmas, possibly a total of 21,500 by next summer, can we conclude that President Bush is trying to sell, as a draw-down, as withdrawal, as a positive big trumpet, 76 trombones thing? Troops that were scheduled to rotate out of Iraq anyway because the military is overstretched already?
KORB: Well, basically he‘s trying to make a virtue out of necessity because, in order to keep the surge going much longer, you‘re going to have to extend Army soldiers more than 15 months. They‘ve already extended from 12 to 15 months of the Army. Secretary, the Army chief of staff wouldn‘t stand for that. Or else you‘d have to bring troops back who have not been home at least a year and, in a sense, breaking the social contract. So this was going to end next spring regardless of what happened on the ground and regardless of what General Petraeus said.
OLBERMANN: And amazingly, as I referred to just before, the superior, his boss at the Pentagon, Admirable Fallon, so dismissive of the general‘s behavior and job performance that he‘s preparing his own separate internal report. The president was willing to wait for months after the Iraq Study Group released its report to commission three others. Why do you think he would not be willing to wait for Admirable Fallon‘s?
KORB: He knew Admiral Fallon would say something different. When General Abizaid, who was Admiral Fallon‘s predecessor, and then General Casey, who was General Petraeus‘ predecessor, they always testified together. General Petraeus works for Admiral Fallon not directly for the president, but you would never know that the way they did it. And Admiral Fallon has responsibility not just for Iraq, but Afghanistan and Pakistan. And he‘s concerned it was so bogged down, we have so many of our resources in Iraq, which is not the central front in the war on terror, that he‘s not going to be able to fulfill his entire mission.
OLBERMANN: I‘m thinking of General Zinni. I‘m thinking of several other people, General Casey. Are we going to say Admiral Fallon suddenly retire or be put in charge of military zoos or something because of this?
KORB: I don‘t think so because he was appointed by Secretary Gates, who has a much different way of handling this, who has a much different opinion about Iraq than Secretary Rumsfeld did. And Admiral Fallon left the Pacific Command, which is the crown jewel for naval officers. He didn‘t come over here, you know, to be irrelevant. And so I think you‘re going to see him. And Senator Webb has already talked about the Senate getting him up there to testify.
OLBERMANN: Here‘s something that has been raised in a couple places and there has not been a satisfactory answer to it. Maybe you could explain why there‘s no satisfactory answer. General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker both said the military can only do so much. The president says the strategy is to buy Iraqi politicians time. A lot of these political-related questions General Petraeus in his testimony said he could not answer. Why are we not, under those circumstances, hearing from the lead diplomat in this country, Dr. Rice, on the State Department effort to widen the diplomatic effort? Why is—why hasn‘t she not opened a branch office somewhere in Baghdad?
KORB: Well, there‘s no doubt about the fact we need to have a diplomatic surge, not a military surge, because even General Petraeus has admitted this will not be settled militarily.
Remember, the purpose of the surge was to buy time for the Iraqis to make these political compromises. If anything, they‘ve gone backwards. The surge is a failure and that‘s what should have been said.
Well, what‘s going to happen now is rather than six months to find out, we‘re going to buy another year. So it would be 18 months. And there‘s no real urgency on the diplomatic front. There should be a special ambassador, a Colin Powell or a Madeleine Albright, who is out there working on this full time because you‘re never going to be able to settle it unless you get all the countries neighboring Iraq to work with us.
OLBERMANN: For some reason I‘m thinking it‘s not going to be General Powell, but I take your point.
Lastly, in August, you wrote a piece outlining a responsible redeployment that would get most of the troops out of Iraq over the course of the next 10 months to a year. Any sign that the administration is even contemplating such a strategy let alone preparing an alternate plan even to deal with that possibility?
KORB: No, the president wants to pass this off to a successor and so he can blame that man or woman for the eventual loss of Iraq or keeping Iraq from becoming a stable democratic country in the Middle East.
OLBERMANN: The former assistant secretary of defense, Lawrence Korb, now at the Center for American Progress. As always, sir, thanks.
KORB: Thanks for having me.
OLBERMANN: As our troops and their families pay the biggest sacrifices, one top Republican in the House says the price they are paying is in fact small. We‘ll get the reaction to that and about what his party can do to stop the president from Senator Biden of Delaware.
And beyond the spin, beyond the progress reports, we‘ll try to sort out the real reality on the ground in Iraq with the esteemed reporter Thomas Ricks of “The Washington Post.”
You are watching “Countdown” to the Washington‘s speech on MSNBC.
OLBERMANN: The president tonight with his eighth prime-time address on Iraq. My special guest, Senator Joe Biden, on what the Democrats in Congress can try to do to stop him. And reaction to representative Boehner‘s comment that the sacrifice we‘re making in money and blood in Iraq is a, quote, “small price.” That‘s next. This is “Countdown.”
OLBERMANN: After tonight‘s speech by President Bush, Democrats will respond. Officially, Rhode Island Democratic Senator Jack Reed and, privately, presidential candidate John Edwards with a paid advertisement here on MSNBC following the speech.
But in our fourth story tonight, the substantive Democratic response will have to come next week as the Senate reviews its debate about Iraq. This, after the House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio was asked on CNN about the price America has paid in this war, more than 3,700 lives, $2 billion or $3 billion a week so far.
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JOHN BOEHNER, ®, HOUSE REPUBLICAN LEADER: Long term, the investment that we‘re making today will be a small price if we‘re able to stop al Qaeda here, if we‘re able to stabilize the Middle East. It‘s not only going to be a small price for the near future, but think about the future for our kids and their kids.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: When you thought the domino theory was put out to pasture, it has reappeared. The kids, presumably our kids and their kids, who did not lose their futures by dying in the Iraq war or becoming orphaned as a result of it. Mr. Boehner neglected to add that stopping al Qaeda in Iraq does nothing to stop the real al Qaeda, nor does stabilizing the Middle East. The opposite of which has been most likely Mr. Bush‘s signature accomplishment thus far.
We‘re delighted to be joined now from Counsel Bluffs, Iowa, by one of the senior members of Congress and a presidential candidate himself, Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
Senator, thanks for your time.
SEN. JOE BIDEN, (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Hey, Keith. Glad to be with you.
OLBERMANN: Before we get to the subject of what the president is going to say on the hour, any reaction to this reference to the small price made by Republican House Leader Boehner?
BIDEN: It‘s unconscionable, simply unconscionable, and the rationale put forward is simply ridiculous.
OLBERMANN: Might that be a theme for this evening as well? Perhaps not the unconscionable part, but the ridiculous part?
BIDEN: Well, it is, Keith. I mean, the president has two policies. Stand up the Iraqi arm so we can stand down, surge so there can be a political solution. We‘ve spent $20 billion. Four and a half years later, the Iraqi army still can‘t stand up, won‘t stand up for another four years, if it does at all. And, secondly, there is no—no—movement toward reconciliation.
And this part about al Qaeda, al Qaeda is about 5 percent of the problem and it‘s a Bush-fulfilling prophecy. The other 95 percent is a civil war. A civil war, Sunnis killing Shias, and Americans in the middle getting crushed.
OLBERMANN: Senator, even the title of this, maybe we don‘t have to go much more in-depth to this speech than that title, Return on Success, that phraseology that‘s coming in today. It seems to me it‘s a creative phrase because it incorporates two words people like to hear, return and success. Has there been—are there enough people returning and where in the hell is the success?
BIDEN: There is no success. This is an abject failure. This policy is an abject failure by their own measurement, their own measurement. Remember, they were going to stand up these Iraqi troops. You heard the testimony. They‘re not ready to stand up. They‘re not even close. Standing up to relieve American troops. What political reconciliation has taken place? None.
I was in Anbar Province. I was with Abdul Sattar, the guy who just got blown up, the tribal chief. I sat next to him for three hours. They‘re telling me how everything is fine and dandy in there and everything is safe. This guy had a tank in front of his house to protect him. This guy is the leader of the Sunni resistance to Anbar al Qaeda. And he just got blown to bits outside his house. Tell me about the security.
OLBERMANN: Things are much safer. Did this sheikh actually support the president‘s goal of this centralized Baghdad government?
OLBERMANN: And how far can you rely on unelected autonomous tribal leaders who, in many quarters, are believed to have been—had their opinions changed on which side to support by the felicity of money?
BIDEN: The only thing you can rely on is that the Sunnis and the Shias and the Kurds are not going to let anybody from any other faction ever police or ever be a political force in their area. That‘s the only thing you can rely on. So the sooner we get about setting up a decentralized federal Iraq their constitution calls for, the better chance we have of leaving without leaving chaos behind. But we must begin to bring our combat troops home now. This is bizarre.
Admirable Fallon is correct. We should be reducing by two-thirds to three-quarters quickly, immediately, in order to be able to have any semblance of a possibility of getting the political settlement based on a federal system. And you heard Korb before you talk about the need for a diplomatic initiative.
This is bizarre. This is all about handing the war off to the next president. It‘s not about solving any problems.
OLBERMANN: At least some indication where the secretary of state might be? One question, though, about leadership in your own party. “The Washington Post” reporting today that many of the top Democrats in Congress are going to pursue moderate changes in Iraq policy in hopes of wooing some Republicans on the other side of the aisle. What is the point of compromising, though, if the president is going to veto everything he doesn‘t like anyway?
BIDEN: Well, that‘s kind of my point, Keith. There are four things we have to do. We have to pass legislation and make him veto it, that begins to draw down American troops immediately, combat troops. I have been pushing for that for a year and a half and a half.
We have to change the mission saying they can‘t be involved in the middle of a civil war, follow of General Jones, who is probably the best soldier we‘ve had in the last 15 years in command.
Thirdly, we have to get about the business of providing for—get agreement on a decentralized Iraq with a weak central government and get the international community to back it, which they‘re willing to do.
That‘s what we have to do. That‘s the only shot of leaving and leaving anything intact. Otherwise it‘s just chaos. And all this is is a continuation of a God awful failed policy. And I wish Byner (ph) rode home with me or was on the C-130 I was supposed to get on with, what they call six fallen angels. Six troops that just recently have been killed by roadside bombs. You tell their parents. You tell everyone else this is worth it. There is no strategy here.
As one of your colleagues said, all the American troops are being used for now is a cork in a bottle. They‘re not solving anything. They‘re just stopping things from getting a lot worse. I won‘t tolerate that and the American people won‘t tolerate that.
OLBERMANN: In fairness to Mr. Byner (ph), it was Mr. John Boehner, who said that.
BIDEN: Oh Boehner, excuse me. Whoever said—whoever made the comment is dead flat wrong.
OLBERMANN: Last point, not everyone does this but Democrats often talk about failure in Iraq, failing to meet Mr. Bush‘s goals by that government. Would it be better at this point to spin the advice that President Johnson got famously about Vietnam and argue that we can bring the troops home now because they did accomplish—they did do the mission they were sent there for which is to make sure we weren‘t threatened by Iraqi WMD?
BIDEN: If, in fact, I thought that would get them home, I would do anything, even if it was not much of a sham as that. The truth is we are going to have to get them out of there. There‘s no possibility of keeping them there. The sooner we have them out, the better, and the more it increases the prospect that we can keep it from totally spinning out of control by working out a political agreement.
OLBERMANN: Sir, that does not seem to go in line with the return on success theme for tonight.
Senator Joe Biden, Democrat of Delaware, candidate for president. Thank you. And we‘ll call on you again after the speech if that meets with your schedule.
BIDEN: Thank you. I‘d be happy to do that.
OLBERMANN: The president‘s address is at the top of the hour. An Internet spoof ready for your consumption. Think—leave Britney alone.
And if we‘re already suspending belief that the surge is working, why not believe we can set water on fire. A quick cartoon break and more, ahead on “Countdown.”
OLBERMANN: On this date in 1851 was born a man whose name is still in the news, on average, once every couple of weeks. Not because it was he who confirmed the theory yellow fever was carried by mosquitoes and not by person-to-person contact, allowing the resumption of the building of the canal in yellow fever-ridden Panama, opening up the entire field of epidemiology and saving perhaps millions of lives. No, he is in the news frequently because of a building in Washington named in his memory, Major Walter Reed, M.D.
On that note we‘ll take our cartoon break. Let‘s play “Odd Ball.”
Speaking of the Panama Canal, we begin with water. Giver of life, master and servant to mankind and, at long last, these fellows have figured out how to make it catch fire. Scientists in Erie, Pennsylvania, were poking around for a better way to desalinate the salty wet stuff by shooting radio frequencies through it. They ended up juicing the water so much that it got all ablaze. The scientists think they may have stumbled on to something big here, thus creating the ultimate green fuel source, perhaps even fulfilling the promise of modern science to invent a water powered flying car.
Like polluters in Cleveland didn‘t do this by accident in the Cuyahoga River in 1969. But wait, what‘s this? Behold, the water propelled flying car. Take off, hoser. We‘re on the Internet. This is what you get when a bunch of our bravest go a little too long between calls. Looks like we got a Toyota Tercel up there. About eight firefighters holding on like it‘s a Macy‘s parade float. Not since Vinnie Barbarino has a rubber hose been used so imaginatively. Of course they only posted the one good take here.
You get the feeling they probably sent this car flying a few times. And I‘m just going to keep talking until it—yeah, there it goes, science. From science to science fiction, the country to pause and listen once again to the president and his sell job about how things are going really well in Iraq—in some other universe.
Chris Matthews joins me for the final word in previews and from the political spin to the reality on the ground, is the surge doing anything it was supposed to do in Iraq? Thomas Ricks of “The Washington Post” joins us ahead here on COUNTDOWN.
OLBERMANN: Today‘s assassination of a Sunni sheikh who had changed sides in Iraq and went from al Qaeda in Iraq to the U.S. and who met with the president just last week is an example of how perceived progress in Iraq can disappear in a violent instance and any assurances of progress should be greeted with at least some skepticism.
Our third story tonight as we countdown to the president‘s assurances of progress in Iraq, determining the reality of conditions in Iraq depends highly on the source. The source tonight, a politician with uncountable numbers of vested interests whose visits there are measured in hours and covers square yards and whose assurances of hope and pleas for patience have been heard now for years.
Members of Congress—how about them—who strolled through a Baghdad market complaining that the media is not telling the entire story while they are surrounded by heavily armed troops with helicopters hovering above. Perhaps the truth is closer to the viewpoints expressed by average Iraqis, a BBC poll just out this week showing 70 percent of them believe security has deteriorated since the time the surge began.
One Iraqi woman saying she has not left her home in months because of violence that has driven an estimated 4 million others to flee, 2 million of those to actually leave the country. Thomas Ricks, the eminent military affairs reporter of “The Washington Post” joins us now. He also wrote the best-selling chronicle of the war “Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq” and has spent considerably more time in Iraq than the average senator or congressman.
Thank you again for some of your time tonight, sir.
THOMAS RICKS, “THE WASHINGTON POST”: You‘re welcome.
OLBERMANN: In the last few days, General Petraeus, the administration, have been bombarding us with the idea that the surge working. We are going to hear it again tonight with his title, “Return on Success”. The average Iraqi does not seem to see it that way. Is there any means to ascertain the truth?
RICKS: There is. Actually if you go back to the terms the president presented the surge in—back in January, he said this was a military operation designed to lead the political reconciliation so judged in those terms and judged in the time that the president asked for, which is this summer or by September at the latest, that hasn‘t happened. So on the president‘s own terms, this has not worked.
OLBERMANN: There is also talk tonight of the next stage here. There is in fact a critical, a pre-released excerpt from the president‘s speech tonight about the administration wanting a permanent military security pact, bilateral with Iraq. What many critics had suspected that the military there—the effort—our military effort there could be open ended. We might be looking at that Korea again. From what people inside the military tell you, is that even numerically possible to have that sort of permanent relationship with Iraq?
RICKS: It is possible. It‘s actually a rather optimistic view because it assumes we won‘t be kicked out of Iraq or pulled out of Iraq. I think what it‘s trying to do is tell Iraqis don‘t think you can just lay low and wait until Uncle Sam leaves. The worry here, I think, is that various factions, once they see Uncle Sam heading for the exits, simply will keep their powder dry for the full scale civil war that some of them want and so what that is trying to convey the message is don‘t think you can just wait for us to be gone because we won‘t be gone.
OLBERMANN: The—one of the reasons that that seemed remotely possible last week was this White House celebration of Sheik Abu Risha turning against al Qaeda. Unfortunately, the late sheikh and what happened to him makes all that seem rather premature now. Is there a way to measure how serious a blow his assassination is to the military effort to turn the insurgents to our side?
RICKS: I think it‘s pretty serious. It shows that they can hit the guy who was the clear leader of the so-called Anbar awakening. At the same time it also wasn‘t just the result of one individual. This apparently did result from a lot of tribes being very upset with al Qaeda. What surprises me in watching this, though, is how people talk about this guy, the sheik, as a wonderful man, a true leader. This is a guy who was involved in killing Americans not long ago. And that should be remembered as people talk about what his death means.
OLBERMANN: The report from last July by the relief organization citing the deterioration of conditions in Iraq is striking. Your paper called it dismal. Seventy percent of Iraqis without adequate water, fuel and electricity shortages, outages, violence a major problem at hospitals in Baghdad. Why have things been getting worse and is there a simple answer to the question what will it take to fix it?
RICKS: Well, you really don‘t have a functioning government in most of Iraq. You have a lot of factional fighting and you have militias trying to show that they‘re more legitimate than the government that exists in the green zone, that they can provide security, that they can even provide basic services or hospitals so there‘s competition for who actually knows how to deliver services to the people and there is also a suspicion if Uncle Sam can do all these other things over such a powerful country, why can‘t he help us Iraqis? There‘s kind of a resentment or kind of almost a conspiracy theory that Uncle Sam must not want to help us because he‘s spending all of this money but nothing is happening.
OLBERMANN: The current Uncle Sam speaks in 22 minutes. Is there anything in particular we should be listening for from President Bush?
RICKS: I would see whether there‘s a different tone, whether he‘s more restrained in the promises he makes. I was struck in the Petraeus-Crocker testimony this week that really their bottom line was very somber. They were saying at best we can possibly see a light at the end of the tunnel. We can‘t tell you how long the tunnel is, how long it‘s going to take us to get there, or what the light really will be. We hope the Iraqis will figure it out. So I think his speech might reflect some of that.
OLBERMANN: Forgive my interruption. Thomas Ricks of “The Washington Post” and the seminal work on the war fiasco as ever, great, thanks.
A different kind of analysis of the president‘s speech ahead taking its cue from this online outburst in defense of the noted diplomat Britney Spears. John Edwards should have just done this and posted it online and we would have run it and thought we were getting it cheap. Ahead, as we countdown to the president‘s speech.
OLBERMANN: Chris Matthews joins me as we await the president and the Democratic response. You think we in TV are bad about jumping the gun on presidential speeches; there is already a parity version of the one Mr. Bush is going to give tonight on the Internet. Remember that leave Britney alone thing? And we‘re not going to leave alone either Michael O‘Hanlon of the Brookings Institution or Bill-O in the worst person derby. There is also breaking news about what those New England Patriots with the secret videotaping of the other team‘s signs are going to be punished and fined by.
All that‘s next. This is COUNTDOWN.
OLBERMANN: Oddly enough were the president‘s mojo measured as sternly as that of Britney Spears his poll numbers might be lower than they already are. Ever since Hurricane Katrina unmasked the administration‘s incompetence there have been rumors of a comeback but other than a slight blip in the approval numbers this week, no comeback has been forthcoming.
And the stage on which the president‘s act is played out involves reality so harsh that many people can no longer bear to watch. So in our number two story in the COUNTDOWN, the genius of juxtaposition. First a reminder of that Britney Spears‘ fan regarding Ms. Spears‘ performance and criticism thereof at MTV‘s video music awards.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She‘s a human. You‘re lucky she even performed for you bastards. Leave Britney alone.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: And the spoof if that were not spoof enough, keeping in mind that this Bush impersonator were to portray Mr. Bush defending himself, it might look the same.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And now a message from the president.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Leave General Petraeus alone. All he did was go to Iraq and (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and you‘re just chastising him. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) but he‘s not. He‘s a human! He‘s a human! And all you Democrats want to do is knock him down. He has got medals on his chest. He‘s done stuff. And you don‘t care. All you care about is bringing the soldiers home. You don‘t care about how that makes me look if we cut and run. You don‘t care. Leave General Petraeus alone. Leave him alone. If you want to take General Petraeus, you need to go after me because I am.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Some breaking news tonight from sports worthy of a quick mention before we get back to the speech. Football‘s New England Patriots found to be employing a photographer who was videotaping the signals sent from the coaching staff of their game opponents, the New York Jets, have now been punished and fined by the National Football League. The team will forfeit its 2008 first-round college draft pick if it reaches the playoffs this year as is expected.
If it does not, it will forfeit its second and third round choices. The franchise has been fined a quarter of a million dollars and the coach who apparently supervised this system of taping the other team‘s signs, Bill Belichick has been fined the maximum amount possible in the National Football League, half a million dollars.
And now back to the real story. The president practicing the speech he will deliver at 9:01 and 30 seconds Eastern Daylight Time. Why does he need to practice it when it‘s his own self-fulfilling prophecy again? Chris Matthews joins me. That‘s next, but first, here are the nominees for tonight‘s “Worst Person in the World”.
The (UNINTELLIGIBLE) manager Kevin Downs of the PODS Storage Company in Las Vegas. Sergeant Bradley Behling left his personal belongings in one of their units, all his old medals, pictures of his kids, coin collection, high school diplomas, and then he went off to fight in Iraq. In thinking he had not paid up, when in fact he had, PODS auctioned off his belongings, an accident, Mr. Downs says that will happen.
But when Sergeant Behling asked for compensation of $64,000, PODS offered a lot less and demanded the receipts for all the stuff they auctioned off. Receipts, the sergeant notes, were among the stuff they auctioned off. Our runner up tonight, analyst Michael O‘Hanlon of the Brookings Institution who spoke there today and said he‘ll support the president‘s plan to extend the escalation in Iraq but only for a while.
Quoting him, “I think this is a very complex subject and could easily see myself changing camps in the next six to nine months. Well, so can everybody else. In March of 2003, O‘Hanlon said of Iraq, things are going well and will soon go even better. In May 2004, he switched to set a date to pull out. In December 2006, he went back to give it six months or so. Maybe nine more months.
This March he said give the strategy another six to nine months. And today he started the clock again with six more to nine more months. But our winner of the incomparable Bill-O. First he said he was just fine with staying in Iraq another year as he acknowledged it would cost another 1,000 Americans their lives. Now he has described Iraqis, Iranians, Syrians as quote, “not really wanting democracy”.
They want their meals. They want to smoke. They want to sit around and that‘s what they want to do.” So you want to see another 1,000 Americans dead to preserve the Iraqis‘ rights to sit around and smoke? Billy, it sounds like you‘ve been sitting around and smoking. Bill-O, today‘s worst person in the world.
OLBERMANN: And our number one story. The countdown to the president‘s address to the nation in just about 10 minutes from now. And that speech will provide a book end of sorts to the one that Mr. Bush gave on January 10th when he announced the surge. Between the speech and this one, 762 more American military personnel have been killed in Iraq and tonight, to put it in blunt terms, Mr. Bush will ask Americans to categorize those deaths as worth it in light of the so-called progress since the surge began.
And Americans will be asked to concur with the troops‘ presence in Iraq indefinitely. In that speech last January, the president said quote, “ordinary Iraqi citizens must see that military operations are accompanied by visible improvements in their neighborhoods and communities so America will hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced.”
But the independent federal watchdog, the Government Accountability Office, said in its report that Iraq‘s government has met only one of eight legislative benchmarks. And as for security in Iraq, we don‘t have the time here to reiterate the discrepancies between the report of General David Petraeus to Congress and other assessments including that GAO report.
Time now to bring in my colleague the host of “HARDBALL,” Chris Matthews in Washington. Chris, good evening.
CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, “HARDBALL”: Good evening to you, Keith.
OLBERMANN: The speech the president is about to give might have the feel of some pointless ceremonial exercise, some (inaudible) meeting here, but if it weren‘t for the fact that he‘s commander in chief, he does not need and has not had the public support to do much of what he‘s done as commander in chief, so what does he try to accomplish with this speech?
MATTHEWS: Well, he‘s trying to hold the country together with a third of the country behind him and the power of the Constitution. The power of the presidency. He has it. As long as he can avoid being overridden in a veto situation, he can control this war and he knows it. He doesn‘t need to have most Americans watching tonight agree with him. He simply needs to hold a third of the country as he has in the polling and in the Congress. That‘s all he needs. He doesn‘t have to win the argument. Simply hold on.
OLBERMANN: Does taking cover behind this so-called report from General Petraeus despite the clash between its facts and the other recent independent analyses, does that provide the president with the real goal here, this bare minimum of keeping key Republicans in the House and the Senate from peeling off?
MATTHEWS: You know I think some day the military establishment in this country, and it may not be that far off once this president has left office, is going to issue a kind of let‘s say a disclaimer. They‘re going to say never again should a political figure, a politician like the president, use a military man in uniform to sell his policy. It‘s not the job of serving military man or woman to sell a policy. It‘s not the job of a serving military man or woman to sell a policy.
It is the job of the commander in chief. He put this man out as his heat shield. He put him out there for days and days and tonight he‘s going to be mentioning his name again and again and again, and he had him out there on this Tuesday night. I will never forget this as long as I live, one of the most noble men of the U.S. Senate, John Warner put it to a noble soldier, does the war in Iraq as you‘re fighting it, the policy you‘re implementing, does it make America safer? And the soldier said I don‘t know.
And that was the right answer. Whatever the answer was, it should not have been asked of him. It‘s not his job to sell this policy. On the other hand, you have to look back at the wars we‘ve fought where there‘s a clarity to the war and an American interest in those wars as there was in World War II and other conflicts. Certainly Ike Eisenhower, as he led our troops across the British channel, told the troops, you‘re on the right side.
This is what we must do for our country. This does protect our country. We have to defeat Hitler. This man, Petraeus, couldn‘t say that the other day. He couldn‘t say it because I believe he doesn‘t believe it. He‘s a serving officer. It‘s not his job to believe in the policy. This president has tried to make him the chief salesman for the policy. It was wrong and this soldier let him down, properly so.
OLBERMANN: And a salient and transcendent point about Petraeus as basically as a political prop. About tonight.
MATTHEWS: He shouldn‘t be used that way, Keith.
MATTHEWS: That‘s not his role. He‘s a noble man doing a good job. He looked pained up there the other day in those hearings as did the State Department official, Ryan Crocker. Not a strong personality to begin with. He shouldn‘t have been out there defending a very strong, aggressive foreign policy. Obviously he doesn‘t believe in it.
Under another administration, he‘s a serving diplomat. He could argue the other way. He clearly is an arabesque with sentiments that are far different than the president‘s and he doesn‘t believe in this. You can see that from the man. Hour after hour after hour he gave cagey answers. He handled questions.
He didn‘t field them. He didn‘t give back with any gusto, a strong belief in this campaign. He did his best and that‘s, again, a case of a public servant being used for political purposes. It wasn‘t a good moment for the Foreign Service.
MATTHEWS: But it is not their fault because they were ordered to do it.
OLBERMANN: Indeed. Returning to tonight, we sat at our respective desks in May of 2003 at a time of the coining of another catch phrase that has simply come back to consume President Bush in mission accomplished. Is it really, do you think, a good idea to give this speech tonight which is just, in terms of facts, it is stitched together with the thinnest thread imaginable? Do you really want to give it a name like return on success? I mean it just—the possibilities for satire of that, to say.
MATTHEWS: Well you know.
OLBERMANN: . are extraordinary.
MATTHEWS: . not to make light of it, but I want to give people a clear iconic notion here. What is at stake here is what was at steak in all those “Peanuts” cartoons this time of year when Charles Schulz (ph) was still alive and every year Lucy would pretend to hold the football up and Charlie Brown would come running down the field and try to kick it and every time Lucy would drop the ball and let Charlie fall on his ass, and that‘s what this president does every time when he tells us about what is going to happen in Iraq.
It‘s going to be mission accomplished. The insurgency is in its last throes, as the vice president put it.
MATTHEWS: This is going to be a cakewalk again and again and again. False promises and false arguments again and again and again. And now we have the irony of ironies, the best case made for us staying in Iraq is the critics were right. We‘re stuck.
They said we‘d be stuck if we went in. The president now says the reason we can‘t leave is we are stuck. If we leave, it‘s a catastrophe. Just what people like Jimmy Baker (ph) predicted, just what Dick Cheney predicted back when he had a clarity of vision in this regard.
OLBERMANN: The president told the author, Robert Draper, he was playing for October or November, that that timing was echoed on the record from someone in the administration a couple days later so that the presidential candidates will be comfortable with staying in Iraq longer.
OLBERMANN: Tonight‘s speech, is that going to be the thing that Mr.
Bush wants us to come away from with?
MATTHEWS: Sure. I don‘t know who is writing this schedule, probably Gillespie (ph), somebody in the White House has put it together. Basically they did once again, they synchronized 9/11, the marking of 9/11 with a big debate about the war in Iraq to once again put into people‘s minds this light motif that somehow the backdrop to this war is some kind of vengeance for what happened to us on 9/11, which General Petraeus again clarified directly in testimony under oath and said there is no connection between Iraq and 9/11.
Again, that was ignored by this administration and by the speechwriters again tonight. And then they said well as Andy Card once said and he is a fine guy, Andy Card, but he once said you know when you‘re going to bring out a new product, don‘t do it in August. Bring it out in September. Well here they are with their new product and new launch.
And then of course as you say in the new book by Robert Draper, the president talks about his game playing for October or November, all the timing is right. All the stars are in alignment for the president to do one last thing he wants to do in office, get the money he needs to fight this war until January 2009 and he intends to do it in October and November.
OLBERMANN: Chris Matthews who will rejoin me immediately after the president‘s speech, expected to run about 16, 17 minutes. We‘ll talk then, Chris, with a lot to talk about on those points that you raised.
MATTHEWS: Thank you, Keith.
OLBERMANN: Stay with us for the speech and stay with us for the Democratic response that will follow it. We then expect to be joined for analysis by Senator Biden, by Brian Williams, by Tim Russert, by Howard Fineman, by Pat Buchanan, by Rachel Maddow and by the former governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee. Senator John Edwards‘ appearance in commercial form, you probably have no doubt heard. He will also be appearing in perhaps one of the most extraordinary events of the political season thus far, certainly the most extraordinary manner of the political season thus far.
Among the excerpts formally released by the White House in advance tonight, Mr. Bush is scheduled to say because of the measure of success we are seeing in Iraq, we can begin seeing troops come home, which will ignore the fact that 30,000 or so troops legally had to come home by next April. And the president will acknowledge what the surge (ph) und (ph) drang‘s (ph) kangaroo court of the last few months has been truly about. Iraqi leaders, Mr. Bush is to say, “understand that their success will require U.S. political, economic and security engagement that extends beyond my presidency, unquote. In other words, it is going to be a situation where you can say to yourself, Enjoy Korea 2007.
The president‘s script, nonetheless, includes the acknowledgement that the Iraqi government, quote, “has not met its own legislative benchmark.” And the leitmotif, as Mr. Matthews just suggested, is this extraordinary theme, this new catchphrase, perhaps replacing in some people‘s minds the “mission accomplished” infamy of 2003 with “return on success.”
The president speaks. Keith Olbermann at MSNBC headquarters and the “return on success” speech. The president of the United States.
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